Archive for August, 2015

Aug 27 2015

Sea levels will rise, experts warn, and ‘it’s not going to stop’

Aug 22 2015

Toxic Algae Is Killing Sea Lions, Shows No Sign of Diminishing

Cells of the microalgae that make the neurotoxin domoic acid. (Anthony Odell/University of Washington)

A toxic algae bloom that began off the West Coast this spring now stretches from California to Alaska. It’s poisoning marine life from shellfish to sardines to sea lions, and scientists say it’s one of the worst they’ve seen.

“We’ve never seen a bloom this big before,” says Anthony Odell, a research analyst with the University of Washington’s harmful algae bloom monitoring program. “It’s also one of the most toxic blooms we’ve seen.”

Odell is one of a rotating team of scientists who are studying the bloom aboard the Bell M. Shimada, a research vessel belonging to NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Equipped with state-of-the-art technology, the ship is traveling this summer up the west coast to British Columbia.

Odell says he’s seen a lot of toxic blooms, but this one’s different, partly because it consists of several species of harmful algae.

“It’s making a toxic plankton soup,” he says. “It’s pretty amazing to see all these things blooming together, because usually they prefer these different conditions so there’s definitely something unusual going on.”

Toxic algae blooms are not uncommon in the Pacific Ocean—they’re called red tides and they come in summer’s warm waters and dissipate in the fall. But the current algae bloom isn’t likely to dissipate.

The algae are thriving in unusually warm waters—in fact, abnormally warm water that scientists are calling “the Blob.” The algae bloom itself is an estimated 40 miles wide and, in some places, could reach a depth of more than two football fields, according to sonar readings. Scientists have been able to verify the presence of the algae bloom down to 45 feet by testing the water.

“From a scientific standpoint it’s fascinating,” Odell says. “From a sea life and human health view point, it’s pretty scary. Because it’s so big and it’s so toxic and it’s not really giving sea life a chance.”


Average chlorophyll concentrations (in milligrams per cubic meter of water) in July 2015. The darkest green areas have the highest surface chlorophyll concentrations and the largest amounts of phytoplankton—including both toxic and harmless species.
Average chlorophyll concentrations (in milligrams per cubic meter of water) in July 2015. The darkest green areas have the highest surface chlorophyll concentrations and the largest amounts of phytoplankton—including both toxic and harmless species. (NOAA map based on Suomi NPP satellite data provided by NOAA View.)


One of the toxins the algae are producing is domoic acid. It’s a neurotoxin that doesn’t have negative effects on shellfish and fish. But it can kill other marine life because the micro algae—or phytoplankton—are the base of the food web.

“Everything in the ocean eats phytoplankton or eats something that eats phytoplankton,” Odell says. “So when you have one of these species that starts producing toxin, it works its way up through the food chain really fast. It gets into shellfish, it gets into crabs, it gets into small fin fish like sardines and anchovies, which are then fed on by salmon and pelicans and seals and sea lions.”

NOAA scientists say domoic acid from the algae bloom is responsible for the high number of seizures and deaths in California sea lions this summer.

Domoic acid can also poison humans, causing nausea and dizziness, or in worse cases, permanent short-term memory loss, and even death. That’s why fishery managers have shut down some crab fisheries in Oregon and Washington, and severely restricted fishery markets from California’s central coast.

“We’re now unable to market anchovy,” says Diane Pleschner-Steele, executive director of the California Wetfish Producers Association. “And there’s a small, kind of an ethnic market for anchovy for human consumption. And also, anchovy used for bait and for animal food. So we’re now prohibited from selling to the public.”

She said after the anchovy market collapsed, fishermen moved on to squid, which feed on a different plankton.

Research analyst Anthony Odell is studying the massive toxic algae bloom in the Pacific Ocean this summer, aboard the Bell M. Shimada, a NOAA research ship.
Research analyst Anthony Odell is studying the massive toxic algae bloom in the Pacific Ocean this summer, aboard the Bell M. Shimada, a NOAA research ship. (NOAA)

So far, there’s little sign the algae bloom is going to slow down and give sea life a break.

“There’s still quite a bit of toxin production going on,” Odell says, “and a rather sizable bloom.”

Although the unusually warm ocean water is one suspect, scientists still don’t know for sure the cause of the algae bloom. Odell says they’re researching whether climate change is contributing.

“There’s been an international consensus that climate change would affect harmful algal blooms in the fact that we would likely see more of them,” Odell says. “But there’s just not enough data to tie the two together yet.”

Scientists are scheduled to arrive in British Columbia in September. Then, it could take a few months to compile data before they can say more about what’s causing the toxic algae bloom, and what it means for the changing ecosystem of the Pacific Ocean.

Read/listen to the original story:

Aug 21 2015

Researchers Say Ocean Acidification Poses Legitimate Extinction Threat to West Coast Shellfish

— Posted with permission of SEAFOODNEWS.COM. Please do not republish without their permission. —

SEAFOODNEWS.COM [San Francisco Chronicle] by Lizzie Johnson – August 21, 2015

Long before scientists and shellfish companies were aware of what was happening, a silent killer began devastating California’s oyster industry.

About 10 years ago, baby oysters, or spat, began to die at an alarming rate. Farms along the West Coast lost more than half of their bivalves before they reached maturity, creating a shortage of seed. That deficit hit Hog Island Oyster Co. in Marshall especially hard.

So owners Terry Sawyer and John Finger began collaborating with UC Davis’ Bodega Marine Laboratory to figure out what was plaguing the water in Tomales Bay, their backyard.

After more than two years of tests, they have a better understanding of the condition afflicting West Coast oysters, mussels and clams. But there is trouble ahead for California’s shellfish industry as it faces the threat of species extinction.

“We are talking about something that’s going to happen in my lifetime and my children’s lifetime,” said Tessa Hill, an associate professor of geology at UC Davis. “We are going to see dramatic changes in terms of what animals can be successful on the California coast because of ocean acidification.”

That culprit, ocean acidification, is the caustic cousin of climate change, and it shifts the chemistry of ocean water, making it harder for oysters to grow. That’s because about 30 percent of the carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere is absorbed by the ocean, causing pH levels to plummet and making the water more acidic. The more pollution in the air, the more carbon dioxide the ocean absorbs.

Larval stage stunted

The hostile conditions stunt the growth of oysters in the larval stage, making it difficult to build their fragile calcium carbonate shells. If acidification doesn’t kill them outright, an increased susceptibility to disease and predators often will. The stress also weakens many small oysters, so it takes them longer to reach reproductive age.

“It’s definitely scary,” said Zane Finger, who runs the Marshall oyster farm for his father, John. “If you’re doing any kind of job that depends on the environment, whether it’s farming on land or farming in the water, it can be uncertain. Things are changing, and it makes me nervous about the future of this business.”

Oyster growers in Oregon were the first to sound the alarm 10 years ago on ocean acidification. Whiskey Creek Shellfish Hatchery, based in Oregon’s Netarts Bay, and Oregon State University were among the first to work together and publish research on the phenomenon. They established the link between acidification and the collapse of oyster seed production.

Dire prediction

“It was one of the first times that we have been able to show how ocean acidification affects oyster larval development at a critical life stage,” OSU chemical oceanographer Burke Hales said in a statement. He was a co-author on one of the first studies in Oregon. “The predicted rise of atmospheric carbon dioxide in the next two to three decades may push oyster larval growth past the break-even point in terms of production.”

And in 2010, a mix of scientists and industry partners formed the California Current Acidification Network (C-CAN), which works for more research on acidification. UC Davis and Hog Island, both members, have helped expand research along the coast. The relationship has helped Hog Island prepare for future water conditions and allowed the university to conduct research on the link between climate change and acidification.

For the first two years of the company’s collaboration with Hill, data were collected only once a month from a buoy in the estuary. Then the federal Central and Northern California Ocean Observing System (which goes by the mile-long acronym of CeNCOOS), offered to upgrade the system.

Now, it’s a round-the-clock operation that gives minute-by-minute data on water conditions. Hill runs a small lab tucked in the back of a shed at Hog Island’s Marshall oyster farm. The structure is damp and filled with loudly whining equipment. Tubes pump seawater directly in from the bay so the team can closely monitor changes in acidity, salinity, temperature and oxygen.

‘Stressful for oysters’

“You can get up in the morning and look at the charts and say, ‘Oh, the water is stressful for the oysters today,’” Hill said, pointing to a zigzagging line on the computer screen. “It gives them real-time information and a big picture of what’s happening in the bay.”

They’ve learned that the high acidity in the water is related to seasonal upwelling, or when the wind pushes surface water offshore, allowing the deeper, more acidic water to rise up. For now, hatcheries can grow spat during spring and summer, considered the off seasons. But by 2030, upwellings are expected to last longer, and by 2050, they could occur year-round, Hill said.

“The rate of change is something that we have never seen before as a planet,” Sawyer said. “And it’s measurable; you can’t argue with that. We have the data. We should pay attention to it now, immediately, and not later.”

High mortality rate

The mortality rate for baby oysters is still high — anywhere from 50 to 100 percent. But oyster companies have learned to compensate for it by growing more spat in different locations. They’ve also put a quota on the amount of shellfish customers can buy. Diversifying will hopefully prevent another shortage like the one that hit from 2007 to 2010.

Sawyer and John Finger are planning to expand the company’s aquaculture operation. Within the next two years, they will open a $1.5 million oyster hatchery in Humboldt Bay. It will provide seeds to grow in Tomales Bay and, eventually, harvest some of its own oysters as well. Permits have been approved, and cultivation will start later this year.

A day on the farm

For now, operations at Hog Island Oyster Co.’s Marshall farm remain the same. Most mornings, workers slide on their rubber waders and guide a flat-bottomed boat onto the water. Then they slosh to the oyster racks nestled on the muddy floor, dragging them to the surface with long hooks. The smell of musty water and saltwater fills the air as they work.

Soon — and Sawyer hopes for a long time — those oysters will make their way to someone’s plate.

“I care about this on so many levels,” he said. “From a farming point of view, from business, from caring about my kids and the future generations who will have to deal with this. We live in a pretty amazing world, and I would like to preserve that as much as possible.”


Aug 20 2015

Spike in Whale Entanglements Along California Coast May Trigger Dungeness Restrictions

— Posted with permission of SEAFOODNEWS.COM. Please do not republish without their permission. —

SEAFOODNEWS.COM [San Francisco Chronicle] By Rachel Swan – August 20, 2015

Record numbers of whales are showing up along the California coastline with fishing line tangled around their blubbery bodies, in a trend that’s bedeviled fishermen, environmentalists and state regulators alike.The entanglements happen when whales run into gear that commercial fishermen use to catch Dungeness crab or other crustaceans. The “line” is a thick rope extending from a buoy on the ocean surface to a heavy trap – or “pot” – on the ocean floor. Whales run into the rope while chasing prey along the coastline, and it gets caught in their mouths.”The whales move where the food is, and they’re feeding, so they’ll have their mouths open,” said Peggy Stap, executive director of Marine Life Studies, a conservation group in Moss Landing. She’s seen whales struggle to eat with line running through their mouths.

In some cases, Stap said, the line tangles around their fins and impedes them from swimming.In one instance in September, Stap said, a fisherman set up 600 feet of line and spot prawn traps in a part of Monterey Bay where humpbacks were feeding. One whale got tangled and marooned, bound by the rope to 25 spot prawn traps and two mud anchors, Stap said. She led the rescue team that disentangled it.”It’s incredibly sad” said Kristen Monsell, an attorney for the San Francisco-based Center for Biological Diversity, one of several conservation groups working to prevent whale entanglement.

Drowning, choking

“If the gear is super heavy, they drown,” Monsell said. “It impedes their ability to feed if it gets in their mouths. If it wraps around their bodies and they continue to grow, they’ll slowly choke.”The surge in whale entanglements evidently began in 2014, when 30 whales were found entangled on the West Coast, and at least seven died from their injuries, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service. The previous decade saw about eight entanglements per year along the West Coast. As of April this year, 25 whales were ensnared off the California coastline, according to the Center for Biological Diversity. Among them was a killer whale that washed up near Fort Bragg with rope wounds around its tail. Distressed by the trend, representatives of the Ocean Protection Council, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will hold a public meeting Thursday at the Elihu M. Harris State Building in Oakland. They’ll target the Dungeness crab fishery, which has caused the majority of whale entanglements on the West Coast, Monsell said.Local crab fishermen will also attend the meeting, and many say they, too, are concerned about the problem.”The reality is, a fisherman may not even realize this is happening,” said Dan Lawson, a fisheries biologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Among the ideas on the table is a pilot program that would increase the number of crab pots on each fishing line, thereby decreasing the number of lines in the water. Another idea is to create a better logging system to keep track of how much gear is in the water. Many entanglements happen when whales run into broken line or derelict traps that fishermen have long forgotten, Monsell said. Representatives of several conservation groups – including Earthjustice, Oceana and the Center for Biological Diversity – proposed those reforms, and others, in a letter to state officials in April.

Why more entanglements?

Still, experts haven’t yet figured out what caused the sudden rise in entanglements, and some fishermen say they’re being unfairly targeted.”Things have changed, the water’s hot, and the warm water pushed the whales in,” said Larry Collins, a retired fisherman who now serves as president of the Crab Boat Owners Association in San Francisco. “I think this is a one-off.”He may be right, according to Nate Mantua, a Santa Cruz-based research scientist for the NOAA, who also blames changes in the ocean temperature – not the fishing industry – for the recent string of entanglements.Mantua said the same weather pattern that brought drought and increased wildfires in California has also caused the ocean to heat up, leading the “forage fish” that whales eat to seek refuge in a narrow band of cool water by the shoreline. “In the last few months, there have been extraordinary sightings of lots of marine life, and that Blue Planet food-web-type action by the shore,” Mantua said. “Part of that is because the water (farther) offshore has been so lacking in things like anchovies, sardines and squid – the ‘popcorn of the sea.'”Because whales have to follow their prey, many of them are also floating into that narrow band of coastal water, Mantua said. As a result, they risk getting ensnared in the crab pots that fishermen set just a couple miles off the coast.Since scientists still don’t understand what is causing the unusual weather and how long the pattern will persist, the onus has fallen on rescue teams, environmentalists and commercial fishermen to help protect the whales. Some fishermen worry they’ll bear the brunt of the whale-saving effort.

Costly solutions

Jim Anderson, a veteran crabber who mans the Allaine boat in Half Moon Bay, said some proposals, like increasing the number of crab pots per line, would be costly to implement.”It would create all kinds of difficulty for fishermen” Anderson said, indicating that he and his peers would have to purchase fatter rope, heavier buoys and special lifting equipment, just to shift from one to two traps per line. Whales that got entangled would wind up dragging twice as much gear along with them, he said, putting them in more danger of drowning. Anderson also worried that state or federal officials might try to rewrite the regulations for commercial fishing, just to solve a temporary problem. “What if this is something this year because of the drought, and then we get an El Niño and conditions change?” he asked. “And then we’ve rewritten all these laws.”Nonetheless, Anderson said he’d like to find practical ways to help.

Fishermen aren’t villains

Stap stressed that fishermen are not the bad guys.”They’re trying to do their job and earn a living, and they don’t want the whales entangled any more than we do,” she said. Collins, the retired fisherman, said he will attend the meeting Thursday, even though he’s wary of attempts to regulate the fishing industry.”We love the whales,” Collins said. “But we also like making a living, and feeding people Dungeness crab.”


Aug 19 2015

El Niño, explained: Why this year’s could be one of the strongest on record

NOAA visualization of ocean temperatures for the week of August 10, 2015. NOAA/Environmental Visualization Laboratory


Over the past year, scientists have been keeping a close eye on an important swath of the Pacific Ocean, just along the equator. When conditions here are just right, an El Niño can form — and wreak havoc on weather patterns across the globe.

And right now, it looks like we’re on pace for a very large El Niño this fall or winter. Quite possibly one of the strongest on record. Based on past experience, that could potentially bring much-needed rain in California, but also drought in Australia, destructive floods in Peru, and so on. A strong El Niño could also help make 2015 and 2016 some of the hottest years ever recorded. It’d be a very big deal.

But El Niño events are often unpredictable and full of surprises. So nothing’s guaranteed just yet. What follows is a guide to how El Niño works, what we know about the 2015 event, and how a potentially massive El Niño could upend the world’s weather later this year.

A very basic definition of El Niño

  • El Niño is a weather phenomenon that occurs irregularly in the eastern tropical Pacific every two to seven years. When the trade winds that usually blow from east to west weaken, sea surface temperatures start rising, setting off a chain of weather impacts.
  • El Niños can be strong or weak. Strong events can temporarily disrupt weather patterns around the world, typically making certain regions wetter (Peru or California, say) and others drier (Southeast Asia). Some countries suffer major damage as a result.
  • El Niños also transfer heat stored in the deeper layers of the ocean to the surface. When combined with global warming, that can lead to record hot years, as in 1998.
  • “El Niño” got its name in the 1800s from Peruvian fisherman, who first noticed a mysterious warm current that would appear around Christmas. They called it the “little boy” or “Christ child.”

Why this year’s El Niño could be a huge deal

The last truly massive El Niño appeared in 1997-’98 and ended up causing an estimated $35 billion in destruction and 23,000 deaths around the world. (It also inspired that famous Chris Farley sketch.) Now we may be on the verge of a similar-size event:

Early-August status of the 1997 and 2015 El NIño events in terms of satellite-derived data showing departure from average sea-surface height for a given time of year, which is correlated with warmth in the upper ocean. (<a href="">NASA/JPL</a>)

Early-August status of the 1997 and 2015 El NIño events. Satellite imagery shows the departure from average sea-surface height for a given time of year, which is correlated with warmth in the upper ocean. (NASA/JPL via Weather Underground)

That, in itself, is a surprise. Back in March, NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center announced that a weak El Niño had formed in the Pacific, but many experts initially thought it might just fizzle out in the summer. Instead, El Niño kept getting stronger, with ocean temperatures in the eastern tropical Pacific continuing to soar. Some forecasters now think this could turn into one of the strongest El Niño events in memory when it peaks later this fall or winter.

“We’re predicting this El Niño could be among the strongest El Niños in the historical record, dating back to 1950,” said Mike Halpert, deputy director of the Climate Prediction Center, in a recent press call. We’ll see if this latest forecast holds up.

If it does, countries across the globe will have to brace themselves. In the past, major El Niño events have brought unusually hot, dry weather to Australia that can cramp wheat yields and amp up wildfires. It can bring hotter, drier weather to India that hurts agriculture. It can bring heavy rain and destructive flooding to Peru, washing away houses and spreading cholera. In 1997, El Niño dried out Indonesia so badly that it led to huge forest fires whose smoke disrupted daily life in Singapore.

Yet El Niño isn’t all bad. In the United States, it could potentially bring needed rain this winter to ease California’s drought (though also mudslides and flooding). Historically, El Niño has also served up milder US winters and helped tamp down hurricanes in the Atlantic Ocean.

One important caveat here is that every El Niño is a bit different — and some have unexpected impacts. As NOAA’s Emily Becker points out, strong El Niño events usually bring rain to California (as in 1982-’83), but occasionally they don’t (as in 1965-’66):

El Niños effect on rainfall patterns in the US

(NOAA Climate Prediction Center)

Another story to watch is whether a strong El Niño could help make 2015 or 2016 the hottest year on record. This one seems increasingly plausible.

Global temperatures are already going up over time, thanks to all the carbon dioxide we’re adding to the atmosphere. According to NASA, 2014 was already the hottest year on record. But there was no El Niño that year — and El Niño years tend to be a bit hotter than average, as heat gets transferred from the ocean to the surface. So the combination of El Niño and rising CO2 could help 2015 and even 2016 break records:


Bottom line: There’s still a lot of uncertainty here, but El Niño could very well be the biggest weather story of late 2015, with potentially far-reaching impacts.

How El Niño actually works, step by step

To see how El Niño works, it helps to understand what the equatorial Pacific looks like under normal, or “neutral,” conditions:

1) Neutral conditions in the equatorial Pacific Ocean

Normally, the tropical Pacific features strong trade winds that blow warm ocean water from east to west, where it piles up near Indonesia. Meanwhile, back east along South America, frigid water deep down in the ocean gets pulled up closer to the surface, cooling the area around Peru. Here’s a diagram:

Neutral conditions in the equatorial Pacific Ocean

(William Kessler/NOAA/PMEL)

As a result, during “neutral” conditions, sea levels are about half a meter higher near Indonesia than they are in Peru. And the surface water near Indonesia is about 8°C warmer (14.4°F) than it is near Peru. That temperature difference creates a convective loop in the atmosphere that, in turn, reinforces the trade winds.

This ends up affecting a lot more than just this stretch of ocean. Because the Pacific is so vast, this system is a major driving force in the global climate. The large, warm pool of water near Indonesia causes the air above it to rise, creating rainfall in the region. And this system shapes the jet streams that guide weather and storms around the world.

That’s how it works under normal conditions, anyway. But things look a little different when El Niño comes along.

2) Now along comes El Niño

Every few years, those prevailing Pacific trade winds that blow east to west can weaken. (Scientists are still debating the nuances of exactly why this happens.)

When the trade winds weaken, all that warm water that was piled up near Indonesia starts sloshing back eastward, pulled back down by gravity. What’s more, the underwater layer known as the thermocline starts sinking. As a result, there’s less cold water rising up from the deep ocean near South America — so the waters near Peru start warming up. Here’s another diagram:

El Niño conditions

(William Kessler/NOAA/PMEL)

This causes sea surface temperatures in the east and central Pacific to start rising and the trade winds to weaken even further. What’s more, rainfall starts following that warm pool of water as it travels eastward. That’s why El Niño is usually associated with drier weather in places like Indonesia and Australia, as well as heavier rains in places like Peru (or California). The rain is essentially moving east.

Scientists officially declare an El Niño when sea surface temperatures in the equatorial Pacific Ocean (known as the Niño 3.4 region) rise 0.5°C above their historical baseline for three months in a row — and once atmospheric conditions and rainfall patterns shift accordingly.

Again, because the Pacific is so vast, an El Niño can have large ripple effects on weather around the world, especially during the winter months. Here’s a look at the changes that have historically accompanied El Niño events:

Typical effects of an El Niño during the winter:

Typical effects of El Niño in the winter


A strong El Niño can weaken monsoons in the Indian Ocean, for example. It can also cause the jet stream to start stretching from the Eastern Pacific across the southern United States, bringing rainfall and storms with it. Still, a lot depends on how strong the El Niño actually is — and occasionally there are aberrations and exceptions to the rule. More on that below.

El Niño’s return in 2015 — and why scientists are talking about a “Godzilla” event

Ever since early 2014, scientists have been expecting this latest El Niño to form. But, in a sign of how slippery the system can be, El Niño kept defying predictions and not showing up.

Finally, in March 2015, after a number of false starts, scientists at NOAA’s climate prediction center were ready to declare that a weak El Niño was underway. Specifically, sea surface temperatures in that Niño 3.4 region (roughly in the center of the chart below) had been at least 0.5°C above their baseline since September. And, importantly, atmospheric conditions were responding in turn, with more rain over the central Pacific and less rain over Indonesia:

A weak El Niño emerges in early 2015

Sea surface temperature departures from average (based on 1981–2010) at the end of February 2015. NOAA map by Emily Becker, Climate Prediction Center.

At the time, however, NOAA’s forecasters said that this El Niño looked “weak,” with possibly minimal effects on global weather patterns, and only had a 50 to 60 percent chance of lasting through the summer.

Then, somewhat unexpectedly, El Niño got stronger and stronger. By August 2015, sea surface temperatures had soared to more than 1.2°C above baseline in the Niño 3.4 region, and scientists were seeing the resulting telltale atmospheric changes. Here’s a chart from July and August — notice how the anomalous warm area has moved eastward since March:

Average sea surface temperature anomalies, July/August 2015

Sea surface temperatures in the tropical Pacific: departure from the 1981-2010 average. (NOAA)

NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center is now estimating that there’s a 90 percent chance El Niño will persist through the fall/winter. And when it peaks, signs suggest that this could be an extremely strong event, rivaling the strongest El Niños since detailed records began in 1950. Some forecasters have even dubbed this one a potential “Godzilla.”

Over at NOAA’s ENSO blog, Emily Becker offers a more detailed breakdown of why forecasters are betting on a powerful, possibly record-setting, El Niño. Keep in mind that forecasts often go awry, that surprises occur regularly, and we can’t be perfectly certain of how things will turn out. Still, she writes, “We have a relatively confident forecast for a strong event.”

El Niño could bring rain to California — but may not end the drought

As noted above, El Niño tends to be associated with changes in weather patterns around the world, especially during the Northern Hemisphere winter. The most tantalizing possibility is that a strong El Niño could bring rain to California, potentially alleviating the state’s drought.

But even here, nothing is yet assured. El Niño only affects US weather indirectly, by altering atmospheric circulation and shifting the North Pacific jet stream. (See here for a lucid explanation by Columbia University’s Anthony Barnston.) This is an intricate chain of events, and small kinks at certain points can affect the ultimate outcome.

As such, Becker cautions people to think not in terms of certainties but in terms of probabilities. Here’s an example of how El Niño might shift the odds of a wet winter for California (she notes that this isn’t a prediction, just an illustration):

How El Niño shifts the odds of

An example of how a strong El Niño could shift the odds for the amount of seasonal precipitation. Official outlooks from the Climate Prediction Center are available here.

In other words, thanks to El Niño, California has a greater chance of more precipitation this winter, but not a 100 percent chance.

What’s more, even if rain does come, that may not be enough to completely erase the massive water deficit that California has built up over the past five years. The state likely needs record precipitation to end the drought, and it also needs the right mix of rain (to recharge the reservoirs) and snow in the Sierra Nevada mountains (to melt during the spring and summer).

Also, be warned: Heavy rain after a drought can bring floods and mudslides. So California needs to be ready for some negative impacts, as well.

El Niño tends to hurt some countries, and benefit others

It’s not quite right to say that El Niño events are “bad” or “good.” They tend to have different impacts on different regions.

One recent study from the University of Cambridge found that on average, El Niño events hurt economic activity in Australia, Chile, Indonesia, India, Japan, New Zealand, and South Africa. The reasons varied: drought and reduced crop yields in Australia and India, forest fires in Indonesia, less-productive fisheries in Peru.

But that study also found that on average, El Niño tends to boost the economies in Argentina, Canada, Mexico, and even the United States, at least in the very short term. Again, many factors were at play: In addition to bringing needed rain to California and Texas, El Niño was associated with less tornado activity in the Midwestern United States and fewer hurricanes in the Atlantic Ocean.

Here’s a table of the estimated economic impacts on a broad selection of countries:

Economic effects of El Niño

(Cashin et al, 2014)

Again, every big El Niño is different and has its own idiosyncrasies. So think of this table as more a rough guide than gospel.

El Niño could help make 2015 or 2016 the hottest years on record

Thanks to global warming, the Earth’s average surface temperature has been going up over time. But there’s a lot of variation from year to year. El Niño years tend to be a bit hotter than average. La Niña years (when those trade winds strengthen rather than weaken) tend to be a bit cooler than average. Like so:

El Niño years are hotter than average


So what’s going on here? As humans load more greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, we’re trapping more and more heat on the Earth’s surface. But more than 90 percent of that extra heat is absorbed by the oceans. So subtle interactions between the ocean and the atmosphere can make a big difference for surface temperatures.

When conditions in the Pacific are neutral, more of that heat is trapped beneath the ocean surface. When a strong El Niño forms, more of that heat is transferred to the surface. That’s why the Earth’s average surface temperatures reached new highs in 1998: you had the combination of global warming and an extremely strong El Niño.

What was remarkable about 2014 is that it was likely the hottest year on record even without an El Niño event — a sign that Earth keeps getting warmer overall. Meanwhile, 2015 has so far been on track to be even hotter than 2014.

Now throw a potentially record-setting El Niño into the mix, and we’re looking at a potential shattering of records. Back in January, NASA’s Gavin Schmidt explained at a press conference that temperatures typically peak about three months after an El Niño event. Given that forecasters expect this current El Niño to last until next spring, it’s entirely possible we could see 2015 or 2016 break the temperature record. We’ll have to wait and see.

Read the original post here:

Aug 16 2015

5 Things We Learned From the ‘Point of No Return’ Climate Solutions AMA

Journalist Eric Holthaus and ten climate experts answered readers’ questions about how to combat climate change

Climate Change
The climate experts agreed governments must act to adequately address climate change’s effects on humans and other species. Ullstein Bild/Getty


Eric Holthaus’s recent Rolling Stone article, “The Point of No Return: Climate Change Nightmares Are Already Here,” has clearly struck a chord, reaching millions of readers and advancing the conversation about the disastrous effects of our warming planet.

One of the most common things people have asked after reading the piece is, “What can I do to help?” So on Thursday afternoon, Holthaus, along with ten climate experts, participated in a Reddit AMA to answer readers’ questions about climate change solutions.

Below are some of the things we learned.

1. Climate experts aren’t all doom and gloom; they’re happy to offer solutions for “average” people.
“Teach your children to be mindful of what they do. That waste causes problems. That they live in the context of a big world but that the world is made up of individual actions,” said marine ecologist Dr. Carl Safina.

“I would also add that ‘awareness’ is a key step forward. Talk about these issues with friends and families,” said Kansas State University grasslands ecologist Dr. Jesse Nippert, adding, “Engagement with others also has more relevance when it’s local – notice/record ‘small things’ in your community like changes in plant phenology (first flower, leaf drop), first freeze/thaw dates, rainfall amounts, etc….[C]itizen science has been a HUGE movement and source of invaluable data recording climate change.”

Eat less meat. Choose low carbon transportation (basically anything but flying or driving in a car by yourself). Talk to your friends & family about [climate change],” added Holthaus.

2. Some members of the public wish scientists would engage in more direct climate activism – and scientists have fascinating thoughts about that.
“I am a believer that we all have things to contribute, and we do not all have to do the same things to be effective,” said Dr. Simone Alin, supervisory oceanographer at the NOAA Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory. “I am glad people are marching in the streets to show how many people understand the problem and demand change. On the other hand, as a federal scientist, I have played a role in planning and implementing our regional, national, and international ocean acidification monitoring systems (with many, many great partners, from the policy world, academia, other gov’t agencies, tribal nations, industry, NGOs, etc.). In this capacity, others in my organization/field and I have had the opportunity to present our scientific findings to all of the above partners, all the way up to Congress, which has resulted in many positive outcomes.”

“I think we benefit more from mutually supporting each other and realizing we can be partners at the same table than from suggesting others aren’t doing enough because they are working through other channels,” she said.

3. The experts agree that modifying individual habits won’t be enough to combat climate change – we need to see big changes at the government level too.
“We need both, to show our elected leaders we have skin in the game, but we need to demand that they take actions at the scale of their power,” said J. Drake Hamilton, senior policy director at Fresh Energy. “I have heard Congressmen crow about switching a few light bulbs — they need to sign into law comprehensive, market-based systems that put a limit/price on carbon pollution and internalize those external costs of climate.”

“The problem is too huge for the citizens to be making bottom-up changes; it is almost an imperative from the state/country to be leading the way,” said Dr. Nina Bednarsek, an ocean acidification scientist at the University of Washington and NOAA Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory. “Having said that, citizens’ responsibility is to try to make these changes on the local and state level by writing to their politicians and demanding more green approaches.”

4. Climate scientists have a sense of humor.
When asked if the AMA participants had any “crazy ideas [for] promoting climate change,” Dr. Alin responded, “A cooking show from the future. Premise: now that we only have jellyfish in our oceans, what tasty treats can we make out of them anyway?”

She added, “More seriously, I have thought for a long time that we need some sort of mechanism/agency/organization to quantify the overall footprint of human actions on the environment….All of our consumption choices and actions (flying, driving) have a total environmental footprint, but I’m not aware of anyone or any organization that calculates this….Ideally it should be an international entity (UN I suppose) that would create evidence-based metrics to support the sustainability of various lifestyle choices and such. I say this in part as a consumer – it can be mind-boggling enough to go to the supermarket and pick out a cereal in our world of needlessly plentiful choices – how’s a person to make important decisions about bigger consumption choices?”

5. There is hope. Maybe.
Asked if climate change is reversible, Dr. Bill Peterson, an oceanographer at the NOAA Northwest Fisheries Science Center, had this to say: “We can only hope.”

Holthaus followed up on Dr. Peterson’s response, saying, “This is actually a pretty good answer from a scientific basis. There’s no way of knowing if future technology will be able to reliably and affordably remove excess carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, so the best current approach is not to put it there in the first place.”

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Aug 14 2015

Forget El Niño, the ‘PDO’ could be the real drought buster

110103-fullAn image showing the positive / warm phase of a PDO and the negative / cold phase. The terms warm and cold refer to the temperature of water off the west coast of America. JPL/NASA


A new forecast out Thursday on the El Niño climate pattern shows it could be one of the strongest on record. And that could deliver much needed rain to Southern California and possibly northern parts of the state, too. But El Niños are usually fleeting, lasting only a year or two.

Now, evidence is building that a longer-term climate pattern — one that might bring years of rainy winters — could be forming in the Pacific well north of the equatorial waters that give rise to El Niño.

The PDO game change

For the past several months, researchers have been tracking warmer temperatures in this northerly patch of ocean. And they’re beginning to question whether we’re about to see a switch in something called the Pacific Decadal Oscillation or PDO.

Given the data, the PDO could be shifting from a cool phase to a warm one — a shift that could mean a wetter decade ahead for much of California. Still, the phenomenon could also turn out be a short-lived blip, not a years-long flip.

Unlike El Niño, which focuses on sea surface temperatures in a stretch of the Pacific near the equator, the PDO looks at water in the northern part of the ocean, from Hawaii all the way to Alaska.

According to research scientist Nathan Mantua with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the PDO has a warm phase and a cool phase, and each one can last anywhere from a few years to decades.

During the warm phase, waters along the coast of the western U.S. tend to heat up while the larger ocean about 200 miles off the coast cools down. During the cool phase these trends are reversed.

“When you have the warm pattern of the PDO, it tends to be wet in the southwest U.S. and northern Mexico,” he explained.

During those same years you are more likely to see drought in the Northern Rockies, Idaho, Eastern Washington, Western Montana and Southern British Columbia.

Likewise, the cool phase is linked to wetter periods up north but dry conditions in Southern California and neighboring states.

Mantua says the PDO has been mostly in a cool phase since 1998, coinciding with some of California’s driest years on record.

Climate scientist Bill Patzert with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory thinks it’s this PDO pattern that is responsible in large part for the severe drought in the region.

Long-term drought buster on the horizon?

However, since January of 2014, the PDO has been shifting into a warm mode.

Patzert thinks this could be the drought-buster the state has been hoping for.

“Perhaps in the long term, rooting for a [warm] PDO… is probably the most important thing for California and the American West,” he said.

Thursday and Friday at JPL’s von Kármán Auditorium, Patzert will give a free public lecture on the PDO, El Niño and drought.

He said even a strong El Niño isn’t likely to supply all the water needed to get California out of a drought this bad.

In fact, a recent NASA study found the state would need double the average rainfall in a single year to break the drought.

“In the long run these decadal or multi-decade variations in the Pacific are really the key to sustaining California agriculture and California civilization,” Patzert said.

That may be true for Southern California, but it is less clear how a warm PDO will affect Northern California, said NOAA’s Nathan Mantua.

That’s because the northern part of the state is between the two regions that switch from wet and dry as the PDO shifts.

“Northern California sort of sits between the ends of this sort of north-south see-saw,” he said.

Still, he’s optimistic that a warm PDO is coming, since the major index predicting this pattern has been positive for 19 months.

But Mantua cautions that even such a strong signal can result in a warm PDO that only lasts a year or so.

“Beyond that, it’s going depend on what the winds do and the weather patterns,” he said.

Sometimes those can change rapidly and dramatically, bringing drought conditions anew to California.

Another wild card, according to JPL’s Patzert, is how climate change will affect the PDO and related weather patterns.

“As we move into the 21st Century, climate is shifting beneath our feet… nobody really understands what the impact will be,” he said.

For now, climate watchers will keep their eyes on the ocean for signals of the weather to come.

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Aug 11 2015

Whales putting on a show off Moss Landing

A 50-foot humpback whale, little over a mile offshore Moss Landing Harbor at Monterey Bay, was one of 15 to emerge in near-shore waters right alongside kayaker Giancarlo Thomae -- and one then swam right under his kayak Photo: Giancarlo Thomae,

Photo: Giancarlo Thomae,

A 50-foot humpback whale, little over a mile offshore Moss Landing Harbor at Monterey Bay, was one of 15 to emerge in near-shore waters right alongside kayaker Giancarlo Thomae — and one then swam right under his kayak

This might be the real “Greatest Show on Earth.”

A pod of 15 humpback whales, many roughly 50 feet long and weighing 40 tons, has been roaming a little more than a mile off Moss Landing in Monterey Bay in the past week.

As the big whales put on a show — rising to the surface to fin slap, tail lob and lunge feed — they were close enough to see from shore for free at the north jetty.

The humpbacks emerged alongside expert paddlers in kayaks, as if to say hello, and at times swam right under the small boats. The location is also an easy trip for the big commercial whale-watching vessels, of course.

A whale fluke -- 15 feet wide -- so powerful, they create a vortex in the water. Humpback whales have swum as a close as a mile from this past week shore at Moss Landing in Monterey Bay Photo: Giancarlo Thomae

 Photo: Giancarlo Thomae

A whale fluke — 15 feet wide — so powerful, they create a vortex in the water. Humpback whales have swum as a close as a mile from this past week shore at Moss Landing in Monterey Bay

It also happened at the same time last year. And like last year, as long as acres of juvenile anchovies remain in the area, the whales will continue to feast within close range through August and September.

The event has put Moss Landing on the map as the No. 1 whale-watching site on the Pacific Coast as news of these near-shore sightings has gained attention around the world.

“It was so warm, so calm, it felt like I woke up on a beach in Hawaii,” said Giancarlo Thomae, a Chronicle field scout who is also a marine biologist and captain at Elkhorn Slough Safari out of Moss Landing. “The ocean and sky were like a perfect mirror, and there were 15 whales out front. I paddled out, and at one point, a 50-foot humpback rose up right next to me and then swam right under my kayak.” Thomae’s photos of whales and great white sharks in the past month have been published across America.

Last year to the week, I paddled with Thomae out of Moss Landing into Monterey Bay and the edge of the Submarine Canyon. We had humpbacks emerge within 20 yards of us and in a few hours, had dozens of sightings. This is one of the most electrifying low-cost adventures I’ve ever had.

Just like last year, acres of juvenile anchovies have arrived at inshore areas along the edge of the Submarine Canyon. There are so many fish that the clear water can sparkle in silvers beneath your boat.

The Submarine Canyon starts 100 feet outside the Moss Landing harbor. Just a mile offshore, it plunges to 800 feet deep and, within a few miles, to 1,400 feet. Breezes out of the west push plankton and other feed against the canyon walls, where the feed is then thrust near the surface. That creates feeding grounds where humpbacks and other marine mammals and shorebirds can put on spectacular shows in calm, easy-to-reach near-shore waters.

Over the years, I have paddled here several times. When the juvenile anchovies arrive en masse, we’ve seen 50 harbor seals, 100 sea lions, a dozen sea otters, 50,000 terns and literally miles of shearwaters in an hour or two — along with dozens of whales, some of which have surfaced alongside. Once I was looking to the left at a giant whale tail that jutted up from the surface, when another, just off to my right, arose and showered water on me from his blowhole.

This past week, the ocean was again as calm as a mill pond. Rays of light filtered through high clouds from monsoonal flow looked something like a scene out of “The Ten Commandments.” The whales started spouting a little more than a mile from the harbor entrance. Kayaks hit the water.

An estimated 15 humpbacks swirled, played, dived and surfaced.

“What they’re doing is taking turns diving down and feeding for 10 minutes,” Thomae said. “Then they’re coming up to exhale and get a breath, visit a bit and then go down again for more food.”

I’m a believer that the whales communicate, and in turn, when they find bait fish in abundance, will call other whales to the site to feed. If so, more humpbacks will be arriving there from across the sea in the coming weeks.

A whale approaches and begins dive directly under kayak of photographer Photo: Giancarlo Thomae

Photo: Giancarlo Thomae

A whale approaches and begins dive directly under kayak of photographer

The water is warm. It is full of food, full of whales. This has been one of the strangest years on record for dislocated wildlife from southern waters, and amid that, here is a rare chance to see these friendly creatures — most as big as a school bus — frolic, feed and even pirouette in the air at close range.

Until just three years ago, it hadn’t happened inshore like this. Could it be the start of a new era for Moss Landing and Monterey Bay with an arrival every August?

Or is this a golden age to be appreciated here and now, and nobody can say for sure when we’ll see the likes of it again.

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Aug 11 2015

Possible Spoiler for El Niño: A ‘Battle of the Blobs’


Hopeful Californians are looking to the Pacific this winter for an end to California’s most punishing drought on record.

The reason: what appears to be a monster El Niño in the making. The abnormally warm waters along the equator could mean a wet winter.

There are no guarantees, but there have been portents. On one Saturday in July, San Diego got more rain than it got the entire month of January.

That same month, ESPN broadcaster Dan Shulman broke the news to baseball fans from underneath a golf umbrella: “For the first time in 20 years, a game has been postponed because of rain here in Anaheim.”

You can thank Dolores for that, a hurricane that managed to make it farther north than normal. The intense Pacific hurricane season bears the fingerprints of El Niño, which is already getting hyped as a potential drought-buster.

“Yes, and deservedly so,” says Kevin Trenberth, a Distinguished Senior Scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado.

“For this time of year, the El Niño is as strong as it’s ever been.”

Ridiculously-Reilent-Ridge-graphic-e1422040126985-1024x629Storms headed for the California coast run into the Ridiculously Resilient Ridge, represented by the “H” in this graphic. (David Pierce/ KQED) 

Strength in this case is measured by how much warmer surface temperatures are than normal, in the tropical Pacific. And this one looks to be about as strong as the legendary El Niño of 1997-98, which was the strongest on record, peaking at about 2.3 degrees Celsius above normal.

In the ocean, a spike of more than two degrees is like sticking a hot poker into the climate system. Pacific storms sucked up moisture from extremely warm equatorial waters and pretty much dumped it on California. San Francisco got double its normal rainfall that year.

Enter the Blob

But this time around, there are other things brewing in the Pacific: patches of freakishly warm water spread far and wide, up the California coast to the persistently warm vortex, hundreds of miles across, christened by climate scientists as “the Blob.”

“That is definitely the wildcard with this El Niño,” warns Bill Patzert, a climatologist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena and an advisor to federal El Niño forecasters.

He says unlike in 1997, the Blob has been a fixture during the current drought. It’s essentially the sidekick of that “Ridiculously Resilient Ridge,” the stubborn bubble of high-pressure that’s been parked off the north coast for the past couple of years, diverting winter storms up and around California.


The “Blob” is associated with the persistent ridge of high pressure that has detoured the winter storm track around California. (NOAA)

“And so the question is, who wins in the battle of the Blob and the El Niño,” says Patzert, “and what impact that’ll have on rainfall on the West Coast of the U.S. this fall, into the winter.”

Patzert says if the Blob and its ridge dominate, we could wring less water out of this El Niño.

“What we’re having here is battling blobs!”

But not everyone’s on the edge of their seat.

“It doesn’t fit with my concept of how things work,” says Trenberth. On the contrary, he maintains, the presence of all this warm water — especially close to the coast — could mean heavier rains from the storms we do get.

A Mixed Blessing

“The potential in California for rains to be torrential this winter is quite high because of the warm water,” Trenberth says.

That’s because, as a general rule, the warmer the water, the more moisture gets picked up by the atmosphere and by any emerging storms.

Weather-west-imageOcean waters near California have warmed further in recent weeks, and remain far above normal. (NOAA RTG)

“Those storms are apt to pick up moisture from any warm water that’s lying around all along the West Coast,” says Trenberth, “and it just feeds those storms.”

That would be both good and bad news. While the reservoirs refill, the rivers could easily overfill, causing flooding and landslides — much like in 1997-98. Trenberth will take that glass as half-full.

“The way things are shaping up it sure looks like an end to the drought to me,” he says, “depending on how you define the drought.”

Patzert agrees the current El Niño is looking like a monster — “Godzilla,” to use his favorite moniker. But he’s concerned the Blob and its ridge could become at least partial spoilers, blocking out storms from the northern Pacific, leaving the door open only for El Niño-driven storms from the tropics.

That could mean Southern California gets a soaking, but the northern part of the state — where most of the major reservoirs are — misses out.

“There is almost certainly going to be a dividing line,” says Stanford climate scientist Daniel Swain. “And it’s possible that dividing line could occur somewhere in Northern California.”

Patzert hopes that isn’t the case.

“If that happens, I’m definitely going to have to go into witness protection,” he frets, “because ‘my’ El Niño, the Great Wet Hope, will only deliver half the package.”

Whatever we get, it’s a package that won’t be delivered for at least three months, when California’s long-awaited “rainy” season is due.

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Aug 6 2015

The Point of No Return: Climate Change Nightmares Are Already Here


Walruses, like these in Alaska, are being forced ashore in record numbers. Corey Accardo/NOAA/AP

The worst predicted impacts of climate change are starting to happen — and much faster than climate scientists expected

Historians may look to 2015 as the year when shit really started hitting the fan. Some snapshots: In just the past few months, record-setting heat waves in Pakistan and India each killed more than 1,000 people. In Washington state’s Olympic National Park, the rainforest caught fire for the first time in living memory. London reached 98 degrees Fahrenheit during the hottest July day ever recorded in the U.K.; The Guardian briefly had to pause its live blog of the heat wave because its computer servers overheated. In California, suffering from its worst drought in a millennium, a 50-acre brush fire swelled seventyfold in a matter of hours, jumping across the I-15 freeway during rush-hour traffic. Then, a few days later, the region was pounded by intense, virtually unheard-of summer rains. Puerto Rico is under its strictest water rationing in history as a monster El Niño forms in the tropical Pacific Ocean, shifting weather patterns worldwide.

On July 20th, James Hansen, the former NASA climatologist who brought climate change to the public’s attention in the summer of 1988, issued a bombshell: He and a team of climate scientists had identified a newly important feedback mechanism off the coast of Antarctica that suggests mean sea levels could rise 10 times faster than previously predicted: 10 feet by 2065. The authors included this chilling warning: If emissions aren’t cut, “We conclude that multi-meter sea-level rise would become practically unavoidable. Social disruption and economic consequences of such large sea-level rise could be devastating. It is not difficult to imagine that conflicts arising from forced migrations and economic collapse might make the planet ungovernable, threatening the fabric of civilization.”

Eric Rignot, a climate scientist at NASA and the University of California-Irvine and a co-author on Hansen’s study, said their new research doesn’t necessarily change the worst-case scenario on sea-level rise, it just makes it much more pressing to think about and discuss, especially among world leaders. In particular, says Rignot, the new research shows a two-degree Celsius rise in global temperature — the previously agreed upon “safe” level of climate change — “would be a catastrophe for sea-level rise.”

Hansen’s new study also shows how complicated and unpredictable climate change can be. Even as global ocean temperatures rise to their highest levels in recorded history, some parts of the ocean, near where ice is melting exceptionally fast, are actually cooling, slowing ocean circulation currents and sending weather patterns into a frenzy. Sure enough, a persistently cold patch of ocean is starting to show up just south of Greenland, exactly where previous experimental predictions of a sudden surge of freshwater from melting ice expected it to be. Michael Mann, another prominent climate scientist, recently said of the unexpectedly sudden Atlantic slowdown, “This is yet another example of where observations suggest that climate model predictions may be too conservative when it comes to the pace at which certain aspects of climate change are proceeding.”

Since storm systems and jet streams in the United States and Europe partially draw their energy from the difference in ocean temperatures, the implication of one patch of ocean cooling while the rest of the ocean warms is profound. Storms will get stronger, and sea-level rise will accelerate. Scientists like Hansen only expect extreme weather to get worse in the years to come, though Mann said it was still “unclear” whether recent severe winters on the East Coast are connected to the phenomenon.

And yet, these aren’t even the most disturbing changes happening to the Earth’s biosphere that climate scientists are discovering this year. For that, you have to look not at the rising sea levels but to what is actually happening within the oceans themselves.

Water temperatures this year in the North Pacific have never been this high for this long over such a large area — and it is already having a profound effect on marine life

Eighty-year-old Roger Thomas runs whale-watching trips out of San Francisco. On an excursion earlier this year, Thomas spotted 25 humpbacks and three blue whales. During a survey on July 4th, federal officials spotted 115 whales in a single hour near the Farallon Islands — enough to issue a boating warning. Humpbacks are occasionally seen offshore in California, but rarely so close to the coast or in such numbers. Why are they coming so close to shore? Exceptionally warm water has concentrated the krill and anchovies they feed on into a narrow band of relatively cool coastal water. The whales are having a heyday. “It’s unbelievable,” Thomas told a local paper. “Whales are all over the place.”

Last fall, in northern Alaska, in the same part of the Arctic where Shell is planning to drill for oil, federal scientists discovered 35,000 walruses congregating on a single beach. It was the largest-ever documented “haul out” of walruses, and a sign that sea ice, their favored habitat, is becoming harder and harder to find.

Marine life is moving north, adapting in real time to the warming ocean. Great white sharks have been sighted breeding near Monterey Bay, California, the farthest north that’s ever been known to occur. A blue marlin was caught last summer near Catalina Island — 1,000 miles north of its typical range. Across California, there have been sightings of non-native animals moving north, such as Mexican red crabs.


Salmon on the brink of dying out. Michael Quinton/Newscom

No species may be as uniquely endangered as the one most associated with the Pacific Northwest, the salmon. Every two weeks, Bill Peterson, an oceanographer and senior scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center in Oregon, takes to the sea to collect data he uses to forecast the return of salmon. What he’s been seeing this year is deeply troubling.Salmon are crucial to their coastal ecosystem like perhaps few other species on the planet. A significant portion of the nitrogen in West Coast forests has been traced back to salmon, which can travel hundreds of miles upstream to lay their eggs. The largest trees on Earth simply wouldn’t exist without salmon.But their situation is precarious. This year, officials in California are bringing salmon downstream in convoys of trucks, because river levels are too low and the temperatures too warm for them to have a reasonable chance of surviving. One species, the winter-run Chinook salmon, is at a particularly increased risk of decline in the next few years, should the warm water persist offshore.”You talk to fishermen, and they all say: ‘We’ve never seen anything like this before,’ ” says Peterson. “So when you have no experience with something like this, it gets like, ‘What the hell’s going on?’ ”

Atmospheric scientists increasingly believe that the exceptionally warm waters over the past months are the early indications of a phase shift in the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, a cyclical warming of the North Pacific that happens a few times each century. Positive phases of the PDO have been known to last for 15 to 20 years, during which global warming can increase at double the rate as during negative phases of the PDO. It also makes big El Niños, like this year’s, more likely. The nature of PDO phase shifts is unpredictable — climate scientists simply haven’t yet figured out precisely what’s behind them and why they happen when they do. It’s not a permanent change — the ocean’s temperature will likely drop from these record highs, at least temporarily, some time over the next few years — but the impact on marine species will be lasting, and scientists have pointed to the PDO as a global-warming preview.

“The climate [change] models predict this gentle, slow increase in temperature,” says Peterson, “but the main problem we’ve had for the last few years is the variability is so high. As scientists, we can’t keep up with it, and neither can the animals.” Peterson likens it to a boxer getting pummeled round after round: “At some point, you knock them down, and the fight is over.”



Pavement-melting heat waves in India. Harish Tyagi/EPA/Corbis

Attendant with this weird wildlife behavior is a stunning drop in the number of plankton — the basis of the ocean’s food chain. In July, another major study concluded that acidifying oceans are likely to have a “quite traumatic” impact on plankton diversity, with some species dying out while others flourish. As the oceans absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, it’s converted into carbonic acid — and the pH of seawater declines. According to lead author Stephanie Dutkiewicz of MIT, that trend means “the whole food chain is going to be different.”

The Hansen study may have gotten more attention, but the Dutkiewicz study, and others like it, could have even more dire implications for our future. The rapid changes Dutkiewicz and her colleagues are observing have shocked some of their fellow scientists into thinking that yes, actually, we’re heading toward the worst-case scenario. Unlike a prediction of massive sea-level rise just decades away, the warming and acidifying oceans represent a problem that seems to have kick-started a mass extinction on the same time scale.

Jacquelyn Gill is a paleoecologist at the University of Maine. She knows a lot about extinction, and her work is more relevant than ever. Essentially, she’s trying to save the species that are alive right now by learning more about what killed off the ones that aren’t. The ancient data she studies shows “really compelling evidence that there can be events of abrupt climate change that can happen well within human life spans. We’re talking less than a decade.”

For the past year or two, a persistent change in winds over the North Pacific has given rise to what meteorologists and oceanographers are calling “the blob” — a highly anomalous patch of warm water between Hawaii, Alaska and Baja California that’s thrown the marine ecosystem into a tailspin. Amid warmer temperatures, plankton numbers have plummeted, and the myriad species that depend on them have migrated or seen their own numbers dwindle.

Significant northward surges of warm water have happened before, even frequently. El Niño, for example, does this on a predictable basis. But what’s happening this year appears to be something new. Some climate scientists think that the wind shift is linked to the rapid decline in Arctic sea ice over the past few years, which separate research has shown makes weather patterns more likely to get stuck.

A similar shift in the behavior of the jet stream has also contributed to the California drought and severe polar vortex winters in the Northeast over the past two years. An amplified jet-stream pattern has produced an unusual doldrum off the West Coast that’s persisted for most of the past 18 months. Daniel Swain, a Stanford University meteorologist, has called it the “Ridiculously Resilient Ridge” — weather patterns just aren’t supposed to last this long.

What’s increasingly uncontroversial among scientists is that in many ecosystems, the impacts of the current off-the-charts temperatures in the North Pacific will linger for years, or longer. The largest ocean on Earth, the Pacific is exhibiting cyclical variability to greater extremes than other ocean basins. While the North Pacific is currently the most dramatic area of change in the world’s oceans, it’s not alone: Globally, 2014 was a record-setting year for ocean temperatures, and 2015 is on pace to beat it soundly, boosted by the El Niño in the Pacific. Six percent of the world’s reefs could disappear before the end of the decade, perhaps permanently, thanks to warming waters.

Since warmer oceans expand in volume, it’s also leading to a surge in sea-level rise. One recent study showed a slowdown in Atlantic Ocean currents, perhaps linked to glacial melt from Greenland, that caused a four-inch rise in sea levels along the Northeast coast in just two years, from 2009 to 2010. To be sure, it seems like this sudden and unpredicted surge was only temporary, but scientists who studied the surge estimated it to be a 1-in-850-year event, and it’s been blamed on accelerated beach erosion “almost as significant as some hurricane events.”

Turkey Biblical floods in Turkey. Ali Atmaca/Anadolu Agency/Getty

Possibly worse than rising ocean temperatures is the acidification of the waters. Acidification has a direct effect on mollusks and other marine animals with hard outer bodies: A striking study last year showed that, along the West Coast, the shells of tiny snails are already dissolving, with as-yet-unknown consequences on the ecosystem. One of the study’s authors, Nina Bednaršek, told Science magazine that the snails’ shells, pitted by the acidifying ocean, resembled “cauliflower” or “sandpaper.” A similarly striking study by more than a dozen of the world’s top ocean scientists this July said that the current pace of increasing carbon emissions would force an “effectively irreversible” change on ocean ecosystems during this century. In as little as a decade, the study suggested, chemical changes will rise significantly above background levels in nearly half of the world’s oceans.

“I used to think it was kind of hard to make things in the ocean go extinct,” James Barry of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute in California told the Seattle Times in 2013. “But this change we’re seeing is happening so fast it’s almost instantaneous.”

Thanks to the pressure we’re putting on the planet’s ecosystem — warming, acidification and good old-fashioned pollution — the oceans are set up for several decades of rapid change. Here’s what could happen next.

The combination of excessive nutrients from agricultural runoff, abnormal wind patterns and the warming oceans is already creating seasonal dead zones in coastal regions when algae blooms suck up most of the available oxygen. The appearance of low-oxygen regions has doubled in frequency every 10 years since 1960 and should continue to grow over the coming decades at an even greater rate.

So far, dead zones have remained mostly close to the coasts, but in the 21st century, deep-ocean dead zones could become common. These low-oxygen regions could gradually expand in size — potentially thousands of miles across — which would force fish, whales, pretty much everything upward. If this were to occur, large sections of the temperate deep oceans would suffer should the oxygen-free layer grow so pronounced that it stratifies, pushing surface ocean warming into overdrive and hindering upwelling of cooler, nutrient-rich deeper water.

Enhanced evaporation from the warmer oceans will create heavier downpours, perhaps destabilizing the root systems of forests, and accelerated runoff will pour more excess nutrients into coastal areas, further enhancing dead zones. In the past year, downpours have broken records in Long Island, Phoenix, Detroit, Baltimore, Houston and Pensacola, Florida.

Evidence for the above scenario comes in large part from our best understanding of what happened 250 million years ago, during the “Great Dying,” when more than 90 percent of all oceanic species perished after a pulse of carbon dioxide and methane from land-based sources began a period of profound climate change. The conditions that triggered “Great Dying” took hundreds of thousands of years to develop. But humans have been emitting carbon dioxide at a much quicker rate, so the current mass extinction only took 100 years or so to kick-start.

With all these stressors working against it, a hypoxic feedback loop could wind up destroying some of the oceans’ most species-rich ecosystems within our lifetime. A recent study by Sarah Moffitt of the University of California-Davis said it could take the ocean thousands of years to recover. “Looking forward for my kid, people in the future are not going to have the same ocean that I have today,” Moffitt said.

As you might expect, having tickets to the front row of a global environmental catastrophe is taking an increasingly emotional toll on scientists, and in some cases pushing them toward advocacy. Of the two dozen or so scientists I interviewed for this piece, virtually all drifted into apocalyptic language at some point.

For Simone Alin, an oceanographer focusing on ocean acidification at NOAA’s Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory in Seattle, the changes she’s seeing hit close to home. The Puget Sound is a natural laboratory for the coming decades of rapid change because its waters are naturally more acidified than most of the world’s marine ecosystems.

The local oyster industry here is already seeing serious impacts from acidifying waters and is going to great lengths to avoid a total collapse. Alin calls oysters, which are non-native, the canary in the coal mine for the Puget Sound: “A canary is also not native to a coal mine, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a good indicator of change.”

Though she works on fundamental oceanic changes every day, the Dutkiewicz study on the impending large-scale changes to plankton caught her off-guard: “This was alarming to me because if the basis of the food web changes, then . . . everything could change, right?”

Alin’s frank discussion of the looming oceanic apocalypse is perhaps a product of studying unfathomable change every day. But four years ago, the birth of her twins “heightened the whole issue,” she says. “I was worried enough about these problems before having kids that I maybe wondered whether it was a good idea. Now, it just makes me feel crushed.”

Katharine Hayhoe
Katharine Hayhoe speaks about climate change to students and faculty at Wayland Baptist University in 2011. Geoffrey McAllister/Chicago Tribune/MCT/Getty


Katharine Hayhoe, a climate scientist and evangelical Christian, moved from Canada to Texas with her husband, a pastor, precisely because of its vulnerability to climate change. There, she engages with the evangelical community on science — almost as a missionary would. But she’s already planning her exit strategy: “If we continue on our current pathway, Canada will be home for us long term. But the majority of people don’t have an exit strategy. . . . So that’s who I’m here trying to help.”

James Hansen, the dean of climate scientists, retired from NASA in 2013 to become a climate activist. But for all the gloom of the report he just put his name to, Hansen is actually somewhat hopeful. That’s because he knows that climate change has a straightforward solution: End fossil-fuel use as quickly as possible. If tomorrow, the leaders of the United States and China would agree to a sufficiently strong, coordinated carbon tax that’s also applied to imports, the rest of the world would have no choice but to sign up. This idea has already been pitched to Congress several times, with tepid bipartisan support. Even though a carbon tax is probably a long shot, for Hansen, even the slim possibility that bold action like this might happen is enough for him to devote the rest of his life to working to achieve it. On a conference call with reporters in July, Hansen said a potential joint U.S.-China carbon tax is more important than whatever happens at the United Nations climate talks in Paris.

One group Hansen is helping is Our Children’s Trust, a legal advocacy organization that’s filed a number of novel challenges on behalf of minors under the idea that climate change is a violation of intergenerational equity — children, the group argues, are lawfully entitled to inherit a healthy planet.

A separate challenge to U.S. law is being brought by a former EPA scientist arguing that carbon dioxide isn’t just a pollutant (which, under the Clean Air Act, can dissipate on its own), it’s also a toxic substance. In general, these substances have exceptionally long life spans in the environment, cause an unreasonable risk, and therefore require remediation. In this case, remediation may involve planting vast numbers of trees or restoring wetlands to bury excess carbon underground.

Even if these novel challenges succeed, it will take years before a bend in the curve is noticeable. But maybe that’s enough. When all feels lost, saving a few species will feel like a triumph.

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