New Study: What’s Scarier than the Permian Extinction? Burn All the Fossil Fuels to Find Out.

If we burn all the fossil fuels “not only will the resultant climate change be faster than anything Earth has seen for millions of years, the climate that will exist is likely to have no natural counterpart, as far as we can tell, in at least the last 420 million years.”  — Gavin Foster, Professor of Isotope Geochemistry at the University of Southampton


Back in the 1780s as coal-fired smoke stacks sprouted across England to belch their black soot into the hitherto virgin skies of Earth, it’s likely we had not yet an inkling of the vast destruction these dark Satanic Mills were ultimately capable of unleashing:

(Scientists have now found that burning all the fossil fuels through about 2250 could result in conditions that are worse than those that occurred during the Permian Extinction of 252 million years ago. Video source: Catastrophe — The Permian Extinction.)

Svante Arrhenius, by the late 19th Century, had hinted that coal burning might warm the Earth by a tiny bit in a few thousand years. But the very fossils we were digging up and burning at an ever-more-rapid pace warned of a different and far more ominous story (see video above). They hinted of a time when massive volumes of ancient carbon stored in the Earth were released into the atmosphere over the course of thousands of years. And that this release created such hot and toxic conditions that, for most living things, the Earth was no longer habitable.

Unsafe Warming

The Permian-Triassic Extinction of 252 million years ago was the worst hothouse catastrophe that has ever occurred in all of the geological record. It wiped out 96 percent of marine species and more than 70 percent of terrestrial vertebrates. It was the worst of many such hothouse events sparked by rising levels of greenhouse gasses that now serve as a clear warning in the fossil record of the dangers we invite.

Today, after merely 230-odd years and following the emission, by fossil fuel burning, of hundreds of billions of tons of carbon into the atmosphere, the Earth has warmed by far more than just a tiny bit. The glaciers are melting, the seas are rising, the corals are bleaching from the heat of it all, and unprecedented (to modern humans) droughts, heatwaves, storms and wildfires are all being unleashed.

(Unsafe at any warming. As of 2014 the world was about 0.8 C hotter than NASA’s 20th Century baseline — which was already hotter than any previous time period in which human civilization existed. By 2016, that line had moved up to 0.98 C hotter than the NASA 20th Century range and 1.2 C hotter than 1880s averages. Image source: Precarious Climate.)

And though climates have changed in the past, the new scientific evidence indicates that what is happening today is clearly unusual:

Scientists can seek to understand past climates by looking at the evidence locked away in rocks, sediments and fossils. What this tells us is that yes, the climate has changed in the past, but the current speed of change is highly unusual. For instance, carbon dioxide hasn’t been added to the atmosphere as rapidly as today for at least the past 66m years.

By burning fossil fuels, we have crossed the threshold into a new age of trouble. But all the present calamity is just a foretaste of how bad things could get if we fail to stop burning the fossil fuels and to halt a great and vastly harmful emission of carbon into the Earth’s atmosphere.

For, according to our best present knowledge, in the Earth there still remains enough fossil carbon to raise the current level of atmospheric CO2 (CO2e) from today’s highly elevated 405 parts per million (493 ppm CO2e) average to over 2,000 parts per million by around 2250. And a new scientific study now confirms that if all this fossilized carbon is burned by then, the amount of heat trapped in the Earth’s atmosphere will become greater than during the worst mass extinction event in the Earth’s deep past (rising by about 10-18 degrees Celsius above 1880s levels).

(The potential and likely global impacts of climate change are bad enough during the 21st Century with between 1.5 and 6 C + warming expected. But if we burn all the fossil fuels, new science indicates that about 10-18 C worth of warming is ultimately possible. Looking at these impacts, what sane person would recommend doing such a thing? Image source: Climate Impacts.)

Unprecedented in 420 Million Years

This new study shows that fossil fuel burning, if it continues, will be enough to produce a warming event that has never happened in all of the past 420 million years by the 23rd Century. From now to then is about the same passage of time that occurred between the 1780s and now. And though humankind and its civilizations are probably capable of surviving the first 230 years of this considerable fossil fuel burning, it is highly doubtful that the same can be said for the next 230 years.

From the study author Gavin Foster:

“It is well recognised that the climate today is changing at rates well above the geological norm. If humanity fails to tackle rising CO2 and burns all the readily available fossil fuel, by AD 2250 CO2 will be at around 2000 ppm — levels not seen since 200 million years ago. However, because the Sun was dimmer back then, the net climate forcing 200 million years ago was lower than we would experience in such a high CO2 future. So not only will the resultant climate change be faster than anything Earth has seen for millions of years, the climate that will exist is likely to have no natural counterpart, as far as we can tell, in at least the last 420 million years.”



Future Carbon Dioxide, Warming Potentially Unprecedented in 420 Million Years

We Are Heading Toward the Warmest Climate in Half a Billion Years

Precarious Climate

Catastrophe — The Permian Extinction


And Did Those Feet in Ancient Time…

Hat tip to Wharf Rat

Hat tip to TodaysGuestIs

Hat tip to Mark Oliver

Hat tip to Wili

El Nino Update: Monster Kelvin Wave Continues to Emerge and Intensify

Monster Kelvin Wave

(Kevin Wave continues to strengthen and propagate across the Pacific Ocean. Image source: NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center.)

Record global temperatures, extraordinarily severe storms for the US West Coast and telegraphing on through the Central and Eastern US, a disruption of the Asian Monsoon and various regional growing seasons, record heat and drought in Northern Australia, severe drought and fires in the Amazon, the same throughout Eurasia and into the Siberian Arctic, another potential blow to Arctic sea ice. These and further extreme impacts are what could unfold if the extraordinarily powerful Kelvin Wave now racing toward the Pacific Ocean surface continues to disgorge its heat.

The most recent update from NOAA shows that the monster Kelvin Wave we reported on last week has continued to grow and intensify even as it shows no sign of slowing its rather ominous emergence from waters off the west coast of South America.

The pool of 4-6+ degree Celsius above average temperatures continues to widen and lengthen, now covering 85 degrees of longitude from 170 East to 105 West. Perhaps more disturbing is the fact that the zone of extreme 6+ C temperature anomalies has both widened and extended, covering about 50 degrees of longitude and swelling to a relative depth of about 30-40 meters. This is an extraordinarily intense temperature extreme that well exceeds those observed during the ramp-up to the record 1997-98 El Nino event.

Meanwhile, a smaller, but still disturbing, zone of 3-6+ C above average temperatures has now developed just 100 feet below the surface along a line near 100 degrees West Longitude. It is a very strong heat pulse, the head of the Kelvin Wave that by late March had pushed its nose up in the Eastern Equatorial Pacific.

Kelvin Wave Side Graph

(Deep, hot Pacific Ocean water continues to shift east. Image source: NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center.)

In the above NOAA graph we can see the hot, deep pool in the Western Pacific gradually flowing eastward, spreading out and shallowing as it begins to dump its heat content back into the atmosphere. A return of stored ocean heat that will, likely, spike global atmospheric temperature values all while sparking off a series of very extreme weather events.

Warm Storms Continuing to Pull Heat Eastward and Upward

The west-to-east progression and upwelling of Pacific Ocean heat is currently facilitated by low pressure systems lining up along the equator. The lows are fed by heat and evaporation bleeding off the Pacific Ocean surface. This heat enhances the formation of thunderstorms that join into larger, heat-driven cyclonic systems. The countervailing circulations of these systems act to slow the trade winds while allowing the hot pool to spread further and further east.

It is a pattern that tends to emerge at the beginning of most El Nino events. A self-reinforcing cycle that draws energy from ocean surface heat even as its intensity is enhanced more and more by heat transfer from the depths.

GFS Model North Pacific

(GFS model guidance through April 13 shows a persistent cyclone off New Guinea interrupting the trade winds — lower left — even as a long trough is predicted to form over the Eastern Pacific just north of the Equator — lower right. This pattern would tend to enhance the formation of El Nino conditions throughout the forecast period. Image source: NOAA)

It is the kind of cycle in which the excess Ocean heat, amplified by human-caused global warming, and long stored in the Pacific, as Dr. Kevin Trenberth well observed, may now be coming back to haunt us.

Conditions of a Human-Altered ENSO Cycle Compared to the Most Recent Warming at the End of the Last Ice Age

The La Nina to El Nino cycle (ENSO) is part of a larger ocean and air energy transfer pattern in which heat is periodically stored in the vast equatorial waters of the Pacific before being returned again to the atmosphere. In a normal climate state, this dance of heat energy between the airs and the waters would result in simple periodic variation appearing at the peak of either La Nina (atmospheric cool extreme) or El Nino (atmospheric warm extreme). But because human warming has now added a very strong and rapid heat forcing to this natural cycle of variability, La Nina periods have displayed slower rates of atmospheric warming (where they should have showed cooling) and El Nino periods have often resulted in temperatures spiking to new global records.

Natural variation, in this case, rests on a curve that we are forcing to bend inexorably upward.

Of the .8 degrees Celsius worth of annual global warming experienced since the 1880s, about .15 C, or nearly 20 percent of this warming, occurred during the powerful 1997-98 El Nino event in which vast amounts of stored ocean heat returned to the atmosphere. Since 1998, the Pacific Ocean has undergone a long period of La Nina events in which a large store of atmospheric heat was transferred to the global ocean system. But despite this enormous heat transfer, global temperatures continued to climb with new records achieved in 2005 and 2010 during relatively weak to moderate El Nino events.

For the currently emerging El Nino, all indications point toward it being as strong or stronger than the extraordinarily powerful 1997-98 El Nino, perhaps readying to raise global temperatures by another .15 C or more.

April 1 sea surface temperature anomaly

(April 1 Sea Surface Temperature Anomaly Map shows a band of 1-3 C above average temperatures covering the Equatorial Pacific. It’s a marked difference from the slightly cooler than average conditions that have dominated for much of the past year. Given the current Pacific Ocean weather context and the very strong Kelvin Wave lurking just beneath the surface, it appears to be the start of a powerful El Nino phase. Image source: NOAA/ESRL)

For context, the difference between the 1880s and the last ice age was about 4 degrees Celsius. A temperature change that took about 10,000 years to complete. The total current warming of .8 C is equal to about 20% of the difference between the 19th Century and an ice age, but on the side of hot. This warming occurred at extraordinary velocity, over the course of little more than a century. An extreme pace of warming now between 30 and 40 times faster than that at the end of the last ice age. A pace of global heat accumulation that has not been seen in at least 65 million years.

Under business as usual fossil fuel emissions, even that very rapid pace of warming could more than triple over the coming decades, producing a warming equivalent to what occurred during the end of the last ice age over the course of 10,000 years in less than 200. A disastrous pace that will wreck untold harm on the world’s weather systems, climates, ocean systems, geographies and ecologies should it emerge. A pace of warming that likely has no corollary even in the Permian Hot House Extinction Event of 250 million years ago.

In the current cycle of human warming, a strong El Nino can push that measure by as much as 5% or more in just a single year. So we may well see global average temperatures of 1 C higher than 1880s values by the end of 2014-2015 should the current and very powerful El Nino continue to emerge.


NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center

Monster El Nino Emerging in the Pacific



Global Heating Accelerates, Deep Ocean Warming the Fastest, What Does it Mean for Methane Hydrates?

A Deadly Climb From Glaciation to Hothouse — Why the Permian Extinction is Pertinent to Human Warming

NOAA: El Nino is Coming, Extreme Weather, New Global High Temperature Records Likely to Follow

Through The Looking Glass of The Great Dying: New Study Finds Ocean Stratification Proceeded Rapidly Over Past 150 Years

During the terrible mass extinction event at the Permian-Triassic boundary about 250 million years ago nearly all life on Earth was snuffed out. The event, which geologists have dubbed “The Great Dying,” occurred during a period of rapid warming on the tail end of a long period of glaciation (see A Deadly Climb From Glaciation to Hothouse: Why the Permian-Triassic Extinction is Pertinent to Human Warming). According to reports by Dr. Peter Ward, a prominent geologist specializing in causes of previous mass extinctions, the Permian extinction was composed of three smaller extinction events occurring over the course of about 50,000 to 80,000 years which together wiped out 96% of all marine species and 70% of all land species. Ward’s book “Under a Green Sky,” in my view, together with Hansen’s seminal “Storms of My Grandchildren” provide an excellent if terrible rough allegory of the climate beast we seem to be in the process of awakening.

A2 model run

(NCAR A2 model run shows global surface temperatures near those last seen during the PETM and Permian/Triassic extinction events by 2090 under a middle-range fossil fuel emissions scenario. A2 does include some added emissions via amplifying feedbacks from massive polar methane or CO2 stores along with other Earth Systems feedbacks. It is worth nothing that the P/T extinction occurred at the end of a glacial period while the PETM did not and was notably less pronounced. It also worth noting that global average temperatures are currently about .2 C above those seen in the 1990s.)

As noted above, Ward’s work focused on causes and what he found at numerous dig sites around the world was evidence of a ‘Great Dying’ that began at the ocean floor, proceeded upward from the depths, and eventually came to transcend the ocean boundary and inflict a similar, if less pronounced, lethality upon terrestrial organisms. The mechanism Ward proposed for the worst extinction in Earth’s geological memory involved how oceans and, in particular, living creatures in the oceans, respond to rapid warming. Ward found that during periods of high heat called hothouse states, oceans first became anoxic and stratified and then, during the worst events, transitioned to a deadly primordial state called a Canfield Ocean.

A stratified ocean is one in which the layers become inverted and do not mix. Warm water is avected toward the ocean bottom and a cooler layer on top keeps that warm layer in place. The warmer water beneath is oxygen poor and this results in more anaerobic microbes living in the deep ocean. Overall, global ocean warming also contributes to an anoxic state. Many of these microbes produce toxins that are deadly to oxygen dependent organisms. As they multiplied, the combined low oxygen/high toxicity environment created a layer of death that slowly rose up through the world ocean system.

The primary lethal agent Ward proposed for this action was hydrogen sulfide gas. This deadly gas, which has an effect similar to that of cyanide gas, is produced in prodigious quantities by an anaerobic bacteria whose remnants lurk in the world’s deep oceans. In lower quantities they turn the water pink or purple, in greater quantities — black. Oxygen is toxic to these primordial bacteria. And so, in the mixed oceans of the Holocene all the way back to the PETM boundary layer, these little monsters were kept in check by a relatively high oxygen content. But start to shut down ocean mixing, start to make the oceans more stratified and less oxygen rich and you begin to let these dragons of our past out of their ancient cages. And once they get on the move, these creatures of Earth’s deep history can do extreme and severe harm.

Ward hypothesized that these ancient organisms and the gas they produced eventually came to fill the oceans and then spill out into the atmosphere.

An anoxic, stratified ocean full of anaerobic organisms and out-gassing hydrogen sulfide to the atmosphere is a primordial sea state known as a Canfield Ocean. And Ward found that such hot, toxic waters were the lethal agent that most likely snuffed out nearly all life 250 million years ago.

A Climate Hockey Stick for the World Ocean System: Oceans Show Marked and Rapid Stratification Over the Past 150 Years

Peter Ward’s tone was nothing if not fearful in his book ‘Under a Green Sky.’ He wrote with the wisdom of a man who has come face to face with terrible limits time and time again. He wrote with the wisdom of a man shocked by some of the hardest truths of our world. He also made a plea — could scientists and experts of different fields please work together to give humanity a better measure of the risks he saw to be plainly visible.

Chief among these risks, according to Ward, included a rapidly warming planet. Ward found that both extreme high heat conditions as well as a relatively rapid pace of warming, in geological terms, increased the speed of transition to stratified ocean and Canfield Ocean states. Ward acknowledged that high rates of water runoff from continents likely contributed to anoxia. Recent studies have also indicated that rapid glacial melt combined with rapid global heating may contribute to a an increasingly stratified and anoxic ocean system.

Now, a new study of deep ocean corals entitled Increasing subtropical North Pacific Ocean nitrogen fixation since the Little Ice Age and conducted by researchers at the University of Santa Cruz and published in Nature has discovered proxy evidence that ocean stratification over the past 150 years advanced at the most rapid pace in at least the last 12,000 years. The study analyzed the sediment composition of coral growth layers to determine changes in ocean states since the 1850s. As the corals sucked up the dead bodies of micro-organisms over the past 1,000 years, the researchers were able to analyze what was happening to the cyanobacteria at the base of the food web.

What they found was that the bacteria increased their rate of nitrogen fixation by about 17 to 27 percent over the past 150 year period. And that this pace of change was ten times more rapid than that observed at the end of the Pliestocene and beginning of the Holocene 12,000 years ago.

Nitrogen Proxy Records and Their Relationship to Climate Change

(The Ocean’s Hockey Stick? Nitrogen Proxy Levels and Their Relationship to Climate Change.)

Increasing nitrogen fixation is an indicator of ocean stratification because cyanobacteria species under stress evolve to fix higher amounts of nitrogen from the surface transfer boundary with the air if particulate nitrogen levels in their environment drop. In a healthy, mixed ocean environment, nitrogen from various sources (terrestrial, run-off, etc), is readily traded between ocean layers due to the mixing action of ocean currents. In cooler oceans, more nitrogen is also held in suspension. But as oceans become warmer and more stratified, a loss of mixing and solubility results in lower nitrogen levels.

The researchers believe that this increase in nitrogen fixation is a clear indication that the region of the Pacific they observed is rapidly becoming more stratified and that this rate of increase is probably an order of magnitude faster than what occurred during the last major transition at the end of the last ice age.

“In comparison to other transitions in the paleoceanographic record, it’s gigantic,” Lead author Sherwood noted. “It’s comparable to the change observed at the transition between the Pleistocene and Holocene Epochs, except that it happens an order of magnitude faster.”

A separate study analyzing the nitrogen content of sea bird bones also provided proxy indication of a shift among cyanobacteria toward greater rates of nitrogen fixation, providing some additional confirmation for the increased ocean stratification observation. (An excellent article providing a more in depth exploration of these studies is available here.)

These studies combine with numerous observations of declining ocean health, increasing ocean hypoxia and anoxia, and an increasing number of observed mechanisms that may result in a more and more stratified ocean state as human warming intensifies to increase concern that the worst fears of Dr. Peter Ward and colleagues may be in the process of realization. (See: Dead Dolphins,  Climate Change Devastating Ocean Fishermen, and Mass Starfish Die-off for more indicators of failing ocean health.)

Concerned Journalists and Terrified Ecologists

Put into various contexts, the current state of climate and environmental health does channel our worst fears that the Permian Extinction event may well be in for a human-caused repeat. The current estimated background extinction rate of 100-250 species per day is possibly the most rapid in all of geological history. The current CO2 level, near 400 parts per million, is higher than at any time during which human beings walked the Earth. The pace of greenhouse gas emissions is at least six times faster than at any time in the geological record. And the current, very large, forcing provided by humans does not yet include a probable powerful and unpredictable response from the Earth’s natural systems.

As Ecologist Guy McPherson notes — Nature Bats Last. And we should not be comforted by this notion. Because Nature carries the biggest stick of all. A consequence hanging over our heads that grows larger and more dangerous with each passing year during which our insults to her continue.

Among the pessimists regarding the end consequences of human caused climate change and related pollution, ecologists are the worst of the bunch. This is likely due to the fact that ecologists are very intimately involved in the study of how communities of organisms succeed or fail in natural settings. Among all groups of scientists, they are perhaps the ones most intimately familiar with the way in which all living things are connected to both one another and to the natural world. Ecologists know all too well that small shifts can mean huge changes to biodiversity, the rate of death among living beings, and the distribution of species in a given environment. But the changes humans inflict are not small in the least. They roughly ripple through the natural world in ways that ecologists know all too well have never before been seen.

Dr. McPherson is such an ecologist and one with such great conscience and concern that he, years ago, abandoned most of the luxuries of modern civilization to live in a fashion that produced the least harm possible. Not that this action has resulted in more optimism on his part. In fact, Guy is one of a growing group of people who believe that no action is likely to save humankind. That our insults to the natural world have already grown too great.

McPherson notes:

“We’ve never been here as a species and the implications are truly dire and profound for our species and the rest of the living planet.”

In this observation, Guy is probably right. But I sincerely hope that his and my own worst fears do not emerge.

It was Guy’s ongoing tracking of various dangerous alterations to world climate systems and assertion that human extinction may well be nigh that drew the attention of prominent journalist Dahr Jamail. Jamail recently penned the article: “The Great Dying Redux: Shocking Parallels Between Ancient Mass Extinction and Climate Change.

Reading professor emeritus Guy McPherson’s blog was enough to convince Mr. Jamail of the risk that current warming could result in an extinction event to rival that of the Great Dying so long ago. Mr. Jamail notes:

It is possible that, on top of the vast quantities of carbon dioxide from fossil fuels that continue to enter the atmosphere in record amounts yearly, an increased release of methane could signal the beginning of the sort of process that led to the Great Dying. Some scientists fear that the situation is already so serious and so many self-reinforcing feedback loops are already in play that we are in the process of causing our own extinction. Worse yet, some are convinced that it could happen far more quickly than generally believed possible — even in the course of just the next few decades.

And so we come full circle. Rapid human warming leads to troubling ocean changes that hint at those feared to have resulted in mass extinctions during the Permian-Triassic boundary event. And the very rapid human warming puts at risk the catastrophically rapid release of Arctic methane which would certainly consign Earth to a rapid jump from a glacial to a hothouse state and potentially produce the kind of Canfield Oceans Dr. Ward fears. It is a deadly transition for which we have growing evidence with almost each passing day, one that McPherson and others fear could truly make an end to us and to so many other living creatures on this world.

So many scientists, so much valid reason to be dreadfully concerned, and yet we continue on the path toward a great burning never before seen in Earth’s history…

Links (Read them!):

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

Increasing subtropical North Pacific Ocean nitrogen fixation since the Little Ice Age

The Great Dying Redux: Shocking Parallels Between Ancient Mass Extinction and Climate Change.

Deep Sea Corals Record Dramatic Long-Term Shift in Pacific Ocean Ecosystem

Nature Bats Last

Colorado Bob’s Climate Feed

Dead Dolphins

Mass Starfish Die-off

Climate Change Devastating Ocean Fishermen

NCAR A2 Model Run

Hat Tip to David Goldstein

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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