Science

Pacific 'blob' heatwave feared to have killed a million birds

Pacific 'blob' heatwave feared to have killed a million birds”

The analysis revealed that about 62,000 dead or dying birds washed onto beaches during the die-off event, but carcass recovery estimates suggest that about 1 million died in total. Using data from almost 5,800 beach surveys, public reports, and data from dozens of seabird rehab centers from Alaska to California, the researchers concluded the die-off was much higher.

During the 2015 breeding season, three colonies did not produce a single chick.

The blob was up to 6 degrees Celsius above typical maximum temperatures in places and extended to a depth of 200 metres, and more than 3,000 kilometres up the United States coastline into Alaska.

Other fish, birds and mammals also died in the same period.

The study noted that scientists have also recently identified another marine heatwave forming off the Washington coast and up into the Gulf of Alaska in the US.

Their findings appear in the journal PLOS ONE.

Their study used a combination of data gathered by citizen scientists, government, university and private organisations, and wildlife rehabilitation centres, to conclude that the common murres were caught in an "ectothermic vice" - basically, a squeezing of the murre's food supply from above and below. With their powerful wings, they can dive more than 150 feet (46 meters) under water to nest on capelin, sand lance, herring, sardine and juvenile coalfish.

US Geological Survey biologist John Piatt, the lead author on the study and an affiliate of the university, said the discoveries made were "astonishing and alarming".

"As the bottom of the ecosystem was shifting in not good ways, the top of the ecosystem was demanding a lot more food", Parish said.

Whereas these blobs of unusually warm seawater are uncommon, scientists converse that global warming is making them more of a abnormal incidence.

"It sort of hit me -no wonder things were so screwed up, no wonder this thing hit so hard, because the four-inch species is at the heart of all this for the murres, the rhinos, the tufteds the humpbacks", Piatt said.

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"The quality of the food they wanted to eat was getting poor."
These fish eat the same small fish as the guillemots, and there just wasn't enough to go around.

On the other side of the "vice" were the murre's competitors - ectothermic or cold-blooded fish like Pacific cod and halibut, which compete with the murre for food. "These heatwaves are going to have jarring effects on our ecosystems", said Piatt. If they don't, they can starve within three to five days, Piatt said.

Did Australia's mutton birds suffer the same fate?

Birdwatcher Peter Barrand told the ABC at the time that we could be "looking at an extinction event".

The study warned that it remains unknown how long it would take for the population to recover - or whether it would even recover, "given the predicted global warming trends and the associated likelihood of more frequent heat waves".

"We'll have a better idea in March when we do the annual monitoring", Professor Arnould said. Not only did the population decline dramatically, but the murres couldn't replenish those numbers.

"To understand what's happening in the environment you have to monitor regularly", he said.

In many ways, the murres are the flawless climate change bellweather. According to the study, the last 5 years were the hottest with 2016 taking the lead and 2019 coming in a close second.

And ocean warming has been greatest in the Atlantic and Southern Oceans. "There's very little else that could have caused the extensive effects they document", says Andrew Leising at the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

But the common murre die-off was by far the largest recorded by all metrics ― overall number, duration and geographic extent ― the area affected was equivalent in size to Canada.

"As we looked we discovered that there were actually two very large die-offs in the 2010s - in this decade", he said.



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