Warm Ocean Temperatures Could Mean Trouble For Marine Life

An emaciated sea lion pup in California's Channel Islands.NOAA Fisheries/Alaska Fisheries Science Center

An emaciated sea lion pup in California’s Channel Islands.
NOAA Fisheries/Alaska Fisheries Science Center

 

 

by Jes Burns OPB

It’s a double-whammy kind of year for the Pacific.

An unusually warm winter in Alaska failed to chill ocean waters. Then this winter’s El Nino is keeping tropical ocean temperatures high. Combine these and scientists are recording ocean temperatures up to 7 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than average off the coasts of Oregon and Washington.

“This is a situation with how the climate is going, or the weather is going, that we just haven’t really seen before and don’t know where it’s headed,” says National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration fisheries biologist Chris Harvey.

Harvey is a lead scientist on the California Current Integrated Ecosystem Assessment, which was recently presented to Northwest fisheries managers.

This map shows sea surface temperatures off the West Coast. The darker the red, the farther the temperatures are above average.This map shows sea surface temperatures off the West Coast. The darker the red, the farther the temperatures are above average.

NOAA Fisheries

Pacific Ocean temperatures regularly swing along a temperature spectrum. In fact, scientists have identified multi-decade cycles of warmer and cooler water.

“But right now, in the last couple of decades, we feel like we’ve seen maybe a little bit less stability in those regimes,” Harvey says.

This year, the temperatures are particularly high. The effects already appear to be rippling up and down the food chain.

When the ocean is warmer, it is less nutrient rich.

The humble copepod is a good illustration of this phenomenon. Copepods are small, crab-like organisms that swim in the upper part of the water column. They’re basically fish food for young salmon, sardines and other species.

But NOAA scientists have described the difference between cold-water copepods and warm-water copepods as the difference between a bacon-double cheeseburger with all the fixin’s and a celery stick.

Cold-water copepods are fattier and more nutrient-rich, making them a higher-value food for fish.

 

This warm-water copepod collected off Oregon this winter. They provided provide less energy to salmon and other fish than cool-water species. This warm-water copepod collected off Oregon this winter. They provided provide less energy to salmon and other fish than cool-water species. NOAA Fisheries/Northwest Fisheries Science Center

 

“The copepods that we associate with warmer water, which is what we’re seeing develop off the West Coast right now, tend to have lower energy content,” Harvey says. “There’s going to be probably an abundance of copepods out there, just not the high-energy ones we associate with higher fish production.”

Scientists are already making connections between these lower-nutrient waters and seabird die-offs in the Northwest and the widespread starvation of California sea lion pups, as well.

The warm water isn’t all bad news for Northwest fisheries. Some  fish that like warm water, like albacore tuna, may be more abundant this year in waters off the Oregon and Washington coasts.

Harvey says the science suggests fisheries managers might want to take a more cautious approach when setting harvest rates in the coming years. But what these record-high temperatures say about the longer-term health of Northwest fisheries and other coastal wildlife is still unclear.

“For me the jury is out on this,” Harvey says. “We’re going to have to wait a couple years before we know if this was just a really, really bizarre bump in the road or if there’s more to it.”

Seattle, Portland Could Set Records For Warmth In 2014

Portland's skyline looking northJami Dwyer Wikimedia


Portland’s skyline looking north
Jami Dwyer Wikimedia

By Chris Lehman, NW News Network

2014 could be the warmest year on record for both Seattle and Portland.

With about one week left, Seattle is on track to narrowly break the mark set in 1995 for its warmest year on record. Portland is just shy of breaking its 1992 record, but a warmer than normal final week of the year could push the Rose City over the top.

Cory Newman, a forecaster with the National Weather Service in Portland, said a hotter-than-normal summer brought up the average temperature in the region.

“And especially that was most notable with overnight low temperatures this summer and early fall,” he said. “A lot of locations were way, way above normal on levels that we haven’t seen.”

But Newman added that 2014 was a year of contrasts. In February, some lower elevation parts of Oregon received their heaviest snowfall in many years.

Boise is not on track to break a warmth record this year. The National Weather Service says 2014 will probably be the 5th or 6th warmest year on record for Idaho’s capital.

Wildfire Season Starts Early And With A Vengeance

By Chris Lehman, NW News Network

 

So far, more than 150 homes in Washington state have been destroyed in what veteran firefighters are calling the worst fire season in decades.

 

Fires have scorched thousands of acres of ranchland in southeast Oregon.
Credit Brooke Nyman / Oregon Cattleman’s Association

 

In neighboring Oregon, firefighters are stretched thin by more than a dozen blazes burning at once.

Veteran firefighter Al Lawson came to a community meeting in central Washington to meet with residents displaced by the raging Carlton Complex Fire. It’s among the largest wildfires in the state’s recorded history.

“In my 30 years, I’ve never seen fire behavior like this,” he said. “Nothing to compare.”

Governor Jay Inslee toured the devastation over the weekend. He called it an unprecedented firestorm.

“Our state is stretched beyond imagination,” he said.

Inslee says the fact that it’s only mid-July is an ominous sign.

“Typically the fire season doesn’t really get going until August,” he said. “So we have at least two more months in the fire season and we have already burned twice as many acres as the average.”

Oregon has been spared the same level of devastation in terms of lost property. But the Oregon Department of Forestry says so far the sheer number of acres burned this summer is seven times more than a typical fire season.

On a more positive note, the agency’s Cynthia Orlando says cooler weather for the next few days could help slow things down.

“We’re getting a lit bit of a respite but you know, everybody’s on alert here,” Orlando said.

Temperatures are expected to soar back into the 90s by the end of the week.