The billions of victims of the Heat Dome
For years, Sandra Emry, a researcher at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, has been studying the potential impact of future heat waves on wrack, a species of brown algae that provides habitat for marine life on both coasts of North America. To simulate a heat wave in June 2060 or 2080 in the Strait of Georgia between Vancouver Island and mainland British Columbia, it typically drags patio heaters to the shore, warming the air around it. ‘a patch of wrack at 95 degrees Fahrenheit in order to see how the algae reacts.
This summer, she didn’t need the heaters. On June 28, his thermal camera showed a temperature close to 125 degrees. During a four-day heatwave, dense beds of wrack died, as did many mussels, chitons, limpets and other intertidal species nearby. “The stench was horrible. I didn’t expect to see such a big death, ”Emry told me. She didn’t think the temperatures would rise so high so soon.
Billions of mussels, clams, oysters, barnacles, starfish and other intertidal species died during the late June heat wave in the Pacific Northwest, Christopher Harley told me , professor of zoology at the University of British Columbia, last week. Yes, it’s billions, in the plural. What I call “extreme and extreme heat events” – because the term extreme events doesn’t quite cover the dire situation – not just killing people; they kill plants and animals. By changing the climate of our planet, we are permanently altering the natural world which is our vital system. And we see it happening in real time.
Harley, who is investigating the extent of the death in June, has learned from marine scientists at various institutions that about 100 million barnacles have died on a 1,000-meter stretch of shoreline near White Rock, British Columbia. While not all sites are as bad as White Rock, a large number of dead marine animals have been found along much of the Salish Sea coastline from Olympia, WA. , in Campbell River, British Columbia. The situation is so alarming that Harley has said it could lead to the collapse of the region’s maritime ecosystem.
This type of destruction is so remarkable because wrack, mussels, and other intertidal species are incredibly hardy and accustomed to large variations in temperature. They spend 12 hours under the cold waters of the northern Pacific Ocean and then, at low tide, 12 hours exposed to the scorching air and sun. Only an extreme, extreme event could kill them. This mass mortality can result in a drastically different shoreline ecology, without the thick mat of mussels and wrack that has lined much of the Salish Sea shore since the last Ice Age.
Many terrestrial species have also died from the heat. I have read many reports of flightless chicks, including hawks and terns, throwing themselves out of nests and rooftops, risking death and injury to avoid being cooked alive. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife has warned that almost all endangered young salmon in the Sacramento River could die. Washington state officials also say salmon from the Columbia and Snake rivers are endangered. Overheated bears have been seen wading through backyard pools and ignoring Lake Tahoe swimmers in order to get a bit of cool.
Each living being has its “Goldilocks Zone”: a temperature range that is neither too hot nor too cold. For tropical corals, like those on the 1,400-mile-long Great Barrier Reef, ocean temperatures should be between 71 and 85 degrees. If the water temperature reaches 90 degrees, as in recent years, the reefs will turn white and die. Other species like cold water. Young salmon do not do well in water above 68 degrees, and some arctic seabirds exhibit heat stress at 70 degrees. The Arctic is warming almost three times faster than anywhere else. A heat wave in June 2020 pushed temperatures in one of the coldest places on Earth, Verkhoyansk, Siberia, from its typical 68 degrees to nearly 100.
Some birds and mammals have coping mechanisms for a drastic change in temperature. They usually cope with the heat by reducing their activity, including eating, and panting to try to cool off. Fish, including salmon, need to consume more oxygen in warmer waters; however, hot water retains less oxygen, which adds additional stress making them more vulnerable to disease.
We’re only going to see more of this stress on our ecosystem. A comprehensive global assessment that measured heat waves from 1950 to 2000 found that their frequency, duration, and cumulative heat had increased dramatically. In the Middle East and much of Africa, the number of heat waves and their intensity have increased by 50% every decade. In other parts of the world, the increase has ranged from 10 to 30 percent per decade. While the impacts of drought have received much attention, heat waves are now considered a “major global threat” to plants, animals and ecosystems around the world. Scientific research on heat waves has exploded over the past decade: 1,400 studies have been published in the past six months alone.
Climate scientists are sounding the alarm bells strongly, urging the world to act now to, as one scientist put it, “prevent the worst consequences of global warming.” If the death of billions of the toughest species on the planet isn’t the worst outcome, I’m sure we don’t want to see what it is.
The climate, nature, well-being and survival of humanity are deeply interconnected. As a marine biologist and National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Enric Sala told me: “Every bite of food, every sip of water, the air we breathe is the result of the work of other species. Nature gives us everything we need to survive. Without them there is no us.