Scientists say they are concerned about the continued ecological effects of the unusually warm and dry conditions in the Puget Sound region this summer.
Seattle scientists predicted this summer would be hot and dry, with warming waters and low river levels. It’s worse than they thought, however, with record-breaking heat, a meager snowpack and a severe drought. And the effects are now evident in the Puget Sound.
“I wasn’t expecting the conditions to be this extreme,” said University of Washington climate scientist Nick Bond. “I thought it would be dry and warm, but I wasn’t expecting this.”
Scientists from county, state and federal agencies said Thursday they are concerned about the ecological outlook in the Puget Sound from the unusual conditions, which are forecast to persist as a strong El Niño develops. They’re working to understand the impact of warming water that already has contributed to early shellfish closures, an increase in toxic algae and more reports of fish kills.
The region has suffered from a “one-two punch” of a meager snowpack combined with the drought, Bond said. A massive area of warm water off the West Coast, coined “The Blob,” may be to blame. The pool of water is up to 7 degrees hotter than usual and has remained from Alaska to Mexico since 2013.
“The blob is still rearing its ugly head,” Bond said.
Buoys in the South Puget Sound, main basin and Hood Canal show temperatures are warmer in both deep and surface waters, with some areas up to 4 degrees above normal, according to UW oceanographer Jan Newton. Oxygen concentrations in the Hood Canal are low and could continue to decline through September, when upwelling stops and the blob moves into the Sound. Both the temperatures and lack of oxygen could be stressful for organisms.
“In very severe conditions, we’re concerned about fish kills,” Newton said. “We’re going to be continuing to monitor this.”
Marine life has also taken a hit. A shellfish harvest was shut down in early April, two months before the average time for biotoxin closure, said Jerry Borchert of the Washington State Department of Health’s shellfish-safety program. Areas of the Hood Canal that have never been closed have had to shut down because of the toxins, likely a result of elevated water temperatures, according to Borchert.
Deaths of fish such as salmon have led to concerns about the long-term impact on the food web, said National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries scientist Correigh Greene.
While the sunny weather and warm water may be welcomed by humans — NOAA oceanographer Simone Alin pointed out she went for a swim in the Hood Canal this summer and for the first time didn’t feel numb when she got out — most organisms can’t adapt to survive the rising temperatures.
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If the season is a window into a new normal, “we are looking at a very different environment than we would like to have,” Greene said.
At the same time the blob and unusually warm temperatures are causing widespread ecological disruptions, a strong El Niño — a disruption in the ocean-atmosphere system — is developing that could potentially aggravate and prolong the problems.
Temperatures in the eastern, equatorial Pacific, where El Niños are born, haven’t been this warm this time of year since the record-breaking El Niño of 1997-98.
‘“It looks like it’s going to be a big one,” said Michael McPhaden, of NOAA’s Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory in Seattle. And big El Niños affect weather patterns all around the globe.
The impact is probably already felt here in this summer’s high temperatures, Bond said. But in the Pacific Northwest, the biggest change usually comes in the form of warmer winters with less snow.
During this El Niño, the fact that offshore waters are already warm could intensify the effect.
“The blob itself is adding to the warmth we’re liable to get from the El Niño, so it increases our confidence that this winter won’t be a cold one,” Bond said.
The El Niño pattern is expected to persist until next spring, McPhaden said.