ENSO-Related Variability in Wave Climate Drives Greater Erosion Potential on Central Pacific Atolls

Tuesday, 15 December 2015
Poster Hall (Moscone South)
James F Bramante1,2, Andrew D Ashton1 and Jeffrey P Donnelly1, (1)Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Woods Hole, MA, United States, (2)Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA, United States
The El Nino Southern Oscillation (ENSO) modulates atmospheric circulation across the equatorial Pacific over a periodic time scale of 2-7 years. Despite the importance of this climate mode in forcing storm generation and trade wind variability, its impact on the wave climate incident on central Pacific atolls has not been addressed. We used the NOAA Wavewatch III CFSR reanalysis hindcasts (1979-2007) to examine the influence of ENSO on sediment mobility and transport at Kwajalein Atoll (8.8°N, 167.7°E). We found that during El Nino event years, easterly trade winds incident on the atoll weakened by 4% compared to normal years and 17% relative to La Nina event years. Despite this decrease in wind strength, significant wave heights incident on the atoll were 3-4% greater during El Nino event years. Using machine learning to partition these waves revealed that the greater El Nino wave heights originated mainly from greater storm winds near the atoll. The southeastern shift in tropical cyclone genesis location during El Nino years forced these storm winds and contributed to the 7% and 16% increases in annual wave energy relative to normal and La Nina years, respectively. Using nested SWAN and XBeach models we determined that the additional wave energy during El Nino event years significantly increased potential sediment mobility at Kwajalein Atoll and led to greater net offshore transport on its most populous island. The larger storm waves likely deplete ocean-facing beaches and reef flats of sediment, but increase the supply of sediment to the atoll lagoon across open reef platforms that are not supporting islands. We discuss further explicit modelling of storms passing over the atoll to elucidate the confounding role of storm surge on the net erosional/depositional effects of these waves. Extrapolating our results to recent Wavewatch III forecasts leads us to conclude that climate change-linked increases in wave height and storm wave energy will increase erosion on central Pacific atolls.