How a 'blob' of hot Pacific Ocean water killed 1 million seabirds

17 Janvier, 2020, 14:53 | Auteur: Therese Cote
  • Common Murres Mass Death

Their starved carcasses lay on the coasts from California to the Gulf of Alaska.

These few degrees of warming have wreaked havoc on the region's marine ecosystems.

About 62,000 dead or dying murres washed up on shore - but the total number of deaths is likely to be closer to one million since only a small fraction of birds that die at sea wash up, said researchers from the University of Washington, who published the study in the journal Plos One on Wednesday. This makes it the largest seabird die-off in recorded history.

The study also found that as the murres population was decreasing, so was their ability to reproduce.

But this still doesn't explain the murres.

Common grumbling is the master of their universe.

If the fish move, they can move, too. "The death of all of these murres suggests to us that those large fish were also having a hard time and the reason why we know about the murres is, a dead bird floats but a fish sinks", Parrish said.

Melanie Smith, a director based in Alaska for the National Audubon Society's Migratory Bird Initiative, who was not affiliated with the study, recalls seeing murres as far inland as Fairbanks.

"The grumbling was so desperate for food that it went to places they had never seen before", said Smith. "They're squarely an ocean species and don't belong in freshwater environments at all. It was a clear sign that something was wrong".

Reproductive rates in murre colonies from California to the Bering Sea also plummeted alarmingly. Colonies that had been stable for decades no longer laid eggs.

Damage to the murre population will continue for years, with some colonies failing to produce a single chick because of depleted breeding stocks, researchers say. If they don't, they can starve in three to five days, Piatt said.

"These birds are so productive and efficient", said Piatt. "This just doesn't happen". "In the ocean, this heatwave lasted two or three years".

"Did that get my attention?" "This level of mortality and over this range is just mind blowing".

Piatt and his colleagues looked again at the food supply, but through a different lens.

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If predatory fish already consumed 10 to 100 times the amount of seabirds under normal conditions, this would have completely decimated the food supply during the blob.

Common murres washing onto beaches in the Homer, Alaska area were so abundant in early 2016 that COASST beach surveyors were forced to collect and photograph them in batches.

That translated into a double whammy for murres, according to the researchers.

Common murres have marvelous tools for finding forage fish but have an Achille's heel: Murres must eat 56% of their body mass every day, the equivalent of 60 to 120 finger-length forage fish.

Scientists converse the mass die-off used to be remarkable - both for murres, and across all bird species worldwide.

"Since the bottom of the ecosystem was not moving well, the upper part of the ecosystem required much more food", said Parish.

More victims have fallen into the grips of climate change.

This heatwave is unpoetically referred to as "the blob".

This has been reported by a study that provides more data that Earth is warming at an accelerated pace. This is expected to become more frequent due to climate change.

Pulling together work done by oceanographers, fishery and avian disease experts and data collected by citizen scientists, Piatt and his collaborators focused on effects of the marine heat wave.

A study released by the University of Washington found the birds, called the common murre, probably died of starvation between the summer of 2015 and the spring of 2016.

Don Sweeney has been a newspaper reporter and editor in California for more than 25 years.

A record-breaking area of unusually warm water known as "the blob" is thought to have been responsible for the deaths of around one million seabirds.

"So we're all sort of sitting on the edge of our seats.... It seems like we're nearly back to normal down here in the lower 48 states", said Parrish.

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