Global Warming Clobbers Ocean Life

The waters of the Pacific off the California coast are transparently clear. Problem is: Clear water is a sign that the ocean is turning into desert.1

From Alaska to Central America, and beyond, sea life has been devastated over the past three years like never before. Is it Fukushima, or nature running its own course, or some kind of perverse wrath emanating from global warming? For a hint, scientists refer to the lethal ocean warming over the past few years as “the Warm Blob.”

After all, global warming hits the ocean much, much harder than land. Up to 90% of anthropogenic (human-caused) global warming is absorbed by the ocean, which is fortuitous for humans. Just imagine the chaos if the situation were reversed: Mobs of regular ole people morphing into maddened gangs striving for food, huddled in far northern latitudes while Mid America scorches brittle crops in sandy soil, a dystopian lifestyle.

“Upper ocean heat content has increased significantly over the past two decades”.2  More than 3,000 Argo floats strategically positioned worldwide measure ocean temps every 10 days.

Scientists classify the Warm Blob phenomenon as “multi-year ocean heat waves,” with temperatures 7°F above normal and up to 10°F above normal in extreme cases. How would humans handle temperatures, on average, 7° to 10°F above normal? There’d be mass migrations from Florida to Alaska, for sure. As it happens, sea animals do not do well. They die in unbelievably massive numbers; all across the ocean… the animal die-offs are unprecedented. Scientists are stunned!

After years of horrendous worldwide sea animal die-offs, 2016 was a banner year. Is this out of the ordinary? Sadly, the answer is: Yes.

The numbers are simply staggering, not just in the Pacific, but around the world; e.g., the following is but a partial list during only one month (December 2016): Tens of thousands of dead starfish beached in Netherlands; 6,000 dead fish in Maryland waterway; 10 tons of dead fish in Brazilian river; tens of thousands of dead fish wash up on Cornwall, England beach; schools of dead herring in Nova Scotia; 100 tons of fish suddenly dead in Indonesia; massive fish deaths ‘state of calamity’ in Philippines; thousands of dead crayfish float down river in New Zealand; masses of dead starfish, crabs, and fish wash ashore in Nova Scotia, and there are more and more….

In fact, entire articles are written about specific areas of massive die-offs, for example: “Why Are Chilean Beaches Covered With Dead Animals?” Smithsonian.com, May 4, 2016.  Chilean health officials had to resort to heavy machinery to remove 10,000 dead rotting squid from coastlines earlier in the 2016 year. Over 300 whale carcasses hit the beaches and 8,000 tons of sardines and 12% of the annual salmon catch… all found dead on beaches, to name only a few! You’ve gotta wonder why.

According to Nate Mantua, research scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center in Santa Cruz, California: “One of the things that is clear is there’s a lot of variation from year to year along the Pacific Coast, and some of that is tied into natural patterns, like El Niño,’ Mantua said. ‘But what we saw in 2014, ‘15 and the first part of ‘16 was warmer than anything we’ve seen in our historical records, going back about 100 years”.3

Fishermen bitterly claim the ocean is changing like never before. Meanwhile, scientists study those weird changes but do not fully understand the problem. Unfortunately, the general public does not see changes hidden within water; otherwise, they, the general public, might organize and demand their politicians in Washington, D.C. fight climate change/global warming. According to John Largier, professor of coastal oceanography at UC Davis Bodega Marine Laboratory, “Climate change syndrome is definitely having an impact.”4

As it happens, the world climate system is interconnected, interwoven such that climatic stress originated at sea spills onto land; e.g., the Warm Blob was first observed and linked to a high-pressure ridge stationed over the north Pacific in 2011. This ridge diverted winter storms, thereby exacerbating California’s drought, meanwhile weakening winds that ordinarily absorb ocean heat and stir up the cold water necessary for immensely productive Northern Coast breeding grounds for marine wildlife.

Morosely, too-warm ocean water serves as breeding ground for the infamous deadly “red tide,” a bloom of single-celled organism that thrives in warmer waters, producing a neurotoxin called domoic acid, resulting in enormous numbers of sea lion fatalities and massive destruction of Dungeness crab fisheries and all kinds of other trouble.

Too-warm water also contributes to the collapse of bull kelp forests, which are the ocean’s equivalent of the tropical rain forest; meanwhile, purple urchins thrive and multiply in explosive fashion in the poisonous environment, devouring remaining plant life, thereby out-competing hapless red abalone, the shellfish that people love.

Collapsing food chains are evident up and down the Pacific Coast earmarked by large die-offs of Cassin Auklets, a tiny seabird, as well as massive numbers of Common Murres. The sea lions and fur seals suffer from starvation and domoic acid poisoning. In early 2013 scientists declared the sea lion die-off an “unusual mortality event.”

Nursing sea lion mothers are unable to find enough forage like sardines and anchovies. Pups, searching for food, strand on beaches filled with curious sunbathers with a natural proclivity to cuddle the hapless cuties that could easily result in fierce attacks. As it happens, lifeguards run along sandy beaches warning beachcombers beware!

Still, wildlife die-offs are an ancient phenomenon, mentioned by Aristotle in his Historia Animalium (4th Century B.C.). In the U.S. in 1884, hundreds of tons of dead fish bellied up in lakes around Madison, Wisconsin. This knowledge of the past gives one pause when considering whether an all-out alarm is warranted this time around. After all, isn’t it nature’s way?

No, this time it is different, much different. The all-out alarm is warranted with bells clanging! Yes, of course, part of nature’s cycle over the eons involves wildlife die-offs. That’s nature, but nowadays nature is out-of-whack!  Ring the bells; blast the sirens!

As published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences5, it was found that worldwide animal die-offs are increasing in both number and magnitude, even after statistically correcting for the fact that mass deaths are now more likely to be documented than in the past.

“Every biologist I spoke with who is researching mass-mortality events said that many wildlife die-offs today really could be signals of serious problems with the ecological fundamentals of the planet”.6  That is the worst possible news you can ever hear.

As for only one example amongst many, the typical number of bird deaths per reported die-off was about 100 in the 1940s. Today it is 10,000 and reported much more frequently than 75 years ago.

Bottom line, the ecosystem is under fierce attack, and it is real, very real indeed with too much global warming, too much ag runoff, too much heavy-duty massive overfishing, likely too much nuclear radiation, and deadly acidification caused by excessive CO2 concentrations (already damaging pteropods at the base of the marine food chain) as the ocean absorbs anthropogenic CO2 emissions from fossil fuels, similar to the upper atmospheric conundrum where 400+ ppm of CO2 (anything over 350 ppm leads to serious planetary trouble over time) is already heating up the planet as the ocean absorbs 90% of that heat. Thank your lucky stars for that… but only transitorily!

As stated by the Environmental Defense Fund: “Oceans are at the Brink”- For decades, the ocean has been absorbing carbon dioxide (CO2) dumped into the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels. It has absorbed a lot of the extra heat produced by elevated atmospheric carbon dioxide levels. But even the ocean has limits!

Going forward, how will the Trump administration confront this messy, possibly fatal and very complex situation, since fossil fuels are the main driver behind climate change/global warming?

Will the Trump administration initiate a nationwide renewable energy plan, similar to Communist China?7

  1. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NOAA []
  2. Climate Change: Ocean Heat Content, NOAA, Climate.gov, July 14, 2015. []
  3. Mary Callahan, “Year in Review: Ocean Changes Upend North Coast Fisheries”, The Press Democrat, December 25, 2016. []
  4. Ibid. []
  5. Recent Shifts in the Occurrence, Cause, and Magnitude of Animal Mass Events, Vol. 112, no. 4, August 5, 2014 []
  6. J.B. MacKinnon, “On Animal Deaths and Human Anxieties”, The New Yorker, April 21, 2015. []
  7. Michael Forsythe, “China Aims to Spend at Least $360 Billion on Renewable Energy by 2020”, New York Times, January 5, 2017. []

Robert Hunziker (MA, economic history, DePaul University) is a freelance writer and environmental journalist whose articles have been translated into foreign languages and appeared in over 50 journals, magazines, and sites worldwide. He can be contacted at: rlhunziker@gmail.com. Read other articles by Robert.