The marine heatwave known as “The Blob” wreaked havoc on Northwest fisheries during 2015 and 2016, Ron Warren, fish policy director for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, told a Senate committee Wednesday.
And before the federal government could even provide disaster relief for that event, another marine heatwave loomed, he said.
The Blob stoked marine temperatures nearly 7 degrees higher than normal, according to his testimony. Fewer coho salmon returned. Those that did return were smaller. Fisheries had to be closed.
Gov. Jay Inslee and representatives of several tribal governments in 2016 requested millions of dollars in federal fishing disaster funds to help offset the losses to fishing communities.
Now, more than three years later, the fishing disaster money has only just arrived from the feds, Warren told senators. The money, including some for tribes and about $1.5 million for nontreaty fishing communities in Washington state, is in the process of being distributed.
“They’re really pressed,” Warren said in an interview.
And the changes roiling our natural world and economies might be moving quicker than bureaucracy can keep up. Scientists this summer said a marine heatwave with similarities to The Blob has formed off the West Coast, which could threaten Washington fisheries once again.
“We see catastrophic ocean changes looming over our coastal communities which are very much tied to their oceans as a livelihood,” said Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., in the Commerce, Science and Transportation hearing Wednesday, as she entered the most recent United Nations panel report on climate change into the Congressional Record.
That report, published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and based on wide-ranging research from scientists from all over the planet, catalogs the disruption of ocean ecosystems by human-caused climate change and foretells more disturbance.
According to the report, it is “virtually certain” the oceans have warmed “unabated” since 1970, because they’re absorbing 90% of the excess heat that has built up in the climate system from greenhouse gases’ insulating effect in the atmosphere. At the same time, oceans have grown more acidic because they’re taking up more carbon dioxide, the the report says.
Worldwide, marine heatwaves such as The Blob have very likely doubled in frequency during the past 37 years, and are projected to become much more frequent, according to the report.
Much of the report deals with the impacts of sea-level rise on coastal communities.
The report notes that sea level is currently rising twice as fast as it did in the 20th century. Global sea-level rise could reach 12 to 24 inches by 2100 — if greenhouse-gas emissions are sharply reduced. But it could be as high as 24 to 43 inches by the century’s end if those emissions — released through the combustion of fossil fuels — continue to increase.
Those broad figures largely track with what local researchers expect for Washington state’s coastline.
“There’s no evidence in this IPCC report that just came out that we should expect a break from sea-level rise,” said Ian Miller, a coastal hazards specialist at Washington Sea Grant who co-authored a 2018 study in Washington on the subject. “Sea-level rise is happening. It’s going to continue to happen and we should be thinking about it.”
Rising seas won’t be felt equally in Washington, as its shoreline is both uplifting and subsiding in because of geological forces.
“We live in a geologically tortured landscape in Washington,” Miller explained.
Neah Bay, for example, is rising about a foot each century. Over the same period, Seattle’s shoreline is expected to fall about 3 inches.
Miller’s 2018 study, to which the University of Washington’s Climate Impacts Group also contributed, assessed relative sea-level rise across the state’s shoreline.
By 2100 in Seattle, Miller’s projections show relative sea-level rise will most likely be between 20 and 37 inches under a scenario where greenhouse-gas emissions continue to rise over time. Neah Bay’s relative sea level rise will most likely range from 4 to 20 inches over that time period.
As for The Blob, state climatologist Nick Bond said climate change “hasn’t made the weather patterns that create these marine heatwaves any more frequent.” But baseline temperatures have increased enough that warm swings can push marine temperatures to the extreme.
“The floor has been raised,” Bond said.
Rising temperatures can stress organisms and ecosystems, said Jan Newton, a UW oceanographer who co-directs the Washington Ocean Acidification Center. But the oceans are experiencing other stresses, like ocean acidification, hypoxia — a lack of dissolved oxygen — and harmful algae blooms.
“The most important thing with ecosystems is multiple stressors. Just like when you’re worried about your kids at school, or your bank account, or your health,” Newton said. “When you have 3 or 4 or 5 things to think about, that’s when you are less effective and start to break down.”
Bond said the pattern now developing off the Coast “could be a major event,” but models have also showed signs it could dissipate.
“There’s a good chance if we have a more-or-less typical weather situation in the fall and winter, that the storms will come through and serve to cool off the ocean,” Bond said. Storms draw heat from the ocean into the atmosphere and also promote mixing, which can help cool surface layers.
Warren, of WDFW, said the agency is seeing similarities this season to what happened when The Blob began to emerge last time.
“In Puget Sound this year, we’re seeing similar signs — smaller-body coho, not as many predicted to return,” he said. “ We’re considering (fishing) closures in certain areas. We’re not seeing any fish show up.”
In fact, the state closed most of the Columbia to recreational salmon and steelhead fishing beginning Thursday, citing record low returns for summer steelhead and poor ocean conditions.