Author: Eric Malikyte
The pacific northwest heatwave was the hottest on record, causing temperatures in California’s Death Valley to reach a staggering 130 degrees Fahrenheit (54 degrees Celsius) and while a lot of California, Oregon, and Washington residents experienced excruciating temperatures all over the west coast, according to news outlets and science reporting websites, the heatwave may have done irreversible damage to the coastal ecosystem and the sea life that lives in it, with the deaths of over 1 billion sea creatures.
We’re going to get into the report and try to figure out whether this heatwave is yet another extreme weather event caused by climate change, or if there’s something else going on here.
1 Billion Dead Sea Creatures
Over a four-day period in June, temperatures in the pacific northwest of North America experienced record-breaking temperatures that cooked a stretch of coastal land equal to 6437 kilometers (or 4000 miles). In addition to killing more than 100 people on land, the heatwave also killed 1 billion sea creatures along the coast.
And in case you don’t know, that’s a really, really big number!
Across the shores of Kitsilano Beach in Vancouver, Canada, the sands are lined with tens of thousands of dead marine animals. Animals that were cooked and are now putrefying, leaving the air with a foul lingering smell.
The types of creatures affected seem to be sea stars, mussels, and snails.
We mentioned earlier that the highest recorded temperature in Death Valley was set this year at 130 degrees Fahrenheit, but Death Valley is associated with searing hot temperatures, so you might not be too shocked by that statistic. What you might not expect is to hear that in places like Lytton, British Columbia, temperatures soared to 121.3 degrees Fahrenheit (49.6 degrees Celsius).
To put this temperature spike in perspective. Lytton tends to experience mild temperatures throughout the summer months. In June temperatures usually hover around the low 70s, while in July and August, they spike up to the low to mid-80s.
Chris Harley, a marine biologist at the University of British Columbia, described himself as being stunned upon discovering the mounds of dead creatures shortly after experiencing the stench, saying; “I was on a shore just as the tide was falling on the first of the three hot days. I was not thinking to myself, ‘All of these things will probably be dead by Monday afternoon.’ I didn’t realize that I would spend most of the next few weeks madly dashing around the province to document such unprecedented impacts.”
Sea life like these mussels, starfish, and snails, are all known as intertidal animals are only able to survive high temperatures like what was experienced during the heatwave for a very short period of time.
So, what most likely happened was that they were trapped on land after low tide, forcing them to bear those extreme temperatures for 6 hours or more.
Chris went on to say, “A mussel on the shore in some ways is like a toddler left in a car on a hot day. They are stuck there until the parent comes back, or in this case, the tide comes back in, and there’s very little they can do. They’re at the mercy of the environment. And on Saturday, Sunday, Monday [June 26-28], during the heatwave, it just got so hot that the mussels, there was nothing they could do.”
In addition to this, in the Hood Canal in Washington state, Shellfish were baked alive. The Hama Hama Oyster company posted this image on their Instagram page, calling the deadly event “calamitous.”
While some experts think that this mass death will only have a temporary effect on the water quality along this 6437 kilometer (4000 mile) long stretch of coastline, others aren’t so sure.
A Changing Ecosystem?
After the four-day heatwave massacre was over and Pacific Northwest temperatures returned to normal, Harley and his team set out to search the shorelines for the dead.
And now they’re saying that the death toll could be much higher than the original 1 billion estimate, stating that at one site called Galiano Island, a strip of land between Vancouver Island and the lower mainland of British Columbia, a small area no larger than a tennis court featured over 1 million dead mussels.
Anyone reading this article who’s seen a tennis court will know that you can fit a lot of tennis courts in a stretch of 6,437 kilometers.
And a 1-kilometer region near White Rock is filled with no less than 100 million dead barnacles.
Frankly, it sounds a lot like Harley’s final estimate will be far, far higher than the original one.
And like I said at the end of the last section, while some experts are suggesting that the impact to water quality and the ecosystem will be temporary, Harley isn’t so sure and suggests that we could be looking at the potential collapse of the entire region’s maritime ecosystem.
He went on to say that losing such a large quantity of mussels could destabilize local parts of the ocean since they filter the water and provide sustenance for other species like crabs, birds, and starfish.
Rockweed is another species that has been greatly affected, washing up dead on shores as well.
Harley also says that losing these two species would cause biodiversity in the area to decline and warns that as global temperatures continue to rise, future heatwaves like this one could see other areas impacted too.
There might be a grim future ahead for Pacific Northwestern shores and Harley concludes by saying, “So far, my students and I have recorded dead animals on beaches that span hundreds of kilometers of shoreline. Eventually, parts of the British Columbian coast may become more like Hong Kong and other hot parts of the world where many of the intertidal species die off every single summer.”
But what exactly caused this heatwave to be so egregious? Was it climate change, or something else?
Climate Change a Factor?
I cover a lot of planetary science on this channel, and much of that revolves around scientists speculating how weather on Mars and Venus work based off of data. There’s a lot of debate in those areas as to how non-terrestrial weather systems and volcanism work.
Well, it would seem that there are yet more mysteries to uncover about how our own planet’s weather systems work, as the cause for the Pacific Northwest heatwave has left some climatologists scratching their heads.
Most of them are certain that such an event would not have been possible had climate change not been a factor, though.
With hundreds of people dead and records in multiple areas skyrocketing by 10 or more degrees, most experts agree that this couldn’t have been a normal heatwave, and Christopher Burt, an extreme weather expert, posted a Facebook message that said that this was, “the most anomalous extreme heatwave event ever observed on Earth since records began two centuries ago.”
According to the World Weather Attribution group, which utilizes computer modeling to study the possible links between weather activity and events in relation to climate change, this heatwave would have been virtually impossible to have happened without our contribution to global warming.
Michael Wehner, a senior scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and a contributor to the analysis said that “Global warming is not our grandchildren’s problem; it is ours, here and now.”
The group’s analysis of the relationship between heat extremes and human-caused climate change suggested that the link was “robust”, going on to state that greenhouse gas emissions made the heatwave at least 150 times more likely to happen.
The attribution study featured twenty-seven scientists from countries like Canada, the US, Germany, the Netherlands, France, and the UK.
The main effect of climate change at the moment is that extreme weather appears to be amplified, making it far more dangerous. We’ve seen this trend with Hurricane systems on the East coast, which have seen their magnitudes, frequency, and duration increase in similar ways to these heatwaves.
In fact, it’s now suggested that every heatwave that occurs from here on out is more than likely going to be more intense thanks to climate change.
The analysis notes that the planet has warmed about 2.2 degrees since the 1800s, when the Industrial Revolution took place. It also makes it very clear that there’s no telling how rare an event like this might be in the current changing climate, because it’s so different from what’s been previously observed.
This event was so extreme, that the analysis team suggested that moving forward, there are two potential scenarios that could occur.
The first scenario is that climate change may have contributed to this heat wave’s severity, increasing its overall temperature by about 3.6 degrees, making it an event that could happen once every 1000 years. But they also warn that with continued global warning, this occurrence could become far more frequent, happening every 5 to 10 years by 2050.
The second scenario is far worse, and this is what has climate scientists scratching their heads, and that’s that climate simulations may not be capturing an accurate picture as to what’s happening with these extreme heat events.
The team goes as far as to call out climate science as a whole for being complacent about simulating events like this, that they’re assuming that heat wave temperatures should increase in a linear way along with these rising global temperatures.
But if Earth’s climate systems have entered a new “state”, then those simulations will have to factor in other phenomena like drier soils, changes to the jet stream circulation, as well as changes to the Antarctic and Arctic regions.
Though the analysis does not indicate which of these scenarios is most likely correct, the team isn’t done yet. They plan to keep working on this for the next several months. But many scientists are starting to side with them, pointing out the inability of current climate models to capture what’s really going on with these extreme weather events.
Michael Mann, a climate scientist at Penn State who was not involved in this study, had this to say about these types of sentiments, “I agree that it is virtually impossible that the [Pacific Northwest] heat wave would have occurred with the observed intensity in the absence of climate change. But the models used don’t capture the jet stream phenomenon … that WE KNOW played an important role in this event.”
What Mann’s talking about is a phenomena that’s observed when the Arctic experiences disproportionate warming. This causes changes in the temperature gradients high in the atmosphere, leading to a wavier jet stream. This wavy effect makes extreme weather far worse, like the heat dome that was observed over the Pacific Northwest during this heatwave.
This shows that not only was this heatwave a major disaster, but also one that poses major scientific questions. In fact, according to one expert, this event would have been thought to be impossible last year, but suggests that now we have to dial down our certainty of how heatwaves behave.