Human Hothouse Spurs Longest Coral Die-Off on Record

The big coral die-off began in the Western Pacific as a massive ocean temperature spike built up during 2014. Back then, ocean heat accumulation had hit a very high ramp. A vicious, century-and-a-half long increase in atmospheric greenhouse gasses re-radiated greater and greater portions of the sun’s energy hitting the Earth — transferring the bulk (about 90 percent) to the world ocean system.

Major Coral Bleaching Event

(A report out today from AGU finds that the world is now experiencing its longest coral die-off event on record. Image source: AGU.)

By 2015, as one of the strongest El Ninos on record began to extend its influence across the globe, a broad region stretching from the Western Pacific, through the Central Pacific and on into the Eastern Pacific and Caribbean were all experiencing mass coral die-offs. Into early 2016, die-off events again expanded taking in Australian waters and sections of the Indian Ocean off East Africa and Western India.

After 20 months of ongoing coral mortality, we are now in the midst of the longest coral die-off event on record — one of only four such events that the world has ever experienced.

The Fourth Major Coral Die-Off

Researchers have long known that corals are sensitive to changes in ocean temperature. A rise in ocean water readings by as little as 1 degree Celsius above average peaks over the period of a month can be enough to set off a life-threatening condition called a coral bleaching event. According to a recent report in AGU:

The bleaching, or whitening, occurs when the corals expel the symbiotic algae that live in their tissues. Without the algae, corals lose a significant source of food and are more vulnerable to disease. In a severe bleaching event, large swaths of reef-building corals die. This causes reefs to erode, destroying fish habitat and exposing previously protected shorelines to the destructive force of ocean waves.

The typical bleaching threshold for most corals tends to be in the range of 29-30 degrees Celsius or about 84-86 degrees Fahrenheit over an extended period. And with the world ocean surface approaching a range near 1 C above 1880s averages, this threshold is hit more and more frequently — putting corals at greater and greater risk.

(World Resources Institute Published the above video in 2012 as a survey of, then current, threats to global coral reef systems. By 2030, heating of the world ocean system, ocean acidification and global warming related dead zones will provide an extreme existential challenge to the world’s beautiful and diverse coral reef systems.)

Prior to the 1980s, widespread coral bleaching events were unheard of. Though isolated events occurred, the world ocean system had not yet warmed enough to put corals at major risk. However, by the 1980s global ocean temperatures had begun to rise into ranges at which peak ocean warming periods could put corals in the firing line for major, globe-spanning die offs.

The first such major, global coral die-off occurred during the, then record, 1982-1983 El Nino. At the time this event was unprecedented. And it held the dubious standing as the only such event until the 1997-1998 Super El Nino set off a similar, though longer-lasting mass die off. By the late 2000s, global ocean temperatures had again risen — hitting marks high enough to enable a weak 2010 El Nino to set off the third mass coral die-off.

The fourth mass die off began in 2014 prior to the most recent super El Nino — which has only exaggerated and lengthened its impact. It is now the longest lasting coral die-off ever recorded. And researchers expect it to continue on through at least much of 2016 and possibly into 2017.

Corals Entering a Period of Killing Heat

As the oceans are predicted to continue warming over the next few decades, corals are expected to come under ever-worsening stress. A recent report by the World Resources Institute (WRI) found that regions experiencing the current mass die-off were 70-90 percent likely to experience similar events at a frequency of once every two years by 2030. And a much larger region was expected to have a 50 to 70 percent risk of experiencing a bleaching event over a two year time-frame.

future_bleaching_web_low-res-preview1

(World Resources Institute in 2012 found that mass coral bleaching and related die-off would occur with extraordinary frequency post 2030. Image source: The World Resources Institute.)

By the 2050s, under business as usual fossil fuel burning, WRI expects that much of the world’s temperate and tropical oceans would experience coral bleaching events bi-annually.

Taking this stark prediction into account we find that the threat to corals over the coming decades will eventually exceed El Nino periodicity and become common during most ocean climate states. The current, likely two year to 30 month, coral die off should serve as a warning for the worse and more frequent hits to corals that will, sadly, be stacking up over the coming decades. Eventually, mass coral die-offs in the continually warming world ocean will become continuous and ubiquitous unless the current trend somehow draws swiftly to a halt.

In addition, given an expanding ocean acidification proceeding southward from the poles and more and more widespread zones of ocean anoxia (areas of water containing very little oxygen), what we are seeing is that threats to coral health are rapidly multiplying due to influences directly related to human-forced climate change.

Links:

El Nino Prolongs Longest Coral Bleaching Event

NOAA: Coral Bleaching Background

World Resources Institute Shows Widespread Coral Bleaching by 2030

The World Resources Institute

Hat Tip to TodaysGuestIs

Hat Tip to DT Lange

 

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Monster El Nino Hurls Record Barrage of Hurricanes at Hot Blob, Sets Sights on Drought-Ravaged California

The Hot Blob in the Northeastern Pacific held its own for quite some time. But it now faces the assault of a barrage of tropical cyclones spat from the maw of a monster El Nino that is now tracking its way toward the strongest such event on record. If this keeps up, the Ridiculously Resilient Ridge warding storms off the US West Coast will be besieged by increasingly powerful cyclonic systems. The Ekman pumping from such storms will cool the ocean surface at its periphery and expanding toward its heart, eventually crushing the ocean impetus for ridge formation. The continuation of such a pattern could then kick Bjerknes feedback into higher gear — opening wide the door for powerful storms striking the US West Coast this Fall and Winter.

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A Record-Shattering Barrage of Pacific Cyclones

Late during the evening of August 29th of 2015 something odd happened. For the first time in the history of modern meteorological record keeping, three category four typhoons simultaneously churned their way northward through the Pacific Ocean. These massive and powerful storms, just one category shy of the strongest typhoons we have a measure for, were hurled out of a region of extremely hot sea surface temperatures near the Equator. A zone, that for late August was also hitting record hot levels amidst a building Monster El Nino. And never before in modern memory had so many storms of such high intensity filled Pacific Ocean waters.

image

(Signs that powerful Fall and Winter storms are coming for the US West Coast? From north to south, strong cyclones are starting to put the squeeze on the Ridiculously Resilient Ridge. The Central and Eastern Pacific between 10 and 30 North, in particular, shows an eye-widening number of tropical cyclones. As of Tuesday, September 1, a whopping four tropical systems were churning northward out of an extremely hot El Nino zone. Image source: Earth Nullschool.)

By today, the furthest northward cyclones had vented their fury and dropped in intensity. Meanwhile, a fourth storm — tropical depression 14-E — was in the process of exploding over the very hot waters of the Eastern Pacific. It’s an unprecedented number of storms flowing out of what may become the strongest El Nino on record as part of a powerful ocean-atmospheric feedback.

Strong Bjerknes Feedback to Crush RRR?

Now, this strong storm pulse is starting to put the squeeze on the famed Ridiculously Resilient Ridge (RRR). It’s a persistent ridge that for the better part of three years has turned storms away from the US West Coast — deepening already prevalent drought conditions over California and threatening water security across the US West.

But now the RRR is surrounded by storms. A strong frontal trough runs from 30 North across the Central Pacific and on up into the Bering Sea. Another significant late summer low churns off the Pacific Northwest — running south and east toward Seattle and British Columbia. And four tropical cyclones push northward into the ridge’s southern boundary. It’s a full court atmospheric press. One that, through the mechanism of Ekman pumping, will push for the generation of upwelling and related cooling of the Northeastern Pacific waters beneath the RRR.

Bjerknes Feedback

(Sea surface temperature and atmospheric conditions are beginning to fall more in line with an El Nino related pattern called Bjerknes Feedback. Image source: NOAA.)

If this happens, a good portion of the RRR’s atmospheric inertia will fail — opening wide the door for a powerful west to east storm track development fed by heat rising off a Monster El Nino sprawling over the Equatorial zones. It’s a pattern that’s starting to look like a rather significant Bjerknes-type feedback to a record or near record El Nino. One that may well continue to develop and grow ever-stormier as Fall progresses.

2015 El Nino Still Heating Up, Expected to Heat Up More

Feeding the powerful pulse of storms is a still-heating Equatorial Pacific. As of Monday, NOAA’s Weekly El Nino Report found that the critical Nino 3.4 zone had warmed 2.2 degrees Celsius above average. This warming follows an inexorable three month rise that began in June and has mostly continued unabated. Furthermore, seasonal trends together with the already powerful observed atmospheric feedbacks would tend to continue to push surface warming through October and November. So it’s likely that an El Nino that has already ventured well into monster event range will warm further over the coming 4-10 weeks — setting the stage for a possible excession of 1997’s record setting intensity.

image

(The 2015 El Nino is starting to look like one of the very intense events some climate models predicted as an upshot of human-forced global warming. It’s only early September and Nino 3.4 is already 2.2 C hotter than average. This Equatorial Pacific region is still heating up as storm-forced up-welling begins to develop cool regions in the RRR supporting zones of the Northeastern Pacific Hot Blob. It will take a boatload of strong storms to crush the RRR, but the still strengthening monster El Nino to the south keeps firing them northward. Image source: Earth Nullschool.)

Model runs still point toward this possibility with CPC/IRI convergent and dynamic 3 month average predictions in the range of 2.3 to 2.5 C above average (which would beat out 1997’s 2.2 C departure). Meanwhile, uncorrected CFSv2 model runs continue to put the October, November, December 3 month average prediction in the range of 2.75 C above baseline. A level that would basically blow the 1997 El Nino out of the water. To this point it’s worth re-iterating that weekly sea surface temperature departures for the Equatorial Pacific are now entering record setting ranges. Many analysts, like Weather Underground’s Steve Gregory, expecting these waters to continue to warm over the coming weeks.

Conditions in Context: Look Out For Rough Weather Coming to US West Coast

Though it’s too early to lock in the death of the RRR, conditions are lining up that will continue to put the squeeze on this persistent weather pattern. As a result, chances for some very intense storms beginning to slam into the US West Coast starting during October, November and December are on the rise. For those looking to a possible end to the droughts, wildfires and water shortages in the Western US, this potential change in conditions may be seen as a relief.

However, such an extreme switch brings with it the distinct possibility that storms associated with a potential strongest El Nino on record will be very disruptive. The droughts and numerous wildfires throughout the West have established soil conditions that will only enhance flood related impacts. Powerful rains associated with El Nino will likely increase erosion and further damage soils in regions already impacted by the severe droughts, mass tree deaths, and wildfires related to human forced climate change and fossil fuel burning.

California missing two years of rain

(As of August 13, 2015, some parts of California were facing a rainfall deficit of 2 years or more. In order to break the drought, 2015’s monster El Nino would have to set off severe flood conditions during Fall and Winter. With the RRR under threat, is California staring down the barrel of a switch to an equally ridiculous barrage of storms? Image source: National Weather Service, Phoenix.)

To this final point, parts of California are now entering a 2 year rainfall deficit. A deficit that, in some places, equals 30-40 inches or more. A monster El Nino crushing the RRR and massively amplifying the Pacific Ocean storm track and pumping immense volumes of moisture into the mid-latitudes raises the risk that this much water or more could be dumped upon parts of California and the US West Coast in little more than a season. A switch from persistent, crushing drought to flash flood that could be extraordinarily disruptive.

Links:

Earth Observatory: Trio of Hurricanes in the Central and Eastern Pacific

Earth Nullschool

National Hurricane Center

The Ridiculously Resilient Ridge

NOAA: Bjerknes Feedback

NOAA’s Weekly El Nino Report

CFSv2 Model SST Predicted Departures in Nino 3.4

Steve Gregory: El Nino Stronger!

Climate Change Could Double the Likelihood of Super El Ninos

National Weather Service, Phoenix

Hat Tip to Ray Duray

(Please support public, non-special interest based science like the fantastic El Nino reports provided by NOAA and without which this analysis would not be possible.)

Shades of a Canfield Ocean — Hydrogen Sulfide in Oregon’s Purple Waves?

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

(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.

Purple Canfield Ocean

(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.

In his ground-breaking book “Under a Green Sky,” Dr. Peter Ward vividly describes what a Canfield Ocean may have looked like:

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.

Links:

Purple Waves Puzzle Oregon Coastal Scientists

Awakening the Horrors of the Ancient Hothouse — Hydrogen Sulfide in the World’s Warming Oceans

Purple Sulfur Bacteria

Canfield Ocean

Under a Green Sky

Biogeochemistry

Hat Tip to Wharf Rat

Massive Sargassum Seaweed Bloom is Choking The Caribbean — Climate Change a Likely Culprit

According to Caribbean leaders, it’s a disaster that will take at least 100,000 people and 120 million dollars to clean up. And disaster may not be the best word to describe it — for an enormous Caribbean beach and water choking bloom of sargassum algae may be a new abnormal ocean condition. Yet one more dangerous upshot of a warming world.

St-Vincent-August-2014-credit-E.-Doyle

(Great, sulfur-stinking mats of sargassum algae are now choking the beaches and near-shore waters of the Caribbean. In some places the mats are 10 feet deep. These great piles of seaweed can foul beaches, kill off native species, and result in ocean dead zones when they rob waters of nutrients and then die off — pulling life-giving oxygen out of the water by decomposition. Image source: Mission Blue.)

*   *   *   *   *

A Legend of the Ancient Mariners

The story, in this case, begins with an enormous mat of algae called the Sargasso Sea. This vast collection of organisms has at its foundation two forms of algae that produce inter-connected floating masses of seaweed. The mats collect and link together in an Atlantic Ocean Gyre — forming a vast region off the United States Coast.

Ancient sailors crossing the Atlantic during the dawn of North American colonization often passed through the Sargasso Sea. It tended to be a notable feature of their travels as the floating mats were sometimes dense enough to halt the progress of vessels.

1891 Map of the extent of low and high concentration Sargasso seaweed

(An 1891 map proved by NOAA shows the regions of low and high concentration sargassum seaweed in the North Atlantic and Caribbean. Image source: NOAA — Teachers at Sea.)

For hundreds of years the enormous collection remained a mystery. But by the 20th Century researchers had found that the seaweed was transported by the Gulf Stream from the Gulf of Mexico and Carribean into an area just south of Bermuda. There it bloomed as it fed on nutrient-laden run-off spreading outward from the large estuaries of the North American Continent. The sargassum then efficiently recycled these nutrients to support a vital community of hundreds of sea creatures and birds.

The Sargassum algae that make up the Sargasso Sea are not only native to this region. It ranges the tropical and subtropical zones of the Atlantic — blooming wherever there is warmth and nutrients to support it. Lately, there have been signs that biodiversity in the Sargasso Sea is falling. Recent research expeditions are noting fewer and fewer of the species traditionally supported by the sargassum mats. It’s a potential sign of failing ocean health. One that is, perhaps, linked to the massive accumulation of sargassum in the Carribean during recent years.

(Big changes in the Sargasso Sea. MBARI expedition finds lower biodiversity in the sargassum mats. Video source: MBARI/Youtube.)

Ocean Sargassum Fertilization in a Warming World

Due to its highly efficient use of nutrients, pelagic sargassum thrives in warm, well-fertilized waters. And lately, as the Earth has warmed, run-off into the Atlantic Ocean habitats of the sargassum has increased. Added heat in the atmosphere has resulted in greater instances of heavy downpours. These downpours increase erosion — flushing more nutrients into streams and rivers.

In addition, fertilizer-based farming industry leaves soil laden with phosphates and nitrogen. So the heavier downpours are now raining over lands that are artificially loaded with nutrient. Adding to the fertilizer flush is a constant rain of nitrogen particle fallout from an immense and global burning of fossil fuels over the world’s waters — a third new source of nutrient that wasn’t there for the sargassum to access before. Finally, an added warmth in the surface waters due to greenhouse gasses forcing the world to heat up by 1 degree Celsius over the past 135 years creates a yet more ideal environment for the sargassum to grow and bloom.

Reports now indicate that much of the seaweed choking off the Caribbean’s beaches and waters is issuing from a region east of the Amazon River outflow. These reports hint that deforestation, a resulting increase in erosion of Amazon Rainforest soils, and the rise of industrialized farming in Brazil may also be playing a role in the current epic bloom. Finally, there is growing evidence that the Gulf Stream current — a transporter of sargassum out of the Carribean and Gulf of Mexico may be slowing down as thermo-haline circulation weakens. All these factors — the warming waters, the increased nutrient loading of the surface waters, and the reduction of sargassum transport due to Gulf Stream slowing — combined hint at a sargassum seaweed train wreck whose epicenter is the Caribbean Sea.

Caribbean Beaches, Ocean Life Under Threat

Over recent years, it’s thought that these factors combined to help generate a massive bloom of sargassum in the Caribbean. As early as Fall of 2014 reports had been trickling in of 3-4 foot thick mats collecting along Caribbean coastlines and piling up on beaches. By August of 2015 the mats have grown to as dense as 10 feet thick. Now vast swaths of beaches are covered in the sulfur-stink of this great pile of dying biomass.

Typically sargassum is a vital part of the life-giving system of the Atlantic Ocean. Numerous species of fish, including tuna and jacks, rely on the food provided by the prolific algae. Birds, turtles, and scores of invertebrates also rely on the algae in one way or another. But when the algae becomes too prolific it turns from boon into curse. Sea turtle nests become fouled with the stuff. New hatchlings often are unable to clamber through the dense piles to reach the sea. The dense tangles reduce the mobility of larger animals including sharks, rays, and adult turtles. And when the piles become too thick large sections of the sargassum are cut off from light and nutrients. The result is that the large masses can contain oxygen deprived zones where the dead matter decays. These little pockets host hydrogen sulfide and other sulfur producing bacteria — further toxifying the waters and resulting in the now prevalent reports of a ‘rotten eggs’ smell near the sargassum piles.

(“From the surface, it looks bad. But could you imagine if you were a fish?” Dave Eliot goes underwater to take a look at these climate-change enhanced algae blooms. Video source: YouTube.)

For Caribbean Island nations, who rely so much on their pristine beaches and ocean habitats as a source of economic stability, the amazing accumulation of sargassum is a disaster. Today Sir Hilary Beckles of the University of the West Indies called on the international community for aid saying:

“Herein is an endemic and systemic threat to the resilience and development of these nations and therefore we must have an international response to this… What you are looking at is maybe US$120 million . . . and probably we would have to deploy over 100,000 people to carry out a similar strategy across the Caribbean space to make our beaches available to those who wish to use them for their multiple purposes… We must show our children enjoying our beaches and give visitors the assurance that the weed is not killing us and that life goes on. We must let people know that we in the Caribbean are not sitting on our hands but trying to find solutions to the threat presented by the Sargassum weed.”

But, as with so many of the disasters cropping up these days — simply reacting to the symptoms (be it sargassum, or drought, or flood, or mass migration, or sea level rise, or wildfires, or species endangerment, or a thousand other issues related to human fossil fuel emissions and a great heating of the atmosphere and oceans) does not address the root cause. And for that you need a rapid cessation of fossil fuel burning.

Links:

Sargassum Seaweed Single Greatest Threat to Caribbean Tourism

Beautiful Caribbean Beaches Now a Smelly Mess After Seaweed Invasion

Sargassum Seaweed Turns Caribbean Waters Murky

Stinking Seaweed Causes Tourists to Cancel Caribbean Holidays

NOAA — Teachers at Sea

World Ocean Heartbeat Fading

How Global Warming Produces Increasing Instances of Extreme Weather

Hat tip to Andy in San Diego

The Pace of Ocean Rise Yet Quickens — AVISO Shows Record Spike in Sea Level

According to a new paper out by James Hansen, human warming could force glaciers to melt so fast that seas rise by as much as ten feet in as few as fifty years. Ten feet in fifty years of business as usual fossil fuel burning. It’s enough to change the face of human civilization. To render many of our vast cities waterlogged wastelands as a tide of migrants flood inland to flee the all-too-real rise of the waters.

It’s a situation we really need to get a handle on. One we should be monitoring with increasing concern. One we should absolutely be trying to prevent by ramping down fossil fuel burning as swiftly as possible.

Over the past Century, global sea level rise has been following a steadily sloping curve. At the beginning of the 20th Century, rates of global sea level rise were a mere 0.8 millimeters each year. By mid Century, the rate had increased to around 1.9 millimeters. And by the first decade of the 21st Century, the rate had again jumped — hitting 3.3 millimeters. As of 2014, satellites above the Earth had sniffed out another jump in the rate of sea level increase. A surge in the pace of rising water spiking well above the 3.3 millimeter per year trend line. A potential warning sign that basal melt of ice sheets in Antarctica and Greenland was starting to have an ever-greater impact.

Sea leve rise AVISO July

(Largest spike in sea level rise since 1993 is now being observed in the AVISO satellite monitor. Image source: AVISO.)

For as of this past month sea levels had spiked to nearly one centimeter above the annual trend line. A record spike that, as yet, shows little sign of abating.

Other than glacial melt and thermal expansion of the oceans due to a continued accumulation of heat, there are a few other ocean and atmospheric features with the potential to wag the overall trend line. One of these is El Nino. And this year is likely to feature one of the strongest El Ninos on record. But the current spike is also the highest upward variance we’ve seen in the entire satellite record dating back to 1993. It’s a severe wag to the upside that’s worth at least a couple of raised eyebrows.

To hit Hansen’s 10 foot in fifty year mark, what we’d end up seeing is a doubling in the rate of glacial melt from Greenland and West Antarctica every 5-10 years. It’s an extraordinary pace of melting. A signal that should show up in the GRACE satellite sensors measuring gravity loss from the great ice sheets. This signal, however, would also start to show up in the global sea level rise monitors as a continued ramping up of the pace at which oceans are surging. And we can’t entirely rule out that we’re observing some of that quickening in the spike we see now.

Links:

AVISO

Warning From Scientists: Stop Fossil Fuel Burning or Age of Storms, Rapid Sea Level Rise is Coming Soon

Historic Rate of Sea Level Rise

Possible Strongest El Nino on Record

 

Starving Sea Lion Pups and Liquified Starfish — How We’ve Turned the Eastern Pacific into A Death Trap for Marine Species

As of late January, the news reports were coming in hot and heavy. Baby sea lions were dying in droves. More than 15,000 of the pups were already lost due to starvation. And with each passing week, more than 100 of the emaciated, beleaguered, hopeless animals were washing up on California shores.

The pups staggered across beaches, wandered into vacant lots, or tottered, disoriented, along roadways. Refugees all to some unspeakable disaster. Orphans lost or abandoned by parents unable to provide them with even the most basic of sustenance.

Starving Sea Lion Pups

(Starving sea lion pups taken in by the Marine Mammal Center in San Francisco. Image source: WTSP.)

Marine rescue centers, volunteer centers, and even animal shelters were inundated by a flood of desperate, dying animals. Their organs were shutting down. They could barely breathe or walk. The future generation of the more than 300,000 sea lions living along the US West Coast taking a severe blow from a deadly killer lurking in West Coast waters.

By late February more than 1000 sea lion pups had flooded the California Marine Mammal Center. Hundreds more found their way into local and ad-hoc shelters. The number was so great that all support systems for the animals were overwhelmed. Persons finding and seeking help for the dying pups were, more often than not, turned away due to lack of support and rescue resources.

It was like the scene out of some heart-wrenching sci-fi disaster movie. And everyone kept asking the same question — what could cause this?

Mass Sea Lion Deaths for Three Years Running

This most recent spate of sea lion pup deaths and strandings comes after years of the same. News media currently reports the event in isolation — as if 2015 were the only year for such a thing to happen. But the truth is that this crisis has been ongoing now since at least 2013, with an earlier episode in 2009-2010 preceding the current chain of related events.

The 2013 event was so severe that in the end 70 percent of the 50,000 sea lion pups born that year had died. The 2014 event was rather less severe, accounting for ‘only’ twice the normal loss rate. But 2015 has so far been so deadly that even 2013’s staggering number of sea lion pup losses could be exceeded.

The multi-year event represents such a heavy blow to sea lions that marine organizations have declared the entire current young generation under threat of being wiped out.

Adult Sea Lions, Otters, Starfish, Birds and other Marine Creatures Involved

But the story doesn’t stop at young sea lion deaths alone. From May through August of last summer, reports were flooding in of mass adult sea lion, otter, and bird deaths due to what appeared to be exposure to some form of toxin.

The animals would wash up on the beach or drop out of the sky. They would show signs of convulsions. Autopsies of the deceased animals revealed shrunken hippocampus, brain and heart lesions.

The same marine mammal center that is now taking in over 1,000 baby sea lion pups this summer took in 751 adults suffering from these signs of toxic poisoning. Simply put, the adults died this past summer and now the pups are starving.

Further down the food chain, creatures living in bottom water zones were also suffering and dying. Fishermen off Oregon had to go further and further afield to fill nets. Near shore fishing lines came up empty except for crabs scurrying up the lines as if in an attempt to escape from danger below.

And in 2013, thousands upon thousands of starfish began to turn to white clumps. A freakish instance of mass star fish death that continued inexorably through 2015.

A Victim of Sea Star Wasting Syndrome

(A victim of Sea Star Wasting Syndrome. Image source: Crosscut.)

The star fish would succumb to a strange wasting illness. An illness that would ultimately waste whole swaths of multiple starfish species (20 separate starfish species and millions of animals are now thought to be involved). Entire regions saw their starfish populations dwindle to zero. As with the mass sea lion deaths, marine researchers were both stunned and befuddled.

Perhaps even more disturbing is that the various species deaths just keep on coming — with no apparent end in sight.

A Hothouse Serial Killer

Just off shore, a warm wind runs from south to north over the increasingly wasted waters. Warm airs born of warm waters, providing us with clues for the cause of this ongoing mass death event. For the seas off the US West Coast have reached record levels of warmth — a level of ocean surface heat that flared with the most recent El Nino in 2009 and 2010. A warming that has been building steadily ever since mortality events began their incessant march in 2013.

image

(Sea surface temperature anomaly map for February 27, 2015 depicting very large swath of much warmer than average sea surface temperatures running along the West Coast of North America through to the Bering Sea. Such widespread surface warming contributes to numerous detrimental changes to ocean health. Image source: Earth Nullschool. Data Source: Global Forecast System Model.)

Now a broad swath of surface water ranging from 2-5 C above average blankets an entire oceanic zone from Alaska to Mexico.

Such excess heat may seem innocuous at first blush. A little extra warm water may seem pleasant to the casual observer. But what seems pleasant actually conceals a deadly threat.

Warm surface waters spreading over the ocean can serve as a kind of lid. The warm water prevents cooler water from upwelling toward the surface, mixing nutrients and refreshing the water’s oxygen levels. This shut down of overturning is a dangerous oceanic condition called stratification. And it can level a severe blow to almost all creatures along the marine food chain. Plankton become less productive. Low oxygen zones expand, killing the slow-moving bottom creatures all while driving the mobile fish to more productive waters. In the warmer waters, toxic algae blooms become more prevalent. Harmful microbes, which are culled during influxes of cold water, thrive and multiply, posing a disease threat to all marine species. Finally, in the deeper reaches off the coasts of Washington and Oregon, the already oxygen-poor zones, zones rife with methane from hydrate venting, begin producing a deadly seep of hydrogen sulfide gas.

The living sea has now become a killer. And all it took was a little extra added heat to lock west coast waters in an expanding zone of warm water and low oxygen marine mortality.

Low Oxygen Ocean Zones

(The signature of ocean stratification expansion — low oxygen zones. Note the large and expanding region of low oxygen in the Eastern Pacific. For reference, high oxygen is shown in greens, blues and purples, low oxygen shown in oranges, reds and black. Image source: AMOP’s Study of Oxygen Minimum Zones. Image date: 2013.)

As a result we have the proliferation of the sea star wasting illness. An illness that would usually be contained by the seasonal influx of cooler waters. So too do we have instances of sea lion adults consuming fish, mullusks, and shellfish contaminated with domoic acid — a toxin produced by algae blooms in warm waters. And lastly, we have the overall stress on the food chain due to low oxygen and productivity which has driven sea lion food sources so far off shore that females are too exhausted after hunting to feed their pups.

More Dangers to Come

The recent mortality events mirror ocean warming episodes which caused similar die-offs at the end of glacial periods. Then, as now, warming robbed waters of oxygen and productive mixing, causing stress to numerous species.

However, the current pace of human warming is much more rapid than the warming periods that occurred at the ends of the ice ages. In addition, under business as usual human carbon emissions, the deadly, low-oxygen ocean zones are expected to expand, eventually covering the majority of the world ocean system. It’s a transition to a stratified ocean that will make the current west-coast die-off look like a minor prelude by comparison.

Hydrogen Sulfide Eruption off Namibian Coast

(Hydrogen sulfide eruption off Namibian coast on February 15, 2015. In Namibia, anoxic bottom waters host hydrogen sulfide producing bacteria. Runoff rich with organic material feeds these bacteria as they produce more toxic hydrogen sulfide gas. During upwelling events, the hydrogen sulfide is brought to the surface where it is visible as a florescent green or black slick. Under stratified and Canfield Oceans, more and more regions are capable of supporting deadly hydrogen sulfide production. Currently, the Baltic Sea, Offshore Namibia, the Chesapeake Bay, and Offshore Oregon are known to host broad regions of hydrogen sulfide producing bacteria in anoxic dead zones. Only in Nambia do these zones occasionally reach the surface waters, so far. Image source: Earth Observatory/NASA.)

Eventually, if CO2e levels exceed 800-1000 parts per million, a transition to an even more deadly state called a Canfield Ocean is increasingly likely. And a Canfield Ocean is a powerful killing machine. Implicated all the previous hothouse extinctions, this killer, during the Permian Extinction, was likely primarily responsible for the deaths of 95 percent of species in the ocean and 70 percent of species on land. For the oceans eventually filled up with deadly toxins (primarily in the form of hydrogen sulfide gas) which then vented into the atmosphere.

It’s a very deadly ocean state we want to avoid at all costs. And we should view these very troubling instances of ocean species mortality along the North American West Coast as a warning to stop warming to oceans as swiftly as possible.

Links:

 Here’s Why Hundreds of Sea Lion Pups are Washing Ashore in California

Researchers Find Warmer Waters Increase Sea Bed Methane Emissions

Surge in Marine Mammal Strandings on US West Coast

On California Coast, Biotoxins Cause of Deadly Sea Lion Siezures, Seafood Scare

Unprecedented Sea Lion Mortality Along California Coast Associated With Anomalous Ocean Conditions

Pelagic Zone: Commons

Global Warming May Boost Dead Zones in Oceans

Eastern Pacific Oxygen Minimum Research

Starving Sea Lion Pup Rescued on San Fransisco Boulevard

Sea Star Wasting Continues: Will King of the Rock Fall?

Pacific Rocky Intertidal Monitoring: Sea Star Wasting Syndrome

When the Stars all Go Out Along the Coast

Hydrogen Sulfide Eruption: Namibia

Earth Nullschool

Global Forecast System Model

Hat Tips:

Colorado Bob

Lief Thurston

Very Hot Pacific Hurls Super Typhoon Vongfong Toward Japan

Vongfong

(Perfect Storm Vongfong churns on a course toward a weekend collision with Japan. Image source: NOAA.)

Bombification…

On Monday afternoon, Typhoon Vongfong was a moderate strength category 2 storm churning through the open waters of the Western Pacific. These waters, warmed to 1-2 degrees Celsius above the 20th Century average by a merciless human heating of the world’s atmospheres and oceans provided extra fuel upon which the still growing storm could feed.

In the airs above, conditions grew more and more favorable, wind shear dropped and an upper level high pressure system built over the strengthening storm. These conditions allowed Vongfong to draw deep from the newly heightened pool of potential storm energy of the hotter than normal Western Pacific. The result was that Vongfong’s pressure rapidly dropped to 900 mb, just 5 mb shy of super typhoon Haiyan’s peak strength. Wind speeds surged by nearly 80 mph inflating Vongfong to a powerful 180 mph monster.

Vongfong is now the 6th Western Pacific storm to reach extreme category 5 intensity this year — the strongest tropical cyclone on record for all of 2014 thus far.

Forecast Track Brings Vongfong’s Heavy Rains Over Japan

Thankfully, this human-warming amplified monster storm still remains well away from the densely populated land masses of the Philippines and Japan as it explores the absolute upper limits of maximum storm intensity. But, by this weekend, Vongfong is expected to come slamming into the island chain near Okinawa as a strong category 3 storm and then to ride into Japan as a category 2 storm, bearing strong winds and dumping copious amounts of rain over the already water-logged archipelago.

Vongfong forecast strength and track

(Vongfong forecast strength and track. Image source: Joint Typhoon Warning Center.)

Japan, during the month of September, received extraordinary rainfall totals, in some places breaking all-time records. Now, during October, a 1-2 punch of Western Pacific storms threatens to bring more flooding to already saturated regions. As of today, official forecasts for locations along Vongfong’s track could receive more than 10 inches of rain by this weekend. A heavy addition to already record fall totals for the archipelago nation.

Conditions in Context

Overall, the Pacific Ocean has been far warmer and stormier than is typical. Today shows the broader Northern Pacific at an extraordinary +1.18 degrees Celsius above the already hotter than normal 1979 to 2000 average. And this extra heat seems to be heightening storm formation in regions where storm-feeding atmospheric instability and moist air abound. In total, the North Pacific Basin has seen 38 tropical cyclones this year, just shy of the annual average of 40-45 and with nearly three months left to go in the year. Some of these storms have been among the most intense on record with fully six super typhoons spawning in the Western Pacific and with the Eastern Pacific seeing its 4th strongest storm ever to form for that basin — category 5 Hurricane Marie.

NOAA sea surface temperature anomaly

(NOAA sea surface temperature anomaly for the Pacific Ocean between 40 N and 40 S Latitudes. Image source: NOAA/Ocean Surface Observation.)

Though most of the intense heat anomalies are to the north and east, almost all regions show above average water temperatures. The waters along the typical typhoon track running toward Japan, for example, range from 0.5 to 1.5 C above average just east of the Philippines to 1 to 3 C above average in a zone east of Taiwan and just south of Japan.

Links:

NOAA

Joint Typhoon Warning Center

NOAA/Ocean Surface Observation

Hurricane Marie

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