Rising Tides, Troubled Waters: The Future of Our Ocean

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      The hot water killed the phytoplankton — a form of microscopic algae — that live in the top few hundred feet of the ocean. The tiny organisms that feast on them starved, including krill, the small shrimplike creatures that swarm the ocean by the billions and are the preferred food for whales, salmon, seabirds, and many other creatures. The population of herring and sardines, an important food source for many larger fish and marine mammals, also declined. By killing phytoplankton, the Blob disrupted the entire Pacific food chain.

      Over the next two years, it drifted down the coast of Alaska to California, eventually responsible for thousands of whale and sea lion strandings on beaches along the coast; the collapse of the Alaska cod fishery; the bankruptcy of fishermen and worker layoffs at fish-processing plants; the vanishing of great kelp forests on the Pacific coast; and the starvation and death of a billion seabirds — the largest single mass mortality of seabirds ever recorded. Dead murres littered beaches like washed-up plastic bottles.

      And its destruction was not limited to the ocean: The Blob changed the weather on the Pacific coast, pushing heat inland and altering rainfall patterns, contributing to the California drought. “It raised temperatures on the coast all the way from British Columbia down to Southern California,” says Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at UCLA. The big question is how much the Blob accelerated wildfires; 2017-18 saw historic blazes, including the Camp Fire in Northern California, the largest in the state’s history, which burned more than 150,000 acres and killed at least 85 people. Swain says the Blob increased nighttime temperatures in the western third of the state, where many of the wildfires flared. “Firefighters will tell you that’s really important, because wildfires often lie down at night, burning more slowly and behaving less erratically, becoming less dangerous to approach for human crews. While the Blob was off the coast, that didn’t happen.”

      All in all, the Blob was a slow-rolling climate catastrophe. It’s also compelling evidence of how tightly all life on Earth is linked to the ocean. Because we live on land, we often think of the climate crisis as a terrestrial event. But as the planet heats up, it’s what happens in the ocean that will have the biggest impact on our future.

      Jesus: Hey, Dad? God: Yes, Son? Jesus: Western civilization followed me home. Can I keep it? God: Certainly not! And put it down this minute--you don't know where it's been! Tom Robbins in Another Roadside Attraction

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