According to preliminary data, more than 1 billion marine life along the Vancouver coastline was cooked to death during a record-breaking heat wave in the Pacific Northwest.
The maritime massacre surprised even experts. Christopher Harley, a professor at the University of British Columbia, said the death toll continued to rise when his team surveyed the area’s beaches.
“On the first of the three hot days I was on a bank at low tide. I wasn’t thinking, ‘All of these things will probably be dead by Monday afternoon,’ “Harley said. “I didn’t realize that I would spend most of the next few weeks racing through the province to document such unprecedented effects.”
After a four-day period in June when temperatures broke records in the Pacific Northwest, breaking 100 degrees Fahrenheit, Harley and his team visited coastlines to count damage to marine animals like clams and rockweed. These species are usually the first to wash ashore after they die.
Last week they estimated 1 billion marine animals dead. This week they say it could be more than that.
The team estimated that at one location – Galiano Island, a strip of land between Vancouver Island and mainland British Columbia – an area the size of a tennis court, 1 million clams died.
A 1-kilometer area near White Rock is said to be a graveyard for 100 million barnacles, Harley said.
“The Georgia Strait and Puget Sound have thousands of kilometers of coastline. Not all courts are as bad as the two I have described, but you can fit many tennis courts within a thousand kilometers, ”he said.
Harley said they found more species from the Dead Sea in the weeks following the rare heat wave. A species of snail called the Dogwhelk has already started washing up.
“The more coasts I visit, the higher my estimate becomes,” he said. “The system is already reacting.”
As they log more dead species in greater numbers of habitats, Harley warned of the possible collapse of the area’s marine ecosystem.
The loss of large numbers of mussels could destabilize local parts of the ocean as they filter the water and provide food for other species such as starfish, crabs, and birds. Rockweed is also an important habitat for other species.
Loss of just these two species would lead to a decline in biodiversity, he said. And they haven’t finished counting yet.
“I’m also concerned about the little things that most people – including biologists – don’t pay much attention to,” added Harley. “We don’t even know enough about most of the strange and wonderful creatures that call the mussel bed home to know how many have been lost and if and when they will recover.”
Harley said he had received observations of dying from fellow researchers, clam farmers, and beach goers as far as the Hood Canal in Washington and north to Klemtu, British Columbia.
That heat wave seemed to have hit the Salish Sea particularly hard, he said. But as global temperatures continue to rise, he expects more areas to feel the heat too.
It could foreshadow a bleak future.
“So far, my students and I have recorded dead animals on beaches that stretch for hundreds of kilometers of coastline,” he said. “At some point, parts of the coast of British Columbia could become more like Hong Kong and other hot parts of the world, with many of the tidal species dying off every summer.”
Reprinted from E&E News with permission from POLITICO, LLC. Copyright 2021. E&E News provides important news for energy and environmental professionals.