Great auk extinction: Humans wiped out giant seabird

Artwork depicting the great auk (c) Science Photo LibraryImage copyrightSCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY

“The great auk will always hold a place in my heart,” Dr Jessica Thomas says.

The Swansea-based scientist spent years piecing together an ancient DNA puzzle that suggests hunting by humans caused this giant seabird’s demise.

Dr Thomas studied bone and tissue samples from 41 museum specimens during a PhD at both Bangor and Copenhagen University.

The findings paint a picture of how vulnerable even the most common species are to human exploitation.

Storybook seabird

About 80cm (2ft 7in) tall, the stubby-winged and bulbous-billed great auks used to be found all across the north Atlantic – from North America through Greenland, Iceland, Scandinavia and the UK.

“Being flightless, they were always targeted by local people for food and for their feathers,” says Dr Thomas.

“But around 1500, when European seamen discovered the rich fishing grounds off Newfoundland, hunting intensified.”

By about 1850, the great auk was extinct; the last two known specimens were hunted down by fishermen on Eldey Island, off the coast of Iceland.

A vast heat wave is endangering sea life in the Pacific Ocean. Is this the wave of the future?

The huge expanse of warm water is about six to seven times the size of Alaska.
Image: The new marine heat wave off the Pacific Coast is reminiscent of the early stages of the 2014-2016 "blob" that devastated marine life and is believed to have affected the weather.

A marine heat wave has formed in the northeastern Pacific Ocean, stretching roughly from the Gulf of Alaska south to California and west all the way to Hawaii.NOAA

Journal ‘Nature’ retracts ocean-warming study


Credit: CC0 Public Domain

The journal Nature retracted a study published last year that found oceans were warming at an alarming rate due to climate change.

The prestigious scientific journal issued the formal notice this week for the paper published Oct. 31, 2018, by researchers at the University of California, San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

They released a statement published on the journal’s website that read in part:

“Shortly after publication, arising from comments from Nicholas Lewis, we realized that our reported uncertainties were underestimated owing to our treatment of certain systematic errors as random errors.

“Despite the revised uncertainties, our method remains valid and provides an estimate of  warming that is independent of the ocean data underpinning other approaches.”

Lewis, a mathematician and critic of the scientific consensus supporting the , posted a critique of the paper shortly after its publication.

Co-author and  scientist Ralph Keeling at Scripps has taken the blame for the mistake.

The report used a new approach to measure the ocean’s temperature based on measuring the amount of oxygen and  rising off the oceans’ plants. Much of the data on ocean temperatures currently relies on the Argo array, robotic devices that float at different depths.

The retraction of the article came on the same day that the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its latest report on the impacts warming on oceans and ice-covered regions.

The findings were some of the most dire to date, warning that if emissions continue, sea level rise could reach 3 feet by the end of the century, a more than 10% increase from 2013 predictions. At the same time, the report found that in some cities and islands hundred-year floods will become yearly events.

Thousands of ships fitted with ‘cheat devices’ to divert poisonous pollution into sea

Global shipping companies have spent millions rigging vessels with “cheat devices” that circumvent new environmental legislation by dumping pollution into the sea instead of the air, The Independent can reveal.

More than £9.7m has been spent on the devices, known as open-loop scrubbers, which extract sulphur from the exhaust fumes of ships that run on heavy fuel oil.

This means the vessels meet standards demanded by the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) that kick in on 1 January.

However, the sulphur emitted by the ships is simply re-routed from the exhaust and expelled into the water around the ships, which not only greatly increases the volume of pollutants being pumped into the sea, but also increases carbon dioxide emissions.

The change could have a devastating effect on wildlife in British waters and around the world, experts have warned.

UN Climate Report: Oceans Also F-cked

A new report from the IPCC is yet another wake-up call for world leaders to take the climate crisis seriously

PERITO MORENO, ARGENTINA - APRIL 5: A piece of the Perito Moreno glacier, part of the Southern Patagonian Ice Field, breaks off and crashes into lake Argentina in the Los Glaciares National Park on April 5, 2019 in Santa Cruz province, Argentina. The ice fields are the largest expanse of ice in the Southern Hemisphere outside of Antarctica but according to NASA, are melting away at some of the highest rates on the planet as a result of Global Warming. (Photo by David Silverman/Getty Images)

A piece of the Perito Moreno glacier, part of the Southern Patagonian Ice Field, breaks off and crashes into lake Argentina in the Los Glaciares National Park on April 5th, 2019.

David Silverman/Getty Images

Climate activists and world leaders have gathered this week in New York for the United Nations Climate Summit. But on Wednesday attention was focused across the Atlantic, where in Monaco the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change presented a special report on the “unprecedented” impact warming temperature will have on the world’s oceans. It’s not good. The report — compiled by over 100 authors from 36 countries citing close to 7,000 accredited sources — paints a grim picture of the effect warming oceans and the cryosphere will have on humanity, especially if nothing is done to curb emissions.



The IPCC Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate , was presented today in Monaco🇲🇨

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The ocean has played a critical role in warding off the effects of climate change by absorbing close to 25 percent of CO2 emissions. The report warns that as the temperature continues to rise and the ocean traps more heat, it will become more acidic, less oxygenated, less productive, less hospitable to life, and more likely to give rise to tropical storms and hurricanes, which will occur with greater frequency and intensity. The report notes that with any additional degree of warming, intense sea events that used to occur once per century will in certain regions once per year by the middle of the 21st century.

Connected to the fate of the world’s oceans is the fate of the world’s frozen areas, or the cryosphere, on which close to 1.5 billion people’s lives directs depend. As parts of the cryosphere melt (glaciers, for instance), the global sea level will continue to rise, dramatically altering life for those living in coast regions, if not making those regions uninhabitable. The sea level is rising twice as fast as it did during the 20th century, and that the rate is increasing, the report notes, explaining that the Antarctic ice sheet will contribute more to sea level rise by 2100 than was previously expected. In the next 80 years, the sea level could increased by up to 60 centimeters if greenhouse gas emissions are dramatically reduced, and 110 centimeters if they are not.

It isn’t just glaciers and rising sea levels, either. As permafrost, snow, and ice melt, the frequency of landslides, avalanches, rockfalls, floods, and wildfires will increase. Water availability could also be thrown into flux as glaciers retreat, impacting agriculture.

“The world’s ocean and cryosphere have been ‘taking the heat’ from climate change for decades, and consequences for nature and humanity are sweeping and severe,” IPCC Vice Chair Ko Barett said in a statement. “The rapid changes to the ocean and the frozen parts of our planet are forcing people from coastal cities to remote Arctic communities to fundamentally alter their ways of life.”

Despite the realities detailed in the report, it was structured around the idea that many of these consequences can be mitigated with “timely, ambitious and coordinated action” to reduce emissions and pursue sustainable development. Unfortunately for humanity, China and the United States, the world’s two largest emitters of greenhouse gases, have largely ignored he climate crisis. Neither cared to contribute possible solutions at the UN’s Climate Summit this week.

The Oceans We Know Won’t Survive Climate Change

Vast piles of dead fish in Rio de Janeiro
Warmer oceans are leading to die-offs, such as this one in Rio de Janeiro.SERGIO MORAES / REUTERS
Today a baby girl was born. Consider the years of her life—how she’ll think back to her childhood in the ’20s (the 2020s) and become a teenager in the ’30s. If she’s an American citizen, she’ll cast her first vote for president in the 2040 election; she might graduate from college a year or two later. In the year 2050, she’ll turn 31, and she’ll be both fully grown up and young enough to look to the end of the century—and imagine she may get to see it.

While the report covers how climate change is reshaping the oceans and ice sheets, its deeper focus is how water, in all its forms, is closely tied to human flourishing. If our water-related problems are relatively easy to manage, then the problem of self-government is also easier. But if we keep spewing carbon pollution into the air, then the resulting planetary upheaval would constitute “a major strike against the human endeavor,” says Michael Oppenheimer, a lead author of the report and a professor of geosciences and international affairs at Princeton.

“We can adapt to this problem up to a point,” Oppenheimer told me. “But that point is determined by how strongly we mitigate greenhouse-gas emissions.”

If humanity manages to quickly lower its carbon pollution in the next few decades, then sea-level rise by 2100 may never exceed about one foot, the report says. This will be tough but manageable, Oppenheimer said. But if carbon pollution continues rising through the middle of the century, then sea-level rise by 2100 could exceed 2 feet 9 inches. Then “the job will be too big,” he said. “It will be an unmanageable problem.”

This release concludes a trilogy of special reports from the IPCC. The first came last October, when it warned that even “moderate” warming of 1.5 degrees Celsius would generate irreparable damage; and the second was published last month, with a summary of how climate change will reshape the planet’s land surface. After this new report, the IPCC will fall silent until 2021, when it will publish its sixth major assessment of climate science.

In other words, the IPCC—whose recent reports have overthrown the climate conversation both in the United States and around the world—will publish nothing new until after the 2020 presidential election.

The headline finding of this report is that sea-level rise could be worse than we thought. The report’s projection of worst-case sea-level rise by 2100 is about 10 percent higher than the IPCC predicted five years ago. The IPCC has been steadily ratcheting up its sea-level-rise projections since its 2001 report, and it is likely to increase the numbers further in the 2021 report, when the IPCC runs a new round of global climate models.

But sea-level rise is only one of the bewildering consequences of climate change listed in the report, whose view stretched “from the highest mountains to the bottom of the ocean,” according to Ko Barrett, a vice chair of the IPCC and a scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. What’s clear is that climate change is going to reshape every system made of water on Earth.

That means that as the ocean warms, seafood safety will decline: Mercury will accumulate in fish, and the toxic bacteria Vibrio will become more common. And climate change will sicken people. In the Arctic, where indigenous people rely on seafood diets, food- and waterborne illnesses are already increasing.

Climate change will also prompt extreme coastal-flooding events—think of Hurricane Harvey or Katrina—to surge in frequency. Floods that used to happen every century will now happen, in some places, every year. It will push the worst rainstorms, including tropical cyclones and hurricanes, to dump even more water. And it will increase the frequency of extreme El Niño and La Niña events like the “monster El Niño” that struck in 2016. This threatens to induce intense “whiplash between wet and dry periods,” Andrea Dutton, a climate scientist at the University of Wisconsin, told me.

At the same time, climate change’s effects seem to be speeding up. The seas are now rising at a pace “unprecedented over the last century,” the report warns. The rate of global sea-level rise was 2.5 times faster from 2006 to 2016 than it was for nearly all of the 20th century. “In the Antarctic ice sheet, the rate of mass loss had tripled relative to the previous decade,” Dutton said. “In Greenland, it’s doubled over the past decade.”

The oceans act like a massive sponge in the planetary system, and they have so far absorbed most of the warmth trapped by greenhouse gases. Since 1993, the rate of ocean warming has more than doubled. Marine heat waves—when the ocean becomes so hot that it can kill plants and animals—happen twice as frequently now, and they have grown in intensity, duration, and size.

This is prompting invisible bonfires to break out across the ocean’s most pristine environments. Tropical coral reefs contain most of the ocean’s biodiversity: They are the so-called rainforests of the ocean. Yet they are dying more surely than the Amazon in Brazil. “Almost all warm-water coral reefs are projected to suffer significant losses of area and local extinctions, even if global warming is limited to 1.5 degrees Celsius,” the IPCC writes.

Warming waters have bleached out corals in French Polynesia. (Alexis Rosenfeld / Getty)

From 2016 to 2018, half the coral in the Great Barrier Reef died, Australia’s lead coral scientist told me last year. It will take at least 15 years to recover—and given the pace and spread of marine heat waves, it probably never will. A child born today in Australia may never know the Great Barrier Reef as an adult. That is not a hyperbolic statement; that is an assessment of the facts.

Even beyond reefs, life is fleeing the tropical ocean. Since the 1950s, entire populations of fish and seafloor creatures have moved toward the poles at a rate of up to 50 miles a decade. This is an incredible figure when you consider that it is unplanned, unorganized, and unhabitual: The population is relocating itself all at once.

And this ecological upheaval of climate change is not limited to the seas. “Many glaciers, particularly in Washington State and the Mountain West, will disappear within the next decade and—at the latest—within a century,” said Regine Hock, an author of the report and a geophysicist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, at a press conference this week. That has implications for water security across huge portions of the American West: Phoenix and Los Angeles both rely, to some extent, on water from mountain glaciers.

There are two immense stores of water on the planet. The first, covering more than two-thirds of its surface, are the oceans. The second, blanketing the poles, are the rocklike ice caps. (Hence the pithy observation, beloved by some oceanographers, that we call our home world “Earth” only out of a kind of species-level vanity. It would be far more accurate to call it “Sea.”)

But we can already detect one key change in how those two stores of water interrelate. For decades, the biggest driver of sea-level rise was heat itself, because as the ocean gets hotter, it literally takes up more space. (Scientists call this principle “thermal expansion,” and it applies to matter more generally: You demonstrate it at home whenever you run a jar under hot water to loosen the lid.) But in the past few years, meltwater from Greenland and Antarctica has overwhelmed this effect. Oceans are rising today primarily because they have more water in them.

“We’ve been saying all along that ice sheets would become dominant, and that signal is starting to appear,” Dutton said. (Dutton is having a busy week: She won a MacArthur genius grant this morning.)

And while this is a dramatic change, there’s a question in the middle of the report that portends an even more cataclysmic event. Hanging over the report, like an icy Damocletian saber, dangles the question: Will the Antarctic ice sheet collapse?

In 1978, the glaciologist John Mercer issued a warning in the scientific journal Nature. If people kept burning fossil fuels at the present rate, he wrote, then within 50 years they could set off the “rapid deglaciation” of West Antarctica. The process he identified—called “marine ice-sheet instability”—has haunted climate scientists for the past four decades.

Mercer’s problem begins with a simple fact: Ice floats in water. Many glaciers in West Antarctica have “wet feet,” as Dutton put it, meaning their front face sits in the water. Just like ice in a water glass, these glaciers want to float. But they don’t. The weight of the ice above the waterline keeps the entire glacier stuck to the seafloor.

But as it gets farther from the ocean, the bedrock of West Antarctica slopes downhill. If the glacier were to start retreating, then more and more of its mass would fall below the waterline. Eventually, the mass above the waterline would no longer keep the glacier stuck to the seafloor. The glacier would float off its foundation, the ice floe behind it would quickly spill out into the sea, and the glacier would quickly become so many melting ice cubes.

Once this process starts, it’s irreversible. It has never been observed—because we’ve never observed wrenching global climate change before. But since about 2006, more and more evidence has suggested that Mercer’s process is real and has happened in the past, Oppenheimer said.

Right now, the IPCC authors believe that the Antarctic ice sheet probably won’t collapse. But that is not exactly reassuring. Some measurements suggest that the ice sheet is already unstable. And the IPCC is clear that if Antarctica’s glaciers do begin to disintegrate, then its projections about future “likely” sea-level rise will be far too small. If Antarctica totally collapses, then it could loose 13 feet of sea-level rise into the ocean, at a rate of more than three feet a century, Oppenheimer said. This scenario, he added, “is unmanageable.”

We don’t know how much climate change might trigger runaway collapse—but generally, the less carbon pollution, the better. “If there’s a threshold out there, we’re much better landing in 1.5-degree-Celsius trajectory,” Oppenheimer said.

What’s crucial is that decisions about these pathways are being made now; the little girl’s future is being locked in, even as we speak. In the United States, President Donald Trump’s campaign to repeal virtually every climate regulation is nudging us toward the higher, more disastrous path, and making climate action more expensive for other countries.

“This [report] drives home the message that policies that curb greenhouse gases today can have a strong effect on future sea-level rise, particularly in terms of what happens after 2050,” Dutton said. We cannot abandon this Ice Age without risking a new, and far more dangerous, epoch.

This Is Exactly What Will Happen After the Last Fish in the Ocean Dies

The devastation of the vast majority of the world’s marine life is much closer than we think.

By Mike Pearl; illustrated by Cathryn Virginia
Sep 20 2019, 3:00am

Picture a beach along the same vast ocean you know today—the same powerful waves and shifting tides, reflecting the same beautiful sunsets, even the same green-blue water. Now imagine a crowd gathered at the shoreline, standing in a big circle, gawking at something that just washed up. Kids tug on their parents’ shirt sleeves, asking questions about the dead creature lying on the sand. Reporters arrive. The story is momentous even if the takeaway isn’t much fun. Everyone knows there used to be fish in the oceans—kind of like the ones that still live in some rivers and lakes, except they could be much bigger, sometimes meaner, more diverse, more colorful, more everything. But those mythical ocean fish all died. Except maybe this one. This one was alive in there, and now it’s dead too.

According to Stanford University paleobiologist Jonathan Payne, an expert in marine mass-extinction events, a scenario where all the ocean’s fish, mammals, and other creatures—even tiny animals like krill—are all gone is far from science fiction. The type of die-off that would lead to a largely lifeless ocean has happened before, and we’re well on our way to seeing it happen again.

To get into Payne’s frame of mind, we have to look at two areas of history. First, there’s pre-dinosaur times, where we can find a precedent for the kind of huge-scale extinction we’re seeing now. Then, we have to look at the past few hundred years, to understand why our fishless future kind of looks like, uh, the present.

We know that, about 250 million years ago, some extremely bad stuff happened, because almost everything on Earth that was alive at that time died very quickly, taking only a few million years to die off. This event is not to be confused with the meteorite impact that happened 65 million years ago—the one that supposedly wiped out the dinosaurs. That was nothing. A lot of those dinosaurs never went truly extinct; they’re now known as “birds,” and quite a few mammals made it, and evolved into humans, in pretty short order. This earlier event, the Permian–Triassic Extinction, is frequently called “the Great Dying” by paleontologists who like historical events to sound like Morrissey album titles. It made the Earth pretty quiet for a while—the oceans quietest of all.

In 2017, Payne and several colleagues looked into the source of the aforementioned extremely bad stuff that led to the Great Dying. They concluded that temperature-dependent hypoxia—loss of oxygen due to changes in temperature—caused about 70 percent of the losses. An oddly familiar culprit was fingered for this temperature change: “rapid and extreme climate warming.” Payne and his pals weren’t the first to draw comparisons between the events leading up to the Great Dying and the changes we’re seeing today. A previous study had found that the Great Dying had resulted from rising carbon emissions—caused at that time by geothermal events—that occurred over the span of two to 20 millennia; in other words, the blink of a geological eye.

“The relevant thing we know from these recent results is that the patterns of warming, and loss of oxygen from the ocean that can account for the extinction at the end of the Permian are the same features we’re starting to see right now,” explained Curtis Deutsch, a chemical oceanographer at the University of Washington and one of Jonathan Payne’s colleagues on that 2017 study.

This is adapted from an excerpt out of The Day It Finally Happens. To buy this book, go here.

Thanks to our species’ multi-pronged and comprehensive approach, humanity’s present day “Kill All the Marine Life” project is going extremely well. Here’s a quick cheat sheet listing our main strategies:

  • We dump several metric tons of plastic garbage into the oceans every year.
  • Bottom trawling, or dragging fishing equipment across the seafloor, is turning “large portions of the deep continental slope into faunal deserts and highly degraded seascapes” according to a 2014 report on the long-term effects of this widespread practice
  • The planet is heating up really fast, and the resulting extinctions are happening in real time. (Although, for the record, at this rate it will take a few more centuries for this effect to reach the lifeforms at the deepest depths of the oceans.)
  • Ocean acidification—the other major side effect of CO2 emissions besides global warming—is causing countless die-offs, most famously in corals, the backbone of coral reefs, the most biodiverse ecosystems on earth.
  • Fertilizer and pesticides poison the ocean, and when combined with the above factors, they help create “dead zones,” nearly oxygen-free patches of ocean where almost nothing can live. According to a 2018 paper published in Science magazine, dead zones make up four times as much of the oceans as they did in 1950.
  • We eat the sea’s living creatures—which is the number-one cause of their declining numbers. There are rates at which we can supposedly fish sustainably—meaning in such a way that we don’t run out—but the fishing industry operates in volumes that meet, or surpass the peak equilibrium rate. (Right now, we’re hauling up 90 percent of fish stocks globally, according to the UN.) In other words, we’re killing as many fish as we possibly can as a byproduct of our industries, and then on top of that, we’re also eating as many as we can.

To be clear, the Great Dying wasn’t 100 percent caused by warming either. But whatever the cause, 286 out of 329 marine invertebrate genera we know of died back then. All the trilobites and blastoids died, for instance. Every single one! But no one mourns the trilobites and blastoids, and that actually helps illustrate why we fail to grasp that we’re annihilating life in the oceans. There’s actually a sociological term for this phenomenon: it’s called a shifting baseline.

“Shifting baselines” have to do with everyone’s gut-level perception of the natural world. The term refers to our tendency to perceive our own early experiences of ecology as the norm, in contrast to what we see later in life. To explain with a non-oceanic example, my own childhood memories of summers in California’s Inland Empire include street gutters choked with thousands of California toads. Twenty years later, those toads are mostly gone—likely decimated by chytrid fungus infections. Their loss leaves me with the false impression that the natural order in Southern California has vanished in a very short time, when actually, the damage humanity has caused here is of much longer duration and much larger in scale than the loss of one species of toad (a species that arguably wasn’t “supposed to be there” in the first place). Much more serious losses of biodiversity have been rolling out for centuries, but I don’t miss animals like the Southern California kit fox, which went extinct over a century ago, because my own baseline never included them.

Similarly, according to Deutsch, we won’t collectively care about the death of all the fish, because when it finally happens, our baselines will have shifted so much that the lack of fish will seem normal.

So back to the first question I asked those scientists: what will the fishless ocean look like?

Aesthetically, it won’t be very different, according to Payne. A point I came across again and again in my research is that crystal-clear blue waters are often relatively lifeless. It’s rare to look at the ocean and see strong indications of life—even plant life. “It’s not carpeted in green, there aren’t cells everywhere photosynthesizing,” Payne said. “The color you see is mostly just the physics of light absorption and water.” So in most places, you wouldn’t actually see anything at all by looking at the ocean, just as a flight over the Great Plains doesn’t tell you anything about the decline of the American buffalo.

Holistic accounting of the numbers of various species in the oceans have only begun recently, so it’s hard to pin down exact numbers, but according to a 2015 report by the World Wildlife Fund, the oceans lost 49 percent of all vertebrates in just the time between 1970 and 2012. So rather, we should try and imagine the perspectives of people who saw the oceans when they were teeming with life, and Deutsch suggests reading accounts from the Age of Exploration. If they could time travel, Deutsch said, the Spanish explorers who first visited the New World would look at our ocean today, and say, Wow, that’s dead.

“They would describe coming in on their ships through the Gulf of the Caribbean and not even being able to get to shore because the backs of the sea turtles were just so thick they couldn’t get their boats in,” Deutsch said. Indeed, when Columbus arrived, there were so many turtles, they thunked against the hull of his ship all night, keeping his crew awake. Today, spotting a sea turtle is a momentous event, because the number of sea turtles in the Caribbean is down to about 3 to 7 percent of what it was before Europeans arrived.

I have seen precisely one wild sea turtle in my entire life, and that was because I was searching for one.

I was off the northeast coast of Queensland, Australia, at the time, snorkeling in the Great Barrier Reef in the hopes that it might at least partially correct my own shifting baseline vis-a-vis ocean biodiversity. Even if you’ve never had the extreme privilege of visiting a coral reef, you’ve undoubtedly seen one, as magnificently CG-rendered in Finding Nemo, or majestically photographed for the BBC’s Blue Planet TV series, which means you know the broad strokes of what a coral reef is—a place so teeming with life that it’s one of the rare places for which the word “teeming” seems appropriate.

But don’t picture a technicolored Disney wonderland. Unless you have the right lens filters and the weather is just so, a coral reef just looks like what it is: a section of ocean with, well, a lot of life—like any part of the ocean you’ve ever seen, except with more brown and yellow (alive) stuff in there. When you look closely, there are the charismatic, photogenic animals down among the corals, and inside the anemones. Your expedition guide will call out when there’s something to see, “Does anyone want to see Nemo?” they’ll ask, and show off the clownfish, because clownfish are to the reef as the Eiffel Tower is to Paris. But the clownfish down there look pale and brown, and impossibly tiny, nothing like the bright red cartoon characters brought to you by Disney and Pixar. (I’m not implying that the Great Barrier Reef is anything other than breathtakingly beautiful; just that when you see it, it looks more “normal” than you might think.)

Meanwhile closer to the surface, thousands of indifferent, brownish fish dart around in schools that change directions in twitchy unison. In some parts, you can busy your hands at a coral reef by reaching out and gently closing your hand around a fish, feeling it squirm away, and then immediately grabbing another. The sheer density of “biomass” had a mounting emotional effect on me, particularly when my thoughts inevitably drifted to just how much below me had already died. Recently, 30 percent of the coral died in one year, bringing estimates of the total loss to about 50 percent. When I visited in 2018 there hadn’t been much coral bleaching recently, and lots of fish were around. The way the future is shaping up, though, finding a lot of life there is likely to become rarer and rarer.

After three hours spent touching what’s essentially a closed-off memorial to the living ocean we once had, you inevitably leave, and this gives you an opportunity to test your original perception of the ocean against your fresh memories of a marine wonderland. When you look down at the seafloor off the coast of California, you see the exact opposite of the Great Barrier Reef: bupkis. No visible fish at all. Not all patches of coastal ocean can be the Great Barrier Reef, but that doesn’t mean they should all look like lifeless deserts. To assume they should be this lifeless isn’t natural at all; that’s just your already-shifted baseline talking.

If the Great Dying is our model, the process of environmental degradation wouldn’t just mean dead marine fish, but massive die-offs in most of the plants and animals eaten by fish, meaning algae and kelp, along with many plankton, krill, worms, and everything else we tend to lump into “the bottom of the food chain.” That carnage would, in turn, devastate species that rely on small fish, like most whales, dolphins, seals, penguins, and many humans.

It’s a good time to pause and point out that some of fish species, like the coelacanth, a deep sea cave-dwelling monster fish, made it through the Great Dying and survived all the way to the present unchanged—so no, the Great Dying didn’t kill all the fish on Earth, “great” though it may have been. It was just a very large-scale mass extinction. But as long as we’re being pedantic, keep in mind that fish can’t all be lumped into any single taxonomic category like phylum, class, order, or family. From a certain genetic perspective, a shark has more of an obvious connection to its fellow cunning predator the seahorse (look it up) than with a coelacanth, and a coelacanth shares DNA with a salamander that it doesn’t share with a shark. So when I say “fish” I’m casting a very wide net (pun intended) that includes all marine vertebrates with gills that aren’t tetrapods—so no salamanders. That might not mean much to you, but if any jargon-crazed biologists are reading this, they’ll be glad I’m making this distinction.

And with the Great Dying as our model, we’re imagining the disappearance of about 96 percent of all life in the ocean—not just fish, but just about everything down there with eyes (and a lot of blind species, too). What happens?

Well, in some ways this will be a vastly improved business environment for large corporations. Just as the overabundance of marine life in oceans around the New World was bad for business, today’s ships also run into problems.

For one example, let’s look at retailers that ship globally like Walmart, Amazon, and Alibaba, which increasingly face regulations aimed at preserving marine animal habitats. The container ships—which are the size of a small town—that move merchandise currently have to plot out inconvenient routes to circumvent certain animal habitats, and to avoid some forms of water pollution caused by their 100,000 horsepower diesel engines. And they must carve a path through the seas without making sounds that are too loud, or that fall below 100 hertz because animals like whales use those frequencies to communicate. In the heated, acidified ocean that has killed all fish, baleen whales will have certainly starved to death long ago, obviating the need for any such regulations. The die-off will also allow for the easing of regulations against sewage dumping, and—needless to say—negate most of the public’s antipathy toward oil spills.

That’s not to say that businesses will make more money and that’s that. Environmental remediation, a term that means “cleaning up after businesses that pollute,” is currently a growing industry, with some market researchers claiming it’ll be worth as much as $123.13 billion by the year 2022—an amount that’s almost equal to Google’s 2017 revenue. Some of those profits will obviously fall away when there’s much less demand for oil spills to be cleaned up. But it’s not clear how long the mostly dead oceans could be treated as free and open spaces to dump things.


We can safely predict one very large effect of all that dumping: the marine fishing industry will no longer involve “fishing.” It may nonetheless survive with the help of fish aquaculture.

Fish farms appear to be a growing business. Just look at “Bluefin tuna,” the marketing term used to describe several giant, silvery fish—all endangered or threatened—that we hoist onto ships, carve up by the thousands every day to extract the $15 morsels of fatty tuna we label on menus with the Japanese word “toro,” and serve for the gustatory pleasure of the wealthy inhabitants of coastal cities around the world. Those morsels are about to become even more effective advertisements of wealth when the three or four species of fish they come from go extinct in the wild sometime in the next few decades, and prices skyrocket.

To mitigate this inconvenience, projects exist today to grow Bluefin tuna in tanks, like the ones at Yoni Zohar’s marine technology lab at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. The purpose, currently, is to grow fish larvae, including bluefins, along with smaller species like sea bass, into viable juvenile fish that can be taken out in boats and tossed into overfished bluefin habitats to replenish the depleted population. But this plan will only work as long as the ocean can sustain schools of wild tuna, which it won’t be able to for much longer. The death knell has been sounded for even the more plentiful albacore, and the yellowfin species marketed as “ahi,” both of which are declining in number as well. That means tanks like Zohar’s have to evolve if these luxury consumer goods are going to continue to exist. Tuna will have to survive in their tanks for multiple decades—long enough to transform from a microscopic and inedible hatchling to a 400 kilogram titan with fatty, palate-pleasing jowl meat. Making the feat even more problematic is that they never stop swimming, which is no big deal when the fish are tiny, but will be harder to accommodate in a tank when they’re capable of swimming at speeds exceeding 70 kilometers per hour.

In the case of something like a dolphin, this sort of small-tank captivity is viewed as cruel, but fish taste better than dolphins, and don’t squeak happily at children, so, much as has been the case with cows in the U.S., it’s doubtful anyone will take an interest in their welfare. We can probably expect vast factory farms full of tuna, along with any other large marine fish humans want to continue to eat in the future since there’s no alternative, apart from not eating them.

But if we move away from looking at the ocean as a business, it bears mentioning that not eating any fish whatsoever is decidedly not an option for a vast swath of humanity. “You’d be looking at a lot of starvation,” Payne, the Stanford paleobiologist, told me. According to a 2016 op-ed in Science magazine by public health researcher Christopher Golden, 845 million people—about a tenth of the global population—face some form of malnutrition in the near future when traditional fishing ceases to be a viable source of food for many of the world’s poor.

We’re also in for more big changes to the weather, Payne said. Part of the reason the oceans work as a “carbon sink” is that plankton consume carbon as a part of photosynthesis, turning them into organic matter. A reduction in photosynthesis means more carbon will just stay in the atmosphere and speed up global warming, particularly in the vast dead zone around the equator—a probable cause of the extreme ocean temperatures of the Great Dying; areas that are now usually around 28 degrees Celsius were 40 degrees Celsius or more back then.

Apart from heat, Payne said, “one thing you would see very quickly is the effect of storms on coastal systems would change, because with nothing living on the reefs, the reefs will start to fall apart. That will reduce their ability to protect coastal systems from waves during big storms.” This means huge changes in the terrestrial climate near these coastal systems, particularly in places like Australia and the Bahamas.

But even with the combined ocean ecosystem more or less converted into a giant marine desert, there’s a very good chance we’ll always have a man-made oasis or two. A 2017 proposal by the consortium of tourism businesses and Australia’s Reef and Rainforest Research Centre would protect six particularly profitable sites along the reef by literally pumping in cold water at a cost of millions of dollars to lessen the effects of climate change. The idea has been regarded as perverse, with critics noting that pumping cold water into a few areas of the Great Barrier Reef would be nothing but a band-aid, and that large scale action is needed. But large scale action isn’t happening, and the mass die-off is proceeding.

Since it appears we lack the willpower to curb our worst impulses when it comes to the oceans, a few band-aids may be all we can hope for.

Adapted from an excerpt from The Day It Finally Happens by Mike Pearl. Copyright © 2019 by Mike Pearl. Reprinted by permission of Scribner, an Imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc.


Federal oceanographers say a new Blob has formed in the North Pacific off the Northwest Coast in recent months and is already second in size to the one earlier this decade that hit salmon and other marine life hard, led to a nearly snowless winter in parts of the region and elevated summer temperatures.


“It’s on a trajectory to be as strong as the prior event,” said Andrew Leising, a research scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center in California in a story out ahead of a press call at noon. “Already, on its own, it is one of the most significant events that we’ve seen.”

Researchers are monitoring the new marine heatwave’s development and say that despite typical coastal upwellings that keep nearshore waters cooler in summer, warm water appears to have moved onshore to the Washington Coast.

Westport and Ilwaco anglers have reported catching numerous more southerly species, including yellowtail, bluefin and mahi mahi, and last week a 7-plus-foot-long striped marlin was caught off Garibaldi, on Oregon’s North Coast.

According to the Southwest Fisheries Science Center, that species of marlin is usually only seen as far north as Southern California‘s Channel Islands.


Still, there is some uncertainty in how bad this new blob might get. NOAA says it’s still early and it could break up or moderate as fall cools.

“It looks bad, but it could also go away pretty quickly if the unusually persistent weather patterns that caused it change,” said Nate Mantua, a federal research scientist formerly with the University of Washington.

UW atmospheric scientist Cliff Mass called it “a junior Blob” on his blog yesterday for how relatively recently it has formed. He notes the variance from normal sea surface temperatures is up to 7.2 degrees Fahrenheit, among “some of the most unusually warm water across the planet” at this moment.

Only portions of the west coast of Greenland and Arctic nearshore areas compare.

The 2014-15 blob was the largest marine heatwave in 40 years, according to the feds, and this new one is “almost the same size.”

The winter of 2014-15 saw rain in the Northwest’s mountains, leading to a snow drought that by summer had fishery managers restricting angling to protect fish in record-low, warm streams.

2015’s Puget Sound pinks and coho came in small and starving because of how bad ocean feeding conditions were for them, but 2019’s pinks have been good sized. It’s likely the former year-class were exposed for a longer period to the original blob than the latter fish to the new one.

NOAA’s story continues, saying:

A key question is whether the new heatwave will last long enough to affect the marine ecosystem. Biologists say that its large size means it probably already has. For example, warmer conditions during “the Blob” left lesser-quality food available to young salmon entering the ocean. It also shifted predator distributions in ways that contributed to low returns of salmon.

Other impacts linked to the earlier heatwave include:

  • The largest harmful algal bloom recorded on the West Coast, which shut down crabbing and clamming for months.
  • Thousands of young California sea lions stranding on beaches.
  • Multiple declared fishery disasters.

NOAA Fisheries scientists recently convened a special meeting to discuss the emerging heatwave and how to anticipate and track its effects. They are now reviewing impacts documented during the “the Blob” to compare them against the effects of the emerging heatwave.

“Given the magnitude of what we saw last time, we want to know if this evolves on a similar path,” said Chris Harvey, a research scientist at the Northwest Fisheries Science Center.

Leaked IPCC Report Warns of Calamitous Future for Oceans

The world’s vast oceans, glacial ice sheets and northern permafrost are poised to unleash disaster, including drought, floods, hunger and destruction, unless dramatic action is taken against human-caused carbon pollution and climate change, warns a leaked draft of a major U.N. report.

The Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate (SROCC) sounds alarm bells over declines in fish stocks, plus “a hundred-fold or more increase in the damages caused by superstorms, and hundreds of millions of people displaced by rising seas,” according to news agency Agence France-Presse (AFP), which obtained a copy of the 900-page draft report.

Freshwater supplies for billions of people, including the world’s mountain dwellers, will be hit by melting glaciers that will first release far too much water, and then not enough, according to the report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a scientific body of the U.N. mandated to report the state of climate change. Melting permafrost in northern regions will also release billions of tons of carbon, adding to global warming, reports AFP, citing the IPCC report.

This report on oceans and cryosphere is among several reports issued by the IPCC in recent months, all bringing to light new scientific findings around climate change and urging action to avoid the potential for the climate crisis to worsen poverty and hunger, and destroy homes, livelihoods and the environment. Already, human activities have caused an estimated 1.0 degree Celsius increase in global warming above pre-industrial levels. Levels likely to reach 1.5 degrees Celsius between 2030 and 2052 if nothing changes, the IPCC warned last year in another major report.

This follows another sobering report released by the IPCC last month that captured global headlines with its warnings of the devastation to land use caused by rising global temperatures. That included concerns about the Earth’s ability to provide sufficient food for humanity as crop yields decrease and droughts and wildfires become increasingly common.

The IPCC circulated a final draft of the new oceans report among governments in June 2019 ahead of the approvals session. The report, said the IPCC, would assess the latest scientific literature addressing climate change, oceans and the cryosphere.

“This report will provide valuable information about how climate change is affecting ocean, coastal, polar and mountain ecosystems,” Hans-Otto Pörtner, co-chair of IPCC Working Group II, said in June. “It will also discuss how nature and society can respond to the risks this poses and achieve climate-resilient development.”

For the IPCC Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate (SROCC), more than 100 scientists from over 30 countries have been assessing the latest knowledge about the physical science basis and impacts of climate change on ocean, coastal, polar and mountain ecosystems, as well as the human communities that depend on them. Their vulnerabilities as well as adaptation capacities are also evaluated.

Scientists monitoring new marine heat wave off B.C. coast similar to ‘the Blob’

Phenomenon occurs when sea surface temperatures are higher than normal for at least 5 consecutive days

Sea surface temperature anomaly maps from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration show temperatures in the Pacific Ocean above normal in orange and red. The map on the right represents September 2019, while the figure on the left represents the early stages of the ‘blob’ phenomenon five years ago. (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)

A new marine heat wave spreading across a portion of the Pacific Ocean off the coast of British Columbia has so far grown into one of the largest of its kind in the last four decades, officials say, second only to the infamous “blob” that disrupted marine life five years ago.

The swath of unusually warm water stretches roughly from Alaska down to California, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in the United States. The marine phenomenon began in the Gulf of Alaska sometime around June 15 and ballooned over the summer.

A marine heat wave happens when sea surface temperatures are higher than normal for at least five consecutive days.

Officials tracking the system said it is already the second-largest experts have seen since 1981 — the first year for which satellite data used to track marine heat waves is available.

“Already, on its own, it is one of the most significant events that we’ve seen,” Andrew Leising, a research scientist at the NOAA’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center in La Jolla, Calif., said in a statement Thursday.

Above average water temperature

Leising said this year’s heat wave resembles a similar West Coast heat wave that upset marine life in 2014 and 2015. Nicknamed “the Blob,” the system, which stretched from Mexico to the Bering Sea, was blamed for warmer weather on land, abysmal feeding conditions for salmon and the sudden deaths of two dozen whales in the Pacific.

The Blob saw temperatures in the water peak at 3.9 C above average. The NOAA said the water this year has already reached temperatures of more than 2.7 C above average off the coast of Washington state.

“It’s on a trajectory to be as strong as the prior event,” said Leising, who developed a system for tracking and measuring heat waves in the Pacific Ocean using satellite data.

“It’s really only time that will tell if this feature is going to persist and then rival [the Blob].”

The NOAA said its staff is monitoring this year’s system to see whether it will last long enough to impact the marine ecosystem, though some biologists suggest it already has based on its sheer size.

The agency blamed the recent marine heat wave on a persistent weather pattern that began in June: weaker-than-normal winds and a weaker high-pressure system over the wedge of warm ocean between B.C., Hawaii and Washington state.

Officials say a formal analysis to try to pinpoint the reasons for the unusual weather pattern will take “some months” to complete. During the previous “blob” event, a number of studies suggested long-term ocean warming due to climate change made the heat wave stronger than it otherwise would have been.

Cold water rising along the coast from the ocean depths has held the warmer water offshore thus far, but experts said the chilled surge usually peters out in the fall. The heat wave in the water could move onshore and affect coastal temperatures if that happens, Leising said in the statement.

Officials also noted the marine heat wave is still new enough to break up if the weather shifts.

“It looks bad, but it could also go away pretty quickly if the unusually persistent weather patterns that caused it change,” wrote NOAA research scientist Nate Mantua.