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Record North Atlantic marine heat wave threatens marine life

The historic heat waves that roasted the U.S. and Europe on the summer could have subsided. But an archive marine heat wave is gripping large expanses of the North Atlantic and northern Pacific oceans.

The picture as a whole: It has implications for marine species and extreme weather events, including hurricanes, as climate change exacerbates the issue. NOAA scientists warn it shows no signs of immediately abating.

The endangered Hawksbill turtle in the Atlantic Ocean off the Florida coast.
The endangered Hawksbill turtle in the Atlantic Ocean, off the Florida coast. Photo: Mark Conlin/VW Pics/UIG via Getty Images

Driving the news headlines: “Climate change is making every marine heatwave warmer compared to the last,” research scientist Dillon Amaya, who studies marine heat waves at NOAA’s Physical Sciences Laboratory, tells Axios.

  • “Climate change escalates the mean temperatureof the ocean (i.e., globalwarming),” Amaya says. “Marine heatwaves ride that upward trend and so are becoming warmer because of this.”

By the numbers: “The North Atlantic happens to be something similar to four degrees Celsius warmer than normal, or at the very least elements of it are. And you also find yourself seeing similar numbers for the North Pacific aswell, it’s for approximately four degrees Celsius warmer than normal,” Amaya says.

State of play: Heat wave conditions in both North Pacific and the North Atlantic have lasted for a few 90 days. “For these elements of the planet, these temperatures are unprecedented,” Amaya says.

  • Vincent Saba, a fishery biologist at NOAA’s Northeast Fisheries Science Center, notes it’s “warmed faster in the U.S. Northeast shelf than any region in the united states within the last 15 years.”
  • Fish biomass was still relatively stable, but scientists had observed changes in marine species in the Northwest Atlantic, Saba said in a phone interview the other day.
  • In the Pacific Ocean, there’s a La Nia climate event for the third year in a row. This may result in warmer than normal conditions in the Northeast Pacific, Amaya said.

Of note: Warming isn’t the only real impact of climate change.

  • “We’re also discussing an elevated concentration of skin tightening and in the water, making the waters more acidic,” Saba says.
  • “That may impact shelf species like lobster, highly valuable sea scallops. We’re still unclear on which those impacts are.”

Threat level: “With climate change some marine species will fair much better than others,” Saba says.

  • Research suggests warmer water species are residing in the U.S. Northeast for longer, while North Atlantic right whales are foraging in various waters because they follow their plankton prey, that have moved locations raising concerns about ship collisions and entanglement with fishing gear.
  • It’s unclear whether that is because of climate change or warming waters, per Saba.
  • “We’ve seen major changes in species distributions,” he says. “Warmer water species moving north, and lots of colder water species moving further north out from the system has sort of been the overall trend.”
  • Research that Saba and his colleagues have conducted found warmer waters were resulting in virtually all female sea turtles hatching though projections indicate the largest long-term threats will undoubtedly be in hatchling mortality as nests and beaches warm-up and erosion from sea level rise destroys nests.

Zoom in: Bette Zirkelbach, manager of the Turtle Hospital in the Florida Keys, said combined with the hatchlings issue, she’s seen an elevated prevalence of fibropapillomatosis (FP), a tumor-causing disease that primarily affects green sea turtles.

  • During the past 12 months, 70% around 47 turtles admitted to a healthcare facility with FP were identified as having internal tumours and needed to be euthanized as there’s currently no treatment for internal turmors, Zirkelbach said in a phone interview Tuesday.
  • “Warmer waters cause these tumours to cultivate,” she said.

Meanwhile, 20 Kemp’s ridley sea turtles were flown to a healthcare facility from New England this past year following the critically endangered animals stayed too much time in Cape Cod Bay rather than moving out with the Gulf Stream.

  • “The winter hits plus they get trapped,” Zirkelbach said.

What things to watch: The marine heat wave is not only a threat to animals. Models project it could exacerbate the deadly Hurricane Fiona if the storm continues to to track northward and enters the Northwest Atlantic later this week.

  • If this occurs, it could help Fiona maintain steadily its tropical nature and intensity for longer than if the marine heatwavewere not there, Amaya notes. However, “the strong winds and associated upper ocean mixing can help to cool-down elements of the ocean which are really warm at this time.”

Underneath line: To split up the marine heat wave, “the atmospheric wind patterns have to revert back again to normal and the ocean would then need time (typically almost a year) to cool back off without having to be poked again,” Amaya says.

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