SEVERE WX : Red Flag Warning View Alerts
STREAMING NOW: Watch Now

A blob of hot water in the Pacific Ocean killed a million seabirds, scientists say

CNN's Jennifer Gray talks about the warming phenomenon called "The Blob" and explains how it's changing the Pacific Ocean.

Posted: Jan 16, 2020 7:05 AM


As many as one million seabirds died at sea in less than 12 months in one of the largest mass die-offs in recorded history -- and researchers say warm ocean waters are to blame.

The birds, a fish-eating species called the common murre, were severely emaciated and appeared to have died of starvation between the summer of 2015 and the spring of 2016, washing up along North America's west coast, from California to Alaska.

Now, scientists say they know what caused it: a huge section of warm ocean water in the northeast Pacific Ocean dubbed "the Blob."

A years-long severe marine heat wave first began in 2013, and intensified during the summer of 2015 due to a powerful weather phenomenon called El Nino, which lasted through 2016.

The heat wave created the Blob -- a 1,000-mile (1,600 km) stretch of ocean that was warmed by 3 to 6 degrees Celsius (5.4 to 10.8 Fahrenheit). A high-pressure ridge calmed the ocean waters -- meaning heat stays in the water, without storms to help cool it down.

Those few degrees of warming wreaked havoc on the region's marine ecosystems. There was a huge drop in the production of microscopic algae that feed a range of animals, from shrimp to whales. The warmth caused a massive bloom of harmful algae along the west coast, that killed many animals and cost fisheries millions of dollars in lost income.

Other animals that experienced mass die-offs include sea lions, tufted puffins, and baleen whales. But none of them compared to the murres in scale.

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.

Alaska saw the most birds washed up -- in Prince William Sound, to the south of the state, more than 4,600 bird carcasses were found every kilometer (0.62 miles), the study said.

The murres likely starved to death because the Blob caused more competition for fewer small prey. The warming increased the metabolism of predatory fish like salmon, cod, and halibut -- meaning they were eating more than usual. These fish eat the same small fish as the murres, and there simply wasn't enough to go around.

The Blob devastated the murres' population. With insufficient food, breeding colonies across the entire region had reproductive difficulties for years afterward, the study said. Not only did the population decline dramatically, but the murres couldn't replenish those numbers.

During the 2015 breeding season, three colonies didn't produce a single chick. That number went up to 12 colonies in the 2016 season -- and in reality it could be even higher, since researchers only monitor a quarter of all colonies.

"The magnitude and scale of this failure has no precedent," said lead researcher John Piatt in a University of Washington press release. "It was astonishing and alarming, and a red-flag warning about the tremendous impact sustained ocean warming can have on the marine ecosystem."

The study warned that it remains unknown how long it would take for the population to recover -- or if it would recover at all, "in light of predicted global warming trends and the associated likelihood of more frequent heatwaves."

There have been several other marine heat waves emerging in recent months. In September 2019, the University of Washington researchers discovered one almost as big as the Blob, forming off the coast of Washington state -- and they're bracing for its potential effects.

Another blob has also formed off the eastern coast of New Zealand. This blob is so big it's detectable from space -- it's about a million square kilometers (400,000 sq miles), an area larger than the size of Texas.

It's especially rare to see a patch of warm ocean water over such a large area, but scientists say global climate change is making these phenomena more common.

From 1982 to 2016, there was an 82% rise in the number of heat wave days on the global ocean surface, according to a 2018 study. That's because heat waves are increasing in both frequency and duration, with the highest level of maritime heat wave activity occurring in the North Atlantic.

Oregon Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Confirmed Cases: 32994

Reported Deaths: 547
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Multnomah7204138
Marion469594
Washington454060
Umatilla298741
Clackamas242061
Malheur163327
Lane123417
Jackson11615
Deschutes85212
Yamhill76213
Jefferson5418
Polk53215
Linn52213
Morrow5056
Lincoln48213
Union4462
Benton3146
Wasco2963
Klamath2802
Hood River2520
Douglas2334
Clatsop2170
Josephine1982
Columbia1791
Coos1570
Baker942
Crook621
Tillamook530
Lake330
Curry310
Wallowa311
Sherman180
Harney120
Grant100
Gilliam80
Unassigned00
Wheeler00

California Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Confirmed Cases: 812711

Reported Deaths: 15633
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Los Angeles2684556515
Riverside589321206
San Bernardino54482925
Orange534481216
San Diego46734776
Kern31994369
Fresno28441382
Sacramento22356406
Santa Clara21241314
Alameda21240406
San Joaquin20245441
Contra Costa16640206
Stanislaus16471356
Tulare15970263
Ventura12775150
Imperial11852317
San Francisco11195101
Monterey995372
San Mateo9897150
Santa Barbara9090113
Merced8872142
Kings765180
Sonoma7412122
Marin6730118
Solano640065
Madera453965
Placer358745
San Luis Obispo356229
Butte283344
Yolo281555
Santa Cruz23609
Sutter170511
Napa169013
San Benito134811
Yuba11537
El Dorado11304
Mendocino93418
Shasta88317
Lassen7400
Glenn5783
Tehama5735
Lake55511
Nevada5377
Colusa5316
Humboldt5088
Calaveras31714
Amador29616
Tuolumne2274
Inyo18815
Mono1662
Siskiyou1650
Del Norte1391
Mariposa752
Plumas500
Modoc270
Trinity160
Sierra60
Alpine20
Unassigned00
Medford
Clear
56° wxIcon
Hi: 97° Lo: 55°
Feels Like: 56°
Brookings
Clear
65° wxIcon
Hi: 77° Lo: 59°
Feels Like: 65°
Crater Lake
Clear
39° wxIcon
Hi: 82° Lo: 45°
Feels Like: 39°
Grants Pass
Clear
48° wxIcon
Hi: 97° Lo: 54°
Feels Like: 48°
Klamath Falls
Clear
39° wxIcon
Hi: 85° Lo: 40°
Feels Like: 39°
Hot and dry week, smoke returns
KDRV Radar
KDRV Fire Danger
KDRV Weather Cam

Community Events

Latest Video

Image

Possible housing solutions after wildfires

Image

Monday, September 28th Evening Weather

Image

Similarities in days had southern Oregonians on edge

Image

Monday, September 28 afternoon weather

Image

Monday, September 28 morning weather

Image

Sunday, September 27 evening weather

Image

Sunday, September 27 morning weather

Image

The initial spread of the Almeda Fire in real-time

Image

Saturday, September 26 evening weather

Image

Saturday, September 26 morning weather