Common murres, a species of bird common near the Pacific Ocean, turned up dead in large numbers in 2015. Discovered by a couple on a beach walk, they eventually found 8,000 birds dead along a beach. A new research paper has now found that an ocean heat wave caused by global warming was to blame.
The study, published in PLOS ONE, reported that 62,000 common murres were found dead and washed ashore from California and Alaska during between summer 2015 and spring 2016. The study reads, “These events co-occurred with the most powerful marine heatwave on record that persisted through 2014–2016 and created an enormous volume of ocean water (the “Blob”) from California to Alaska with temperatures that exceeded average by 2–3 standard deviations. Other studies indicate that this prolonged heatwave reduced phytoplankton biomass and restructured zooplankton communities in favor of lower-calorie species, while it simultaneously increased metabolically driven food demands of ectothermic forage fish.”
This video shows the birds when they were first discovered:
These changing food demands affected the murres food chain, causing the significant number of deaths. Authors estimate that up to 1 million birds were killed during this time period. Heat waves and patterns affect animal feeding patterns in significant ways. In this case, warming temperatures cause fish metabolism to spike, which increases their food intake. Those fish eat the same prey as murres, causing murres’ food availability to reduce.
Thomas Frölicher, a climate scientist at the University of Bern in Switzerland told Inside Climate News about marine heatwaves, including this one, “It was the biggest marine heat wave so far on record. If we follow a high-greenhouse-gas-emissions scenario, these heat waves will become 50 times more frequent than preindustrial times by 2100.What that means is that in some regions, they will become permanent heat waves. This gives us some insight into the future.”
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