When forecasts foreshadowed the devastating Pacific Northwest heat wave in late June, marine biologist Christopher Harley was alarmed and intrigued.
Then came the smell and her feelings changed grimly.
“It was this putrid rotting smell,” Harley said. Along hundreds of miles of shoreline, extreme heat baked barnacles, algae, and small sea creatures exposed to the elements along the shoreline. Starfish that failed to crawl to shadier locations were cooked alive. The mussels lay open along the rocks, the tissue crisp between their shells.
Armed with special equipment, Harley and his team of researchers from the University of British Columbia descended on the beaches to measure the body temperatures of the mussels, but it was too late: By the third day of the record heat wave, they had all died. . . “We were just walking on carpets of dead mussels on shore in amazement,” he said.
Initial estimates show that more than 1 billion creatures living in the shallow waters of the Pacific Northwest perished in the heat that week. Scientists hope the impact will have a trickle-down effect on the ecosystem and the other animals that depend on the dead for food and habitat.
“I knew [the heat] It would be ecologically shocking, but I was unprepared for the scale of the destruction, ”Harley said. “The more places I visited and the more deaths I saw, the more sobering the whole event became.”
‘It’s going to be hotter’
The unprecedented heat events that burned the west this summer, breaking dozens of local temperature records across the region, had disastrous effects on people, plants and animals. Climate scientists say this is just a taste of what’s to come.
As the environment continues to warm due to human-caused global warming, temperature spikes will become more frequent, more intense, and longer-lasting. Because heat and drought are inextricably linked, the aggravating catastrophes that have ravaged the West this summer will persist well into the future and continue to wreak havoc on ecosystems, infrastructure and agriculture.
Scientists are still working to document and understand the impact of recent heat waves. But research has made it clear that this anomalous event could become the norm for the next 30 years as the planet continues to warm.
“It’s going to keep getting hotter,” said Andrew Hoell, a meteorologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s physical sciences laboratory, noting that rising temperatures are unambiguously related to human activities. “That means a lot of moisture supply will be needed in terms of precipitation to avoid drought,” he explained. “That will change the rules of the game in terms of how we live.”
Extreme heat could increase crop damage tenfold, according to a study led by researchers at the University of Colorado published earlier this year. The real-time effects are already being seen across the West, where farmers and ranchers have struggled to adapt to extremely dry conditions even before temperatures began to rise.
More than half of the cherry crop in western Canada was damaged in late June, according to the British Columbia Fruit Growers Association. “It looks like someone gave him a blowtorch and scorched him,” Pinder Dhaliwal, president of the association, told CBC News. Even cherries that they looked intact from the outside they were cookedhe added, looking hot all the way to the well.
Producers and their respective associations also reported that raspberries, blueberries and blackberries They were baked along the north west coast before they could be collected, and stone fruits Y apples they were damaged and burned by the high temperatures. Experts from the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) have expressed concern that wrinkled wheat berries and diminished grains it will mean a drastic reduction in wheat production this season.
Temperatures above 95F (35C) have also been found change parts of potatoes from starch to sugar and slow its growth. Meanwhile, a drought-induced shortage of thirsty California tomatoes, which is used for processing, is expected to increase the prices of foods made from it, such as pizza sauce and ketchup.
‘A frog in a pot over low heat’
Until last month, about half of the contiguous United States was in drought According to NOAA scientists, more than 15% of the nation experienced record heat in June, the highest number of temperature spikes ever recorded. Extreme heat and drought, which are devastating and costly disasters individually, go hand in hand and complicate adaptation and recovery efforts. The combined conditions also set the stage for fast-burning fires that have already burned about 3 million acres (1.2 million hectares) this year.
“You have the gradual change of climate change running in the background,” said Steve Ostoja, director of the USDA’s California Climate Center, “but extreme events are the things that really throw you off.”
The historical record indicates between four and six extreme heat waves a year, but climate models indicate that in current trajectories there could be between 25 and 30 of these events by mid-century, according to Ostoja. “That is a big difference,” he said. “That basically means it’s going to be so hot all the time.”
Water and moisture that could help relieve stress during extreme heat are currently in short supply due to drought. Plants experience increased stress, animals cannot stay cool, and shallow waterways heat up faster, making habitats inhospitable.
“It seems that water scarcity will be the issue of the future and we know that warming it is in our future, ”said Ostoja, noting that there will be a marked change in the way agriculture is approached in places like California, which It currently produces more than a third of the country’s vegetables. and two thirds of the country’s fruits and nuts.
“I don’t think it’s like, one day you’ll see that we won’t be able to do agriculture in California,” he added. “It’s like the analogy of the frog in the pot of slowly boiling water.”
Animals are also struggling to adapt, and for some, the prognosis is “bleak”said Jonathon Stillman, a biology professor at San Francisco State University. Their research shows that for animals that have already adapted to higher heat, it will be even more difficult to adapt when temperatures rise higher. “They don’t have the ability to cope when the temperature rises a little above the maximum that they have adapted to,” he said. “They can’t take a little bit more.”
This includes small birds that live on the edge of their water needs, desert dwellers who have nowhere to go when the nights don’t get cold, and fish that cannot reach their spawning areas.
Spring-raised Chinook salmon in California’s central valley were decimated by the heat, after recovering significantly after the 2018 Camp Fire that critically declined already threatened fish. More than 83% of the roughly 15,000 adults in Butte Creek, the largest population of federally protected fish near Chico, California, died according to Howard Brown, senior policy advisor for NOAA Fisheries, West Coast region.
“It’s devastating,” he said, calling this an indicator of the severity of the drought and heat wave. “This is the largest loss of adult salmon that we have ever seen in the central valley.” Salmon in the Columbia River further north were also documented swimming slowly and lethargically through the superheated waters, with large red abrasions and burn marks.
As heat waves become more frequent and intense, they are also expected to affect physically larger areas at once, according to research by Bradfield Lyon, a professor at the University of Maine Institute of Climate Change.
“By mid-century, the spatial size of heat waves in the US is expected to increase by about 50% to 80% of what they are in the current climate,” he said. “The frequency will increase, the duration will increase, as will the intensity.”
It’s alarming, but Lyon, and every other researcher, hope this episode and the promise of more extreme heat will serve as a call for change. The models used to predict upcoming disasters are based on current levels of energy consumption and carbon emissions. Progress is being made and the potential for progress abounds.
“The way I see it is a very severe warning,” Lyon said, likening the situation to fire drills used to teach school-age children how to respond during emergencies. “The teacher said, ‘Don’t be scared, but go as quickly as possible to the exits,’” he said. “In this case, the way out is the burning of fossil fuels. We don’t have to panic, but we certainly have to go as fast as possible in that direction. “
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism