Thursday, August 10, 2006

Cascadia Heats Up

Global warming is killing the Pacific Northwest Coast.

From the Oregonian:

Ocean scientists took their first look Tuesday into the oxygen-starved "dead zone" spreading off the Oregon Coast and were shocked by what they saw: a lifeless wasteland of thousands of dead crabs, starfish and no live fish at all...

...Dead Dungeness crabs off Cape Perpetua, just south of Yachats, "were like jellybeans in a jar. You just can't count them, there were so many."

Oxygen levels in places along the central Oregon Coast have sunk to the lowest levels ever recorded on the West Coast of the United States, said Francis Chan, a marine ecologist at Oregon State University and the Partnership for Interdisciplinary Studies of Coastal Oceans, an alliance of research institutions.

Scientists suspect swings in the Earth's climate tied to global warming may be shifting wind conditions to bring about such grim results.

Right now, the dead zone is complete in only a few spots, but signs of low oxygen levels stretch for 70 linear miles, and reportedly 2100 square miles total.

The Seattle Times tries to blunt the impact by noting that crab harvests in Oregon in some places have hit records, but it makes sense that if crabs were fleeing low-oxygen areas they might be more plentiful in other areas in the short-term, until those areas are fished or the extent of the dead zone expands. Needless to say, I don't feel too confident that a decent crab harvest in places is a good sign.

There are other worrying signs in our region recently, including a sighting in Oregon of a rare "king-of-salmon" fish associated with warm waters, and an epidemic of shellfish poisoning in Hood Canal associated with unusually warm temperatures. Hood Canal is something of a bellwether because its shape and location make it particularly susceptible. There's also a huge algae bloom off Vancouver Island this summer, again associated with warm waters.

This should be a big story locally, but it was a throwaway article yesterday or today depending upon the newspaper, and the TV is focused on terrorism hysteria and war (I had to stumble over a blog post to find it myself). But this is the real big story, not just locally but at any level. Our way of life is killing the sea, and with it the natural heritage we need to survive and thrive. Nothing is more important.

Oh, and it's not just the Northwest. A similar warming trend has been noticed in California, which is experiencing El Nino like conditions even though it's not an El Nino year.

Maybe the consistency with global warming models is coincidental, though with similar symptoms apparent in other places around the world such as the English Channel, the coincidences start to become too numerous to dismiss. It could just be a bad year, but the problem with climate change is that it's indistinguishable at the local level from a bad year. Regardless of the full range of causes and in the absence of certainty, we ought to take this threat very seriously. That means examining the global picture and taking reasonable precautions based upon the global model.

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