The Killer Seas Begin — Mass Marine Death off Chile as Ocean Acidification Begins to Take Down Florida’s Reef

We should be very clear. There is no way to save the beautiful and majestic coral reefs of our world without a rapid cessation of fossil fuel burning. And, if we continue burning fossil fuels, we will not only lose the reefs and corals — we will also turn the world’s oceans into a mass extinction engine.

Chile Mass Sea Life Die Off

(Masses of dead sea life wash up onto Chile’s shores after the worst red tide in history for that nation. As we witness the tragic carnage in Chile, we should remember that the red tide there, the mass coral bleaching in the Great Barrier Reef of Australia, and the onset of ocean acidification damage to the Florida Reef are all linked by the same thread — fossil fuel burning and a related heating up of the global climate. Image source: Largest Red Tide in Chilean History.)

Mass Extinction Driven by the Awful Engine of Greed

Killer Seas. That’s what we’re turning the world’s oceans into in our allowing the fossil fuel industry to retain dominance over the world’s energy sources. In allowing them to continue to keep us captive to the burning of high carbon fuels through their corrupting and pervasive political and economic power. We certainly bear some of the blame for apathetically allowing ourselves to be hood-winked and lead about by the noses. But we shouldn’t fault ourselves too much. For the blame mostly rests within the policy-making apparatuses of dominance-based economic systems and in the very few individuals around the world who now hold the keys to that power.

An enforced global injustice set in place by wealthy individuals like the Koch Brothers, Rupert Murdoch and Warren Buffet  — who through a corrupt monetary influence regularly hijack the political process to protect legacy fossil fuel assets and to assault renewable energy industries. Those like the members of the governing board of Exxon Mobile — who have waged a decades-long campaign to misinform the public on the dangers of human-caused climate change. These so-called global elites are the authors of the climate change denial that has now crippled and deeply divided most legislative bodies around the world. The same fossil fuel drug pushers who’ve worked so hard to keep the global economic system addicted to the most damaging and corrupting of energy sources — oil, gas and coal.

These people are the real monsters of the climate crisis. The ones who, often without any kind of visibility or accountability, have done everything they can to ensure that we, the people of an ailing Earth, have less and less power to make the right decisions and to form the kind of political consensus that would actually provide a pathway to leading us out of this worsening global nightmare. And so, whether we individually realize it now or not, we are in the fight of our lives — what is likely to be the most important struggle for justice that the human race has ever undertaken. For as difficult as such a fight will ultimately be — we must fight the fossil fuel interests and win if human civilization and much of life on Earth is to survive.

The Advent of Killer Seas

I don’t usually talk about religion here in this blog. And I’m not what many people would consider to be a religious person. I do not, for example, attend church very often. Nor do I tend to agree with many so-called religious authorities — whom I often see as short-sighted and relying too much on mythical and dogmatic beliefs that are at best failures in logic and at worst the outgrowths of institutional corruption or general backwards-thinking and small-mindedness. But in this particular case — in the case of the killer seas that are starting to plague our world — I cannot help but to often be struck by how one of the deadly sins that the Bible warns of is resulting in so much terrible harm to the Earth, to its creatures, and to her people. And it is impossible to turn away from the clear-sighted and beautifully written moral imperative laid down by the Pope Francis in his Encyclical. A warning that we should all heed and not turn our eyes from.

Nothing is frozen by Miep

(Nothing is Frozen — by Miep. This is what happens when the world loses its ice — Killer Seas. Image source: There are So Many Things Wrong With This.)

For in the book of Revelation, the Bible speaks of a terrible global disaster. One that begins when the seas turn blood-red and a third of all the fish are killed. Many have interpreted this book, this passage, as a kind of inevitable wrath of a literal God coming down from heaven to divide and punish the human race. But I think that this is a false interpretation. A loving, nurturing God is not a God of Wrath. No, that does not ring true to me at all. I think of this passage, this book, instead as a kind of stark warning against the direct and deadly consequences of bad actions. Of what happens to us if we succumb to what the Bible identifies as the sin of greed. For ‘the love of money is the root of all evil.’

The Bible is, after all, a sort of lore of the ancients passed down over hundreds of generations. A book of parables and lessons for how human beings should treat one another in ways that help not only individuals — but the entire race to survive. In this way, the Bible could be seen as an ancient guide for civilization survival. A book that includes numerous passages on how cities and nations can prosper by living in balance with one another and with nature. And one that issues this essential and stark warning to those who do not treat the Earth and her creatures with kindness. For ‘those who destroy the Earth shall be destroyed.’

Well, we’ve already destroyed 2/3 the globe’s predatory fish that humans eat through over-fishing alone. But the kind of ocean-wrecking destruction of callously-over-fishing pales in comparison to what happens when the short-sighted protection of money in the form of ‘legacy fossil fuel assets’ forces the dumping of billions of tons of toxic carbon into the world’s airs and waters. If you do that, then the ocean really does turn blood-red and purple-red. If you do that, you unleash the mass extinction machine that was the killing mechanism in four of the five great die offs in Earth’s deep history. You begin to temp the fates by invoking the names Permian, Triassic, Devonian, and Ordovician. And if you allow the fossil fuel powers to keep on doing it for the sake of their imagined wealth, then you make the oceans so acidic that the skeletons of the fragile and yet ever-so-beautiful and necessary creatures living within the world’s waters dissolve.

Florida’s Coral Reefs Start to Dissolve

Here, we’ve frequently warned of the two-pronged threat posed to global coral reefs as a result of human fossil fuel burning. In the south, as oceans heat up due to fossil fuel emissions, coral bleaching begins to take hold. Becoming more pervasive as temperatures rise into a range between 1 and 2 C above preindustrial averages, by the 2030s about 90 percent of the world’s reefs will fall under threat of ghosting away into whiteness.

This year, we saw some of these stark consequences begin to unfold as the Great Barrier Reef suffered a horrific bleaching event. This kind of event was predicted and expected by ocean researchers. Brave scientists who acted as modern-day prophets in their issuing of warnings to Australian and global governments. Governments which are now, in so many cases, stacked to the gills (due to the corrupting influence of fossil fuel money mentioned earlier) with the political extremists we today call climate change deniers.

The second prong of the threat to global reefs comes in the form of ocean acidification spreading down from the north. Because waters in northern regions of the world are colder, they are able to take in more of the excess greenhouse gasses produced. As more carbon is drawn into these colder waters, their acidity increases to the point that ocean organisms with calcium carbonate skeletons begin to see those skeletons dissolve. And corals are one of many key ocean organisms that possess calcium carbonate skeletal structures.

Carysfort Reef Dissolved Due to Ocean Acidification

(A global ocean acidification front resulting from a rampant burning of fossil fuels is starting to dissolve higher latitude reef systems. The Carysfort Reef — above — has had numerous coral structures completely dismembered due to ocean acidification creeping into this section of the Florida Reef. Image source: Science Daily.)

Until recently, the threat of ocean acidification to reef systems was still thought to be at least a couple of decades off. And many mainstream scientists believed that acidification would not seriously threaten corals until the 2050s. Unfortunately, a new study has found that the United States’ only large reef — stretching from Biscayne Bay to the Looe Key National Marine Sanctuary in the Atlantic Ocean — is now starting to waste away due to ocean acidification. A surprising event that researchers are saying is disturbing, unprecedented, and unexpectedly soon.

According to a recent article in National Geographic:

University of Miami scientists called the collapse of the reef’s limestone framework, a critical habitat for fish, “unprecedented” and “cause for alarm.” “Lots of scientists think that ocean acidification is not going to be a problem until 2050 or 2060,” says Chris Langdon, a marine biology professor at the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science. “This is happening now. We’ve just lost 35 years we thought we had to turn things around.”

In essence, the reef is wasting away. During the Spring and Summer, reef-building corals bloom and produce the calcium carbonate (limestone) structure that is the body of the Florida Reef. During Fall and Winter, however, reef building activity halts and the newly acidified water begins to take limestone away. The study found that the rate of loss now exceeds the rate of gain. The corals aren’t able to keep up, the reef has reached a tipping point, and the limestone structures the corals rely on for life is dissolving.

The Florida Reef is one of the highest Latitude coral reef structures in the world. But if it is starting to succumb to ocean acidification now, it means the progress of the acidification front is presently, during 2016, starting to enter regions the corals inhabit. If fossil fuel burning continues and atmospheric CO2 concentrations — this year peaking at around 408 parts per million at the Mauna Loa Observatory — continue to rise, it won’t be long before a growing portion of the world’s reefs begin to succumb to effects similar to those now destroying the Florida Reef.

And while coral bleaching is a condition that reefs have at least some chance to recover from, acidification is inevitably lethal. Once a certain oceanic carbon concentration is reached, acidification impacts the reef for 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, robbing it of the very skeletal structures necessary for coral survival. And since about 1/4 of all the fish in all the world’s oceans (not just the large, predatory fish we eat) rely on coral reef systems for their own life-giving habitats, the loss of coral reefs would truly be a disaster of biblical proportion.

Hot Pacific Ocean Runs Bloody off the Coast of Chile

Back during March, another lethal ocean condition associated with a warming of the world’s waters began to appear in the ocean zone off the southern coast of Chile. There, a massive algae bloom spread over a region where sea surface temperatures were ranging between 1 and 3 C hotter than normal.

Chile Sea Surface Temperatures

(Abnormally warm sea surface temperatures driven by human forced climate change sparked a the largest red tide ever witnessed off the coast of Chile. The image above shows sea surface temperature anomalies as recorded in late March of 2016 by Earth Nullschool.)

The algae bloom — called a red tide — generated toxic levels of domoic acid that subsequently killed off massive amounts of clams, fish, and even marine mammals. Beaches across Chile were littered with dead sea creatures and Chilean officials are now saying that the current red tide is the worst ever to occur off Chile.

The red tide forced Chilean officials to ground the nation’s fishing fleets — sparking mass riots and protests as thousands of poor fishermen lost access to their means of generating a livelihood. The Chilean government has since offered 150 million dollars in aid to the fishermen. But locals say it’s not enough to make ends meet. The severe blow to the fishing industry, which makes up 0.5 percent of Chile’s GDP, will also negatively effect the Chilean economy. This severe red tide has lasted for months now. But recent reports indicate that the bloom is growing larger as more and more sea life succumbs.

As has been the trend with most major media sources this year, El Nino has been linked by BBC and others to this record red tide. But doing so is short-sighted and fails to take into account the larger context of the global climate picture. Warm ocean waters are well known to generate conditions favorable for red tide development. The warmer waters favor a more rapid rate of algae reproduction and allow algae access to a greater range of food sources. Over the past Century, the world has warmed by more than 1 C above preindustrial levels. And this year is the hottest on record — not due to El Nino, but due to a century-long increase in temperatures exploring a new threshold of extreme global heat.

The seas turn red off Chile

(An algae bloom spurred by global warming is turning the waters off Chile blood-red. Poisonous domoic acid and mass fish and sea life killings resulting from this event are wrecking Chile’s fishing industry, ruining the lives of poor fishermen, and damaging Chile’s economy. Image source: Lethal Red Tide.)

In the Northeast Pacific, this record global heat forced waters there to new extremes — setting off a 2015 record red tide together with a chain of related mass mortality events affecting ocean life. An event that is linked, by ocean warming and climate change, to the largest ever red tide in Chile. One that is also linked, by climate change, to the terrible damage inflicted upon the Great Barrier Reef this year due to coral bleaching. One that is linked to ocean acidification now starting to take down the Florida Reef. And since we are taking a moment to engage in establishing links in a chain of evidence, we can draw one last link from all these events to the ongoing fossil fuel emission that is still being vomited into the world’s airs by an industry that is, itself, nothing more than a means for some of the world’s richest people to continue to increase their amount of individually accumulated wealth.

Ultimately, it’s pretty clear that people all over the world have a crucial choice to make —

What’s more important? The ability of a few people to grow their wealth through the continued burning of fossil fuels? Or the preservation of the vitality of the oceans which all life on Earth ultimately depends upon and the prevention of the warming that will transform the life-giving waters into Killer Seas?

To this point, I’ll leave you with the end-note of the recent National Geographic article on corals succumbing to ocean acidification:

“The only way to prevent that is to prevent the build-up of CO2 in the atmosphere.”

Links:

Ocean Acidification Impacting Reefs in the Florida Keys

Predatory Fish Have Declined by Two-Thirds

A Death of Beauty

The Pope’s Encyclical

Awakening the Horrors of the Ancient Hothouse

Chile’s Red Tide Outbreak Widens

Lethal Red Tide

Hot Pacific Ocean Runs Bloody

Warren Buffet’s Disaster Capitalism

Still Disinforming — Exxon Mobile’s Continued Culpability in Climate Change Denial

Earth Nullschool

There are So Many Things Wrong With This

Hat tip to Colorado Bob

NCAR: Global Temperature Increase To Lower Oxygen Content of Most Ocean Zones by the 2030s

A reduction in the amount of oxygen dissolved in the oceans due to climate change is already discernible in some parts of the world and should be evident across large regions of the oceans between 2030 and 2040. — The National Center for Atmospheric Research in a press release on April 27th.

*****

Loss of oxygen in the world’s oceans. It’s one of those really, really bad effects of a human-forced warming of our Earth. One of the those climate monsters in the closet that Steve Pacala talks about. The kind of thing we really don’t want to set loose.

Deoxygenated Oceans as Major Killing Mechanism During Hothouse Extinctions

The damage caused by ocean oxygen loss is multi-variant and wide-ranging. The most obvious harm comes in the form of generating environments in which oxygen-dependent life in the oceans can no longer breathe. Any living creature that filters oxygen out of the water for respiration falls under threat due to lowered ocean oxygen levels. A group that includes pretty much all the advanced, multi-cellular life in the seas.

A press statement from the new NCAR study notes:

Scientists know that a warming climate can be expected to gradually sap the ocean of oxygen, leaving fish, crabs, squid, sea stars, and other marine life struggling to breathe.

namibia-hydrogen-sulfide-emission-2007

(Hydrogen sulfide producing bacteria blooms off the coast of Namibia during 2007. Hydrogen sulfide is a highly toxic gas. One that is produced by microbes that live in waters containing little or no oxygen. Image source: Earth Observatory.)

But a second, less immediately obvious hit comes in the form of generating expanding anoxic environments that favor the proliferation of toxin-producing microbes. Called dead zones, these oxygen-poor regions not only provide a suffocation threat to sea life, but they also form areas of water in which environmental toxins can build up. The result is a long-lasting negative impact to the health of life in the ocean and, in the most extreme cases, on land and in the airs as well.

The worst of these toxin-generating microbes are the hydrogen-sulfide producing bacteria. An ancient organism that is incompatible with oxygen-dependent life. A horror out of deep time that has tended to crop up again and again on the list of usual suspects of major hothouse extinction killers. A likely perpetrator of the big ocean and land die offs during pretty much all global warming based extinctions. An organism that dominated the world’s seas and likely vented its deadly gasses into the airs of the world of the Permian — during the worst die-off Earth has ever seen.

In short, hydrogen sulfide is deadly to almost all forms of life that currently dominate the world’s oceans, lands, and airs. And the bacteria that produces hydrogen sulfide requires oxygen-poor environments in which to grow and thrive. A world ocean high in oxygen keeps these little killers hidden away in the deep, dark corners of our Earth. But heat the world ocean up. Deprive it of oxygen. And they start to come out and become a threat (see more in Awakening the Horrors of the Ancient Hothouse).

Oxygen Loss to Become Widespread by the 2030s

Already today we see regions of the world ocean that are experiencing oxygen loss. Some of this oxygen loss is due to a process called eutrophication. In eutrophication, nutrients overload the ecosystems of water-based environments. As nutrient content rises, large bacterial blooms emerge. Eventually, these blooms overpopulate the waters and devour all the food sources. When the microbes then die en masse, their decay robs the surrounding waters of oxygen — generating a dead zone.

Eutrophication has been sapping the world’s oceans of oxygen over wider and wider regions due to both agricultural run-off (fertilizers and top soils flushed into rivers, lakes and oceans that feed large microbial blooms and related dead zones) and due to nitrogen fall out from fossil fuel burning. But human forced global warming also plays a key roll in the loss of oxygen to the world ocean system.

Ocean Deoxygenation Map

(According to a new study from NCAR, ocean oxygen levels are already starting to fall in some regions due to global warming. If warming continues, NCAR finds that most of the world’s oceans will experience some level of oxygen loss due to this warming and due to a related increased stratification of surface waters. Image source: NCAR.)

The new NCAR study provides an excellent description of how warming the world’s surface waters can reduce ocean oxygen levels:

The entire ocean—from the depths to the shallows—gets its oxygen supply from the surface, either directly from the atmosphere or from phytoplankton, which release oxygen into the water through photosynthesis. Warming surface waters, however, absorb less oxygen. And in a double whammy, the oxygen that is absorbed has a more difficult time traveling deeper into the ocean. That’s because as water heats up, it expands, becoming lighter than the water below it and less likely to sink.

Waters that are less likely to sink are less likely to mix. And waters that are less likely to mix transfer less of the atmosphere’s oxygen to the global ocean. It’s a process called ocean stratification. A set of circumstances triggered by warming that can sap the world’s waters of their ability to support life even as it enhances their ability to generate environments favorable to toxin-producing microbes. And in the absolute worst cases, a stratified, oxygen-deprived ocean can transition into a dead, life-on-Earth-threatening Canfield Ocean.

Mobile Ocean Dead Zone

(Mobile ocean dead zones, like this one seen off the West African Coast during 2015, may grow more widespread as the world’s surface waters are depleted of oxygen due to a fossil fuel emission based warming. A new study from NCAR both explains how warming waters can hold less oxygen and notes that loss of oxygen to ocean surface waters becomes very widespread by the 2030s. Image source: Biogeosciences.)

In the NCAR study, which is well worth reading in full, scientists used model runs to determine when and where climate change would start to deprive the world ocean system of oxygen. The study found that regions off the coast of West Africa, regions west of South America, an area to the west of Australia, and a section of the Beaufort Sea were already experiencing lower levels of ocean oxygen due to global warming. West African seas were the first and hardest hit by warming in the models. This is interesting due to the fact that Namibia on the West Coast of Africa is one of the only regions of the world now observed to experience blooms of hydrogen sulfide producing bacteria that extend into the surface waters. West African waters have also generated a number of mobile, low-oxygen dead zones that have spiraled on off into the North Atlantic.

The fact that the NCAR study indicates that global warming has already reduced ocean oxygen levels in a region that is producing both dead zones and, in the case of Nambia, periods during which hydrogen sulfide producing bacteria appear at the surface, is cause for some concern. For by the 2030s, the NCAR model study indicates that global warming will be actively reducing ocean oxygen levels across the vast majority of the North Pacific, a majority of the South Pacific, most of the South Atlantic, and pretty much all of the Indian Ocean region covered in the new research. This raises the risk that open water dead zones like the ones seen off Africa and even hydrogen sulfide producing hot spots like Nambia may begin to creep into other regions of the world ocean — generating further threats to sea life, to fishing industry, and to human beings who depend on healthy oceans for livelihood and for life.

Links:

Widespread Loss of Ocean Oxygen (due to Climate Change) to Become Noticeable by the 2030s

Steve Pacala

Earth Observatory

Awakening the Horrors of the Ancient Hothouse

Biogeosciences

Mobile Ocean Dead Zones

Eutrophication

Ocean Stratification

Canfield Ocean

Hat Tip to Colorado Bob

Hat Tip to June

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

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.

*  *  *  *  *

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

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

Hot Pacific Ocean Runs Bloody — Blob Now Features Record Red Tide

Red Tide. It’s what happens when massive algae blooms cover vast regions of ocean.

The biological density of the blooms is so great that they can paint the waters affected a shade of brown or red. A bloody color indicative of clouds of dangerous microbes just beneath the surface. And today, a massive Red Tide — perhaps the largest ever recorded — now stretches from California to Alaska along a vast stretch of the North American West Coast already reeling under the ongoing and dangerous impact of a massive ocean heating event that researchers have called ‘The Blob.’

Red Tide

(A Red Tide can paint the ocean in bloody shades as seen in the image above. It’s also bad news for many marine species — first due to production of deadly biotoxins and second due to its ability to rob ocean waters of oxygen as the bloom dies off and decays. Image source: Wind’s Sustainability Blog.)

A Red Tide has numerous impacts to both marine life and human industry. Microbes within the tide produce biotoxins that are deadly to marine species. Domoic acid, PSP and DSP are all toxins that have been identified during the current Red Tide event. The toxins primarily affect fish and marine mammals — risking mass fish and dolphin, sea lion, seal, otter, and whale deaths during widespread blooms. The toxins concentrate as they move up the food chain, making them most dangerous to top predators. Primary effects of the most lethal toxins are convulsions and paralysis. Other toxins cause nausea, cramps and diarrhea.

Human beings are also at risk and for this reason crab and shellfish fisheries all up and down the US West Coast are being closed. Impacts are so widespread marine ecologists like Vera Trainer, manager of the Marine Microbes and Toxins Programs at the Northwest Fisheries Science Center in Seattle, are calling the event unpredented:

“The fact that we’re seeing multiple toxins at the same time, we’re seeing high levels of domoic acid, and we’re seeing a coastwide bloom — those are indications that this is unprecedented.”

Global Warming, Hot Blob — Prime Suspects

Scientists currently suspect extreme Northeastern Pacific Ocean heat led to the sudden appearance of Red Tide this week — a combination of warm and nutrient rich waters are well known to be the key ingredients for Red Tide formation. Ingredients that are increasingly prevalent due to human fossil fuel burning. Ingredients that are increasingly evident in the Northeastern Pacific. In short the burning of fossil fuels both warms the atmosphere and ocean even as it seeds the surface water with nitrogen. The warm water is a preferred environment for the microbes that form the Red Tide and the nitrogen — both as a constant rain from the sky due to fossil fuel emission and as effluent from streams due to farm runoff — essentially fertilizes the bloom.

It is for these reasons that many scientists suspect the hot Blob of water in the Northeastern Pacific has played a role in the formation of the current unprecedented Red Tide.

image

(The Northeastern Pacific hot Blob now features a dangerous Red Tide — perhaps the largest and most toxin laden Red Tide ever seen. Image source: Earth Nullschool.)

Warming the world ocean through human carbon emissions is thus a very dangerous consequence. Now, more and more regions are featuring hot zones that are increasingly deadly to sea life. This region of the Northeast Pacific in particular has seen a number of instances of mass ocean creature death due to impacts associated with warming waters. The recent Red Tide being the last of a long chain including a mass starfish die-off, fish kills, bird kills, and marine mammal deaths and disruption — including a winter and spring emergence of crowds of starving sea lion pups along California beaches.

Next Step — Anoxia, Possible Hydrogen Sulfide Issue

This particular Red Tide is still in its early stages. It could last for weeks. But as it reaches its last days, the mass production of microbial life will rob the ocean surface of the nutrients necessary to sustain it. As this happens, the microbes will experience a sudden die-off. The mass of dead microbes will then sink and decay. This decay will further rob already de-oxygenated waters, particularly off Washington and Seattle, of still more oxygen. So the final act of this particular Red Tide will be to make a bad ocean water oxygen situation in many of the affected regions even worse (in the worst case potentially setting some zones up for an ugly deep water hydrogen sulfide production).

Links:

Toxic Algae Bloom May be the Largest Ever

Huge Bloom of Toxic Algae Hits US West Coast

NOAA (Please Support!)

Sea Lion Sickness

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

Starving Sea Lion Pups and Liquified Starfish How Human Warming is Turning The Eastern Pacific Into a Death Trap for Marine Species

Hat Tip to Andy in San Diego

Large Algae Bloom Still Ongoing As Toledo Officials Declare Water Safe to Drink

 

Algae bloom Lake Eerie

(Large algae bloom still visible in Lake Erie satellite shot on August 4, 2014. Image source: LANCE-MODIS.)

Warming, more toxic waters. It’s a problem directly driven by human-caused climate change. And for Toledo, Ohio, this weekend, it’s a reality that was starkly driven home as water services to half a million residents were suddenly shut off. There, in the waters of Lake Erie, a massive bloom of freshwater cyanobacteria pumped out enough poison to put human health at risk and force Ohio officials to declare a state of emergency.

Emerging Threat to Public Health

In Northern Ohio, water safety officials have been nervously testing Lake Erie supplies for many years now. Microbial blooms in western Lake Eerie were on the rise and the worry was that the new blooms may pose a future health threat as both climate change and agricultural run-off intensified.

By 2011, the wettest summer on record and warm waters in Lake Erie helped trigger a major outbreak of cyanobacteria blooms which ultimately resulted in more than 10 billion dollars in damage due to fouled waters, toxic beaches, and losses to the fishing and tourism industries of Lake Erie’s bordering states. Last year, a massive bloom caused some small northern Ohio towns to temporarily cut off water supplies. By last weekend, the entire water supply of Toledo, Ohio was under threat from the microbe-produced toxin called microcystin.

Water Poisoning by Microbes

Microcystin is a potent toxin produced by the small-celled, fresh water cyanobacteria. The substance is unsafe at levels greater than 1 part per billion in drinking water (according to the World Health Organization). Consumption of the toxin results in headaches, nausea and vomiting. Microcystin is directly toxic to the liver with exposure resulting in severe damage. It also results in damage to the digestive system and low levels of exposure have been linked in studies to various forms of abdominal cancer.

Since the toxin is a chemical that has already been produced by bacteria, usual sanitation methods, such as boiling water, are ineffective and may even help to concentrate the poison, making it more potent. So the toxin must be prevented from entering the water supply at the source — which can be difficult if much of the water source is contaminated, as is the case with Lake Erie.

A Threat Driven By Climate Change and Human Activity

As waters warm, they host larger and larger blooms of cyanobacteria harmful to animal life, including humans. The microbes thrive in warm, nutrient-rich water. And under climate change waters both warm even as runoff in certain regions increases due to more frequent bursts of heavy rainfall. This has especially been the case for the central and north central sections of the US, this year, which have suffered extensive and frequent downpours together with record hourly and daily rainfall totals in many areas.

The deluges flush nutrients down streams and into major bodies of water. The water, warmed by human-caused climate change, are already a haven for the cyanobacteria. So the blooms come to dominate surface waters. In addition, the runoff contains added nutrients due to large amounts of phosphorus and other agriculture-based fertilizers. It’s a combination that really gives these dangerous microbes a boost. Under such conditions, the massive resulting blooms can turn the surface lake water into green sludge.

Dead Zones, Anoxic Waters

Lake Erie algal blooms, August 2011

(Green cyanobacteria in Lake Erie during the large algae bloom of 2013. Image source: University of Michigan.)

Eventually, the cyanobacteria leech the surface waters of nutrients and begin to die out. As they do, they undergo decay which strips oxygen from the waters. Through this process, dangerous, anoxic dead zones radiate from areas previously dominated by large cyanobacteria blooms. The dead zone and toxin producing bacteria often result in large-scale fish kills and the wide-scale fouling of waters that can be so damaging to various industries. However, the dead zones themselves are havens for other toxic microbes — the hydrogen sulfide producing kind.

Water is Declared Safe — Information Still Unavailable to the Public

Today, water safety officials lifted the ban on water use for Toledo, claiming that water was now safe to use and drink after the water system was properly flushed. Officials apparently conducted six tests to confirm water supply safety but have not yet made results public. Personnel with the EPA unofficially stated that microcystin levels were at 3 parts per billion on the day the water was declared unsafe but that water was now safe for residents.

The declaration was met with widespread criticism due to the fact that data on water testing was not made publicly available, reducing confidence in the safety officials’ assertions and causing many residents to question their veracity. State and city water officials say they plan to post the data on their website, but have yet to confirm a time.

Meanwhile, the large cyanobacteria bloom is still ongoing. Experts expect the bloom to peak sometime in mid September and then begin to recede with the advent of fall and cooler weather. With more than a month and a half still to go, Lake Erie water troubles may just be starting to ramp up.

Links:

Toledo Water Ban Lifted, Results Kept Secret

Don’t Drink the Water

LANCE-MODIS

University of Michigan

Spring Rain, Foul Algae in Ailing Lake Eerie

Toxins in Water Lead to State of Emergency

 

2013 4th Hottest Year on Record, Deep Ocean Warming Fastest, NASA, NOAA Find No Pause in Long-Term Warming Trend

2013 4th Hottest On Record

(Global temperature anomalies for 2013. Image source: NOAA)

With the readings coming in for 2013 — atmosphere, ocean surface and the deep ocean — it becomes increasingly obvious that anyone saying planetary warming has slowed down is clearly misinformed.

Criticisms of the misinformed aside, according to reports from NOAA’s National Climate Data Center, 2013 was the world’s 4th hottest on record since temperature measures began in 1880. All this despite ENSO conditions remaining neutral in the Eastern Pacific and deep ocean heat content continuing to rapidly rise while sucking a portion of that heat out of the atmosphere.

The NCDC measure found numerous regions in which temperatures were the hottest ever recorded including a large swath of Australia, a broad stretch of the Pacific Ocean adjacent to New Guinea and the Philippines, an area larger than Texas at the heart of the Asian Continent, and multiple other locations ranging from south of Svalbard to East Africa to the Indian Ocean to the Northern and Southern Pacific. Aside from these record hot zones, over 70 percent of the land and ocean surface measured came up either hotter than average or much hotter than average while 28% of the globe experienced average temperatures and less than 2% of the Earth’s surface experienced cooler than average temperatures.

Notably, no regions of the globe saw record coldest temperatures and the only zone coming up cooler than normal cropped up in the Southern Ocean just north of Antarctica.

NASA found 2013 to be the 7th hottest on record and the 2nd hottest non El Nino year on record.

Helpfully, NASA also put together a graph of global temperature averages as measured since 1950 showing that atmospheric warming has continued unabated despite much false and inaccurate press coverage of a ‘global warming hiatus.’

gistemp_nino_s

(GISS temperature measurements with trend lines for El Nino, La Nina and all years. It’s worth noting that this temperature graph indicates no pause in warming since 1950. Instead, what we see are inexorable global surface temperature increases. Image source: NASA GISS)

Deep Ocean Warming Measures Far More Dire

Recent news reports have also falsely claimed that more heat going into the deep ocean, as measured by NASA, NOAA, the Trenberth study, and others, is an indication of lowered global climate sensitivity. To the contrary, a warming ocean contains two very dire consequences that, if set into play, could both enhance warming, and create an ecological nightmare for first the oceans and finally the surface world.

The first, a growing risk of subsea methane release, is greatly enhanced by a rapidly warming ocean. We have covered the risks and consequences of methane release (both seabed and terrestrial methane) in numerous posts over the past year. For your convenience I’ve linked them below. But, suffice it to say that a warming ocean puts at risk the more rapid release of hundreds of gigatons of methane, an amount that could greatly amplify the already powerful and ongoing signal of human warming. More worrisome, initial indications show that at least some of this methane is already destabilized and venting into the world ocean system and atmosphere.

The second consequence involves growing ocean hypoxia and anoxia as the oceans warm, become more stratified and as major ocean current systems are disrupted and altered. Growing ocean hypoxia and anoxia results in, among other terrible impacts, ocean sea bottoms that are less and less able to support a diversity of life and that, more and more, come to support dangerous hydrogen sulfide producing bacteria.

A third consequence includes the basal melting of ocean contacting ice sheets. Such melting has already destabilized the massive Pine Island Glacier which, according to a recent scientific study, is on the path to an inevitable collapse into the Southern Ocean.

Yet, according to these excellent graphs produced by Larry Hamilton for The Arctic Ice Blog, world ocean heat content has been rising by leaps and bounds over the past few years, especially in the deep ocean where warming puts at risk the most dangerous of outcomes — methane release and anoxia.

OHC_7an

OHC_2an

(Image source: L Hamilton. Image data: NOAA. Produced for The Arctic Ice Blog. Note the extraordinarily steep slope indicating deep ocean warming since 1985.)

The top graph shows ocean heat content increases in the first 700 meters of ocean water. The bottom graph shows ocean heat content in the first 2000 meters of ocean water. Note that ocean heat content gains for the deep ocean (2000 meter graph) are more rapid by 25% than heat content gains in the shallower ocean. Meanwhile, both graphs show a very rapid accumulation of heat, especially through recent years during which the so-called global warming hiatus was in effect.

If we could find a place to put the majority of heat from human-caused climate change, the deep ocean would be the last place any sane ecologist would look. Warming the deep ocean is a worst-case disaster in the making. It puts added stress on methane hydrate stores and it pushes the very dangerous consequences of ocean stratification and anoxia along at a much more rapid pace.

These are not optimistic measures. In my view, this is much closer to an absolute worst case.

Mixed Outlook for 2014

Early indications for 2014 show an increased chance of La Nina for the first three months of the year. That said, ocean surface heat in the Eastern equatorial Pacific appears to be on the rise, especially in areas closest to coastal South America.

sst.daily.anom

(Image source: NOAA)

Should ENSO tip the scale to El Nino, it is almost certain we will see a hottest year on record for surface temperatures during 2014. Should conditions remain neutral or tip to La Nina, we’ll still likely experience a top ten hottest year on record (atmosphere) even as ever more heat is transferred to the deep ocean.

Links:

NASA Finds 2013 Sustained Long-Term Warming Trend

National Climate Data Center Global Analysis

Larry Hamilton CA The Arctic Ice Blog

The Arctic Methane Monster Continues its Ominous Rumbling

Arctic Methane Monster Shortens Tail

The Arctic Methane Monster Stirs

Through the Looking Glass of the Great Dying

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

Warming Ocean, Upwelling to Make an End to Pine Island Glacier

Hat Tip to Colorado Bob

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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

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