Home Emergency Management News Concerns Grow Over Implications of Warm Ocean Waters

Concerns Grow Over Implications of Warm Ocean Waters

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The Pacific Ocean "Blob" of Warm Water & its Deadly Impact

Warm waters in the Pacific Ocean that began forming in 2013, and continued until the early part of 2016, have wreaked havoc and been deadly for marine life off the West Coast of the United States, including Alaska, and Canada.

According to officials, the Gulf of Alaska saw the formation of a patch of unusually warm water in late 2013. This section of water eventually grew and merged with warm water moving north from Southern California, along the West Coast, causing temperatures in some areas of the patch to reach seven degrees Fahrenheit above average. At its largest size, the warm water patch covered an area from California to Alaska that was larger than the U.S., around 3.5 million square miles.

The patch spread until late 2015, and part of its impact included a massive toxic algae bloom along the coast of California, near the Channel Islands, that slowly spread to Alaska, covering about 2,000 miles. Although algae blooms are typical in the spring each year, they are normally small, last just a couple of weeks, and only occur in a few places. With such warm temperatures, the bloom lasted longer, spread farther, and was more toxic then ever, with the toxins in the algae reaching levels 30 times higher than what was considered high.

Marine life consequences

The bloom was so bad it resulted in a several month shut-down of the crab industry in California, affected the food chain, and brought marine life farther north -- even some species from the coast of Central America, including a venomous yellow-bellied sea snake.

In all, one researcher working off the coast of Alaska, catalogued almost 20 species that were new and had come from very distant locations, such as Hawaii and the South Pacific.

The consequences from this warm water patch have been grim. Marine life has perished, including a record 45 whales in 2015 the western Gulf of Alaska, as starved sea lions invaded California's beaches, and sea otters died on rocky shores in Alaska. Research scientists believe the deaths may be linked to the toxins from the algae bloom that were ingested by food sources, such as anchovies and sardines.

Another occurrence that coincided with the warm water patch was the sudden absence of krill, an important food source for whales.

Theories abound

Researchers have several theories as to why the patch of warm ocean water occurred, including tropical warmth that triggered 'normal atmospheric' jet stream fluctuations, or possibly, a wavier polar jet stream due to sea ice melt in the Arctic that permits longer lasting weather systems, though that is still a highly debated idea.

Additionally, scientists cannot discount climate change as playing a role in the extreme weather patterns and events that occurred. Some are questioning if this warm water blob is and indication of things to come as climate change continues to impact the oceans, by causing a warming of ocean waters due to increased global temperatures and coral bleaching from ocean acidification.

What's next?

The warm water is baffling researchers, and more changes are on the horizon. As sea ice continues to melt, ocean's are rising, altering coastlines, expanding low-oxygen zones that occur naturally in deep water, and shellfish are being negatively impacted by ocean acidification. As these and other affects from climate change occur, they will continue to challenge researchers and scientists as the unknowns continue to widen knowledge gaps.

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Kimberly Arsenault Kimberly Arsenault serves as an intern at the Cleveland/Bradley County Emergency Management Agency where she works on plan revisions and special projects. Previously, Kimberly spent 15 years in commercial and business aviation. Her positions included station manager at the former Midwest Express Airlines, as well as corporate flight attendant, inflight manager, and charter flight coordinator. Kimberly currently holds a master's degree in emergency and disaster management from American Public University.