We need to act urgently to reduce the amount of greenhouse gas pollution we humans create in order to slow down and eventually stop climate change. In the mean time we see case after case of something happening that seems unusual and that seems linked to global warming. We need not wait for the jury to return a verdict in every single case in order to act. We already know what many of the effects of climate change are, and we have a reasonably good idea of what effects will arise in the future. Even so, every now and then something happens that any reasonable person might guess is linked ultimately to greenhouse gas pollution, and we should pay attention to those cases.
Whales die, and sometimes their bodies wash up on shore. Over the last few months, the rate at which this happens seems to have increased about 300% in the Gulf of Alaska and maybe in other areas as well. One possible culprit is warming of northern waters (you may have heard of the Warm Blob), which in turn feeds the development of toxic microbes. Warming can also have other effects as well. This set of effects is thought to be a possible, maybe likely, cause of this alarming rate of whale deaths. Many of the whales are larger species.
Since May 2015, 11 fin whales, 14 humpback whales, one gray whale, and four unidentified cetaceans have stranded around the islands of the western Gulf of Alaska and the southern shoreline of the Alaska Peninsula. To date, this brings the large whale strandings for this region to almost three times the historical average.
The declaration of an unusual mortality event will allow NOAA and federal, state, and tribal partners to develop a response plan and conduct a rigorous scientific investigation into the cause of death for the stranded whales.
“NOAA Fisheries scientists and partners are very concerned about the large number of whales stranding in the western Gulf of Alaska in recent months,” said Dr. Teri Rowles, NOAA Fisheries’ marine mammal health and stranding response coordinator. “While we do not yet know the cause of these strandings, our investigations will give us important information on the health of whales and the ecosystems where they live. Members of the public can greatly assist the investigation by immediately reporting any sightings of dead whales or distressed live animals they discover.”
Ryan Schuessler has written about this in the Washington Post.
Predation, starvation, or disease could be behind the deaths, but researchers say there have been few signs of physical trauma to the whales. The more likely culprit is unusual water conditions.
Over the past two years, a large mass of warm water that climatologists have dubbed “the blob” has persisted in the north Pacific, and El Niño 2015 is pushing more warm water into the region.
The unusually warm and calm seas are believed to be behind a series of toxin-producing algae blooms – record-breaking in size and duration – stretching from southern California to the Aleutian Islands. Clams sampled near the town of Sand Point, Alaska were found to have toxin levels more than 80 times what the FDA says is safe for human consumption, said Bruce Wright, a scientist who studies toxic algal blooms for the Aleutian and Pribilof Islands Association. The levels were ten times anything Wright had previously recorded.