Are we already starting to awaken some of the horrors of the ancient hothouse ocean? Are dangerous, sea and land life killing, strains of primordial hydrogen sulfide producing bacteria starting to show up in the increasingly warm and oxygen-starved waters of the US West Coast? This week’s disturbing new reports of odd-smelling, purple-colored waves appearing along the Oregon coastline are a sign that it may be starting to happen.
(Purple waves wash over the Oregon beach of Neskowin on August 15. A form of hydrogen sulfide consuming bacteria is known to color water purple. Is this an indicator that the deadly gas is present in Oregon’s waters? Image source: Jeanine Sbisa and Beach Connection.)
A Dangerous Beauty
Oregon beachgoers and ocean researchers alike are flummoxed. There’s something strange in the water. Something that’s coloring the waves of Oregon’s beaches purple even as the off-shore waters are painted greenish-blue. These puzzling purple waves have been washing up along the Oregon Coastline for the better part of a month. And no-one seems to know exactly what’s causing it.
Eyewitness photographer Jeanine Sbisa described the scene at Neskowin:
“The purple was only on the edge of the water. I did not see any patches in the deeper water. ( in fact the deeper water was a beautiful turquoise, instead of the deep blue that it usually is at Winema). Some of the waves were a deep clear purple. Other waves in other segments were a rich foamy lilac color. The colors were amazing. Very beautiful.”
All up and down Oregon’s coastline similar reports have been surfacing. Oregon State Park Ranger Dane Osis photo documented another incident at Fort Stevens State Park near Astoria. And eyewitnesses at some locations have described a ‘funky smell’ issuing from some of the purple-colored waters.
Initial reports have claimed that there’s no evidence the purple waters are harmful. But such assertions may well be premature.
Purple Sulfur Bacteria
At issue is the fact that the waters off Oregon are increasingly warm. They are increasingly low oxygen or even anoxic. Conditions that are prime for the production of some of the world’s nastiest ancient species of microbes. The rotten-eggs smelling hydrogen sulfide producing varieties. The variety that paint the waters green (or turquoise as described by Jeanine Sbisa above) or even an ugly black. And there is one primordial creature in particular that thrives in warm, low-oxygen, funky-smelling water. An organism that’s well known for coloring bodies of water purple — the purple sulfur bacteria.
(Artist’s rendering of what a Canfield Ocean may have looked like. A Canfield Ocean is a deadly hothouse ocean state implicated in 5 of 6 major mass extinction events. And, perhaps, we see a hint of this deadly ocean along the Oregon coast today. Image source: Biogeochemistry.)
In order for blooms of purple sulfur bacteria to form, waters have to be low in oxygen or anoxic. There has to be hydrogen sulfide gas present in the water. And the water has to be relatively warm. This is because the bacteria is warmth-loving, anaerobic, and it uses the sulfur in hydrogen sulfide gas as part of its energy production process.
In the current day, the purple sulfur bacteria is present in anoxic lakes and geothermal vents. But during ancient times and during times of hothouse extinction, the purple sulfur bacteria are thought to have thrived in the world’s oceans — painting them the strange tell-tale purple we see hints of along the Oregon shoreline today. A purple that was the hallmark color of a life-killing hothouse ocean.
Finally we look out on the surface of the great sea itself, and as far as the eye can see there is a mirrored flatness, an ocean without whitecaps. Yet that is not the biggest surprise. From shore to the horizon, there is but an unending purple colour – a vast, flat, oily purple, not looking at all like water, not looking anything of our world. No fish break its surface, no birds or any other kind of flying creatures dip down looking for food. The purple colour comes from vast concentrations of floating bacteria, for the oceans of Earth have all become covered with a hundred-foot-thick [30m] veneer of purple and green bacterial soup.
The purple sulfur reducing bacteria, though not dangerous themselves, live in a kind of conjoined relationship with the much more deadly hydrogen sulfide producing bacteria. The purple, is therefore, a tell-tale of the more deadly bacteria’s presence. And hydrogen sulfide producing bacteria may well be the most dangerous organism ever to have existed on the planet — largely responsible for almost all the great extinction events in Earth’s deep history. For hydrogen sulfide itself is directly toxic to both land and ocean-based life. Its deadly effects are increased at higher temperatures. And not only is it directly toxic in both water and air, if it enters the upper atmosphere it also destroys the ozone layer.
(Video shot on July 18 [please excuse the colorful language] showing purple waters and dead jellies, barnacles and mussels on another Pacific Ocean beach. Video source: Gezzart.)
Purple waters are a sign that the little organisms that produce this deadly agent may be starting to bloom in an ocean whose health is increasingly ailing. Tiny tell-tales that we’re on a path toward a hothouse Canfield Ocean state. A path we really don’t want to continue along through the ongoing burning of fossil fuels. For that way leads toward another great dying.
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Pigmented Salps — An Indicator of Bio-Magnification?
UPDATE TUESDAY, SEPTEMBER 1: According to reports from Oregon’s Department of Fish and Wildlife, Oregon’s purple waves are being caused by the large-scale spawning of an oxygen dependent jellyfish-like vertebrate called a salp in the near shore zones along the Oregon coastline. The normally clear salps have apparently developed a purple pigmentation which is coloring the waves in this region a strange hew. The findings, though seemingly reassuring, raise more questions than they do answers.
First, salps do not typically spawn in the near-shore region. However, during recent years, near shore salp spawnings have become more common leading to reports of these jellies washing up all along the U.S. Coastline. Phytoplankton and other bacteria are a typical food source for salps and the jellies are mobile enough to follow this food. So large blooms in the near shore ocean could be one reason for salps coming closer to shore.
Second, salps are typically clear — devoid of any pigmentation. So the question here is how are salps picking up this strange purple color? Since salps are filter-feeders known to eat bacteria, it’s possible that a highly pigmented food source or a source laden with purple sulfur bacteria may be resulting in this odd new coloration for salps. So identifying pigmented salps as the source of the purple coloration does not necessarily eliminate the possibility of sulfur reducing bacteria being present in either the near shore or the off shore waters where salps typically reside and feed. Pigmentation, in this case, may be due to salps bio-magnifying the natural pigmentation in their food source. Given the fact that salp coloration is practically unheard of, it’s somewhat puzzling that marine researchers haven’t investigated this particular mystery a bit further.
Third, the region off the Oregon coastline has been increasingly low in oxygen due to a combination of eutriphication, ocean current change, and ocean warming. This fact of declining ocean health in the off-shore Oregon environment is contrary to assertions circulated in some media sources claiming that large salp blooms are a proof that the environment in the bloom region is healthy. Salp blooms follow bacterial and phytoplankton blooms. And such blooms are well known triggers for dead zone formation. Though salps tend to aid in mitigating these blooms, their presence is not necessarily a sign of healthy waters. Conversely, in the case of very large algae blooms, salps presence may indicate just the opposite. Since salps are oxygen-dependent, it’s possible that the near shore environments where wave mixing tends to oxygenate the water is a drawing these vertebrate jellies closer in due to a loss of an off shore environment healthy enough to sustain them.
As with the freak appearance of pink pigmented salps at Manzanita during 2010, the widespread purple waves off Oregon during 2015 remain somewhat of a mystery. The key question as to why salps, that are known to be a clear-bodied species, are picking up a pigmentation very similar to that possessed by purple sulfur bacteria has not been answered.
Hat Tip to Wharf Rat