Why the Global Coral Bleaching Event That Began in 2014 May Just Keep Going and Going

From October of 2014 through June of 2016, the world was in the grips of a powerful El Nino. And throughout this event, the oceans spewed back some of the massive volume of heat they’ve been accumulating in their depths due to global warming. As a result, atmospheric and ocean surface temperatures hit new record highs. And during 2016, global surface temperatures will likely average 1.2 C hotter than 1880s levels. This amount of warming is as considerable as it is harmful.

current-coral-bleaching-status

(A global coral bleaching event that began in 2014 continues. It is the longest coral bleaching event on record. But unless oceans somehow cool off, it won’t really end. With only a weak La Nina emerging following a strong El Nino and a record spike in global temperatures, there is some risk that this ongoing event will ebb and flare on a nearly indefinite basis. Continued fossil fuel burning, meanwhile, will continue to add heat to the global climate system — presenting worsening medium and long term bleaching pressure for corals. Image source: Coral Reef Watch.)

The Worst Global Coral Bleaching Event Ever Recorded… 

This new record spike in global surface temperatures set off the worst coral bleaching event ever recorded. Around the world, reef systems came under severe stress as sea surface and near surface temperatures exceeded 28-30 degrees Celsius.

Among the hardest hit regions were the reefs of Kiribati. There, sea surface temperatures hit up to 31.4 C on an extended basis. Such hot waters are now expected to have wiped out all but 1 to 5 percent of Kiribati’s living corals. So, for all practical purposes, the reefs of that island republic have been wiped out.

Overall, the event was very wide ranging — impacting corals throughout the Pacific, Atlantic, and Indian Oceans as well as in the Persian Gulf, Mediterranean, and Red Sea. As an example, 95 percent of corals in US territories from Florida to the Gulf of Mexico, Caribbean, and Pacific experienced some level of bleaching.

sea-surface-temperature-anomalies

(A weak La Nina has probably already cooled ocean surfaces as much as they will be cooled during 2016 and 2017. But despite this cooling, ocean near-surface waters are still too hot for corals in many places. Relative, if mild, ocean surface warming should occur as ENSO is predicted to shift into neutral status. If coral bleaching is ongoing through La Nina, then it is unlikely to cease as the global ocean starts to warm again. Global sea surface temperature anomaly image source: Earth Nullschool.)

In Australia, the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) also saw its worst bleaching event on record. There, 93 percent of corals are reported to have experienced bleaching. Meanwhile, about 50 percent of corals have died in the northern section of the GBR. In the media, a controversy has raged over whether or not this event is the start of the great reef’s swansong. To be clear, the GBR was not killed off by the most recent large bleaching event. But it was dealt a very severe blow. With the world continuing to warm as fossil fuel burning remains ongoing, a similar blow could occur as soon as the next El Nino or the one after. And the story for many of the world’s remaining reefs could well be the same.

…Is Still Ongoing…

For after about two years now, and as the world has settled into the periodic natural cooling of ocean surfaces called La Nina, the global coral bleaching event that has so damaged the vital species that build the world’s reefs is still ongoing. Though diminished, and as ocean surface heat backed off during late 2016, NOAA has still identified numerous regions that are high risk for coral bleaching through at least February.

coral-bleaching-risk-through-february

The austral summer is expected to bring bleaching over far-flung regions encircling the southern part of the globe. Thankfully, most of the GBR is only under a bleaching watch for now. But bleaching warnings and alerts abound and, unfortunately, many reefs are likely to see continued die-offs even after El Nino has long since faded.

… And May Just, For all Practical Purposes, Continue

As the current La Nina is rather weak, and as it is predicted to shallow into an ENSO neutral state by spring, it appears that sea surface temperatures may be in the process of bottoming out. Global fossil fuel emissions, meanwhile, continue to add heat to the ocean system. As a result, the coral bleaching pressure that we are seeing during the period of November 2016 through February of 2017, unless we see a resurgence to a stronger La Nina event over the next year or two, could be the minimum we will see over the coming years. And if that is the case, then the coral bleaching event that hasn’t ended for the past two years may not really end at all.

Links:

NOAA Coral Reef Watch

NOAA El Nino

Earth Nullschool

Dr Gavin Schmidt of NASA GISS

Did The Human-Warmed Ocean Just Kill 8,000 Murres?

Around the world, mass sea creature die-offs have been occurring at an alarming rate. Off the US West Coast alone, the past three years have seen severe losses along almost ever link of the marine food chain from sea stars, to salps, to crabs, to sea lions. Many of these deaths have been linked directly or indirectly to impacts caused by a chronic warming of the region’s ocean surface dubbed ‘the hot blob.’

Now, a tragic and heart-wrenching new die-off has been recorded in the region of Prince William Sound. There, according to recent reports in the Washington Post, more than 8,000 murres — a kind of deep-swimming sea bird — were found dead. Washed up on shore, the mures bodies were shrunken and emaciated. Their stomachs completely empty of food.

Researchers noted that the mass death was likely due to starvation. But the potential cause given for the starvation was rather more ominous.

The Link to Human Warming of the World Ocean

Mures feed on small fish that swim within the top 300 feet of the ocean surface. The graceful murres ride the airs above the water until they catch sight of a school of these fish. Swooping in from above, the mures plunge toward their prey, snaring them with rapier-quick thrusts of their beaks.

Such fish usually swim close to the coast — thriving in the cold, nutrient-rich waters off Prince William Sound. But warm the waters up by just a little and the fish may leave — following their own food supply into colder regions.

sea surface temperature anomaly map

(The hot blob still holds sway over the Northeastern Pacific. This despite a series of strong El Nino storms and a somewhat flattening of the Jet Stream. It’s an extreme ocean warming that has been ongoing for more than two years. One that’s been linked to the mass deaths of numerous marine creatures. Image source: The National Weather Service.)

And the waters near and around Prince William Sound have been much warmer than normal during recent years. As of January 14th, 2016, sea surface temperatures in the region have ranged from 1 to 4 degrees Celsius above average. Extremely high differentials for an ocean surface that, during the Holocene, rarely varied by more than 1 or 2 degrees from typical ranges.

This extreme Northeastern Pacific warming is but an aspect of a larger heating trend ongoing in the global ocean system due to a rampant human emission of greenhouse gasses. This massive burning of fossil fuel has dumped hundreds of billions of tons of carbon into the world’s atmospheres and oceans — setting off a raging greenhouse effect and causing the Earth surface to warm by more than 1 degree Celsius above 1880s levels. It may not sound like much, but 1 C is just 1/4 the difference between now and the last ice age — but on the side of hot. And this 1 C warming happened in just 130 years where at the end of the last ice age the same amount of warming would have taken 25 centuries.

A Hothouse Dead Zone For Prince William Sound?

To the oceans and to the innocent creatures that live within, upon and above it, such a rapid accumulation of heat is a brutal insult. It removes whole habitats. It forces sea creatures to change their patterns of migration. It makes the surface waters more suitable for the kinds of dangerous algae blooms that produce ocean dead zones. Zones of low or zero oxygen in which very few forms of life can survive.

Prince William Sound Dead Zone

(Prince William Sound dead zone visible in this December 6, 2015 satellite shot? Tell-tale greens and blues hint that a large algae bloom may be robbing the waters around the sound of much needed nutrients and oxygen. A kind of new deadly ocean environment that is proliferating as sea surface temperatures warm into ranges in which dead zone producing microbes can thrive. Image source: LANCE MODIS.)

And it’s this kind of generation of an ocean killing field that is perhaps the most brutal and terrifying aspect of what we’ve already done to our planet. What the legacy of our fossil fuel carbon emissions will continue to do for decades to centuries to, perhaps, millennia.

And sadly, looking at the NASA MODIS satellite data, we do see an indication of the kind of algae bloom that may be depleting the waters near Prince William Sound of that life-giving oxygen. We see the tell-tale greens and blues of a large bloom of the kind that can rob waters both of nutrients to support fish life and of oxygen itself. Visual analysis alone cannot positively identify this kind of bloom with 100 percent certainty. Water samples must be taken in the area and analyzed. But scientists asking the very pertinent question — did global warming cause this? — may only need to take a look at the composition of this bloom to get their answer.

An answer that won’t save the thousands of already dead murres, but that might help us build the resolve to prevent more catastrophes like this one. To stop burning fossil fuels and halt the accumulation of a terrible build-up of heat forcing that is ripping the very underpinnings of life in the oceans asunder.

UPDATE — MODIS Chlorophyll Sensor Yet Another Indicator of Dangerous Algae Bloom in the Region of Prince William Sound

Further analysis of NASA satellite data provides yet more evidence that a dangerous algae bloom began showing up in the waters near Prince William Sound at the start of December.

December 6 MODIS Shot of Prince William Sound With Chlorophyll Layer

(December 6, 2015 NASA MODIS satellite shot of Prince William Sound with chlorophyll production overlay. Chlorophyll production in all ocean regions near the sound show up as elevated with some areas hitting the top of the graph at 20 mg per cubic meter [indicated in red]. Link: LANCE MODIS.)

High levels of chlorophyll in the waters near Prince William Sound provide yet one more instrumental indication of a large algae bloom in the region. As noted above, major algae blooms can rapidly remove nutrients from the water, creating a population crash as the algae starve themselves off. In the mass die-off of algae that follows, microbial decomposition can rob large areas of surface waters of oxygen — killing fish and other sea life or driving it away.

Warm waters provide an environment that tends to support these kinds of large algae blooms and is a primary reason why human heating of the world ocean is dangerous to ocean health. In addition, warmer waters hold less oxygen in suspension even as changes to ocean currents tend to generate more stratified oceans — preventing the kind of mixing that keeps oceans both oxygen and life-rich.

In any case, the added chlorophyll signal coming from Prince William Sound and the nearby ocean region are yet one more indicator that initial suspicions among ocean researchers may well be correct — abnormally warm waters related to human-forced climate change was probably a key trigger involved in the mass death of sea birds there.

Links:

LANCE MODIS

The National Weather Service

Mysterious Mass Death of Seabirds Baffles Scientists

Hat Tip to Colorado Bob

Hat Tip to Leland Palmer

World Ocean Heartbeat Fading? ‘Nasty’ Signs North Atlantic Thermohaline Circulation is Weakening

Scientists call it Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC). But we may as well think of it as the heartbeat of the world ocean system. And when that heartbeat begins to slow down, we’d best sit up and start paying attention:

(New video produced by climate hawk Peter Sinclair and featuring top scientists Stefan Rahmstorf, Michael Mann, and Jason Box, issues warnings about an observed disruption to ocean circulation due to water freshening in the North Atlantic. This is the kind of work I mentioned last week in my KPFA interview. The kind that should be showing on major network news every single night. Since that probably won’t happen, I urgently ask you to spread this video, together with its critical information, as far and as wide as possible.)

Global Warming Poses Risk to Ocean Circulation, Life Support

For nearly three decades now, prominent climate scientists have been warning policymakers that salt and heat driven circulation of the world ocean system (called thermohaline — thermo for heat and haline for salt) could be disrupted by cold water outflows from Greenland. There, in the North Atlantic, salty, dense, ocean water issuing from the tropics along the Gulf Stream begins to cool. The heavier water, burdened with salt, sinks to the bottom in the North Atlantic. This sinking, in turn, drives a massive ocean conveyer belt. It delivers colder, oxygenated water to the deep ocean. It dredges less oxygen rich bottom waters to the surface where they can be reinvigorated. And it drives this ocean revitalizing train of currents through every major corner of the world ocean.

A disruption of this ocean water mixing machine would ripple through the world oceans like a gunshot to a vital circulatory organ, reducing oxygen levels throughout the whole ocean system, and greatly reducing the oceans’ ability to support life. It would be a major shift toward a stratified, less life supporting ocean, and one step closer to the nightmare ocean state called a Canfield Ocean (named after its discoverer — Dr. Donald Canfield).

Warmer, salty water cooling and sinking in the North Atlantic is an essential cog in the wheel of this massive ocean water overturning machine. It has also been described (as Dr Box notes in the video above) as the Achilles Heel of global ocean circulation.

But I like to think of it more as the world ocean’s beating heart. The reason is that any disruption of the overturning process in the North Atlantic basically kills off a life-giving circulation to the entire world ocean system.

Cooling in Exactly the Wrong Place

AMOC Temperature Trend

(Linear temperature trend from 1900 through 2013 produced by Stefan Rahmstorf in his new study. Note the anomalous cool pool just south of Greenland. That’s exactly the kind of temperature signature you don’t want to see. One that is indicative of cold, fresh water outflows from Greenland interfering with North Atlantic and World Ocean Circulation. Also see: RealClimate.)

Now, a new 2015 report headed by Dr. Stefan Rahmstorf finds that the world ocean system is cooling in exactly the wrong place — the North Atlantic just south and east of Greenland. This cooling is an indicator that a high volume outflow of cold, fresh water is entering this region of ocean. A cold, fresh outflow that comes directly from the melting glaciers of Greenland itself. A cooling and freshening that creates a physical block to salt water down welling in the North Atlantic. The kind of block that can directly disrupt the Gulf Stream and the rest of ocean circulation on down the line.

Dr Rahmstorf explains the findings of his study in his notes at RealClimate:

The North Atlantic between Newfoundland and Ireland is… the only region of the world that has defied global warming and… cooled. Last winter [this region] was the coldest on record – while globally it was the hottest [such period] on record. Our recent study (Rahmstorf et al. 2015) attributes [ anomalous North Atlantic cold water] to a weakening of the Gulf Stream …, which is apparently unique in the last thousand years.

It happens to be just that area for which climate models predict a cooling when the Gulf Stream System weakens (experts speak of the Atlantic meridional overturning circulation or AMOC, as part of the global thermohaline circulation). That this might happen as a result of global warming is discussed in the scientific community since the 1980s – since Wally Broecker’s classical Nature article “Unpleasant surprises in the greenhouse?” Meanwhile evidence is mounting that the long-feared circulation decline is already well underway. (emphasis and a little clarity added)

To Dr Rahmstorf’s point that the North Atlantic was experiencing a Gulf-Stream threatening record cold while the world was under a pall of record warmth, we need only look at NOAA’s Land-Ocean temperature anomalies map for the winter of 2014-2015 below:

NOAA land ocean temperatuer anomalies

(NOAA Land Ocean temperature anomalies map for 2014-2015 shows extraordinary record cold pool of water south of Greenland in a record warm world. The smoking gun for large glacial outflow and thermohaline disruption in the North Atlantic. Image source: NOAA via ClimateCrocks and MeltFactor.)

Other Concerns Regarding North Atlantic Cooling

Unfortunately, an expanding pool of cold, fresh water in the North Atlantic is not just a threat to ocean health. It also represents a zone of anomalous cold in a region surrounded by atmospheric and ocean warming. As such, it represents a zone of likely expanding atmospheric instability — one involved in the shift of the cold center of circulation from the polar zones and more toward Greenland and Canada. Parcel to the kinds of weather disruptions that have been described in the theories of Dr. Jennifer Francis and during some of the later works of Dr. James Hansen (alluded to in The Storms of My Grandchildren).

As such, cold water bleeding from the great glaciers of Greenland not only poses a threat to ocean circulation, it also poses a risk for generating significant disruptions to atmospheric winds and related weather as well. Ones that could set off increasingly intense storm events in the Northern Hemisphere similar to what was seen for the US Northeast this winter (but likely worsening with time) and the extraordinarily powerful barrage of storms hitting England during the winter of 2013-2014.

Dr. Hansen in his Greenland Ice Sheet Loss: Exponential? paper warned of the potential for continent-sized frontal storms packing the strength of hurricanes under some rapid Greenland melt scenarios by mid-century.

Hollywood dramatizations aside, this is more than enough real world weather and climate trouble to pose serious cause for concern. And as Dr. Rahmstorf, Peter Sinclair, Dr. Jason Box and Dr. Mann allude to the header video — the policy makers were warned well in advance.

Links:

A Nasty Surprise With the Greenhouse

What’s Going on With the North Atlantic?

Exceptional 20th Century Slowdown in North Atlantic Overturning Circulation

Unpleasant Surprises in the Greenhouse

NOAA

MeltFactor

Greenland Ice Sheet Loss: Exponential?

Linking Weird Weather to Rapid Warming in the Arctic

Canfield Ocean

Hat tip to Today’s Guest Is…

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

Dolphin Strandings

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

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

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

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

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

Algae Blooms as Source of Biotoxins

East Coast Algae Bloom

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

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

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

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

Fasting Dolphins Likely to be More Affected

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

Morbillivirus Shouldn’t be So Lethal

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

Dying Oceans and Dying Dolphins

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

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

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

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

Implications for Both Ocean and Land Dwellers

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

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

Signal Received?

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

Links and Hat Tips:

The State of the Oceans, 2013

Are Dolphins Reaching a Breaking Point?

Are Humans Behind the East Coast Dolphin Die-Off?

Climate Change, Anoxic Waters and Dead Dolphins

Hat Tip to Commenter Steve

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