May 7, 2018, UC Davis
More frequent El Niño events in the future may have surprising impacts on seabirds and some fish species, according to a study from the University of California, Davis.
El Niños are unusually warm ocean conditions that occur every two to seven years off the Pacific Coast, bringing with them poor ocean productivity and sometimes catastrophic weather conditions. Fossil coral records and climate change models indicate that El Niños occurred both more and less frequently over the past 1,000 years than they do now, and climate change may speed up or slow down their frequency in the future.
In a modeling study recently published in the journal Theoretical Ecology, UC Davis researchers in the Department of Wildlife, Fish and Conservation Biology wondered how changes in frequency of El Niño and its more favorable, cool-water counterpart La Niña might affect Brandt's cormorant. The seabird was selected as a model species because of its known sensitivity to environmental changes.
"We expected that if you increased the frequency of El Niños it would have a negative impact on the population," said lead author Annie Schmidt, a Ph.D. student at UC Davis during the time of the study and currently a researcher at the nonprofit Point Blue Conservation Science. "It turns out it was exactly the opposite."
Taking the good with the bad
The study's models indicated that doubling the frequency of the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) phenomenon, which includes El Niño and La Niña, unexpectedly resulted in higher population numbers and a lower chance of extinction for Brandt's cormorants.
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