Worst Ocean Mortality Event Ever Seen: Pathogen + Human-Caused Warming Likely Culprit in Mass Starfish Die-off

“A warmer world would be a sicker world. Under warming conditions a lot of microorganisms do better. They grow faster. They replicate faster. Many of our hosts can actually be stressed by warm conditions. And so it kind of creates a perfect storm of sickness.” — Drew Havell, Marine Epidemiologist in a recent interview with PBS.

*    *    *    *

It first started in the tidal basins of Southern California during floods of warm water accompanying the El Nino of 1982-83. Laying dormant for more than two decades, it again surfaced during the super El Nino of 1997-98. A chronic wasting illness that obliterated whole sea star populations along the southwestern Pacific Coast, threatening numerous species. After each event, however, the starfish came back. But, today, recovery is not so certain.

By 2013 human-caused ocean warming had greatly advanced. With it came a flood of much hotter than usual water that crept up the US West Coast beneath the influence of a devilishly persistent blocking high pressure system. During the same year, wasting sickness again cropped up, this time first appearing in the far northerly region off the coasts of Washington. From there, it spread both south and north, wiping out millions of starfish along hundreds of miles of coastline from Alaska to California.

As of June of 2014, almost all the starfish along the California coast have been wiped out. Oregon and Washington’s impacts have also been severe with entire regions showing complete or near complete losses among the more than 20 species of affected starfish. Even typically cold water regions have been impacted with the San Juan Islands off Washington showing sea star losses on the order of 40% over recent weeks and with outbreaks of the pathogen cropping up as far north as the Alaskan coast.

The protective cold water pools in even these zones have been greatly eroded due to human-caused warming and this loss is what researchers believe has allowed the pathogen to become so virulent.

A Warming Ocean is a Deadly Ocean

The Earth’s deep past contains a vast record of extinctions locked in rocks deposited over millions of years. And plainly visible in this vast history are numerous episodes during which ocean warming resulted in mass extinctions of ocean species and, in the worst events, land species as well. While loss of oxygen in warming oceans, acidification, and production of deadly hydrogen sulfide gas are thought to be among the worst of the worst monsters waiting to emerge from hothouse seas. It is also well known that viral and bacterial pathogens thrive in warmer environments.

Many of these microbes arose during the warmer periods of the Earth’s deep past. So they do not so well abide the cold. Lower temperatures tend to reduce a pathogen’s ability to reproduce or often kills the microbe outright. On the other hand, raising ocean temperatures is like opening the floodgates to microbial life. And some of this life is bound to be lethal to current organisms.

It is thought that this is just what happened to the sea stars. The pathogen that attacked their bodies, causing their limbs to slump or crawl off on their own and eventually liquify in a process that seems to more fit a sci-fi horror movie from the 1950s than current reality, is believed to thrive in warmer seas. It lurked in the warmest corners of the world’s oceans, only coming into contact with the sea stars during the most extreme El Nino warming events. That is until recent human-caused warming catapulted it into what used to be the cold water zone off the US West Coast.

“Largest Mortality Event We’ve Seen”

Tragically, this recently unfettered pathogen is brutally efficient, threatening an entire family of marine species — the keystone predator starfish. Unchecked, it could well result in the worst ocean die-off in modern reckoning, perhaps rivaling the loss of land amphibians due to the human-caused spread of fungal pathogens.

(PBS documentary conducted this winter. Since the time of this video, the disease has continued to spread both within species and on to other species.)

At first, in August of 2013, the wasting illness only affected a single species. As of this winter about a dozen species were affected. With the advent of spring and early summer warming over 20 species of starfish, or about every starfish species in the affected region, were falling victim to the illness. And though the US West Coast is currently the most severely impacted, instances of starfish wasting have appeared in other locales along the US East Coast and around the world. So there is no guarantee that this outbreak will be contained to even its current very broad range (for an interactive map of sea star wasting sickness observations click here).

“It’s the largest mortality event for marine diseases we’ve seen,” said Drew Havell in a recent interview with PBS. “It affects over 20 species on our coast and it’s been causing catastrophic mortality.”


Sea Star Wasting Syndrome Map

University of Santa Cruz, Sea Star Wasting Page

Scientists Zero in On What’s Causing Sea Star Die-offs

Hat-tip to Colorado Bob (who called this six months ago)



Leave a comment


  1. From the video: “This is the largest disease outbreak that we know of – ever – in the oceans.”

  2. Griffin

     /  June 19, 2014

    For many of us, the Starfish is emblematic of the joys of childhood tidal pool exploration. My heart feels like it has a hole in it right now.

  3. Has Fukushima radiation been even seriously considered as a co-factor? I mean: much of what that “Chernobyl x 4” spits to the ocean and air goes straight to North America. Top chain predators, like these stars, concentrate all the pollution coming from the lower levels of the food chain

    • From the University of California page:

      “Importantly, there is no evidence at all that links the ongoing wasting event to … Fukushima…”

      We’ve seen the wasting sickness before and it doesn’t show any of the tell-tale signs of radiation exposure.

      • With due respect, the whole article is extremely imprecise about the exact causes of this particular outbreak. First they say that the wasting syndrome is usually caused by a bacterium (vibrio) but that in this case they are guessing (“has been attributed”) to a virus (which is much harder to confirm because it does not show up in regular microscopies).

        Later they do explain that:

        Molecular sequencing work of samples is underway at Cornell University to identify possible viruses and bacteria that could be causative agents. Current thinking is that there is an infectious agent involved, likely a pathogen. Importantly there is no evidence at all that links the current wasting event to the ongoing disaster at the Fukushima nuclear facility in Japan.

        The bold type in the original is different than in my quotation above: they chose to boldface the sentence on Fukushima (almost a cliché: nothing to see here, move on) while I prefer here to emphasize that there is no evidence so far that it is a virus either.

        There is no detailed explanation at all about what kind of evidence they might have checked for re. possible Fukushima influences, such as radiation testing of the stars or mussels.

        The only thing that seems clear is that it is not the usual cause (bacterium), that they don’t know much more yet and that they prefer not to think it has anything to do with Fukushima, hence they are guessing for a virus, so far undemonstrated.

        I wouldn’t discard so easily that it is not an important co-factor, not without testing for radio-isotopes certainly. By that I do not mean that sea warming or even viruses are not implicated, just that it can well be an adyuvant factor that would weaken the stars more than usual, favoring the catastrophic dimensions of the outbreak.

        • If it is not a starfish specific pathogen, as the scientists indicate, then why isn’t every other living thing in the ocean showing severe health degradation from radiative stress? Why aren’t starfish and other sea life closer to the original radiation source in Japan similarly affected? Why do the sea stars appear to first suffer wasting illness lesions and symptoms and do not first suffer typical symptoms also related to high levels of radiation exposure (such as lethargy, inability to eat and organ failure)? And are you alleging that these UC scientists are intentionally covering up evidence that this outbreak of sea star wasting syndrome is linked to the Fukushima radiation leak?

          As noted above, the sea star wasting syndrome has appeared before and been linked to pathogens. There is no evidence to indicate that radiation has somehow altered characteristics to mimic a previously occurring sickness.

          If radiation levels were great enough to be mass killing starfish they’d be mass killing higher order ocean life of every kind and not discriminating and we’d see the mortality starting near the coast of Japan and spreading outward, not suddenly cropping up off the west coast of the US 2-3 years later.

          As for other factors related to Fukushima radiation — such as resulting in weakening of starfish immune systems — I am happy to trust the scientists on this one. If the sea stars showed abnormally high levels of radiation, what reason would the scientists have to cover up such an important finding?

          On the other hand, reports show radiation levels filtering to the US west coast are low, so low as to barely reach detectable levels. In other words — thousands of times weaker than from typical environmental exposure:

          Another study, this one by the University of California at Berkley. And one I would also consider valid and reputable.

          Seems to me like Fukushima radiation is bit of a red herring in this investigation. And if the best argument one can come up with is to call into question whether reputable, independent, non-special interest connected, research bodies are lying about radiation levels without any reason to, then it might just be best to take a closer look at one’s rationale.

          It’s true that the Fukushima release was a major and significant event that contributed to a degradation of ocean health. But that doesn’t make it any more likely that this incident was linked to it. In fact, it would be quite odd if it did as we’ve seen starfish wasting syndrome before without any link to radiative stress of any kind.

  4. haha…scientists hope to figure out what is causing it and announce it in a few months. Almost guaranteed, they already know, and they will never announce it. It’s called POLLUTION.

    • They’ve narrowed it down to a pathogen that thrives in warming water.

      • Yes, the warming water has to make for a robust medium to support pathogens.

        • Pathogen identification can often be a rather tricky problem. The wasting disease was first encountered in starfish during the 1970s. It became more widespread with the El Niño events of 1983 and 1998. It has been characterized by ocean researchers as the bubonic plague of starfish. Mortality is almost perfect, near 100%. This would indicate a relatively new pathogen or a very old one which starfish had not encountered for eons. Prior to pathogen ID, illnesses are characterized by symptoms. And this is clearly a very widespread outbreak of starfish wasting syndrome.

          In every case, ocean warming has preceded outbreak…

      • In Norway we are having increasing problems with fleas on salmon, no doubt spread mainly because of fish escaping their breeding nets, but it might also be that the warmer water has made it easier for the fleas to reproduce and thrive.

        Its a general sign that as the oceans warm, new species will rise to the occasion and cause havoc in ecosystems where they were no real threat before. The pine beetle being a prime example of this in USA – the damage they do is just devastating…

        The questions we should ask those who still believe a little warming is good for plant life is if they realize that the earths ability to sequester carbon naturally might be severely hampered by this warming to a point where it looses its ability to suck carbon out at all. The same goes for warming oceans which will hold less and less CO2 – a piece of the carbon cycle that has been absolutely essential for us not to seriously fry the planet already as half of our cumulative emissions are already there.

        Still shaking my head at so few people around me waking up to the realities of our fossil fuel adventure.

  5. Gerald Spezio

     /  June 20, 2014

    Maju, I was (am) stumped by adyuvant.
    Could it be mis-spelled?

    1.serving to help or assist; auxiliary.
    2.Medicine/Medical . utilizing drugs, radiation therapy, or other means of supplemental treatment following cancer surgery.
    3.a person or thing that aids or helps.
    4.anything that aids in removing or preventing a disease, especially a substance added to a prescription to aid the effect of the main ingredient.
    5.Immunology . a substance admixed with an immunogen in order to elicit a more marked immune response.

    • I think you have it, Gerald. Adjuvant.

      RE Fukushima. I’d say the greatest risks for ocean mortality events related to the reactor releases would be, as in a typical fallout situation, closest to the point of release and therefore areas where likely exposure would be to the most highly concentrated radioactive material. If we had major ocean mortality from Fukushima, as a contributing mortality factor or otherwise, it would almost certainly appear first near the Japanese coast soon after the incident, not all the way across the world’s largest ocean after a period when most of the materials would be widely diluted and at half-life.

  6. Starfish are Eaten by: Sharks, Manta Rays, Crabs, Other Star Fish

    Starfish Eat: Mollusks, Clams, Oysters, Snails, Dead Fish and other dead critters on the bottom

    Acidification already affecting some of those dependencies. Others, the population may get unbalanced (if there is a sufficient population remaining).

    Another unpleasant thought, Phytoplankton getting decimated. Prolific in cold waters, they are depleting rather rapidly. Though they do not garner much thought (certainly from conservative talk show shock jocks), they do account for 70% to 80% of CO2 / Oxygen cycle.

    The only upside is that with less oxygen, those talking heads who pander to the gullible for the purpose of enriching themselves ( what I term “unpatriotic pseudo-patriots”) will shut up when they can’t breathe anymore.

    Downside? They take us with them.

    • My apologies. I got the 70 to 80% number from Walker, J. C. G. (1980) The oxygen cycle in the natural environment and the biogeochemical cycles, Springer-Verlag, Berlin, Federal Republic of Germany.

      With recalculation the value should be 45% (330 Billion tons of oxygen generated per year.

      Still bad, but that just means a few more years of conservative shock jock crap indoctrinating the gullible.

    • I’d prefer to take out the pseudo patriots by means other than mass ecocide. I happen to like my non pathologically insane friends and family members. Fine, conscientious and intelligent people like you, Andy. 🙂

      Taking down the phytoplankton via ocean warming is a major shock. Degraded carbon sink and pushing atmospheric oxygen lower all in one go.

      I do not like ocean warming. It scares the crap out of me.

      • Yes the fact that it affects phytoplankton really worries me as well. The bottom of the food chain and no doubt one of our planets most important features to sustain complex life. Any oxygen breathing creature should be really careful what happens with these little critters.

        As for ecocide, I am sure some of the top 1% are already planning their “domes” so they can isolate themselves completely from whatever state the planet plunges itself in so they can still swim in their pool of gold doubloons. Seeing how a company like Google is seriously into both AI (Deepmind) and robotics (Boston Dynamics) I can already envision these fortresses being patrolled by robots and drones shooting at anything with an IR signature that gets close to the premises.

  7. Way to go Colorado Bob!
    “Hat-tip to Colorado Bob (who called this six months ago)”

  8. Bathurst Inlet NWT. Basically right on the edge of the Arctic Ocean between Tuk & Hudson Bay. 81F today. Temps vary in the range of 50’s to 80’s on the 10 day forecast. If you look at temp anomaly (Climate Reanalyzer) you can see a nice anomaly blob growing in the Canadian arctic. Not quite as mature as it’s counterpart in Siberia.

    • Those look like the two warm air invasion zones for early summer. The weakness/warm air flux over Yakutia has been ongoing since winter and was present last summer as well. The winter weakness over Alaska seems to have shifted east into the region of Canada you indicated.

      The Beaufort sea ice is continuing to lift away from the coast under the influence of high pressure. As we’d expect, lows are prevalent over the widespread areas where ice has lost integrity.

      • I looked at the blob this morning, it is still moving east gradually. It may speed up the Hudson Bay melt in a few days if it continues tracking that way.

        • Interesting to see that the Caspian high has also shifted east. Looks like a broader ridge developing on that side in the forecast with slight retrograde.

  9. Bulgaria floods: At least 10 killed in port city of Varna

    ‘Forecasters said that the equivalent of a month’s worth of rain fell in the regions of Varna and Burgas over the last 24 hours.

    “The tragedy is enormous. I am here on a street in the suburb of Aspruhovo. The street is not here, the houses are not here, there are cars on top of each other,” Varna mayor Ivan Portnih was quoted by the Reuters new agency as saying.’

  10. Global refugee figure passes 50m for first time since second world war

    ‘UNHCR report says more than half of those displaced are children, with aid organisations reaching breaking point

    The scale of the refugee crisis was straining the capacity of humanitarian organisations, said Guterres. UNHCR has halved the proportion of its budget spent on headquarters costs, but there was an increasing gap between needs and resources available.

    “Because conflicts are multiplying, because of climate change and other factors, we see the needs are increasing exponentially.” ‘

  11. Griffin

     /  June 20, 2014

    As I angrily pushed my reel mower across the lawn last evening while thinking of the starfish, something came to mind. There were no bats flitting around above me. So I thought (very sarcastically), man, it’s a good thing that kids today can play Minecraft, cause the real outside world is losing it’s charm very quickly.

  12. Doug

     /  June 20, 2014

    This is the beginnings of hell on Earth. We really shouldn’t understate the horror of what is happening. Just the fact that rains are more intense now alone, is enough to dry a sane person crazy. And the fact that we’ve known about greenhouse gases for decades, and have chosen to do nothing about it… Well, should any of us be surprised from a species that can’t even get rid of nuclear weapons? Thumbs down for human beings. We are pieces of …..

  13. Spike

     /  June 20, 2014

    More work from UK on marine devastation due to anthropogenic CO2 emissions.

  14. Record floods in Midwest may be part of larger pattern

    “In Iowa, South Dakota, and Nebraska, officials are asking volunteers to build sandbag barriers and other fortifications in advance of the brunt of the storm – but politicians and emergency workers are conceding that their efforts, in some areas, may not be enough.

    In South Dakota, workers have begun turning a major Interstate exchange bridge into a temporary levee. While officials there say that will mitigate the flood in many locales, Governor Dennis Daugaard (R) said he expects parts of North Sioux City, S.D., to be underwater by the end of the week.”

    • You have to love how the skeptic media always inserts the qualification xs say. Locals say… scientists say … researchers say … Linguistic trick that casts doubt on the source…

  15. Greenland melt – We’re heading into seasonal Max melt soon, so I gave myself a challenge to calculate / estimate melt extent for the next 10 days. We’ll see how / if these projections hold up. I don’t have high hopes that they’ll be close.

    Note: These are back of the envelope calculations I did, so take them with a grain of sodium chloride. Some of the results I doubt severely but I jotted them down anyway.

    We’ll see a retraction on the 20th / 21st / 22nd back to 20-25%.

    23rd gives a range of 30-40%

    24th gives a range of 35-40%

    25th gives 45 – 55%

    26th gives 45-55%

    27th gives 30-35%

    28th gives 25-30%

    29th we get 20-30%

    July 1 or 2 we’ll get the last numbers so we’ll see how far off these are!

    • Nice shot Andy. With the high in place, these are certainly a possibility. Anything in the 50s by late June would be a very strong melt.

  16. Excellent talk by Kevin Trenberth

    Extreme weather and its links to climate change


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