Marine heat waves threaten underwater wildlife

Even the oceans are breaking temperature records in this summer of heat waves. Off the San Diego coast, scientists earlier this month recorded all-time high seawater temperatures since daily measurements began in 1916.

Sea critters have evolved to survive within a fairly narrow band of temperatures compared to those on land

In this 2013 file photo, a Guadalupe fur seal, foreground, passes by as SeaWorld animal rescue team member Heather Ruce feeds a California sea lion at a rescue facility in San Diego, with rescue crews seeing a higher than average amount of stranded sea lions. Ocean temperatures along with land temperatures have been on the rise for almost a decade. (Gregory Bull/Associated Press)

Even the oceans are breaking temperature records in this summer of heat waves.

Off the San Diego coast, scientists earlier this month recorded all-time high seawater temperatures since daily measurements began in 1916.

"Just like we have heat waves on land, we also have heat waves in the ocean," said Art Miller of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

Between 1982 and 2016, the number of "marine heat waves" roughly doubled, and likely will become more common and intense as the planet warms, a study released Wednesday in the journal Nature found. Prolonged periods of extreme heat in the oceans can damage kelp forests and coral reefs, and harm fish and other marine life.

"This trend will only further accelerate with global warming," said Thomas Frolicher, a climate scientist at the University of Bern in Switzerland, who led the research.

His team defined marine heat waves as extreme events in which sea-surface temperatures exceeded the 99th percentile of measurements for a given location. Because oceans both absorb and release heat more slowly than air, most marine heat waves last for at least several days — and some for several weeks, said Frolicher.

This image from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration illustrates ocean temperatures and their departure from normal (1981-2010). Ocean temperatures in 2017 were the sixth warmest on record. (NOAA)

"We knew that average temperatures were rising. What we haven't focused on before is that the rise in the average comes at you in clumps of very hot days — a shock of several days or weeks of very high temperatures," said Michael Oppenheimer, a Princeton University climate scientist who was not involved in the study.

Many sea critters have evolved to survive within a fairly narrow band of temperatures compared to creatures on land, and even incremental warming can be disruptive.

Some free-swimming sea animals like bat rays or lobsters may shift their routines. But stationary organisms like coral reefs and kelp forests "are in real peril," said Michael Burrows, an ecologist at the Scottish Marine Institute, who was not part of the research.

The threat to coral reefs

In 2016 and 2017, persistent high ocean temperatures off eastern Australia killed off as much as half of the shallow water corals of the Great Barrier Reef — with significant consequences for other creatures dependent upon the reef.

"One in every four fish in the ocean lives in or around coral reefs," said Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, a marine biologist at the University of Queensland. "So much of the ocean's biodiversity depends upon a fairly small amount of the ocean floor."

The latest study relied on satellite data and other records of sea-surface temperatures including from ships and buoys.

It didn't include the recent record-breaking measurements off Scripps Pier in San Diego — which reached 79.5 degrees Fahrenheit on August 9 — but Frolicher and Miller said the event was an example of a marine heat wave.

Miller said he knew something was odd when he spotted a school of bat rays — which typically only congregate in pockets of warm water — swimming just off the pier earlier this month.

Changes in ocean circulation associated with warmer surface waters will likely mean decreased production of phytoplankton — the tiny organisms that form the basis of the marine food web, he said.

Marine biologists nicknamed a patch of persistent high temperatures in the Pacific Ocean between 2013 and 2016 "the Blob." During that period, decreased phytoplankton production led to a cascading lack of food for many species, causing thousands of California sea lion pups to starve, said Miller, who had no role in the Nature study.

"We've repeatedly set new heat records. It's not surprising, but it is shocking," he said.

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.