Recently, in late 2016, hundreds of tufted puffins washed up dead on shores along the Bering Sea in Alaska. Earlier last year, tens of thousands of dead common murres were found on beaches from California to The Last Frontier state. The reason? Climate change and its resultant warming oceans.
The Bering Sea, which touches Russia on one side and Alaska on the other, not only supports seabirds but provides the United States with more seafood than any other body of water in North America. It’s home to a billion-dollar-a-year pollock fishing industry, as well as fur seals, orcas, walruses and whales. The mass deaths of the puffins may be signaling an impending collapse of the sea’s ecosystems.
How long can it be, then, before we, too, start to feel the warming ocean’s effects?
Puffins are perishing
In November 2016, on the remote Pribilof Islands in the middle of the North Pacific, hundreds of dead, emaciated puffins began showing up. Scientists worried about what the deaths of this bright-orange-beaked seabird were signifying regarding the normally productive Bering Sea.
What researchers did know was that in the last few years, a patch of unusually warm water that settled into the Gulf of Alaska merged with warm waters in southern California. Starting in 2014, the temperature in the upper 300 feet of water was as much as 40 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than normal. Last year, 2016, turned out to be the third warm year in a row for the Bering. Even the pool of cold water that normally rests on the bottom of the sea was at times 42 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than usual.
That completely transformed the coastal ocean. Higher temperatures tend to result in fewer, smaller, less fatty and less nutritious zooplankton, the tiny organisms that many fish, such as cod, halibut and pollock, rely on for survival. And last year, there wasn’t much zooplankton at all, meaning that there was less prey for seabirds. The puffins—deep-diving fish eaters—weren’t sick. They were, simply, starving to death.
Several hundred dead puffins have now been found, nearly 200 times the normal rate. And that could be just a tiny fraction of the deaths. To put that in perspective, over the past 10 years of monitoring, only six dead puffins washed up on the shores of the Pribilof Islands. To see nearly 250 in 20 days on small dots of land in the middle of a huge ocean is astonishing.
In the past three years, there have been massive die-offs of several different kinds of seabirds along the West Coast and in Alaska, collectively killing perhaps a million birds.
And the forecast for 2017 is that it will be very warm.
Murres are dematerializing
Just days ago, on February 10, 2017, U.S. News and World Report published an article announcing that scientists had traced the cause of tens of thousands of common murre deaths in 2016 to climate change and unusually warm ocean temperatures. An abundant North Pacific seabird, the murres, like the puffins, had starved.
What is eerie is that in a January 24, 2015, article in National Geographic magazine, author Craig Welch writes about a mass die-off of auklets. Quoting Julia Parrish, a University of Washington seabird ecologist who oversees the Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey Team, a program that has tracked West Coast seabird deaths for almost 20 years, he writes, “That’s the thing that’s so puzzling to us. We’re just not seeing this with common murres or anything else.”
It’s not puzzling anymore, because just a short year later, we did see it with common murres. More deaths—not only of seabirds but of marine mammals—are sure to follow. The birds are telling us that there is something terribly wrong with our oceans.
Are we listening?
Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,