The Glowing Waters of the Arabian Sea are Killing off Ocean Life

“The fish are migrating. They can’t get enough air here.” — Saleh al-Mashari, captain of a researcher vessel in the Gulf of Oman

*****

They are an ancient, primordial race of tiny organisms called noctiluca scintillans. And for millenia they have lived undisturbed in the deep waters between Oman and India. But as human fossil fuel burning forced the world to warm, this 1.2 billion year old species was dredged up from the deep.

Growing atmospheric and ocean heat fed the great storms that make up India’s southern monsoon. And as these storms intensified, they churned the waters of the Gulf of Oman, drawing the ancient noctiluca scintillans up from below. As these dinoflaggelates reached the surface they encountered more food in the form of plankton even as they gained access to more sunlight. Meanwhile, the strengthening monsoons seeded surface waters with nutrients flushed down rivers and streams and into the ocean.

(Noctiluca blooms have become a common feature of the Gulf of Oman and the Arabian Sea. They have also recently appeared off New Zealand, Tasmania, and Hong Kong. Such blooms are a result of warmer waters, more intense storms, related increasing rates of soil nutrients flushing into the oceans due to more intense rainfall events, and other conditions consistent with human-caused climate change. Image source: FaHaD.)

In this newly favorable environment, noctiluca subsequently bloomed. Covering the ocean in a green mat by day and an oddly iridescent blue when disturbed by the waves at night.

Phytoplankton are the base of the marine food chain and noctiluca has been voraciously devouring this key nutrient source over a Mexico-sized stretch of ocean water during recent years. As the noctiluca blooms expanded, they emitted toxins and an ammonia smell that some in the region are calling sea stench. And as the great mats died and decayed, they have robbed the surrounding waters of oxygen.

As a result, mass fish kills have been reported and much of the local sea life has fled the region.

March 2, 2017, image from the NASA MODIS satellite,  shows a mass of noctiluca scintillans blooms in the Arabian Sea off the coast of Oman extending past Pakistan to India.  (Image source: NASA and USGS, via AP)

Earth’s environment usually changes slowly, over the course of thousands or tens of thousands of years. In the past, this has given life a chance to adjust. But the human-caused climate change that is spurring the massive noctiluca blooms in the Arabian Sea is bringing on these new conditions over the mere course of a few decades. Thirty years ago, there was no visible trace of noctiluca in the waters of the Gulf of Oman and Arabian Sea. Now, they have come to dominate.

The oceans beneath the noctiluca mats are now increasingly robbed of life. Oxygen levels are plummeting. The fish can’t breathe there. And one wonders if or when a dangerous and deadly follow-on of hydrogen sulfide producing microbes will begin to spread up from the bottom regions of these oxygen starved waters.

Links:

Growing Algae Bloom in the Arabian Sea Tied to Climate Change

FaHaD

Noctiluca Scintillans

NASA

Hydrogen Sulfide in the World’s Warming Waters

Hat tip to Andy in San Diego

Hat tip to Mulga

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New Report: ‘Blowtorch’-Like Ocean Warming Advances Killer Seas, Shifts El Nino, Heats Hydrates

Tampering can be dangerous. Nature can be vengeful. We should have a great deal of respect for the planet on which we live. — Carl-Gustaf Rossby

But as the [IUCN] study points out, 90% of the extra heat that our greenhouse gases trap is actually absorbed by the oceans. That means that the upper few meters of the sea have been steadily warming more than a tenth of a degree celsius per decade, a figure that’s accelerating. When you think of the volume of water that represents, and then try to imagine the energy necessary to raise its temperature, you get an idea of the blowtorch that our civilization has become. — Bill McKibben

The scale of ocean warming is truly staggering with the numbers so large that it is difficult for most people to comprehend. — from the IUCN report Explaining Ocean Warming: Causes, scale, effects and consequences

*****

If there’s one simple fact about past Earth climates that should keep you awake at night, it’s this — warming the world ocean eventually produces a killing mechanism that is unrivaled by any other in Earth’s deep past. Great asteroids, gamma-ray bursters, earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanism — none of these can rival the vast damage to life on planet Earth that is resulting from ocean warming.

As a study of the sciences, this assertion would be merely an academic one if the human race weren’t now involved in a great injection of an unprecedented volume of greenhouse gasses into the Earth’s airs. As a critical new ocean report from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) points out, these gasses are trapping an extraordinary amount of heat at the top of the world’s atmosphere. In turn, the atmosphere is transferring the lion’s share of this heat — more than 90 percent — into the waters of our world.

The Extreme Amount of Heat Energy Piling up in Our Warming Ocean

As a result, the surface of the world ocean is warming by 0.1 degree Celsius per decade. That may not sound like much, but it takes about four times the amount of energy to warm one gram of water by 0.1 C as it does one gram of air. This property, called specific heat, is a defining aspect of water. Water has the highest specific heat of any common substance.

heat-accumulation-human-forced-zillions-of-joules

(Since the 1970s, about 300 zettajoules’ (ZJ) worth of heat energy has accumulated in the Earth System due to fossil-fuel burning and related greenhouse gas emissions. That’s about 5 Hiroshima bombs worth of heat accumulating every second. Most of that energy has gone into the world’s oceans. So much heat is bound to have consequences, and these impacts are starting to show up in the form of declining ocean health, melting sea ice and glaciers, shifting climate zones and weather patterns, worsening droughts and storms, and threats of Earth System carbon feedbacks. Image source: Explaining Ocean Warming.)

Liquid water is also far denser than air. And this density generates an even higher impact heat energy transfer multiplier. So not only does it take four times more energy to warm a similar weight of water vs air, once warmed, that water contains that higher level of specific heat energy in a much more tightly concentrated package. And when that high heat concentration liquid water comes into contact with other substances — like ice in the form of ocean contact, or air in the form of evaporation, or frozen hydrates on the sea bed — it can pack a serious heat punch.

The vast volume of water in our oceans, therefore, serves as a kind of heat and energy regulator. It takes a lot of energy to warm it up, but once it does, serious environmental changes start to happen as a result. In other words, the temperature of the global ocean could be viewed as the point on which the whole of the Earth climate system pivots. Once the oceans are set in thermal motion, serious changes to the rest of the world are going to take place. To get an idea how much energy the oceans now contain, of how much potential they now have to dramatically alter our world, consider that if these vast waters were not present, the atmosphere now would have already warmed by 36 degrees C due to the heat-trapping effect of greenhouse gasses already in our atmosphere.

Fossil-fuel blowtorch indeed.

Heating Seas Ultimately Become Killer Seas

There’s a starker message to convey here, one that focuses on this simple yet dire question — how do warming oceans kill? In basic terms, they become toxic and anoxic. Warming oceans melt ocean-contacting glaciers. The glacial melt forces seas to rise and forms a freshwater lid on the global ocean, breaking down ocean conveyor belts and preventing mixing. This freshwater lid also deflects heat toward the ocean bottom. This process in turn helps to thaw methane hydrates. Warm waters that don’t mix and that are filled with bubbling hydrates become very oxygen-poor.

barents-algae-bloom

(Massive algae bloom covers tens of thousands of square miles of open water in the Barents Sea during August of 2016. As glaciers melt, oceans stratify and warm; as water oxygen levels drop, and as hydrates vent due to warming, such blooms result in significant reductions to ocean health and a related global mass-extinction threat. Image source: LANCE MODIS.)

As the land glaciers bleed out into the oceans, the stratified, oxygen-deprived waters become less and less able to support advanced life. The kinds of life warm, oxygen-deprived waters do support are poison-producing microbes. These microbes thrive in the warm, oxygen-poor waters. If ocean heating continues to progress, the warming seas will eventually fill up with their deadly byproducts. Among the most nasty of these is hydrogen sulfide. If enough of it is produced, it will spill out from the ocean into the nearby air, resulting in land animal mortality as well.

In microcosm, we saw a mild taste of some of these effects this past year in Florida as toxic algae blooms filled the warming state’s waterways and coastlines, even forcing some riverside marinas to close due to toxic gasses wafting up from the purple-green, oxygen-starved waters. These effects are a snapshot of a possible future for Earth’s oceans if we don’t get our act together yesterday.

El Niño Shifted, Ocean Hydrates Threatened

As alluded to earlier in this post, a new report, Explaining Ocean Warming, provides some pretty hard evidence that the oceans are on the move toward a much more harmful global climate state. The study, which has rightly received a great deal of media attention, issues a ‘shot across the bow’ warning to pretty much everyone living today. And it finds serious impacts to the ocean and linked climate systems due to a very rapid human-forced global warming.

These hard findings are worth reading directly:

  1. Sea-surface temperature, ocean heat content, sea-level rise, melting of glaciers and ice sheets, CO2 emissions and atmospheric concentrations are increasing at an accelerating rate with significant consequences for humanity and the marine species and ecosystems of the ocean.
  2. There is likely to be an increase in mean global ocean temperature of 1-4 degrees C by 2100. The greatest ocean warming overall is occurring in the Southern Hemisphere and is contributing to the subsurface melting of Antarctic ice shelves. Since the 1990s the atmosphere in the polar regions has been warming at about twice the average rate of global warming.
  3. There is likely to be Arctic warming and ice loss, and possibly the essential removal, in some years, of the summer Arctic sea ice within the next few decades.
  4. Over the last 20 years there has been an intensification and distinct change in the El Niño events, with a shift of the mean location of sea-surface temperature anomalies towards the central Pacific.
  5. Currently 2.5 Gt of frozen methane hydrate are stored in the sea floor at water depths of 200 to 2000 m. Increasing water temperature could release this source of carbon into the ocean and ultimately into the atmosphere.

These are all Earth-shattering scientific statements. For those who frequent this blog, points 1 through 3 are probably pretty familiar. The last two, however, require more in-depth explanation.

global-warming-el-nino

(Some scientific studies have pointed out that warming the world ocean will result in a shift of El Niño toward the central Pacific. A new ocean report finds that it’s already happening. Image source: Global Warming May Dent El Niño’s Protective Hurricane Shield, Increase Droughts.)

For a long time now, scientists have believed that El Niño wouldn’t be affected by climate change until the end of this century. But as with sea ice, it appears that such impacts may well be advancing faster than expected. As we’ve alluded to here, there’s been an apparent shift in El Niño toward the central Pacific over recent decades. This may well be a climate change-related shift. The fact that the IUCN report highlights this change is a sign that the broader sciences are starting to tackle the notion of early alterations to El Niño due to climate change as well.

However, the most ominous language here centers around methane hydrate. For years, there’s been adamant push-back against potential risks to hydrates coming from well-respected sections of the climate sciences. Nonetheless, those downplaying the threat of warming to hydrates have yet to produce any conclusive proof as to why warming the ocean bottom and applying heat to hydrates won’t result in at least some feedback from these carbon stores (especially under the higher-range warming scenarios). The IUCN report reiterates this risk by identifying 2.5 billion tons of frozen seabed methane at shallow and mid-ocean depths that will ultimately be exposed to warming — risking both an ocean and an atmospheric release.

These last points serve to underline some pretty basic facts, the chief of which is that pushing Nature, and heating up her life-blood world ocean waters, is a very, very dangerous game. And if this poignant new report sends any message at all it could simply boil down to this — turn back before it’s too late.

Links:

IUCN Report: Explaining Ocean Warming

Specific Heat

Ocean Warming

Awakening the Horrors of the Ancient Hothouse

LANCE MODIS

Slimy Green Algae Invades Florida

The oceans are heating up. That’s a big problem on a blue planet.

Global Warming May Dent El Niño’s Protective Hurricane Shield, Increase Droughts

Hat tip to Cate

Hat tip to George Hayduke

El Nino is Basically Over — But this Global Coral Bleaching Event Just Won’t End

Back in 2014, an unsuspecting world was on the verge of a major global temperature increase. But despite warnings from scientists like Dr. Kevin Trenberth that deep ocean warming had sped up and would eventually result in rapid surface warming, the big media meme at the time was that global warming had ‘paused.’ Originating in The Economist, and swiftly spreading to numerous other news outlets, this particular blast of bad information fed the public a big helping of false sense of security.

In 2014 through 2016, maximum global temperatures jumped from around 0.65 degrees Celsius to around 1 C above the 20th-century average. In just three years’ time, the whole of the Earth’s surface had warmed by about 0.35 C. This is like cramming all of the warming from 1880 to 1980 into the three-year 2014-to-2016 period. Never before in all of the global climate record starting in the late 19th century has the Earth warmed so much in so short a time.

Leaving 20th Century Climate Behind

(Huge jump in global temperatures over the past three years has probably passed a number of climate thresholds — including temperature thresholds for key sea creatures like corals. Data Source: NOAA. Image source: Mashable.)

Global warming hadn’t paused at all. It was just getting ready to hit the accelerator.

Global Heat Spurs Bleaching, Mass Coral Mortality

All this newly-added surface heat represents a big step up into much warmer conditions for the global climate. What this means is that even the coolest months now will probably approximate the warmest months during the big super El Niño of 1998. Such a large temperature increase in so short a period means that the world has likely hit a number of tipping points for geophysical and ecological harm. One of the most visible of these tipping points involves an ongoing ecological crisis — a global coral bleaching event.

Perhaps the most vivid and heart-wrenching example of what is a very wide-ranging coral mortality situation is the bleaching-related damage to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. In a terrible blow to one of the world’s most stunning natural wonders, about a quarter of the Great Barrier Reef’s corals have already been killed off — an event that some scientists say may eventually lead to 100 percent mortality of the Reef’s corals. (see a related report in The Guardian).

American Samoa Bleaching

(Coral bleaching events like this one in American Samoa during 2015 have been happening around the world since 2014. It’s a global event that’s still ongoing despite a turn toward La Niña conditions in the Pacific. This is the longest global coral bleaching event ever recorded, and one that could continue into 2017 or beyond. Image source: Nature.)

The Great Barrier Reef is not the only reef system to suffer. In fact, the added heat due to human-forced warming of the atmosphere and oceans has generated bleaching-induced heat stress and mass coral mortality the world over. And some of the world’s other great reef systems, including Kiribati, which lost 80 percent of its live corals in 10 months, have been hit so hard it’s doubtful they’ll ever recover.

The Seemingly Never-Ending Global Coral Bleaching Event

At issue is the fact that all this added global heat is creating a situation where reefs bleach year after year and, in some cases (as was the case with parts of the Great Barrier Reef this year) even bleach during winter. It’s a coral mass mortality that falls under the definition of a global bleaching event. But it’s also happening with an intensity, persistence, and duration that we’ve never seen before.

Beginning in 2014 with the big warm-up that preceded the 2015-2016 El Niño, the present global coral bleaching event is now, according to NOAA, the longest-running and the most extensive such event to have occurred in the modern record. NOAA notes:

…the current global coral bleaching event is the longest ever recorded. It has affected more reefs than any previous global bleaching event and has been worse in some locales (e.g., Great Barrier Reef, Kiribati). Thermal stress during this event also has caused mass bleaching in several reefs that never bleached before (e.g., northernmost Great Barrier Reef).

Global coral bleaching event continues

(Global coral bleaching event extent as of July 20 according to NOAA. Note that sections of bleaching watch and warning conditions now extend across the northern edges of NOAA’s map, an indication that latitudinal extent of bleaching is expanding beyond typical ranges even as bleaching due to rising ocean temperatures appears to be becoming a near-constant issue for world corals. Image source: NOAA.)

NOAA had initially forecast that this very-long-duration bleaching event would end sometime in 2016 as El Niño faded out. However, with sea-surface temperatures in the equatorial Pacific hitting the cool side of natural climate variability in the form of La Niña-like conditions during recent weeks, and the current global coral bleaching event still going strong, one has to wonder if oceans have now become hot enough to spur widespread bleaching at almost any time.

NOAA now predicts a possible end to the current global bleaching event in 2017, giving the event a four-year duration. But with global temperatures continuing to warm, what we may be seeing is the start of an unbroken or nearly unbroken period of expanding coral bleaching, a time when global stress to corals due to high ocean temperatures is practically continuous.

Links/Attribution/Statements

NOAA

NOAA El Nino

Sections of the Great Barrier Reef Suffering Complete Ecosystem Collapse

Kirubuti Loses Almost all its Corals Due to Bleaching

Nature

Great Barrier Reef Catastrophe Laid Bare

Leaving 20th Century Climate Far Behind

Hat tip to June

Hat tip to Colorado Bob

Hat tip to DT Lange

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

Freaky Algae Bloom in North Atlantic Looks Like Dead Zone Eddy

Back in March, we reported on a new study that found algae blooms concentrating in ocean eddies off Africa were generating mobile dead zones threatening sea life in the Tropical Atlantic. Based on recent satellite imagery analysis, such phenomena may not just be isolated to regions off the Ivory Coast and Gibraltar. It instead appears that mobile and potentially oxygen-depleting algae blooms may also be cropping up in the far North Atlantic.

Deadzone Eddie

(Is the North Atlantic starting to see eddies which host ocean dead zones? The image above appears to show just such a feature. Image source: LANCE MODIS.)

Ever since mid-June, a strange feature has been visible in the satellite shot of an ocean region bracketed by Iceland, Svalbard, and the center of the Scandinavian Coastline. The area appears to include a major algae bloom which has been swept up into an ocean eddy. Measuring about 30 miles in diameter, the bloom displays visible aspects similar to its more southerly cousins. As with the mobile Tropical Atlantic Dead Zones off Africa, this swirl appears to have concentrated surface water nutrients — generating a region of more intensified microbial growth. A growth that now shows the tell-tale neon blue contrast of an algae bloom capable of tanking surface ocean oxygen levels.

High Latitude algae blooms are a prevalent occurrence during Spring and Summer as Ocean surface waters warm. And during recent years, rapidly warming waters and retreating sea ice has enabled more prolific algae blooms in northern seas. Though these waters contain more oxygen due to overall cooler temperatures, both the increased warmth and the large algae blooms generate a mechanism for loss of oxygen content in the vital surface zone.

Eddie algae bloom

(Strange algae bloom with characteristics similar to mobile Tropical Atlantic Dead Zones is visible as the blue dot at center frame in this July 2 LANCE MODIS satellite image.)

In addition to human forced warming of the ocean system reducing overall ocean oxygen levels, human fossil fuel burning, fertilizer runoff and deluges increasing run-off volume (due to global warming’s impact on the hydrological cycle) adds nutrients to surface waters. The nutrients come primarily in the form of nitrogen which rains down as fossil fuel fallout or is flushed in ever greater volumes down river systems as frequency of extreme rainfall events increase. As a result, the oceans are being loaded up with food for algae blooms.

A similar mechanism (usually triggered through enhanced volcanism) is thought to have lead to mass ocean die-offs in at least four of the five major mass extinction events. A mechanism which was likely most lethal when it started to enable anoxic ocean environments hosting microbes capable of producing massive volumes of hydrogen sulfide gas — which in the worst cases filled the oceans and vented into the atmosphere.

Ocean eddies further concentrate the nutrient run-off and fall-out through their churning action. So algae blooms have tended to intensify in these swirls of ocean currents. In the Tropical Atlantic, algae production in the eddies has been enough to generate large microbial die-offs and related depletion of oxygen — generating moving dead zones. If the newly identified algae blooms in these satellite photos are prolific enough to consume all the available nutrients in surface waters, they will also die off and, decaying, rob these waters of vital oxygen. Such an action could promote dead zone environments in northern waters in addition to those already documented in the Tropical Atlantic.

Links:

Ocean Dead Zones Swirl Off Africa

LANCE MODIS

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

Anoxic Event

Hat Tip to Griffin (Who was the first to spot this particular algae bloom eddy in the MODIS shot)

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

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

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

Starving Sea Lion Pups

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

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

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

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

Mass Sea Lion Deaths for Three Years Running

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Victim of Sea Star Wasting Syndrome

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

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

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

A Hothouse Serial Killer

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

image

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

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

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

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

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

Low Oxygen Ocean Zones

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

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

More Dangers to Come

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

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

Hydrogen Sulfide Eruption off Namibian Coast

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

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

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

Links:

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

Researchers Find Warmer Waters Increase Sea Bed Methane Emissions

Surge in Marine Mammal Strandings on US West Coast

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

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

Pelagic Zone: Commons

Global Warming May Boost Dead Zones in Oceans

Eastern Pacific Oxygen Minimum Research

Starving Sea Lion Pup Rescued on San Fransisco Boulevard

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

Pacific Rocky Intertidal Monitoring: Sea Star Wasting Syndrome

When the Stars all Go Out Along the Coast

Hydrogen Sulfide Eruption: Namibia

Earth Nullschool

Global Forecast System Model

Hat Tips:

Colorado Bob

Lief Thurston

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