Throughout history, humans have existed side-by-side with bacteria and viruses. From the bubonic plague to smallpox, we have evolved to resist them, and in response they have developed new ways of infecting us.
We have had antibiotics for almost a century, ever since Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin. In response, bacteria have responded by evolving antibiotic resistance. The battle is endless: because we spend so much time with pathogens, we sometimes develop a kind of natural stalemate.
However, what would happen if we were suddenly exposed to deadly bacteria and viruses that have been absent for thousands of years, or that we have never met before?
We may be about to find out. Climate change is melting permafrost soils that have been frozen for thousands of years, and as the soils melt they are releasing ancient viruses and bacteria that, having lain dormant, are springing back to life.
In August 2016, in a remote corner of Siberian tundra called the Yamal Peninsula in the Arctic Circle, a 12-year-old boy died and at least twenty people were hospitalised after being infected by anthrax.
The theory is that, over 75 years ago, a reindeer infected with anthrax died and its frozen carcass became trapped under a layer of frozen soil, known as permafrost. There it stayed until a heatwave in the summer of 2016, when the permafrost thawed.
This exposed the reindeer corpse and released infectious anthrax into nearby water and soil, and then into the food supply. More than 2,000 reindeer grazing nearby became infected, which then led to the small number of human cases.
The fear is that this will not be an isolated case.
As the Earth warms, more permafrost will melt. Under normal circumstances, superficial permafrost layers about 50cm deep melt every summer. But now global warming is gradually exposing older permafrost layers.
Frozen permafrost soil is the perfect place for bacteria to remain alive for very long periods of time, perhaps as long as a million years. That means melting ice could potentially open a Pandora’s box of diseases.
Scientists have discovered intact 1918 Spanish flu virus in corpses buried in mass graves in Alaska’s tundra
The temperature in the Arctic Circle is rising quickly, about three times faster than in the rest of the world. As the ice and permafrost melt, other infectious agents may be released.
“Permafrost is a very good preserver of microbes and viruses, because it is cold, there is no oxygen, and it is dark,” says evolutionary biologist Jean-Michel Claverie at Aix-Marseille University in France. “Pathogenic viruses that can infect humans or animals might be preserved in old permafrost layers, including some that have caused global epidemics in the past.”
In the early 20th Century alone, more than a million reindeer died from anthrax. It is not easy to dig deep graves, so most of these carcasses are buried close to the surface, scattered among 7,000 burial grounds in northern Russia.
However, the big fear is what else is lurking beneath the frozen soil.
People and animals have been buried in permafrost for centuries, so it is conceivable that other infectious agents could be unleashed. For instance, scientists have discovered intact 1918 Spanish flu virus in corpses buried in mass graves in Alaska’s tundra. Smallpox and the bubonic plague are also likely buried in Siberia.
In a 2011 study, Boris Revich and Marina Podolnaya wrote: “As a consequence of permafrost melting, the vectors of deadly infections of the 18th and 19th Centuries may come back, especially near the cemeteries where the victims of these infections were buried.”
NASA scientists successfully revived bacteria that had been encased in a frozen pond in Alaska for 32,000 years
For instance, in the 1890s there was a major epidemic of smallpox in Siberia. One town lost up to 40% of its population. Their bodies were buried under the upper layer of permafrost on the banks of the Kolyma River. 120 years later, Kolyma’s floodwaters have started eroding the banks, and the melting of the permafrost has speeded up this erosion process.
In a project that began in the 1990s, scientists from the State Research Center of Virology and Biotechnology in Novosibirsk have tested the remains of Stone Age people that had been found in southern Siberia, in the region of Gorny Altai. They have also tested samples from the corpses of men who had died during viral epidemics in the 19th Century and were buried in the Russian permafrost.
The researchers say they have found bodies with sores characteristic of the marks left by smallpox. While they did not find the smallpox virus itself, they have detected fragments of its DNA.
Certainly it is not the first time that bacteria frozen in ice have come back to life.
In a 2005 study, NASA scientists successfully revived bacteria that had been encased in a frozen pond in Alaska for 32,000 years. The microbes, called Carnobacterium pleistocenium, had been frozen since the Pleistocene period, when woolly mammoths still roamed the Earth. Once the ice melted, they began swimming around, seemingly unaffected.
Once they were revived, the viruses quickly became infectious
Two years later, scientists managed to revive an 8-million-year-old bacterium that had been lying dormant in ice, beneath the surface of a glacier in the Beacon and Mullins valleys of Antarctica. In the same study, bacteria were also revived from ice that was over 100,000 years old.
However, not all bacteria can come back to life after being frozen in permafrost. Anthrax bacteria can do so because they form spores, which are extremely hardy and can survive frozen for longer than a century.
Other bacteria that can form spores, and so could survive in permafrost, include tetanus and Clostridium botulinum, the pathogen responsible for botulism: a rare illness that can cause paralysis and even prove fatal. Some fungi can also survive in permafrost for a long time.
Some viruses can also survive for lengthy periods.
In a 2014 study, a team led by Claverie revived two viruses that had been trapped in Siberian permafrost for 30,000 years. Known as Pithovirus sibericum and Mollivirus sibericum, they are both “giant viruses”, because unlike most viruses they are so big they can be seen under a regular microscope. They were discovered 100ft underground in coastal tundra.
Once they were revived, the viruses quickly became infectious. Fortunately for us, these particular viruses only infect single-celled amoebas. Still, the study suggests that other viruses, which really could infect humans, might be revived in the same way.
The giant viruses tend to be very tough and almost impossible to break open
What’s more, global warming does not have to directly melt permafrost to pose a threat. Because the Arctic sea ice is melting, the north shore of Siberia has become more easily accessible by sea. As a result, industrial exploitation, including mining for gold and minerals, and drilling for oil and natural gas, is now becoming profitable.
“At the moment, these regions are deserted and the deep permafrost layers are left alone,” says Claverie. “However, these ancient layers could be exposed by the digging involved in mining and drilling operations. If viable virions are still there, this could spell disaster.”
Giant viruses may be the most likely culprits for any such viral outbreak.
“Most viruses are rapidly inactivated outside host cells, due to light, desiccation, or spontaneous biochemical degradation,” says Claverie. “For instance, if their DNA is damaged beyond possible repair, the virions will no longer be infectious. However, among known viruses, the giant viruses tend to be very tough and almost impossible to break open.”
Claverie says viruses from the very first humans to populate the Arctic could emerge. We could even see viruses from long-extinct hominin species like Neanderthals and Denisovans, both of which settled in Siberia and were riddled with various viral diseases. Remains of Neanderthals from 30-40,000 years ago have been spotted in Russia. Human populations have lived there, sickened and died for thousands of years.
NASA scientists found 10-50,000-year-old microbes inside crystals in a Mexican mine
“The possibility that we could catch a virus from a long-extinct Neanderthal suggests that the idea that a virus could be ‘eradicated’ from the planet is wrong, and gives us a false sense of security,” says Claverie. “This is why stocks of vaccine should be kept, just in case.”
Since 2014, Claverie has been analysing the DNA content of permafrost layers, searching for the genetic signature of viruses and bacteria that could infect humans. He has found evidence of many bacteria that are probably dangerous to humans. The bacteria have DNA that encodes virulence factors: molecules that pathogenic bacteria and viruses produce, which increase their ability to infect a host.
Claverie’s team has also found a few DNA sequences that seem to come from viruses, including herpes. However, they have not as yet found any trace of smallpox. For obvious reasons, they have not attempted to revive any of the pathogens.
It now seems that pathogens cut off from humans will emerge from other places too, not just ice or permafrost.
In February 2017, NASA scientists announced that they had found 10-50,000-year-old microbes inside crystals in a Mexican mine.
The bacteria have somehow become resistant to 18 types of antibiotics
The bacteria were located in the Cave of the Crystals, part of a mine in Naica in northern Mexico. The cave contains many milky-white crystals of the mineral selenite, which formed over hundreds of thousands of years.
The bacteria were trapped inside small, fluid pockets of the crystals, but once they were removed they revived and began multiplying. The microbes are genetically unique and may well be new species, but the researchers are yet to publish their work.
Even older bacteria have been found in the Lechuguilla Cave in New Mexico, 1,000ft underground. These microbes have not seen the surface for over 4 million years.
The cave never sees sunlight, and it is so isolated that it takes about 10,000 years for water from the surface to get into the cave.
Antibiotic resistance has been around for millions or even billions of years
Despite this, the bacteria have somehow become resistant to 18 types of antibiotics, including drugs considered to be a “last resort” for fighting infections. In a study published in December 2016, researchers found that the bacteria, known as Paenibacillus sp. LC231, was resistant to 70% of antibiotics and was able to totally inactivate many of them.
As the bacteria have remained completely isolated in the cave for four million years, they have not come into contact with people or the antibiotic drugs used to treat human infections. That means its antibiotic resistance must have arisen in some other way.
The scientists involved believe that the bacteria, which does not harm humans, is one of many that have naturally evolved resistance to antibiotics. This suggests that antibiotic resistance has been around for millions or even billions of years.
Obviously, such ancient antibiotic resistance cannot have evolved in the clinic as a result of antibiotic use.
The reason for this is that many types of fungi, and even other bacteria, naturally produce antibiotics to gain a competitive advantage over other microbes. That is how Fleming first discovered penicillin: bacteria in a petri dish died after one became contaminated with an antibiotic-excreting mould.
As Earth warms northern countries will become more susceptible to outbreaks of “southern” diseases like malaria
In caves, where there is little food, organisms must be ruthless if they are to survive. Bacteria like Paenibacillus may have had to evolve antibiotic resistance in order to avoid being killed by rival organisms.
This would explain why the bacteria are only resistance to natural antibiotics, which come from bacteria and fungi, and make up about 99.9% of all the antibiotics we use. The bacteria have never come across man-made antibiotics, so do not have a resistance to them.
“Our work, and the work of others, suggests that antibiotic resistance is not a novel concept,” says microbiologist Hazel Barton of the University of Akron, Ohio, who led the study. “Our organisms have been isolated from surface species from 4-7 million years, yet the resistance that they have is genetically identical to that found in surface species. This means that these genes are at least that old, and didn’t emerge from the human use of antibiotics for treatment.”
Although Paenibacillus itself is not harmful to humans, it could in theory pass on its antibiotic resistance to other pathogens. However, as it is isolated beneath 400m of rock, this seems unlikely.
Nevertheless, natural antibiotic resistance is probably so prevalent that many of the bacteria emerging from melting permafrost may already have it. In line with that, in a 2011 study scientists extracted DNA from bacteria found in 30,000-year-old permafrost in the Beringian region between Russia and Canada. They found genes encoding resistance to beta-lactam, tetracycline and glycopeptide antibiotics.
How much should we be concerned about all this?
One argument is that the risk from permafrost pathogens is inherently unknowable, so they should not overtly concern us. Instead, we should focus on more established threats from climate change. For instance, as Earth warms northern countries will become more susceptible to outbreaks of “southern” diseases like malaria, cholera and dengue fever, as these pathogens thrive at warmer temperatures.
The alternative perspective is that we should not ignore risks just because we cannot quantify them.
“Following our work and that of others, there is now a non-zero probability that pathogenic microbes could be revived, and infect us,” says Claverie. “How likely that is is not known, but it’s a possibility. It could be bacteria that are curable with antibiotics, or resistant bacteria, or a virus. If the pathogen hasn’t been in contact with humans for a long time, then our immune system would not be prepared. So yes, that could be dangerous.”
In November, Stephen Hawking warned that humans needed to colonize another planet within 1,000 years. Now, six months later, he’s saying we have to do it within 100 years in order to avoid extinction. There’s a problem with this plan: under almost no circumstances does is colonizing another planet the best way to adapt to a problem on earth.
Let’s start with Mars, which is a favorite planet for colonization scenarios, including for Elon Musk who thinks we should colonize Mars because earth will eventually face a “doomsday scenario”. The problem with this is that there is almost nothing that could happen to earth that would make it less hospitable than Mars. Whether it’s nuclear war or massive global warming, post disaster earth would be way more habitable than Mars.
For example, we worry that the oceans on earth will get too polluted, or too acidified, or rise up too high. It’s true that could make life on earth very hard. But on Mars the only surface water is frozen in the polar ice caps. We would be hard pressed to ruin the water on earth so badly that it’s worse than what’s available on Mars.
We also worry about the level of carbon dioxide we humans are creating. But there’s nothing we could do to earth’s atmosphere to make it as bad as Mars, which is both extremely thin and also 96% carbon dioxide. Not to mention a significantly lower level of gravity. Whatever we’d have to do on Mars to make the atmosphere habitable would be more easily done on a very very ruined earth.
Even if an asteroid were to strike earth it would remain more habitable than mars. For example, consider the asteroid that struck the earth 66 million years ago creating the Chicxulub crater and wiping out 75% of plant and animal species on earth, including the dinosaurs. Well that disaster still left 25% of species that survived, all of whom would die instantly on the surface of Mars.
If an asteroid like this was heading for the earth here’s what we would do instead of abandoning the planet. First, we’d try to deflect it. If we didn’t know how to do that, everyone who lived on the part of the planet where it was going to land would move to safer parts of the planet. If need be we’d create biodomes and move into them, maybe even at the bottom of the ocean. “Impossible!” you say? “Technology and human behavior would never allow this!” you insist? It’s true it would be extremely hard and today’s technology wouldn’t allow it. And yet it would still be way, way easier than colonizing another planet. If you think getting humans to abandon a continent peacefully is hard, try getting them to abandon the planet.
Perhaps we could focus on colonizing another planet then. One with an atmosphere closer to ours than Mars. This may be possible, but the technology required to do this is a far smaller life than the technology required to build habitable ecosystems on the bottom of the ocean, deflect asteroids, reverse global warming, or cure pandemics. The closest star system to us is Alpha Centauri, which is 4.3 light years away. At a max speed of around 17,000 mph would take existing space shuttles 165,000 years to reach this. Even the faster New Horizon probe, the first to visit Pluto, would take 78,000 years.
The technology required to travel fast enough to get to other planets makes geoengineering to reverse climate change seem quaint.
It is hard to come up with a scenario where evacuating the earth makes the most sense. So why do so many smart people obsess about it? I think the issue is that nerds find space travel and colonizing other planets extremely appealing because they love science fiction and space exploration exciting. That’s fine, and if some billionaires want to colonize Mars for fun I say go for it. But unfortunately, their nerd desires are biasing their assessment of how humanity should prepare for doomsday threats. Sorry nerds, we won’t be evacuating earth. If we are underestimating the risks of doomsday threats, lets instead invest in the technologies that will help protect earth from them. Even though I am not an expert on space, physical sciences, or basically any relevant field, I can tell that this is obviously true. Maybe just it takes an economist to see through the nerd fantasies.
ADDENDUM: The goal of colonizing to preserve the species rather than evacuate doesn’t make sense either. If there are habitable planets within reach, then there must be many, many habitable planets that aren’t within reach. In this case the Drake Equation implies humans are not alone in the universe, and therefore our existence is far less special, lowering the benefit of preserving humanity. In a world of other habitable planets, saving the actual life on earth grows in importance compared to preserving the species somewhere in the universe.
President Trump, with help from his administration and Republicans in Congress, has reversed course on nearly two dozen environmental rules, regulations and other Obama-era policies during his first 100 days in office.
Citing federal overreach and burdensome regulations, Mr. Trump has prioritized domestic fossil fuel interests and undone measures aimed at protecting the environment and limiting global warming.
WHO WANTED IT CHANGED? Republicans in Congress criticized President Barack Obama for delaying construction of the pipeline — which they argued would create jobs and stimulate the economy — after protests led by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. Mr. Trump ordered an expedited review of the pipeline, and the Army approved it.
WHO WANTED IT CHANGED? The coal industry said the rule was overly burdensome, calling it part of the war on coal. Congress passed a bill revoking the rule, which Mr. Trump signed into law.
WHO WANTED IT CHANGED? Republican officials from 11 states wrote a letter to Scott Pruitt, the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, saying the rule added costs and paperwork for oil and gas companies. The next day, Mr. Pruitt revoked the rule.
WHO WANTED IT CHANGED? Republicans, along with oil, gas and steel industry groups, opposed Mr. Obama’s decision to block the pipeline, arguing that the project would create jobs and support North American energy independence. After the pipeline company reapplied for a permit, the Trump administration approved it.
WHO WANTED IT CHANGED? Republicans and fossil fuel industry groups opposed the updated planning rule for public lands, arguing that it gave the federal government too much power at the expense of local and business interests. Congress passed a bill revoking the rule, which Mr. Trump signed into law.
WHO WANTED IT CHANGED? Coal companies weren’t thrilled about the Obama administration’s three-year freeze on new leases on public lands pending an environmental review. Ryan Zinke, the interior secretary, revoked the freeze and review, though he promised to set up a new advisory committee to review coal royalties.
WHO WANTED IT CHANGED? The company that sells the insecticide, Dow Agrosciences, strongly opposed a risk analysis by the Obama-era E.P.A., which found that the insecticide Chlorpyrifos poses a risk to fetal brain and nervous system development. Mr. Pruitt rejected the E.P.A.’s previous analysis and denied the ban, saying that the chemical needed further study.
WHO WANTED IT CHANGED? Alaskan politicians opposed the law, which prevented hunters from shooting wolves and grizzly bears on wildlife refuges, arguing that the state, not the federal government, has authority over those lands. Congress passed a bill revoking the rule, which Mr. Trump signed into law.
WHO WANTED IT CHANGED? Republicans in Congress opposed the guidelines, which advised federal agencies to account for greenhouse gas emissions and potential climate effects in environmental impact reviews. They argued that the government lacked the authority to make such recommendations, and that it would be impossible to plan for the uncertain effects of climate change.
WHO WANTED IT CHANGED? Farmers, real estate developers, golf course owners and many Republicans opposed this clarification of the Clean Water Act, arguing that it created regulatory burdens. Mr. Trump called it a “massive power grab” by the federal government and instructed the E.P.A. and the Army to conduct a review.
WHO WANTED IT CHANGED? Automakers said it would be difficult and costly to meet fuel economy goals they had agreed upon with the Obama administration and noted rising consumer demand for sport utility vehicles and trucks. A standards review had been completed by the Obama administration before Mr. Trump took office, but the auto industry argued that it was rushed. The E.P.A. and Department of Transportation have reopened the review.
WHO WANTED IT CHANGED? Coal companies and Republican officials in many states strongly opposed the plan, which set strict limits for carbon dioxide emissions from existing coal- and gas-fired power plants. Republicans argued the plan — Mr. Obama’s signature climate change policy — posed a threat to the coal industry, and had mounted a legal challenge. Mr. Trump signed an executive order instructing the E.P.A. to review and re-evaluate the rule. An appeals court recently approved the Trump administration’s request to put the lawsuit on hold during the review process.
WHO WANTED IT CHANGED? Utility and fossil fuel industry groups opposed the rule, which limited the amount of toxic metals — arsenic, lead, and mercury, among others — power plants could release into public waterways. Industry representatives said complying with the guidelines would be extremely expensive. The E.P.A. has delayed compliance deadlines while it reconsiders the rule, which had been challenged in court.
WHO WANTED IT CHANGED? Lobbyists for the oil and gas industries petitioned Mr. Pruitt to reconsider the rule, which went into effect last August, limiting emissions of methane, smog-forming compounds and other toxic pollutants from new and modified oil and gas wells. They argued the rule was technologically infeasible.
WHO WANTED IT CHANGED? Congressional Republicans said the Antiquities Act, which allows presidents to designate national monuments on federal land, had been abused by previous administrations. Mr. Obama used the law to set aside more than 4 million acres of land and several million square miles of ocean for protection.
WHO WANTED IT CHANGED? Lobbyists for the oil industry were opposed to Mr. Obama’s use of the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act to permanently ban offshore drilling along the Atlantic coast and much of the ocean around Alaska, as well as regulations around oil rig safety.
WHO WANTED IT CHANGED? The rule required tire manufacturers and retailers to provide consumers with information about replacement car tires. The tire industry opposed several aspects of the rule, but had been working with the government to refine it. The Trump administration withdrew the proposed rule from consideration, but has not confirmed whether it may be reinstated.
WHO WANTED IT CHANGED? The oil and gas industry said that the rule, which required companies to control methane emissions on federal or tribal land by capturing rather than burning or venting excess gas, would have curbed energy development. The House voted to revoke the rule under the Congressional Review Act, and Senate Republicans have until May 8 to take action.
WHO WANTED IT CHANGED? Lobbyists for the fossil fuel industry said the changes, meant to ensure fair pricing on oil, gas and coal on federal or tribal land and to reduce costs, were redundant since the government already has the power to impose penalties. They also argued that it created a lot of uncertainty in the market.
WHO WANTED IT CHANGED? Chemical, agricultural and power industry groups said that the new rule, a response to a 2013 explosion at a fertilizer plant that killed 15 people, did not increase safety and would have undermined oversight. The rule is delayed until June 19, and industry groups have said that they may sue.
WHO WANTED IT CHANGED? Republicans in Congress opposed the rules, which applied to ceiling fans, heating and cooling appliances and other devices, as well as residential buildings owned by the federal government, saying that they would place an unfair cost on consumers.
WHO WANTED IT CHANGED? The trucking industry supported the changes for bridge and pavement condition guidelines, but strongly opposed measures aimed at environmental sustainability and mitigating climate change.
WHO WANTED IT CHANGED? Coal companies, along with Republican officials in several states, sued the government over this rule, which regulated the amount of mercury and other toxic pollutants that fossil fuel-fired power plants can emit into the air. They argued that the rule helped shutter coal plants, many of which are already compliant. Oral arguments in the case have been delayed while the E.P.A. reviews the rule.
Any regulations we missed? Tweet @nytclimate.
By Arden Dier
Published May 04, 2017
Stephen Hawking is giving humanity a tall order: Colonize Mars in the next century or watch as life on Earth fizzles out. After last year claiming that humans have 1,000 years left on Earth, Hawking says in a new documentary that we instead have about 100 years until we’ll need to jump ship as Earth is overwhelmed by overpopulation, climate change, disease, and artificial intelligence.
It might be a bit premature to start packing, but the BBC’s Expedition New Earth will explore technological and scientific advances that will enable life in space or a colony on another planet, reports the Telegraph.
It will show “Hawking’s ambition isn’t as fantastical as it sounds—that science fact is closer to science fiction than we ever thought,” the BBC says, per Newsweek.
Elon Musk of SpaceX is already planning to send humans to Mars in the next decade. But while a Mars colony is a good idea, bringing new scientific discoveries, columnist Eric Mack says Hawking needs to give his head a shake if he honestly believes Mars, the moon, or anywhere else in our solar system will be more hospitable than Earth even after a host of disasters.
“Just cleaning up our own mess and starting over by rising from the rubble seems more practical” and more affordable than figuring out how to grow food or survive radiation poisoning on Mars, he writes at Forbes.
The solution to all of our problems is here on Earth, he adds. “Yet somehow, the grass is always greener for some people, even when it’s on a dead Red Planet.” (For some much funnier Hawking news, check out this skit.)
This article originally appeared on Newser: Hawking: Actually, We Have 100 Years to Escape Earth
The massive die-offs that left Alaska beaches coated with tens of thousands of murre carcasses in 2015 and 2016 also took a big toll on the birds’ next generation when survivors failed to breed.
There was a near-total reproduction failure last year at all of the monitored breeding sites in the Gulf of Alaska and Bering Sea, federal biologists report.
At about 20 of the rocky outcroppings where common murres nest, lay eggs and hatch chicks, almost no fledglings were found, said Heather Renner, a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Murres are black-and-white seabirds related to puffins and auks, are better at diving than flying, and look a bit like penguins. They are plentiful in Alaska’s waters, normally numbering about 2.8 million, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service.
“All of the colonies that I’m aware of in the Gulf of Alaska had complete failures, and also the Bering Sea,” said Renner, who is based in Homer and works at the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge.
Biologists had never documented such a widespread reproductive wipeout for common murres in Alaska, she said. Exactly why such a failure occurred is not yet known but is believed to be linked to lack of food connected to the “long, extended period of warm water,” she said.
Normally, about half of common murre nests successfully fledge chicks, she said. And murres in the Aleutian Islands and Chukchi Sea reproduced normally last year, despite the problems in the Gulf of Alaska and Bering Sea, she said.
The grim news about the Gulf and Bering Sea murres’ reproductive failures was reported last week at the Western Alaska Interdisciplinary Science Conference and Forum held in Unalaska.
The common murre die-off of 2015 and 2016, linked to unusually warm conditions in the marine environment, was the biggest on record in Alaska. Nearly 42,000 carcasses were collected, and far more dead birds went uncollected, Renner said. Starving but still-alive murres were found in inland spots, far away from their marine habitat, an indication of fruitless searches for food.
The die-off coincided with the presence of a large mass of warm water in the North Pacific that lingered from late 2013 to 2016. Nicknamed “the Blob,” it combined with another phenomenon that also warmed the region’s waters, one of the most powerful El Nino systems on record.
Several other animal die-offs during that period were also linked to the warm conditions. Dozens of large whale carcasses were found floating or beached in the Gulf of Alaska, and toxins from warm-water-stimulated algal blooms are leading suspects in those deaths, now classified as an “unusual mortality event” being investigated by scientists. Hundreds of emaciated puffins turned up dead on St. Paul Island in the Bering Sea last year, and warmth-related lack of food is considered the likely cause.
Mass strandings of starving sea lions and seals occurred on the U.S. West Coast, a phenomenon also blamed on warm water. Hundreds of dead and dying sea otters were found in Kachemak Bay off the Kenai Peninsula during the period, though the cause of that die-off remains unknown.
As for Alaska’s common murres, they are now making their spring return to Alaska from southern wintering grounds, Renner said. Murres flew into Kachemak Bay about two weeks ago and they appear to be healthy, she said.
“I’ve seen them arriving at the right time and looking normal, so fingers crossed,” she said.
Although the North Pacific has cooled back to about normal, the possibility of more warm water next winter still remains. The National Weather Service, in a report updated on Monday, says there is about a 50 percent chance that another El Nino system will develop by this fall.
Unfortunately, it’s just a U-tube; I’d like to see a transcriptpt…
With the rapid ice loss in the Arctic and Antarctic regions, many subspecies of seals are currently racing against the ticking clock of climate change. The worldwide status of seal population is alarming. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, “almost no seal pups, dependent on sea ice, survived in Canada’s Gulf of St. Lawrence during the ice-free years of 1967, 1981, 2000, 2001, and 2002.” The southern hemisphere seal population has been likewise affected by ice loss. Environmental scientists, Dr. Clive McMahon and Dr. Harry Burton of the Australian Antarctic Division, have concluded that warming climate is changing the ocean’s ecology to such a degree that the survival of seals and their young has increasingly become a concern for marine biologists.
Scientists have continued to monitor the decline in seal numbers considering also what is known about climate in the Southern Ocean and conclude that the decline is due to a drop in the amount of squid and fish available for the seals to eat . Dr. Burton also explained that ice loss around Antarctica has affected the area’s ocean ecology by causing a decrease in the amount of algae, plankton and krill. All of these organisms constitute the very foundation of the ocean’s food chain. Marine biologists continue to express their concern over the reduction of nutrients essential to seals’ diets in the Southern Ocean, because mothers are then unable to nurse their young pups properly.
It is, however, in the Arctic region where the seals’ predicament is most pressing. In Canada, 2007 had one of the worst ice conditions on record, causing serious problems for harp seals. The International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) monitored the gulf of Saint Lawrence last year, and reported that it was practically devoid of ice, and, naturally, devoid of harp seals. Sheryl Fink, a senior researcher with IFAW stated: “the conditions this year are disastrous. I’ve surveyed this region for six years and I haven’t seen anything like this. [. . .] There is wide open water and almost no seals.”
The Gulf of Saint Lawrence sustained below average ice conditions in 9 out of the past 11 years. In 2002, 75 percent of harp seal pups died due to a lack of ice. Dr. David Lavigne, Science Advisor for IFAW, concluded during the 2007 survey that “it’s likely that this year we could have, due to the poor ice conditions caused by rising temperatures,” close to 100 percent pup mortality in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
Another serious consequence of climate fluctuations is the reduction of food for bottom dwelling creatures in the oceans. In recent years, scientists have directed their attention to the impacts of climate change in the Bering Sea’s ecosystem, which is considered by scientists “a canary in a coal mine because it appears to be showing climate change effects before the rest of the ocean” ). Although it is “a good start” that people begin to realize the gravity of melting ice and rising sea level, we must be aware that humans are now responsible for comprehensive changes in the way Earth’s ecosystem works” said marine ecologist Dave Hutchins.
Figure 2: Seals (www.mongobay.com)
A recent study published in Marine Ecology Progress Series shows that global warming will greatly affect the Bering Sea’s phytoplankton, the cornerstone of the ocean’s ecosystem and food-chain. Any changes affecting this ecosystem are of crucial importance, as the Bering Sea produces one half of the fish caught in the United States (and almost a third worldwide) every year. It is precisely because of a large presence of phytoplankton that the Bering Sea is so productive. Phytoplankton organisms are eaten by larger organisms, known as zooplankton, which are in turn eaten by large fishes. Recent studies show that as the Bering Sea increases in temperature, the presence of zooplankton or phytoplankton tends to decrease. Because of climate change, “the food chain seems to be changing in a way that is not supporting […] top predators, of which, of course, we [human beings] are the biggest,” and this phenomenon is occurring at an unprecedented rate.
The changes observed in the Bering Sea’s ecosystem will inevitably affect all marine mammals which are part of its food-chain. The number of seals is already dwindling. The IPCC concluded that without serious curbing of greenhouse gas emissions, the Arctic ice will “almost entirely disappear” by the end of this century. Whether we are talking about the Peary caribou in the Canadian Arctic islands—with a population drop from 26,000 in 1961 down to 1,000 in 1997—or the near absence of ringed seal pups in the Bering Sea area in 2007, it is certain that if the current trend of emissions continues, all ice-dependant animals will continue to face a grim future.
Climate Change Impacts on the United States The Potential Consequences of Climate Variability and Change by the National Assessment Synthesis Team, US Global Change Research Program. Published in 2000
Global warming will diminish fish catch in the Bering sea (Jeremy Hance) January 16, 2008 (http://news.mongabay.com/2008/0115-hance_bering.html)
Commentary by Sea Shepherd’s Captain Paul Watson,
Forty years ago on March 15th, 1977, French film star Brigitte Bardot traveled to the ice floes off the Eastern Coast of Canada to focus attention on the slaughter of baby whitecoat seals.
Her arrival was met with hostility by Newfoundland sealers and by the Canadian government, yet despite harassment and ugly threats she rode in my helicopter far offshore to meet the seals.
She was fearless. We flew through blizzard conditions with very poor visibility to over a hundred miles off the coast.
Upon arrival in the midst of thousands of seals, she posed cheek to cheek with a baby seal for photos that circulated around the globe and brought the issue of the slaughter of the seal pups to a global audience.
For the two previous years, we had worked to get media attention to this atrocity on the Eastern Canadian icefloes. The media had ignored us.
That all changed with the arrival of Brigitte Bardot.
The baby seals now had a guardian angel. Bardot and the baby seal appeared on the cover of magazines around the globe.
By 1984, the slaughter of newborn whitecoats was abolished and the market for whitecoat seal products ended.
The genesis of this achievement was Brigitte Bardot’s courageous invasion of the ice floes in defense of le petite bebe phoques.
The killing continued with the government allowing the slaughter of seals after they have shed their whitecoats. The lack of a sizeable market was met with Canadian government subsidies and although the quotas were raised, the kill numbers dropped due to lack of demand. In 2008, the market for seal pelts was once again struck a blow with a complete ban on seal products by the European Parliament.
In 2011, the government in a spiteful move set a new quota at 400,000 seals a year.
Over the last six years, the 400,000 number has never been reached. In fact, the total number of seals killed in all six years since 2011 is about 350,000.
There is no doubt that what Brigitte Bardot did in 1977 has saved the lives of millions of seals, an achievement that animal lovers around the world applaud and recognize her for.
So this year I wanted to honor her by sending an all female team to the ice floes to meet the baby seals.
I chose Sea Shepherd Toronto Director Brigitte Breau to be the team leader. It was her job to organize the logistics. The rest of the crew consisted of my wife Yana Watson, Canadian Animal Rights lawyer Camille Labchuk, Clementine Pallanca from Monaco and Hollywood movie star Michelle Rodriguez. In addition we had two helicopter pilots and Omar Todd to handle I.T. back at the base in Charlottetown.
Along with them were videographers Canadian Marketa Schusterova, Jasmine Lord from Australia and French photographer Bernard Sidler.
It was a simple mission. Take two helicopters, fly to the seals on the ice and take some pictures with some baby seals. An easy mission or so we thought.
A few days before their arrival, the team received a shock when they viewed Satellite images of the Gulf of St. Lawrence. What they saw, we had never seen before.