Advertisements

Climate Change is Pushing Lake Okeechobee’s Water Levels Higher — And that’s Bad News For Algae Blooms, Flood Risk

More powerful storms. Heavier extreme rainfall events. Storms with higher potential energy. These are the result of a human-forced warming of the Earth’s atmosphere. And South Florida finds itself sandwiched between heavier evaporation flows streaming off the Gulf of Mexico, a more volatilely stormy North Atlantic, and large rivers of moisture streaming in from the Southeast Pacific.

image

(Atmospheric water vapor levels over South Florida during late June of 2016. South Florida sits between numerous heavily laden atmospheric moisture flows. As human forced warming increases evaporation, these moisture flows expand, resulting in heavier rainfall potentials during storms over South Florida. This climate change dynamic is increasing over-topping flood risks for Lake Okeechobee even as the added heat and rainfall run-off enhances the potential for toxic algae blooms like the one now afflicting South Florida. Image source: Earth Nullschool).

And as these moisture-enhanced storms of climate change dump heavier and heavier rains over South Florida’s Lake Okeechobee, the choice appears to be one between flood risk or toxic algae blooms.

*****

Flood Risk Worsens With Climate Change

Lake Okeechobee sits at the heart of South Florida. Covering 730 square miles, the lake is bounded on the north, east, and west by farms. Run-off from these farms streams into the lake, feeding the growth of algae blooms. As the Earth’s atmosphere and ocean warmed due to human greenhouse gas emissions, rainfall events over South Florida have grown more intense. This trend increases run-off from pesticide, phosphorous, and nitrogen rich soils which then swell the lake with these chemicals and compounds — many of which promote the growth of cyanobacteria (or blue-green algae).

The increasingly heavy rains also force lake levels higher. During Winter of 2016, the wettest January in South Florida’s climate record pushed Lake Okeechobee’s water levels to 16.4 feet above sea level by February. November through May is South Florida’s dry season. So abnormally wet conditions during a typically dry period greatly increased flood risk for communities surrounding the lake as South Florida entered its June through October wet season.

Heavy rains have continued through recent months and, in order to mitigate the heightened flood risk, the US Army Corp of Engineers has been pumping large volumes of the run-off enhanced, nutrient-rich waters out of the lake in order to relieve pressure on the Hoover Dike. The Dike, for its part, is a 132 mile system of levees surrounding the lake and preventing its waters from flooding local communities during heavy rainfall events.

Lake Okeechobee Algae laden waters South Florida late June

(Lake Okeechobee [upper right of frame] and the algae-laden coastal waters of South Florida as seen in this June 26 LANCE MODIS satellite shot.)

Paul Gray, a scientist with Audubon Florida and Lake Okeechobee expert recently noted:

“One big storm would be a bad situation, really bad. We are nearing the heart of the tropical season and the corps knows they are one storm away from levels they are not comfortable with.”

To reduce pressure on the Dike, the Corps likes to keep Lake Okeechobee in a range of 12.5 to 15.5 feet above sea level. This creates a buffer zone to allow for the impacts of unexpectedly strong storms — like tropical cyclones — which can alone produce enough rainfall to push lake water levels between 1-4 feet higher.

At around 18.5 to 19.5 feet above sea level, the Hoover Dike system is under high risk of a breach or of over-topping. An event which would flood thousands of homes and businesses with 1-5 feet of water and generate a serious risk of loss of life.

So this year, with the dry season acting like the rainy season and with the rainy season now underway, the US Army Corps of Engineers has been releasing much larger volumes from the Lake in what some could call a frantic effort to keep water levels there in the safe range. These efforts, as of Thursday, July 7 produced a Lake Okeechobee water level of 14.93 feet — which was at the top edge of the safe zone. But the effort came at the cost of flushing nutrient rich waters into South Florida’s rivers and estuaries.

Mitigate Flood Risk and Toxic Algae Blooms Result

During recent years, heavy use of fertilizers has loaded up farmland soils surrounding Lake Okeechobee with phosphorous and nitrogen. As human-forced climate change has produced more extreme rainfall events over lands surrounding the lake, greater runoff of these nutrient-rich soils and chemicals into the lake has resulted.

Phosphorous levels, which government regulators like to keep in the range of 40 parts per billion in lake waters, has risen to 100 to 200 parts per billion. That’s 2.5 to 5 times the safe allowable level. And as the Army Corps of Engineers ramped up lake water outflows into the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers during recent months, this influx of high nutrient lake waters helped to spur the large algae blooms now afflicting the region.

John Campbell, a spokesperson for the US Army Corps of Engineers recently noted that people often ask:

“‘Why didn’t you release more water?’ Well, this is what releasing more water looks like.”

Due to the increased water outflows from Lake Okeechobee, high nutrient levels hit river systems warmed to bacterial growth enhancing temperatures by climate change. Cyanobacteria (blue-green algae) populations in these river and estuary systems then exploded. Goo painted waterways green, putrescent mats of algae formed in calmer waters, and airs smelling of rotten eggs wafted up from the suffocating rivers. These explosive and toxic bacterial growths prompted a declaration of a state of emergency by Governor Rick Scott as four South Florida counties were heavily impacted by the algae blooms.

Algae bloom Florida

(Toxic algae blooms like this one have resulted in beach closures across South Florida. Human-caused climate change spurs an increasing incidence of such toxic algae blooms by increasing water temperatures, which enhances algae growth, and by spurring more extreme heavy rainfall events — which generates increased nutrient influx into rivers, lakes, and oceans. Image source: Surfrider.)

Directly, cyanobacteria can produce a number of toxins capable of harming animal and human organ systems. Most common toxins are neurotoxins and toxins that impact the gastrointestinal track — particularly the liver. In addition, large blooms can deprive waterways of life-giving oxygen. Such anoxic conditions spur fish kills and mass production of hydrogen-sulfide generating organisms — a powerful toxin which generates the sulfuric rotten eggs smell that many South Florida locations are now reporting.

Indirectly, the blooms are unpleasant, unsightly and result in beach closures. And since the blooms became widespread, South Florida has experienced losses to its tourist industry (see toxic algae chokes business) — one of the biggest revenue producers for the State. Yet one more example of how human-forced warming not only harms the health of the natural world, but also harms human systems that rely on such natural wealth and beauty to function.

(Large algae blooms spurred by rising water outflows from an increasingly flood-stressed Lake Okeechobee resulted in tourism industry losses during the Fourth of July weekend of 2016. However, residents are rightfully concerned over long-term health risks due to the algae blooms. Note that purple water in gaps between the algae as well as reports of ‘rotten eggs’ smell is circumstantial evidence of increasing concentrations of hydrogen sulfide producing bacteria that tends to thrive in the anoxic dead zones produced by the algae. Video Source: CBS Youtube.)

Conditions in Context

The US Army Corps of Engineers is now reducing Lake Okeechobee water outflows in an effort to limit harmful algae blooms over South Florida waterways and estuaries. Outflow levels, as of June 30 were cut by 35 percent. As a result, some of the nutrients feeding algae blooms will be removed from waterways. But it’s questionable if the large algae blooms can be entirely halted by this mitigation.

Warmer than normal temperatures and heavier than normal rains are expected over this region during the coming weeks and months and these conditions will add to bloom promotion even without a larger pulse of water coming from Lake Okeechobee. In addition, reducing water flows from the lake will again push the lake to rise. And that puts South Florida one large storm away from risking an over-topping of the Hoover Levee System.

Climate change, in this context, has therefore put South Florida in a tough bind between worsening algae blooms over its waterways or worsening flood threats from a swelling Lake Okeechobee. A more immediate problem juxtaposed to the longer term risk of sea level rise — a human-forced ocean invasion which could flood the whole of South Florida by or before the end of this Century.

Links:

Why Drain Lake O? One Storm Could Push it Over its Limits.

What is Causing the Toxic Algae Blooms in Florida’s Waterways?

Army Corps to Reduce Lake Outflows Fueling Toxic Algae Blooms

Toxic Algae Chokes Florida Tourist Industry

Earth Nullschool

LANCE MODIS

CBS Youtube

Surfrider

Hat tip to Colorado Bob

Hat tip to DT Lange

Advertisements

Is Human Warming Prodding A Sleeping Methane Monster off Oregon’s Coast?

We’ve talked quite a bit about the Arctic Methane Monster — the potential that a rapidly warming Arctic will force the release of disproportionately large volumes of methane from organic material locked in permafrost and in frozen sea bed hydrates composing volumes of this powerful greenhouse gas large enough to significantly increase the pace of human-forced global warming. But if we consider the globe as a whole, the Arctic isn’t the only place where large methane stores lurk — laying in wait for the heat we’ve already added to the world’s oceans and atmosphere to trigger their release. And a new study out of the University of Washington provides yet another indication that the continental shelf off Oregon and Washington may be one of many emerging methane release hot spots.

For all around the world, and beneath the broad, blue expanse of the world’s seas, rest billions and billions of tons of frozen methane hydrate.

A kind of methane and ice combination, frozen hydrate is one of the world’s most effective natural methods of trapping and sequestering carbon. Over long ages, organic material at the bottom of the oceans decompose into hydrocarbons, often breaking down into methane gas. At high pressure and low temperature, this methane gas can be locked away in a frozen water-ice hydrate lattice, which is then often buried beneath the sea bed where it can safely remain for thousands or even millions of years.

Plume2_nolabels_cropped

(Plume of methane bubbles rising from the sea floor off the Oregon Coast. This image shows methane bubbles originating from the sea bed about 515 meters below the surface before dissolving into the water column at about 180 meters depth. Image source: American Geophysical Union.)

Most of these deposits lay well beneath the sea bed or at extreme ocean depths of one mile or greater. And so far, human forced warming hasn’t been great enough to risk the destabilization of most of these deep ocean carbon stores. But some hydrate deposits rest in the shallower waters of continental slope systems and at depths where current warming may now be causing them to destabilize.

Scientists Think Methane Hydrates May be Destabilizing off Oregon

Enter a new study by University of Washington scientists which found “an unusually high number of bubble plumes at the depth where methane hydrate would decompose if seawater has warmed.” The scientists concluded that these bubble plumes were likely evidence of methane hydrate destabilization due to a human forced warming of the water column in the range of about 500 meters of depth.

The warm waters, ironically, come from a region off Siberia where the deep waters have, over recent decades, been heated to unprecedented temperatures. These waters have, in turn, through ocean current exchange, circulated to the off-shore region of Washington and Oregon where they appear to have gone to work destabilizing methane hydrate in the continental slope zone. A paper published during 2014 hypothesized that these warm waters would have an impact on hydrates. And the new paper is the first potential confirmation of these earlier predictions.

In total about 168 methane plumes are now observed to be bubbling out of the sea bed off the Washington and Oregon coasts. Of these, 14 are located in the 500 meter depth range where ocean warming has pushed temperatures to levels at which hydrate could begin to destabilize. University of Washington researchers noted that the number of plumes at this depth range was disproportionately high, which also served as an indirect indicator that human heating may be causing this methane to release.

PlumesMap

(Locations of methane plumes in the continental slope zone off Washington and Oregon. The location of a disproportionate number of these plumes in a zone now featuring a warming water column is an indication that the human-forced heating of ocean currents is starting to drive some methane hydrate structures to destabilize. Image source: AGU.)

Lead author H. Paul Johnson, a University of Washington professor of oceanography noted in AGU:

“So it is not likely to be just emitted from the sediments; this appears to be coming from the decomposition of methane that has been frozen for thousands of years… What we’re seeing is possible confirmation of what we predicted from the water temperatures: Methane hydrate appears to be decomposing and releasing a lot of gas. If you look systematically, the location on the margin where you’re getting the largest number of methane plumes per square meter, it is right at that critical depth of 500 meters.””

Implications For Ocean Health, Carbon Cycle

Most methane released at this depth never reaches the atmosphere. Instead, it either oxidizes to CO2 in the water column or is converted by ocean bacteria. That said, expanding zones of methane release can rob the surrounding ocean of vital oxygen even as it can saturate the water column with carbon — increasing ocean acidification and reducing the local ocean’s ability to draw carbon out of the atmosphere. Such a response can indirectly increase the volume of heat trapping gasses in the atmosphere by reducing the overall rate of ocean carbon uptake. In more extreme cases, methane bubbles reach the surface where they then vent directly into the atmosphere, proportionately adding to the human-produced greenhouse gasses that have already put the world into a regime of rapid warming.

It has been hypothesized that large methane releases from ocean hydrate stores contributed to past hothouse warming events and related mass extinctions like the Permian and the PETM (See A Deadly Climb From Glaciation to Hothouse). But the more immediate consequences of smaller scale releases are related to declining ocean health.

According to AGU and Dr. Johnson, the study author:

Marine microbes convert the methane into carbon dioxide, producing lower-oxygen, more-acidic conditions in the deeper offshore water, which eventually wells up along the coast and surges into coastal waterways. “Current environmental changes in Washington and Oregon are already impacting local biology and fisheries, and these changes would be amplified by the further release of methane,” Johnson said.

Instances of mass sea life die-off have already occurred at a very high frequency off the Washington and Oregon Coasts. And many of these instances have been associated with a combination of low oxygen content in the near and off shore waters, increasing ocean acidification, increasing dangerous algae blooms, and an overall warming ocean system. It’s important to note that ocean acidification, though often cited in the media, is just one of many threats to ocean life and health. In many cases, low oxygen dead zones and large microbial blooms can be even more deadly. And in the most extreme low oxygen regions, the water column can start to fill up with deadly hydrogen sulfide gas — a toxic substance that, at high enough concentrations, kills off pretty much all oxygen-based life (See Hydrogen Sulfide in the World’s Warming Oceans).

During recent years, mass sea life deaths have been linked to a ‘hot blob’ forming in nearby waters (See Mass Whale Death in Northeast Pacific — Hot Blob’s Record Algae Bloom to Blame?). However, indicators of low oxygen in the waters near Washington and Oregon have been growing in frequency since the early 2000s. Though the paper does not state this explicitly — increasing rates of methane release in the off-shore waters due to hydrate destabilization may already be contributing to declining ocean health in the region.

Slope Collapse, Conditions in Context

A final risk associated with methane hydrate destabilization in the continental slope zone is an increased prevalence of potential slope collapse. As methane hydrate releases, it can deform the sea bed structures within slope systems. Such systems become less stable, increasing the potential for large underwater landslides. Not only could these large landslides displace significant volumes of water or even set off tsunamis, slope collapse events also risk uncovering and exposing more hydrate systems to the warming ocean in a kind of amplifying feedback.

In context, the total volume of methane being released into the off-shore environment is currently estimated to be about 0.1 million metric tons each year. That’s about the same rate of hydrocarbon release seen from the Deepwater Horizon blowout. A locally large release but still rather small in size compared to the whopping 10+ billion tons of carbon being dumped into the atmosphere each year through human fossil fuel burning. However, this release is widespread, uncontrolled, un-cappable and, if scientists are correct in their indications of a human warming influence, likely to continue to increase as the oceans warm further.

Links:

Bubble Plumes off Washington and Oregon Suggest Warmer Ocean May be Releasing Frozen Methane

Geochemistry, Geophysics, Geosystems

Warming Oceans May be Spewing Methane off US West Coast

Concern Over Catastrophic Methane Release

Hydrogen Sulfide in the World’s Warming Oceans

Mass Whale Death in Northeast Pacific — Hot Blob’s Record Algae Bloom to Blame?

A Deadly Climb From Glaciation to Hothouse

Hat tip to Humortra

Mass Whale Death in Northeastern Pacific — Hot Blob’s Record Algae Bloom to Blame?

Something lurking in the Northeastern Pacific is killing off the graceful giants of the world’s oceans. For since May of 2015 30 large whales have been discovered dead — their bloated and decaying bodies washed up on Alaskan shores. It’s an unusual mortality event featuring a death rate of nearly 400 percent above the average. So far, scientists don’t yet have a culprit. But there is a prime suspect and it’s one that’s linked to climate change.

*  *  *  *  *  *

Bears consuming whale carcass

(Bears consume the carcass of a beached finback whale on the Alaskan coastline. Image source: NOAA.)

This month the US government declared an ‘unusual mortality event’ after it was confirmed that 30 large whales including 11 finback whales, 14 humpback whales, one gray whale and four other whales so bad off it that spotters where unable to identify the bodies by type were found dead. For large whales, whose numbers tend to be low due to size, low birth rates, and dietary requirements, that’s a very rapid mortality rate. As a comparison, all of 2014 only featured four large whale deaths in the Gulf of Alaska.

According to an official statement from NOAA:

“NOAA Fisheries scientists and partners are very concerned about the large number of whales stranding in the western Gulf of Alaska in recent months… To date, this brings the large whale strandings for this region to almost three times the historical average.”

Hot Blob’s Record Algae Bloom Suspected

Starting an official investigation of this odd large marine mammal mortality event shows that scientists are somewhat baffled about what could have caused the tragic deaths of these majestic creatures. But the scientists’ investigation is not absent a suspect. For the emergence of extraordinarily warm ocean water in a region where these whales live has been linked to a number of mass sea creature die offs.

This area — an expansive zone of 1 to 5 degree Celsius hotter than average surface waters — has been implicated in the mass death of starfish, in dolphin mortality events, in sea lion mortality and orphaning events, in sea otter deaths, in salmon deaths, and in the mass death of crabs and shellfish (see “Starving Sea Lion Pups and Liquified Starfish” and “Hot Pacific Ocean Runs Bloody“).

Hot Blob

(A combination of factors related to human-caused climate change have forced the Northeastern Pacific into a period of record warmth. First, sea ice recession in the Arctic has enabled the formation of warm ridges in the Jet Stream over this region. Second, ocean waters are globally hotter than they’ve been in at least 135 years. Third, a switch to positive PDO and El Nino in the Pacific has unlocked an unprecedented degree of ocean heat forced into Pacific waters by record strong trade winds throughout the 2000s. As a result, the typical positive PDO signal is amplified. In other words, as Dr. Kevin Trenberth has warned time and again, deep ocean warming is coming back to haunt us. Image source: NOAA/ESRL.)

Abnormally warm waters fertilized by the particulate fallout from fossil fuel based industry and climate change driven wildfires can create a host of problems for sea life. First, the warmer waters contain lower levels of oxygen — which reduces the range in which fish and crustaceans can live. Hotter, lower oxygen and zero oxygen waters also create zones and regions in which toxic microbial life thrive. We’ve talked a lot about the deadly hydrogen sulfide producing bacteria. But the expansive algae blooms of a warming, nutrient enriched ocean surface can produce a host of other toxins. Microcystins, Nodularins, Anatoxin-a, Cylindrospermopsins, Lyngbyatoxin-a, Saxitoxin, Lipopolysaccharides, Aplysiatoxins, BMAA, Hydrogen Sulfide Gas and Domoic Acid are just some of the toxins produced by algae and bacteria that thrive in warming waters, in low oxygen waters, or in waters that have been subject to high nutrient loading from increasing run-off and the fallout of nitrogen and particulates due to fossil fuel burning.

In particular, this year’s record red tide has resulted in an extreme outbreak of the kind of algae that produce the deadly neurotoxin — domoic acid.  And it’s this domoic acid poisoning that many are pointing to as a possible cause of excessive whale deaths.

Whale stranding locations

(Whale stranding locations along an abnormally warm Gulf of Alaska. Strandings may be associated to a global warming-tied blob of hot water in the Northeastern Pacific together with a related red tide algae bloom impacting the region. Image source: NOAA.)

The massive algae bloom impacting regions of the Northeast Pacific threatens whales in a number of ways. First, the whales swim in the algae-filled waters. So the toxin is a part of their environment. It thus becomes unavoidable. The toxin concentrates in the bodies of the tiny sea creatures upon which the whales feed — planktonic life forms that, in their turn, feed on the toxin-laden algae. As domoic acid moves up the food chain, it bio-magnifies — becoming more concentrated. And since whales must consume prodigious volumes of small sea life to survive, the opportunity for biomagnification of toxins in whales is great.

Biomagnification of domoic acid is also a threat to human beings. And it is for this reason that the US Fisheries Services have curtailed the consumption of West Coast shellfish, which can contain high concentrations of domoic acid from 2015’s record red tide.

Conditions in Context — Deadly Waters

Mass whale deaths and strandings along the Alaskan coastline have, over recent weeks, garnered a great deal of attention from the public. However, these strandings and deaths do not occur in isolation. The tragic and freakish mortality events are happening in a region of abnormally hot water. A region of hot water that scientists have linked to human-forced climate change. An area in which numerous other mass sea creature deaths have occurred.

The region features low oxygen waters. Waters infected by deadly microbes that have liquified starfish, crabs, and sea cucumbers. And waters that now feature the largest red tide — a massive bloom of toxic algae — on record. It should be very clear from all these related events occurring within the same region of abnormally hot water that a warming ocean is an increasingly deadly ocean. And if we are to have any hope of halting these events, we should look to cessation of fossil fuel burning and related human forced warming of the Earth System as rapidly as possible.

Links:

NOAA: Alaska Fisheries

NOAA/ESRL

Scientists Baffled by Mass Whale Death

Whales are Mysteriously Dying in Northeastern Pacific

Starving Sea Lion Pups and Liquified Starfish

Hot Pacific Ocean Runs Bloody

Hat Tip to Colorado Bob

Hat Tip to Andy in San Diego

(Please support public, non-special interest based, science like the fantastic efforts conducted by the fisheries and ocean researchers at NOAA.)

 

 

Tumbling Down the Rabbit Hole Toward a Second Great Dying? World Ocean Shows Signs of Coming Extinction.

The last time Earth experienced a Great Dying was during a dangerous transition from glaciation and to hothouse. We’re doing the same thing by burning fossil fuels today. And if we are sensitive to the lessons of our geological past, we’ll put a stop to it soon. Or else doesn’t even begin to characterize this necessary, moral choice.

*    *    *    *    *

The Great Dying of 252 million years ago began, as it does today, with a great burning and release of ancient carbon. The Siberian flood basalts erupted. Spilling lava over ancient coal beds, they dumped carbon into the air at a rate of around 1-2 billion tons per year. Greenhouse gasses built in the atmosphere and the world warmed. Glacier melt and episodes of increasingly violent rainfall over the single land mass — Pangaea — generated an ocean in which large volumes of fresh water pooled at the top. Because fresh water is less dense than salt water, it floats at the surface — creating a layer that is resistant to mixing with water at other levels.

Algae Blooms and Red Tides in the Stratified Ocean

This stratified ocean state began to cut the life-giving thread of the world’s great waters. Reduced mixing meant the great ocean currents slowed. Oxygen transport into the depths declined. Moreover, a constant rain of debris in the form of particulate matter from burning forests and nitrogen oxides from the smoldering coal beds fertilized the ocean surface. Food for algae also came from increasing continental run-off. And a spike in iron loading due to glacial melt added yet more fertilizer. Great microbial blooms covered the world ocean, painting its face neon green, blue, or blood red.

antarctic-algae-bloom-terra

(Stratified Ocean waters hosting massive algae blooms. It’s a combination that can quickly rob ocean waters of oxygen. During the Permian, a transition to stratified and then Canfield Ocean conditions led to the worst mass extinction event in the history of life on Earth. Today, the Southern Ocean’s waters are increasingly stratified due to glacial melt run-off of fresh water. In addition, these waters also host very large algae blooms like the ones seen above in a NASA satellite shot from 2012. Image source: NASA and Live Science.)

Rising CO2 levels increased ocean acidification even as the blooms spread toxins through the waters. When the blooms finally exhausted all the available food in their given region, they died off en masse. And by decay they further robbed the waters of life-giving oxygen. At this point the strains to ocean life became extreme and the first mass deaths began to occur. The stress opened pathways for disease. And the warming, de-oxygenating waters forced migrations to different Latitudinal zones and ocean depths. What life there was that couldn’t move, or couldn’t move fast enough died in place.

Transitioning to a Canfield Ocean

At first, ocean deaths appeared prominently in the bottom regions that saw the most rapid declines in oxygen levels and the swiftest increases in temperatures. For not only did the fresh water at the surface of the world’s oceans prevent mixing — it also prevented the oceans from ventilating heat into the air. Instead, the ocean heat was increasingly trapped at depth. Aiding this process of heat transport into the world’s deeps was a bottom water formation that issued from the hot Equator. There, evaporation at the surface increased saltiness. The heavier, hotter, saltier waters sank — carrying with them the Equatorial surface heat which they then delivered to the ocean bottom.

The hot, low oxygen bottom water became increasingly loaded with methane as the heat activated frozen stores. It created an environment where a nasty little set of primordial, hydrogen sulfide producing, creatures could thrive.  These little microbes cannot live in oxygen rich environments. But warm, anoxic bottom waters are more like the ancient environments from which they emerged. Times long past when the world was ruled by microbes in conditions that were simply deadly to the more complex and cold-loving life forms of later times. To most life, the hydrogen sulfide gas produced by these little monsters is a deadly toxin.

Ancient ocean conditions

(Oxygen, iron and hydrogen sulfide content of the world’s oceans over the past 4 billion years. Ancient oceans were hotter than today. They were rich in iron and densely populated with hydrogen sulfide producing bacteria. They were also anoxic. During hothouse events, oceans can again lapse into these ancient ocean states. Called Canfield Ocean environments and named after Dr. Donald Canfield who discovered them, these states are extremely deadly to ocean life. If they become too deeply entrenched, Canfield Oceans can also transform the global atmosphere, resulting in extinctions of land animals as well. Such an event was thought to be the primary killing mechanism during the Permian Extinction. Image source: Nature.)

The rotten-eggs stinking, hydrogen sulfide filled waters at first did their dirty work in silence at the bottom of the warming world ocean. But, steadily, anoxia progressed upward, providing pathways for the hydrogen sulfide producing bacteria to fill up the oceans. Death expanded from the bottom toward the surface.

In all the great mass extinction events but, possibly, one, this heat-driven filling up of the world ocean with deadly hydrogen sulfide gas during hothouse periods represents the major killing mechanism. The other impacts of hothouse waters — ocean acidification and habitat displacement — do provide killing stresses. But the combined zero oxygen environment filled with a deadly gas generates zones of near absolute death in which few things but microbes and jellyfish can live. In rock strata, the anoxic, zones are marked by regions of black as the hydrogen sulfide producing bacteria-filled waters eventually take on the color of tar. In the lesser extinctions, these black zones are confined to the lower ocean levels. In the greater ones, they rise higher and higher.

During the Great Dying, the oceans brimmed full of the stuff. Black, purple and neon green waters bubbled to the surface to belch their lethal loads of hydrogen sulfide gas into the airs. The gas was deadly toxic to land plants and animals alike. And it eventually wafted into the skies, turning it from blue to green and eating away at the protective ozone layer.

In this terrible way, more than 99 percent of all living things were killed off. Of species, about 95 percent of ocean forms were lost with around 80 percent of the land forms being wiped out.

Early Signs of a New Ocean Extinction

The Great Dying of the Permian Extinction 200 million years ago should be a warning to anyone still enamored with the notion that today’s terrifying fossil fuel burning results in any future that is not horrible, wretched, bleak. Today, we dump 11 billion tons of carbon into the air each year — at least six times faster than during the Great Dying. Today, the great melting glaciers are beginning the painful process of ocean death by spreading out their films of stratifying, iron-loaded fresh water. Today fossil fuel industry, industrial farming and warming all together are fertilizing the ocean surface with nitrous oxides, particulates, phosphates flushed down rivers, and an overall increased runoff due to a multiplication of extreme rainfall events.

(The hot blob in the Pacific Ocean is setting off the largest red tide on record. Just one of many dangerous impacts to sea life due to this large region of abnormally warm water.)

And the impacts are visible to anyone who cares to look. In the Pacific Ocean, a climate change related blob of hot water is resulting in mass ocean creature die offs. Low oxygen waters beneath the blob are wrecking large zones of ocean productivity and risking the proliferation of deadly hydrogen sulfide producing bacteria. The largest red tide on record has spun off the hot blob. Covering waters 40 miles wide and 600 feet deep, it has left piles and piles of dead shellfish rotting on beaches across the North American West Coast.

Across the Continent, the Chesapeake Bay suffers a proliferation of dead zones and greatly reduced productivity. There’s a rising risk that, during coming years, increased warming will deliver a heavy blow to life in the Bay and turn one of the world’s greatest estuaries into a large hydrogen sulfide production zone similar to the Baltic Sea. In the Gulf of Mexico, a similar dead zone emerges near the outlet of the Mississippi. And out in the Atlantic Ocean, mobile dead zones now swirl providing a roving surface hazard to both the deep open waters and to the coastal regions that now sit in the firing line.

In the Arctic, recently ice-freed waters are now the host of massive blue and green Algae blooms.

Barent Algae Bloom July 2015

(Large blue and green algae bloom covering the southern Barents Sea during late July of 2015. Large algae blooms are now a frequent feature of previously ice covered waters in a warming Arctic. Image source: LANCE-MODIS.)

Ever since the mid 2000s a massive algae bloom like the one pictured above has dominated the Barents Sea during summer time. Often running as deep as 400 feet, this sprawling mat can rapidly deplete northern waters of vitalizing oxygen and result in mass fish kills. Waters around Greenland, in the East Siberian Sea, the Chukchi, and the Beaufort have also hosted large, and potentially ocean-health threatening algae blooms.

And, in the polynyas and open waters off a melting Antarctica, massive algae blooms are also starting to form. Some of the blooms are so dense they emit a nasty rotten-eggs smell — a sign that sulfide producing bacteria may already be active in some of these waters. Fed by iron from melting glaciers, these immense blooms represent rapid explosions of life that can equally rapidly deplete waters of nutrients and then oxygen as they die off.

The blooms and the related expanding, low oxygen dead zones now range the entire world ocean. And where we see the red, the neon green, the cloudy light blue what we see are the signs of another ocean extinction in the making. An extinction that is likely building faster than at any time in the geological past. But we may still be able to avoid another great dying. The amount of carbon we’ve emitted into the world’s airs is immense, but it is still but a fraction of the carbon explosion that resulted in the Permian die-off. It is still a tiny fraction of the carbon that remains in the ground. The carbon that could be burned but shouldn’t. And a rapid cessation of fossil fuel burning now should, hopefully, be enough to prevent another hothouse spurred great dying in the oceans and upon the lands.

As for continued burning of fossil fuels — that results in ever greater risk of unleashing the horrors of the ancient hothouse. A set of now stirring monsters that we should carefully allow to fall back into slumber — leaving them to rest in dreams of the great long ago where they belong.

Links:

A Deadly Climb From Glaciation to Hothouse: Why the Permian-Triassic Extinction is Relevant to Current Warming

Antarctic Glaciers are Loading the Southern Ocean Up With Iron (Not the Good News Some Are Making it Out to Be)

Large Algae Blooms off Antarctica

Under A Green Sky

Awakening the Horrors of the Ancient Hothouse

Canfield Oceans

Nature

K-T Extinction — Impact or Hothouse Caused?

Climate Change Happening Faster Than Scientists Predicted

How Global Warming Sets off Extreme Weather

Hot Pacific Ocean Runs Bloody

Pacific Algae Bloom is The Biggest Red Tide We’ve Ever Seen

Chesapeake Bay Dead Zones

The Atlantic Ocean’s Whirlpool Dead Zones

LANCE-MODIS

The Hothouse Breeds More Toxic Waters — Lake Erie ‘Painted Green’ By Enormous Algae Bloom

Enormous blooms of algae painting the waters green, sickly blue, or blood-red. Algae producing toxins making water unsafe to drink or swim in. Making fish, shellfish and crabs unsafe to eat. Generating life-snuffing dead zones of low oxygen and, potentially, producing deadly hydrogen sulfide gas ranging our lakes, seas, and oceans.

This is what happens when the world is forced to warm, when run-off due to climate change induced extreme rainfall events increases, when the land that run-off comes from is loaded with fossil fuel based fertilizers, and when fossil fuel burning itself generates a constant fall-out of nitrogen from the skies. In ancient hothouse events, similar forces generated mass extinctions in the world’s waters. And through fossil fuel burning we’re setting off a related hothouse type stress to the life-giving liquid we all rely upon. A stress that is yet worsened due to the efficiency with which we are able to load the air, land, and seas with environmental toxins that aid in the generation of algae blooms of an intensity nature alone would have never kicked off.

Toxic algae blooms become common for western Lake Eerie

(In a human-warmed world, toxic algae blooms that threaten Toledo, Cleveland and Akron water supplies are becoming all too common. Algae biomass graphic for the 2013 and 2014 Lake Erie algae blooms provided by NOAA.)

Lake Erie in the Firing Line

In the US, one of the most vulnerable bodies of fresh water to this kind of toxic algae growth is Lake Erie. Over recent decades as the local climate changed, the water warmed. Weather patterns resulted in increased heavy rainfall events. Increased farm industry and fertilizer use meant that much of the run-off was heavily laden with algae food. And the atmosphere itself became loaded up with nitrogen. In addition, the lake is more vulnerable to a life-snuffing stratified state in which the top and bottom layers fail to mix. A final blow came from an invasive species of mollusk — the zebra mussel — which changed the food web in such a way that it favored the growth of the toxic algae we see today. All these factors combined to make the surface waters more and more vulnerable to large, toxic algae blooms and the follow-on formation of dead zones.

Since the mid 1960s, late summer algae blooms have been a regular occurrence on the lake. But more and more now, the blooms are prolific enough to threaten city water draws.

In 2011, Lake Eerie suffered its worst algae bloom on record. At that time, fully 20 percent of the lake was covered in the toxic stuff. Then, both Ohio and Canadian cities along the lake had to shut off water intakes to prevent toxins entering the water system. During 2014 the blooms had again threatened water supplies forcing Toledo to shut its valves. Now, a new algae bloom is threatening Cleveland, Toledo and Canadian water supplies. And, according to NOAA officials, the current bloom may be nearly as intense and widespread as the 2011 event. NOAA notes:

The bloom will be expected to measure 8.7 on the severity index with a range from 8.1 to potentially as high as 9.5. This is more severe than the last year’s 6.5, and may equal or exceed 2013, which had the second worse bloom in this century. The severity index runs from a high of 10, which corresponds to the 2011 bloom, the worst ever observed, to zero.

Toxic Algae Visible From Satellite

As of yesterday, the widespread bloom of toxic algae was plainly visible in the LANCE MODIS satellite shot:

Lake Eerie Algae Bloom

(A large and growing toxic algae bloom in Lake Erie visible from satellite on August 5. It’s a bloom that may eventually prove to be the largest such event on record for the Lake. Image source: LANCE MODIS.)

A huge swath of the western end of the lake was covered with the stuff as of August 5, 2015. A clearly visible green blob blanketing much of Erie’s western surface. Researchers out on boats monitoring this year’s outbreak described the lake as being painted in a thick sheen of goop.

According to NASA, the particular kind of algae that now appears annually in Lake Eerie is called Microcystis. It produces a toxin that is highly dangerous to humans. If consumed, Microcystis may cause numbness, nausea, dizziness, vomiting, lead to liver damage and even result in death. One part per billion in water is all it takes to hit unsafe levels. And boiling toxin-laced water is no remedy — resulting in further concentration of the dangerous stuff.

During August of 2014, unsafe levels were reached at Toledo intakes causing water officials to shut down the lake water supply there. This year, officials are closely monitoring the water supply ready to hit the off switch if the water again hits a dangerous threshold.

Sadly, Lake Erie isn’t the only place on Earth suffering the impacts of hothouse-spurred toxic algae blooms. In the Pacific Ocean, a massive blob of hot water is hosting a red tide of record depth and extent. That particular bloom risks the expansion of an already large dead zone, the proliferation of anoxic and hypoxic waters, and the potential for bottom water production of toxic hydrogen sulfide producing bacteria. In the North Atlantic, swirls of algae blooms are generating mobile dead zones even as the far North Atlantic is witnessing a massive blue-green algae bloom (more on these dangerous human warming related events in upcoming posts).

Links:

NOAA Predicts Severe Algae Bloom

Earth Observatory: Lake Eerie Algae Bloom

Eerie’s Enormous Algae Bloom is Back

LANCE MODIS

Hot Pacific Ocean Runs Bloody

Underwater Cyclones of Death

Hat Tip to Andy in San Diego

Hat Tip to Colorado Bob

Anoxic Oceans, Biotoxins and Harmful Algae — Missing Links in Mass Dolphin Deaths on US East Coast?

Dolphin Strandings

(East Coast Dolphin Strandings by State and Year. Image source: NOAA)

According to reports from NOAA, as of early October more than 550 dolphins had died and washed up along the US East Coast. The deaths, which NOAA has causally linked to morbillivirus infection, are occurring at a more rapid pace than the massive 1987 die-off which eventually resulted in more than 1100 East Coast dolphin deaths over the course of a 1 year period. By the time the first three months had passed in the 1987 die-off about 350 dolphins had perished. If the current event lasts as long as the 1987 die-off we could possibly see nearly 2000 deaths, setting up the current event as the worst in modern memory.

Morbillivirus — Cause, or Symptom of a More Ominous Problem?

In recent calls to NOAA and the various state institutes of marine science, I continue to receive confirmation that morbillivirus is listed as the primary cause of dolphin deaths. Most of the stranded dolphins have tested positive for morbillivirus and the disease has been implicated in dolphin deaths before. (For reference, morbillivirus is the same disease that causes measles in humans and is similarly virulent in dolphins. )

That said, numerous scientific sources, including The Scientific American and researchers at the NRDC, have questioned whether morbillivirus is the primary cause or just a symptom of a larger problem with ocean health. They point to research showing stranded dolphins with high levels of biotoxins in fatty tissue and individuals that are generally plagued by parasites and other infections. Many of these dolphins display compromised or weakened immune systems as a result of elevated toxicity levels. Meanwhile, a large enough segment of these animals are among the adult population to rule out age as a major secondary cause of mortality.

Algae Blooms as Source of Biotoxins

East Coast Algae Bloom

(Satellite Shot of Green and Brown Tinted Water Indicative of Algae Blooms off the Virginia Coast on Oct 18. Image Source: Lance-Modis)

Sitting on the top of the food chain as one of the oceans’ high-order predators, dolphins consume a large volume of fish. These fish, in turn, are fed by lower food chain sources. As food passes up the chain, any toxin within the food will reach higher levels of concentration, making top order predators, like dolphins, more vulnerable to poisoning.

The biotoxins found in recently deceased dolphins can be linked to harmful forms of algae that tend to develop in low oxygen ocean environments. Some of these toxins can cause various forms of food poisoning in mammals (including humans). Others, like hydrogen sulfide, can build up in adipose tissue to have a number of long-term effects resulting in stresses to major organ systems, neurological and psychological health, and strains on a body’s immunity to disease and infection.

Most of the dead dolphins discovered, thus far, are either males or nursing infants. Both are more vulnerable than females to toxicity due to the fact that males have no means of rapidly shedding biological toxins and infants receive higher doses of harmful substances from toxins concentrating in mother’s milk.

Fasting Dolphins Likely to be More Affected

As toxins build up in the dolphins’ fatty tissues, they come under increased risk of immuno compromise and infection during times when they tap the energy from these stores. Elevated toxicity can happen any time a dolphin may decide to fast rather than forage. As the fats are tapped by the body, the toxins are re-released into the dolphin’s blood stream where they can build up to harmful levels.

Morbillivirus Shouldn’t be So Lethal

Supporting the biotoxin/immuno compromise theory is the fact that morbillivirus shouldn’t carry such a high lethality rate. The virus normally only results in death among the most vulnerable individuals — primarily the very young, the very old, or the already weak or sick. The fact that morbillivirus, in this case, is carrying such a high lethality rate is a direct sign that the virus isn’t the only cause and that a higher portion of the dolphin population is far less healthy than is usual. High biotoxin levels in dead dolphins also point toward a combination of causes.

Dying Oceans and Dying Dolphins

A recent report on the health of the world’s oceans resulted in ominous findings that may also provide further hints as to why so many East Coast dolphins are dying this year. The IPSO 2013 State of the Oceans report found that oceans were experiencing anoxia (loss of oxygen) not just along coastal regions where human nutrient run-off was resulting in massive algae blooms and dead zones, but also in the deep ocean. There, in even the far off-shore waters, ocean oxygen levels were falling. Other high order predators, requiring high oxygen levels to sustain their high metabolisms — like the deep sea marlin — were found to have changed their migratory patterns to avoid deep ocean, oxygen-poor, dead zones forming and expanding throughout the world’s oceans.

The expanding anoxia is both an ocean killer and a direct signal of the changes resulting from human caused climate disruption. Warmer ocean waters hold less oxygen in solution and so they dump more into the atmosphere. In addition, increased fresh water run-off from melting glaciers and more intense rainfall events (due to increases in the world’s hydrological cycle directly caused by warming), result in less mixing of surface waters and deeper waters. Increased run-off also results in more algae blooms which further starve the oceans of oxygen.

These all contribute to increasingly anoxic waters. And once the ocean environment flips to anoxic states, it becomes a host to numerous toxin-producing bacteria. These toxins, in turn, end up in the food chain and directly impact the dolphins and a whole host of other animals.

In other words, a more anoxic ocean is an ocean that produces more harmful bacteria. An ocean full of harmful bacteria is one that increases the risk of dolphin mortality. And when we see spikes in dolphin deaths, as we have on the US east coast this year and on the US gulf coast for every year since 2010, we had better sit up and pay attention. As it’s a clear signal that the oceans, as a whole, are in trouble.

Implications for Both Ocean and Land Dwellers

Because the ocean and the atmosphere are interconnected and because humans greatly rely on the oceans for both foods and livelihoods, it is pure folly to ignore the ongoing plight of the world’s oceans. Toxic fish, mass deaths of ocean animals, and a thinning of the ocean biosphere could result in the loss of enough food to feed upwards of a billion people. Increasing instances of toxic algae blooms will also likely result in higher sickness and mortality rates for those who frequently come into contact with the seas. In the most extreme cases, blooms of hydrogen sulfide producing bacteria could poison the air near toxic algae blooms, resulting in severe hazards for those who live on land.

Transitioning to a stratified, anoxic and/or Canfield ocean state is an outcome of climate change that is all too often ignored. A risk that should be listed among the worst potential outcomes of human greenhouse gas emissions. A risk that has echoes in the great Permian Extinction event in our world’s deep past. It is a danger exists now and the growing risk of its emergence are becoming increasingly apparent.

Signal Received?

The dolphins, our ‘sentinels of ocean health’ are dying. And in their deaths are a message that we should be hearing loud and clear. Will we listen?

Links and Hat Tips:

The State of the Oceans, 2013

Are Dolphins Reaching a Breaking Point?

Are Humans Behind the East Coast Dolphin Die-Off?

Climate Change, Anoxic Waters and Dead Dolphins

Hat Tip to Commenter Steve

Climate Change, Algae Blooms, Anoxic Waters and Dead Dolphins: What’s Killing East Coast Dolphins? Morbillivirus? Or Something More Ominous?

Oily Algal Sheen

Oily algal sheen of red, black, and green visible from Cape Hatteras to New Jersey in MODIS satellite shot on August 12, 2013.

(Image source: NASA/MODIS)

Because dolphins sit at the top of most ocean food chains and due to their sensitivity to healthy or unhealthy ocean states, they have been called “the sentinels of ocean health” by oceanographers around the world. So, when East Coast dolphins are dying at their fastest rate in 26 years, and with scores of these majestic creatures washing up on beaches from Virginia Beach to New York, we should sit up and pay attention.

****

I remember the 1987 East Coast dolphin die-off well. Why? Because I can clearly recall paddling through the ugly, murky red-stained waters in my almost daily surfing quest for decent waves as a Virginia Beach teenager. It was early September and school was just beginning. The tropical Atlantic was unloading its guns, firing off the tropical storms and hurricanes that provided the lovely swells I hunted with so much passion.

But walking down the beach didn’t provide its usual pleasure. The air was chill and the ocean ugly. Plunging into the water, I noticed it was filled with what appeared to be a reddish mud. Even knee deep, I couldn’t see my feet. Paddling out through the dark, rust-red waters was strange, eerie, like entering a distant land or the seascape of another time. The water was cold and nutrient-rich from a large upwelling event as well as from the annual run-off from farms and lawns. Distantly, I knew these things from news reports and from the discussions of family members who were, even then, heavily involved in the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s efforts to preserve the health of marine environments local to my area.

But paddling through those ugly waters, I was more concerned about what I couldn’t see. About what was concealed beneath all the darkness and murk. Where had the crystalline waves of my early youth gone? And what of the azure waters full of rich, white foam? Now turned to a kind of brownish scum.

The waves that day were large, dark, bullies filled with a biting ugliness. Angry brutes capped with rusty foam. One held me under for longer than I liked and I turned to paddle home. Settling in front of the TV glow with my family, I learned the news. “Largest Red Tide on Record. Massive East Coast Dolphin Deaths. Health Risk. Advised to Stay out of Red-Brown and/or Murky Water.”

My family kind of laughed it off. There’d been red tides before. But none like this one. That year the red tides were exceptionally strong and over a ten month period more than 700 dolphins died.

***

These events of long ago remain clear in my mind because they had ominous implications for my favorite sport — surfing — which in itself was rooted in a joy for the glory of nature. I had often felt that the great symphony of life and beauty I found in the ocean while surfing contained far more majesty and spirituality than any land-bound church. The great blue vault of heaven and the starry night that came behind contained all the awe and adoration, for me, that so many others associated with God. My worship was a dance across the beautiful face of nature, my only remaining contact with the human world — the opalescent surf board beneath my feet.

But with the red tides the beauty and the awe was ripped away, revealing a dark and ugly underbelly. A soulless place of lost life and beauty. I didn’t want to plunge myself into ugly and potentially harmful waters, nor did I find much appeal in those new, dark, blood colored waves. They had lost their grace, becoming rough, brutish things and the water I was paddling through was death. Along with the dolphins, fish, crabs, every sort of sea life suffered and perished. The catches of fishermen dwindled. It was a bad year, but only a shade of things to come.

***

Silence and an incapacity to communicate or understand what is wrong is often the most brutal form of suffering. During my middle-school and high school years, I suffered numerous bouts of bronchitis and general weakness. During late high school, I went through a six month period when I experienced terrifying episodes of shortness of breath, with no other symptoms. Doctors couldn’t discover anything wrong, so I continued on as I could. The summer after my senior year, I was sick with a fever of 100+ for a month straight. The doctors tested me for mono and found nothing. Shrugging their shoulders, they proclaimed it was a ‘mono-like-virus.’ Whatever had caused these symptoms left my organs inflamed and my doctors advised me to ‘avoid any kind of strenuous sport or heavy lifting’ lest it cause an organ rupture. For more than a year, I required 10 hours of sleep to maintain any level of energy. Eventually, though, the health troubles and symptoms faded.

***

Thunderstorm over Jane Island.

Thunderstorm over Jane Island.

I come from a place that relies on the life of the ocean and the waterways that feed her. And my experiences have taught me to be sensitive and to pay attention to my surroundings. Often, the media cannot be relied upon to tell the whole story. Such was the case with the camping trip I took to Jane Island with my wife this summer.

The Jane Island campground is a thin strip of coastal pinewood carved into a cluster of sites for campers, RVers and wildlife enthusiasts. It is managed by the park service and sits adjacent to a sprawling wetland called Jane Island. The island is, itself, a testiment to the ravages of human caused climate change. More than a hundred years ago, the island hosted a fish cannery, and a number of farms. But the low lying land, like so many Chesapeake Bay Islands, has steadily been reclaimed by rising water. Now all that remains are a few copses of pine trees and a vast wetland filled with channels deep enough to kayak through. At high tide, the majority of the island is now submerged.

Kayaking Through the Wetlands of Jane Island

Kayaking Through the Wetlands of Jane Island (My Sister and Bro-in-Law in this Shot)

The nearby town of Crisfield had its own tale to tell. Dilapidated and abandoned houses lined the road leading into a town filled with closed store fronts covered in peeling or salt-stained paint. The architecture there appeared to have frozen sometime between the late 80s and late 90s. Everywhere could still be seen the icon of Crisfield — images and silhouettes of Chesapeake Bay blue crabs displayed everywhere from flags bearing school mascots (“Go Crisfield Crabs!”), to flags displayed outside dilapidated real estate offices, to paintings on the sides of buildings, to signs on the dwindling number of bay side restaurants. A ferry that transported tourists and sightseers to Tangier Island, which is also steadily being reclaimed by the Bay, lies roped off and idle, blocked by large orange traffic cones.

The scene is one of a town that is descending into a post apocalyptica, one more likely to be featured in a gritty novel or Hollywood movie than as a destination spot for vacation goers.

What had pushed Crisfield so far down the road to disintegration? One need look no further than their iconic blue crab. Crisfield is a town almost entirely supported by its crab and oyster fishing industries. But over the past 26 years, both crabs and oysters have suffered from a series of disasters. Red tides, algae blooms, anoxia, invasive species, and chemical dumps from industries along rivers feeding the bay all exacted their awful toll. The result was numerous deaths and high toxicity levels in these sensitive bottom dwelling animals that either made them unsellable or substantially reduced their populations for extended periods. And, in Crisfield, this devastation of ocean bottom dwelling life took a terrible and visible toll on human life there as well.

***

Why Context is So Important to Understanding Climate Change

In understanding the damage resulting from human caused climate change, context is everything. Because climate change is so large, we have to look at the big picture in order to understand it. All too often, we look at a long, thin, bushy, tufted thing, or a padded stump-like thing, or a spear-like protrusion of ivory and see only strange, isolated, and seeming in-congruent features. But when drawing back, what we find is an elephant.

And this is why I’m sharing with you my experience of the health of the waters surrounding the Chesapeake Bay, a set of waters I have had intimate contact with for most of my life, intimate enough to know that the life there is in severe crisis. So when scores of dolphins begin washing up dead on shores adjacent to the Chesapeake Bay and nearby ocean, one does not immediately jump to conclusions without investigating the larger context.

So, before we continue on a broader investigation, I’d like to call your attention once again to the satellite image at the top of this blog post and ask you to engage your senses. What do you see there? And does it look normal to you?

Morbillivirus or Failing Ocean Health?

Earlier this summer odd reports were emerging that Manatees were dying in unprecedented numbers along Florida waterways. Widespread red tides had expanded through Florida estuaries, coating the grasses Manatees consume in paralytic toxins. These toxins, when consumed in large enough amounts cause the Manatees muscles to seize up, making it impossible for the Manatees to reach the surface to breathe. From NPR as of March 28th:

More than 200 manatees have died in Florida’s waterways since January from an algae bloom called red tide, just as wildlife officials try to remove the marine mammal from the endangered species list.

In a separate incident during early June, reports had emerged that a large algae bloom was covering some East Coast beaches with an algal foam that is implicated in increasing ocean anoxia. From the Marine Institute as of May 27th:

The Marine Institute is currently monitoring an algal bloom on beaches on the east coast of Ireland as a part of its Phytoplankton Monitoring programme. The bloom was detected on May 27th  using satellite images and information provided by the Envirnomental Protection Agency and Wexford County Council.

The production of foam, and in some extreme cases anoxia, can result in marine organism mortalities. Fish mortalities caused by this particular species in previous Irish blooms have not been observed, as wild fish tend to avoid the bloom. This may explain the low catches reported by sea anglers on the east coast in recent weeks.  Several fishermen have also reported clogging of nets in recent weeks, which may be caused by the decaying bloom sinking to the seafloor.

In yet one more incident, an estuary of the Chesapeake Bay called the Lafayette River in Hampton Roads experienced yet one more dangerous red tide event. The Chesapeake Bay foundation reported the event which is under investigation by the Virginia Institute of Marine Science.

The findings match visual evidence of wide-spread algae blooms that can be seen from satellite in this region of the East Coast. And algae blooms can have numerous and devastating effects to marine ecosystems. The organisms involved in algae blooms often produce toxins which are directly dangerous to fish and marine wildlife. They starve the waters by consuming oxygen, at which point the oxygen consuming algae die and micro-organisms that thrive on anoxic conditions multiply. These organisms produce and use hydrogen sulfide as a means of cellular respiration increasingly as anoxic conditions expand. Hydrogen sulfide is a fat-soluble gas that is toxic to all forms of oxygen dependent life. It may become concentrated in both fish, mollusks and crabs. In high concentrations in mammals hydrogen sulfide is implicated in high fever, pneumonia like symptoms, multiple organ systems stress (including liver and kidneys), and is a potent neuro-toxin — attacking both nerve and brain function. LD 50 levels (the dose which is lethal for half the population) for most mammals are around 5 grams per kilogram. Direct inhalation of extraordinarily high levels of hydrogen sulfide acts similarly to cyanide gas and is almost immediately lethal.

Both anoxia and high hydrogen sulfide levels have been implicated in numerous fish kills occurring around the world as both oceans and inland waterways warm and become more favorable to large algae blooms. Such a change in ocean and water states has been implicated in numerous mass extinction events in the oceans and, in worst cases, on land (see The Deadly Climb From Glaciation to Hothouse, Why the Permian Extinction is Pertinent to Human Warming).

Finally, it is important to note that of the now 200+ dolphins that have washed ashore dead, only 3 have tested positive for morbillivirus.

Dolphin Die-off Stretches Virginia Aquarium Resources

(Video embed code isn’t working, looking for alternate source. Until then, please follow link)

As the above video shows, oceanographers and marine scientists at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science aren’t buying the morbillivirus explanation.

Perhaps the most stark evidence for a non-virus related death source, an indication of fat soluble toxins of the kind produced by large algae blooms, is the fact that those individuals most vulnerable to toxins are the ones that are seen to be dying at the most rapid rate. According to Smithsonian Institution scientist, Charlie Potter:

“Males don’t have a mechanism for shedding contaminants. The females shed significant amounts of their lipid-soluble contaminants through lactation, so the calf gets a hell of a dose early on in life, and some of the most outrageous levels of contaminants we’ve seen have been in calves.”

Susan Barco, also a scientist with the Smithsonian, noted that dolphins were a key indicator of ocean health and that when dolphins are dying in large numbers, something is seriously wrong:

“Bottlenose dolphins are a higher-order predator. They’re often referred to as ‘ocean sentinels of health.’ So when our bottlenose dolphins are healthy, it would probably indicate that we have a fairly healthy ecosystem. When our bottlenose dolphins are not healthy, it may very well indicate that our ecosystem is not healthy,” she said.

***

The ongoing loss of ocean health is, to me, a defilement of the very spirit of our world. As a child and teen, I was part ocean creature, with so much salt water in my veins. My first memories of her include my father joyfully tossing me into the, then crystalline, waves and then swimming in after me, taking me to the depths to cup small black fish in his hands as a gift of experience to my two-year-old self.

The moment of the black fish, swimming in my father’s hands, me staring at it, it looking back at me, so small, even compared to me, is still with me. I remember being afraid for the fish cupped in the large hands of my father. I remember thinking it might be hurt. Yet I also remember the wonder of the moment we shared, and the joy I felt as my father released it back to the waters.

I realize now that the life of the fish and my own life are connected and that they were never separate. The fish depends on me and my human fellows to act responsibly, to work to restore a now terribly sick world, to give it back the more healthy ocean of my childhood. And we, both you and I, depend on the fish to live, to do its good work in doing its own part to keep the oceans well, a safe place for humans and ocean dwellers alike. For together we become a part of a vibrant and self-reinforcing web of life. And, in breaking that web, we come to die alone and with great suffering.

I do not like this mass death of the dolphins whom we now know to call to each other across the oceans by name and with voices that carry through miles and miles of the still living, but greatly threatened, waters. And I am growing deeply tired of a great number of humans who obstinately fail to see the bigger picture, who continue to push for the delivery of ever greater harm and yet deny its growing force and violence. If the dolphins have names for one another, I wonder if they also have a name for such creatures that live among us?

***

Destroyer of oceans, destroyer of life, destroyer of worlds…

Links:

Dolphin Die-off Stretches Virginia Aquarium Resources

Algae Bloom in the Chesapeake Bay

Dozens of Dying Dolphins Preview Environmental Disaster

Anoxic Event

The Deadly Climb From Glaciation to Hot-House: Why the Permian Extinction is Pertinent to Human Warming

Algae Bloom Kills Record Number of Manatees off Florida

Algae Bloom Detected on East Coast Beaches

Hydrogen Sulfide in Drinking Water

Hydrogen Sulfide Exposure in an Adult Male

Toxic and Harmful Algae Blooms

UNESCO Report on Algae Blooms

Dolphin Deaths Alarm Scientists

Dolphins Dying by Dozens Along East Coast

***

Interesting fact: do a spell check on Morbillivirus and what do you get?

***

Advertisements
%d bloggers like this: