I hate to resolve to the shallowness of writing about the weather. By now everyone must have noticed that we are having an unusually warm, extremely dry summer. But I may be wrong: Just the other day, as I left a store the cashier told me to “enjoy the nice weather.” There is nothing nice about this weather! I am not talking about my personal preference, but about the bigger implications that this weather has on the Kodiak environment. In fact, we should be extremely worried, and I am not just talking about your lawn!
This summer is shaping up to be a lot more than just a few welcome warm weeks to enjoy on the beach. NOAA has declared July the hottest month ever recorded on earth! This is based on a 140-year record of temperatures measured and averaged around the world. At www.ospo.noaa.gov/Products/ocean/sst/contour/ you can see colorful images of sea surface temperature maps. Maps to frighten anyone trained to read them with sea surface readings of 29-degree Celsius west of Hawaii. Other news talk about a heat wave that swept over Europe and caused 217 billion tons of ice in Greenland to melt within just one month. These huge oceanographic events have lasting effects on the global climate. In cascading effects, we can expect more outfalls from these changes.
Changes have also been evident around Kodiak. If you went boating close to town, you may have noticed the shearwaters skimming the ocean surface in the thousands. There has been a lot of forage fish in the area and that is generally a good sign; it draws in the whales, which makes for happy tourists and it draws in the larger fish, which makes for happy fishermen. Commercial fishermen are catching a lot of pink salmon this summer, but there is concern about the low numbers of red salmon. It looked different in Bristol Bay; they had more reds than predicted. At the same time, however, scientists are concerned about bird die-offs in the Bering Sea affecting many species, but especially shearwaters. The birds seem to have died of starvation.
In every disturbance, there are winners and losers. Every organism in the ocean and those dependent on the ocean have adapted their life cycles to conditions that have been predictable over thousands of years. A major shift in conditions anywhere in this life cycle can throw this balance off and cause a species to suffer. Ocean temperatures are a driver for many of these balances and even a slight shift in temperatures causes visible effects across the food web. Plankton are the first to react to the changes; warmer water usually means less plankton. Fish adjust their migrations and distribution based on the prevalent temperatures and food sources. The small, lipid rich forage fish feed on plankton. If those are not where they usually are, the fish move on in search for more suitable conditions. Birds, which travel thousands of miles across the globe rely on finding fuel in the form of fish or plankton krill in the same places where they have stopped on their travels for generations. Now, they arrive from their long flight only to find their usual feeding places devoid of food. It is not likely to be a coincidence that some of the hottest areas on the sea surface temperature map are also those areas with the most dead seabirds collected during the same time period.
Last week, while viewing sea lions and sea birds in the waters around Kodiak, we found two birds floating dead in the water. In both cases, the birds were still fresh, looked like they had just stuck their head under to spot a fish and were frozen in that position. Alarmed, and remembering the effects of the abnormally warm sea surface temperatures in Kodiak in 2016, when we had a mass die-off of common murres, I carefully collected the birds — never touching them with my bare hands — and bagged each in a plastic bag, which we stored on ice until return to the harbor. I then immediately took the birds to the Fish and Wildlife Service for further examination.
We do not know if this was a coincidence and there just happened to be two dead birds on the same day or if this is another warning sign of some serious disturbance in our ecosystem. Time will tell. I am certain that my perceptions are not based on pure science, I am not spending the majority of my time studying the data. What I do know is that I feel like the ocean is sending us distress calls; sometimes in the form of a bumper crop of fish, sometimes in the form of a displaced bird species, or the show of whales outside our windows, and sometimes in the shape of a harbor full of jellies, a new kelp taking hold near our set net site, or dead birds bobbing in the waves or lying in grotesque formations washed up in the tideline on the beach.
Today it finally feels like fall. I hope that it does not just mean that spruce cones and branches are falling. Temperatures are also falling and that will be a welcome relief. I can’t believe I would ever write this in Kodiak: “I hope that the rain will also start falling soon.” After all, we live in a coastal rain forest and I miss the lush green sights of moss covering the trees, and the rays of sun filtering through the water drops on recently washed green scenery, the ponds filled and the creeks murmuring with the sound of moving water. That is how it should be in this part of the world — the amazing Emerald Isle.