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Heatwave in the Pacific Northwest

Record-setting heat kills at least 1 billion marine animals in the intertidal zone

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As the tide rises and falls twice daily, these hardy intertidal animals and plants are exposed to the elements. © Patricia Chambers

On the shores of the Salish Sea where land and ocean meet, the animals and plants that live between the constant motion of the high and low tides are masters of life on the edge. Many are small but mighty, having adapted to the twice-daily challenge of being submerged in water and then exposed to the air for long periods. But even the secrets of their formidable success may not be enough as they face their latest and possibly greatest challenge: climate change.

Just recently, this sad and scary thought momentarily became a reality when a historic record-breaking heat wave hit the Pacific Northwest and Canada’s British Columbia coast in late June, killing as many as 1 billion marine animals in the intertidal zone. Scores of mussels, clams, barnacles, snails and sea stars died struggling to survive the extreme and unrelenting heat, literally cooked alive.

According to a recent report from a team of international climate researchers, though higher temperatures in this region are not unusual during summer months, the perilous “heat dome” event that lasted five days in late June was not only extreme, but “would have been at least 150 times rarer without human-induced climate change.”

As a life-long resident in this region, I found it both alarming and bizarre how quickly the heat dome seemed to descend upon us and how unprepared and ill equipped even we humans are for such extreme heat events. This heat wave was linked to the deaths of hundreds of people throughout the Pacific Northwest, and I can’t help but wonder about the safety of some of the iconic touchstones of my childhood as well. Orcas, salmon and oysters are among the sentinels of environmental change in this area. And in some instances, they are helplessly bearing the brunt of our consumerism.

The Coast Salish people have stewarded the lands and waters in this area since time immemorial. The living creatures on our shores and in our waters have nourished Indigenous and colonial families and their descendants in the Pacific Northwest for generations, but their significance goes far beyond being just a source of food. From the humble barnacles, limpets, periwinkles, mollusks and anemones busying themselves along the intertidal shores to the mighty orca plying the swirling currents, a healthy Salish Sea is integrally linked to the survival and well-being of us all. We know, too, that respecting the natural world, telling its stories and recognizing its many gifts are cultural treasures that sustain us.

Mussels struggling in the heat
Left gaping on the rocks, many of these mussels and barnacles show the outcome of being ‘baked’ in the extreme heat. Scientist believe that the death of these animals will likely affect water quality in the area. © Patricia Chambers

Unfortunately, now less than one month after the shellfish mass-mortality event in the Pacific Northwest, health advisories warn of record-breaking shellfish poisonings across Washington state, likely due to the heat dome priming the waters for shellfish-borne contagions. And across much of the Northwest and central United States, another series of heat waves are looming, threatening to set off who knows how many chain-reactions of adverse effects.

What are we to do?

Walking the nearby shores this week, some littered with dead mollusk shells, clams and mussels crunching under foot with barnacles baked on the rocks, the perils we face seem daunting. The big question arises: What are we to do? The mind reaches for “lessons learned,” pathways forward and “building back better,” but how much can we truly control?

At Ocean Conservancy we continue to rally around #OceanOptimism, the resolve that in order to protect the ocean from today’s greatest global challenges we need to have the courage to face daunting environmental threats head on and encourage governments, corporations and individuals to take action. As we continue to face the many challenges ahead, I chose to imagine that we will meet them with #OceanOptimism and offer these basic observations as a way forward.

The Ochre sea star eating his lunch
This intertidal zone displays a variety of life from sea stars to sea grasses, kelp, anemones, limpets, chitons, barnacles, snails and mussels. On the right, a close up reveals the ochre sea star (Pisaster ochraceus) prying open a mussel to feast on its lunch. © Patricia Chambers
  1. We will get through this by working together. Overcoming the climate crisis will require all of us. We will need meaningful partnerships that bring together people, companies and policy makers to move the needle forward.
  2. Crisis gives rise to innovation. We’ve seen accelerated leaps in innovation in stemming the spread of COVID-19, and so, too, will tackling climate change require innovative solutions.
  3. We need bold leaders that we can trust to take on the climate crisis. Adding climate change to the policy agenda will require strong leadership that shows they are capable of real change and making decisions
  4. We have one Blue Planet; it will not wait! Scientists have warned of climate change for decades. At our current rate of global greenhouse gas emissions, we will miss our target of limiting warming within 1.5c over pre-Industrial temperatures. Now is the time to #ActOnClimate and enact policies for a responsible transition to a clean energy economy and a resilient future. Ocean-climate solutions can be a big part of the path forward, but we need policy makers to prioritize ocean initiatives in future climate action. Take action today by asking your congressional representative to stand for our ocean and coastal communities and become a co-sponsor of the Ocean-Based Climate Solutions Act.

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