Don’t think you mind a little jacuzzification in your ocean? You’re wrong. Warmer oceans matter because “global warming” doesn’t just mean above average air temperatures over the course of a year — it actually refers to an increase in the total amount of heat energy contained in the Earth’s systems. While air temperatures can fluctuate on any given year, they are usually matched by an increase or decrease of the amount of heat stored in the oceans (which, by the way, absorb around 90 percent of total global warming heat). To know whether the system as a whole is getting warmer or not, scientists need to take into account the temperatures of the atmosphere, land, AND oceans.
Luckily, NOAA has been tracking ocean energy data for decades, updating its charts every few months. Unluckily, the newest data shows that, on top of 2014’s record-breaking air temperatures, ocean temperatures have also increased — to put it in layman’s terms — a shit ton. The spike is so significant that NOAA will have to rescale its heat chart.
OK, people. We don’t want to sound like a broken record about the reality of climate change … and actually this time we don’t have to. This is one broken record that speaks for itself.
Some of the most iconic photographs of Teddy Roosevelt, one of the first conservationists in American politics, show the president posing companionably with the prizes of his trophy hunts. An elephant felled in Africa in 1909 points its tusks skyward; a Cape buffalo, crowned with horns in the shape of a handlebar mustache, slumps in a Kenyan swamp. In North America, he stalked deer, pronghorn antelope, bighorn sheep and elk, which he called “lordly game” for their majestic antlers. What’s remarkable about these photographs is not that they depict a hunter who was also naturalist John Muir’s staunchest political ally. It’s that just 100 years after his expeditions, many of the kind of magnificent trophies he routinely captured are becoming rare.
Elk still range across parts of North America, but every hunting season brings a greater challenge to find the sought-after bull with a towering spread of antlers. Africa and Asia still have elephants, but Roosevelt would have regarded most of them as freaks, because they don’t have tusks. Researchers describe what’s happening as none other than the selection process that Darwin made famous: the fittest of a species survive to reproduce and pass along their traits to succeeding generations, while the traits of the unfit gradually disappear. Selective hunting—picking out individuals with the best horns or antlers, or the largest piece of hide—works in reverse: the evolutionary loser is not the small and defenseless, but the biggest and best-equipped to win mates or fend off attackers.
When hunting is severe enough to outstrip other threats to survival, the unsought, middling individuals make out better than the alpha animals, and the species changes. “Survival of the fittest” is still the rule, but the “fit” begin to look unlike what you might expect. And looks aren’t the only things changing: behavior adapts too, from how hunted animals act to how they reproduce. There’s nothing wrong with a species getting molded over time by new kinds of risk. But some experts believe problems arise when these changes make no evolutionary sense.
NOAA Northwest Fisheries Science Center March 25, 2015
Climate change and food shortages are behind an increased push of pinnipeds into the Columbia River.
In Southern California hundreds of starving sea lion pups are washing up on beaches, filling marine mammal care centers that scarcely can hold them all.
Meanwhile thousands of adult male California sea lions are surging into the Pacific Northwest, crowding onto docks and jetties in coastal communities.
How can animals from the same population be struggling in one region while thriving in another? The answer lies in the division of family responsibilities between male and female sea lions, and the different ways each responds to an everchanging ocean, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center in Seattle.
“We’re seeing the population adjust to the environment as the environment changes,” said Sharon Melin, a sea lion biologist with the fisheries science center.
The environmental changes affecting the sea lions can be traced to unusually weak winds off the West Coast over the last year. Without cooling winds, scientists say, the Pacific Ocean warmed as much as 2 to 5 degrees Celsius (35.6 to 41 degrees Farenheit) above average. What started as a patchwork of warm water from Southern California to Alaska in 2014 has since grown into a vast expanse, affecting everything from plankton at the bottom of the food chain to sea lions near the top.
“The warming is about as strong as anything in the historical record,” said Nathan Mantua, who leads the Landscape Ecology Team at the Southwest Fisheries Science Center.
Struggle for food
The Channel Islands rookeries where nearly all California sea lions raise their young off Southern California sit in the middle of the warm expanse. Female sea lions have strong ties to the rookeries. They take foraging trips of a few days at a time before returning to the rookeries to nurse their pups.
But the unusually warm water has apparently shifted the distribution of their prey, making it harder for females to find enough food to support the nutritional needs of their pups. Their hungry pups, it now appears, are struggling to gain weight and have begun striking out from the rookeries on their own. Many do not make it and instead wash up on shore dead or emaciated.
Since the early 1970s the California sea lion population underwent unprecedented growth. The species is protected by the 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act and is estimated to number about 300,000 along the U.S. West Coast. But the growth has slowed in recent years as ocean conditions have turned especially unfavorable for juvenile survival. That could lead to population declines in coming years, biologists say.
“We are working on data to look at whether the population might be approaching its resource limits,” Melin told reporters in a recent conference call.
Sea lions serve as an indicator of ocean conditions because they are visible and are sensitive to small environmental and ecological changes, Melin said. The warm temperatures may well be affecting other species in less obvious ways.
“There are probably other things going on in the ecosystem we may not be seeing,” she said.
Unlike female sea lions, males have no lasting obligations to females or young. After mating at the rookeries in midsummer, they leave the rookeries and roam as far as Oregon, Washington and Alaska in search of food.
“They’re bachelors,” said Mark Lowry of the Southwest Fisheries Science Center in La Jolla, California. “They just go wherever they can to find something to eat.”
Male sea lions search out prey with high energy content, especially oily fish such as herring and sardines, said Robert DeLong, who leads a program to study the California Current Ecosystem at the Alaska Fisheries Science Center. Increasing numbers have found their way to the mouth of the Columbia River to feed on increasingly strong runs of eulachon, also called smelt, and have taken up residence on docks and jetties near Astoria.
“More sea lions learned last year and even more will learn this year that this is a good place to find food,” DeLong said of the Columbia River. “They’ve learned these fish are there now and they won’t forget that.”
DeLong and Steve Jeffries, a research biologist with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, attached satellite-linked tracking tags to 15 sea lions feeding on salmon near Bremerton (Wash.) in November and December. Four of those sea lions are now at the mouth of the Columbia, Jeffries said.
Counts around Astoria rose from a few hundred in January to nearly 2,000 in February, exceeding numbers in previous years at the same time. The count includes some animals from the eastern stock of Steller sea lions, removed from the List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife in 2013. The California sea lions also feed on spring chinook salmon and steelhead. Some of the chinook and steelhead stocks are listed under the Endangered Species Act and NOAA Fisheries is working with state officials to address sea lion predation.
By the beginning of May, the male sea lions depart for the summer breeding season at the rookeries in Southern California.
“It’s like flipping a switch,” DeLong said. “Suddenly it’s time to go.”
Warm conditions may continue
The warm expanse of ocean extends to depths of 60 to 100 meters, Mantua said, and will likely take months to dissipate even if normal winds resume. Biologists expect poor feeding conditions for California sea lions will likely continue near their rookeries while warm ocean conditions persist. A more typical spring and summer with strong and persistent winds from the north would cool the water and likely improve foraging conditions along the West Coast.
The tropical El Niño just declared by NOAA is one wild card that may affect West Coast ocean conditions over the next year. If the El Niño continues or intensifies through 2015, it would favor winds and ocean currents that support another year of warm conditions along the West Coast.
US Army Corps of Engineers announces it will move forward with plan to slaughter 11,000 cormorants.
March 20, 2015: The US Army Corps of Engineers has issued a final record of decision announcing it will move forward with the decision to slaughter nearly 11,000 Double-crested Cormorants and destroy more than 26,000 Double-crested Cormorant nests on East Sand Island in the Columbia River Estuary.
Cormorants will be shot out of the sky with shotguns as they forage for food and with rifles at close range as they tend to their nests. The Corps still must obtain permits from the US Fish and Wildlife Service to commence the killing, and the Audubon Society of Portland urges the Fish and Wildlife Service to deny those permits. However, if those permits are issued, the Audubon Society of Portland’s Board of Directors has voted to sue the Corps and…
A touching story of a mother Trumpeter Swan saving the life of a lead-poisoned Cygnet on the ice of the St. Croix River (Source: St. Croix 360, Feb., 2015). Discusses pushback from hunting organizations, retailers and manufacturers; superiority of copper; cascading effects of lead in wildlife species; impacts on human population and ultimately a call to action. By not banning the use of lead, our legislators, state and federal agencies are violating their fiduciary responsibilities as trustees of our natural resources. See “Lead Exposure in Wisconsin Birds” (WDNR; Strom et. al, 2009); and the WDNR’s “Precautions for lead ammunition”. Lastly, take action by contacting your U.S. Senators and Representatives to OPPOSE the Bipartisan Sportsmen’s Act of 2015: prohibits EPA from regulating lead ammunition, opens up increased public lands to hunting, shooting ranges, importation of polar bears and much more.
There had been some speculation that my Forbes departure had been spurred by Steve Forbes having grazing leases or that people with influence at Forbes did and that my exposing the federal grazing program was not to their liking. Would I be interested in writing a piece on rich welfare ranchers?
The idea of exploring that topic was attractive, even though I knew it would be challenging, so I agreed.
Today, almost a year later, I’m proud to publish “Forbes Billionaires Top US Welfare Ranchers List” on AlterNet and also the Daily Pitchfork.
The article is the fourth part of the Daily Pitchfork’s “SourceWatch” series on ranchers in the media (you can read the first three parts here, here and here).
SourceWatch was created to address the media’s twin habits of…
On a hopeful note, wild animals can unlearn their conditioned response of fearing the worst when they see humans. The other day we surprised a familiar flock of geese, who instinctively took flight. “It’s okay; It’s just us,” we told them. As one, they must have all thought, “Oh yeah, we know them. They’re not Elmers or Elmerettes out to get us. It’s just that friendly couple that walks their dog every day. And anyway, it’s not hunting season.” They instantly hit the brakes and gently landed back down while we gave them a wide berth and continued to tell them how glad we were to see them again.
That’s the way it should be, humans and non-humans getting along and sharing the planet.
Although I wouldn’t dream of telling anyone what they should or shouldn’t do, perhaps if we all treat the Earth and its non-human inhabitants with a little kindness and respect—stop shooting and gassing geese, and for that matter, stop treating all other animal life like they’re expendable playthings; stop calling yourselves sportsmen when all you really want to do is kill; stop pretending that primates are supposed to be predators; stop assuming everything has been put here for your benefit; stop heating up the climate by burning fossil fuels like there’s no tomorrow; and not to shock anyone, but why not slow down to 55 or less for the sake of migratory wildlife, if not the climate; and last but definitely not least, the unmentionable, stop having babies—we may all survive for another century or two.
In short, stop thinking only of your own species’ immediate gratification and treat the natural world with a little love and humility. Oh, and an apology to the Earth for past abuses might be in order, as well.
Yesterday we came across a river otter who crossed the road about 30 yards in front of us and disappeared into our pond. No cars were around so he needn’t have been in a hurry, but still he was very business-like, loping purposefully from one waterway to the next. He didn’t stop and give us any extra time to appreciate his company, and clearly—though we meant him no harm and regarded him with respect—he didn’t seem to appreciate ours.
Similarly, on today’s walk along a road through the neighboring wetlands, a large flock of ducks took flight, putting as much distance between us and them as possible, as quickly as possible.
Meanwhile, several pairs of Canada geese kept a wary eye on us as they
honked their warning calls and ambled reluctantly behind the cover of some cattails and tall grass. We spoke reassuringly to them, explaining that we didn’t intend to hurt them, but our mere presence was disruptive. Unfortunately wildlife tends to judge all people based on human nature in general.
Although fewer folks nowadays are out to kill everything they see, destructive behavior has been a hallmark of human nature since the genus Homo first set foot on the face of the Earth. Other traits representative of the species seem to be an over-bearing sense of entitlement (as in “it’s all here for us”) and a narcissistic arrogance that empowers them to see themselves as supreme among all other beings, whom they objectify as resources put here for them by some anthropomorphic deity for their benefit to exploit as they see fit.
It’s always disappointing that the wild animals assume the worst because of your association, no matter how distant, with the average gun-toting Elmer, when all you want to do is be friends.
Researchers have recently released a paper that details 15 of the most critically endangered species on Earth – organisms that not only are facing what looks to be inevitable extinctions, but are barely receiving any aid to stop it. Now conservationists are calling for the money and expertise that would be needed to help these creatures – ranging from seabirds to tropical gophers – survive.
A study recently published in the journal Current Biologydetails how a whopping 841 endangered species can still be saved from extinction if countries and organizations commit an estimated net value of $1.3 billion dollars annually towards their safety. However, for 15 of the species highlighted in the report, their chance of conservation success is dropping by the minute.
“Conservation opportunity evaluations like ours show the urgency of implementing management actions before it is too late,” Dalia A. Conde, the lead author of the study and Assistant Professor at the Max-Planck Odense Center at the University of Southern Denmark, explained in a recent statement. “However, it is imperative to rationally determine actions for species that we found to have the lowest chances of successful habitat and zoo conservation actions.”
So just what are these 15 species in trouble? Nearly half the list includes amphibians, and that’s something that shouldn’t be too surprising given that this class of creatures is battling a war on two fronts. (Scroll to read on…)
(Photo : Ivan Sazima) The Brazilian frog Physalaemus soaresi is one of the most critically endangered species in the world, as the great majority of its natural habitat has been converted into eucalyptus plantations.
Meanwhile, the habitats that these creatures rely on are shrinking and changing in the wake of climate change and human influence. Salamanders are even shrinking, as they increasingly struggle to live in suddenly dry and warming climes.
Six of the 15 species listed also happen to be birds. This, too, is partially a consequence of climate change, where churning air currents and shrinking habitats are leaving migratory species with smaller rest stops and fewer food supplies. Even species who do not travel far are left to compete with invaders, pollution, and, most commonly, deforestation. The Tahiti monarch (Pomarea nigra), for instance, is estimated to total less than 50 in the wild, as livestock pastures are expanding at the cost of forest habitat. (Scroll to read on…)
(Photo : Vincent Legendre) The Amsterdam albatross – one of the most critically endangered birds in the world – boasts a population that hovers somewhere around 130 birds with only 25 known breeding pairs.
Most interestingly, three mammal species are threatened, consisting of the Mount Lefo brush-furred mouse (Lophuromys eisentrauti) in Cameroon, the Chiapan climbing rat (Tylomys bullaris) in Mexico, and the tropical pocket gopher (Geomys tropicalis) along the Mexican and Central American coast.
Shrinking habitats are threatening all three, but the reasons vary from urbanization, to human conflict, to costly habitat protection. Some can’t even be reintroduced into the wild through a captive breeding system, as the expertise to raise them is too rare or costly in undeveloped worlds.
That’s why an international effort world be worth it, according to the study. The researchers determined that the total cost to conserve the 841 animal species in their natural habitats was calculated to be more than $1 billion (USD) per year. The estimated annual cost for complementary management in zoos was $160 million.
“Although the cost seems high, safeguarding these species is essential if we want to reduce the extinction rate by 2020,” added Hugh Possingham from The University of Queensland. “When compared to global government spending on other sectors – e.g., US defense spending, which is more than 500 times greater -, an investment in protecting high biodiversity value sites is minor.”
And most encouragingly of all, the researchers found that if these species get the funding they need, 39 percent of them could potentially be pulled out of their endangered status, given their high number of conservation opportunities.
That’s not the case for the most threatened 15, but even for those the researchers argue that taking “an integrated approach” could save them...
Warmer waters off the coast of California are likely driving away sea lions’ prey such as squid, anchovies, and sardines, said Justin Viezbicke, stranding services coordinator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). As a result, mother sea lions are having to go further from birthing grounds — usually around the Channel Islands — to forage for food, meaning that pups probably don’t get enough nutrients from their mothers when they return. The pups then wean off their mothers earlier and are underweight when they leave the island, likely to find food of their own.
“They’re leaving with a low tank of gas and there’s really not much out there to help them out,” said Viezbicke. “They’re jumping into … a challenging environment and then they’re ending up washing ashore on the mainland, starving.”
Organizations like NOAA and other animal rescue programs have been taking in pups and feeding them — but that’s only a stopgap measure.
“This is something that’s naturally occurring out there, so there’s really not much we can do other than watch and learn from the situation,” Viezbicke said. “We can’t really prevent or stop it, unfortunately.”
Left to their own devices, these stranded sea lion pups probably wouldn’t make it. (No judgement if you need a tissue here. I’ll wait.)
Meet the Cassin auklet — a pudgy, fist-sized seabird with crescent-shaped eye markings and pale blue feet. They’re pretty dang cute. And thousands of them are washing up dead along the West Coast — all the way from Northern California to British Columbia.
“My volunteers alone … have found 7,000 carcasses [over the last four months],” said Julia Parrish, executive director of the Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey Team (COASST) at the University of Washington. “It’s a scary big number.”
Like the sea lions, auklets are literally dying for a meal. The birds primarily feed on zooplankton or krill. However, in the last year, a mass of warm water — very scientifically named “the blob” — drove the usual Pacific krill into deeper waters and brought in a host of zooplankton that the auklets don’t eat, reported Audubon Magazine.
When a high number of birds wash ashore dead, the events are called “wrecks.” Generally speaking, smaller wrecks are fairly normal, Parrish explained. If there’s a storm out at sea, it’s not unusual for seabirds caught in its path to die, whether from starvation or storm conditions, and later wash up on beaches. That’s just how it goes.
But this time, something is different. “This is the biggest wreck we’ve ever seen in the 16 years we’ve been doing this work,” Parrish said. “I think it’s probably the largest wreck we’ve seen on West Coast … That makes me sit up and take notice.”
This winter’s wreck could be especially bad if enough of the dead auklets turn out to be adults, because an entire reproductive group may have been wiped out. They won’t know for sure until the birds return to their breeding grounds. Until then, it’s a lot of waiting and counting dead birds.
So is this climate change at play? Scientists are hesitant to say.
Dee Boersma, a conservation scientist and founder of the Penguin Sentinels Project at UW, compares the vulnerability of seabirds to weather and climate to the vulnerability of a human crossing a busy street: You could get hit by a truck, but it doesn’t happen every time. And just as it’s hard to predict exactly how likely you are to survive a street-crossing as a human, the same goes for storms and their effects on Magellanic penguins, she said.
In 2014, Boersma and other penguin researchers published a study in PLOS ONE which found that climate change was directly responsible for the deaths of more than 200 Magellanic penguin chicks from 1983 to 2010 in Punta Tombo, Argentina. There, climate change is increasing the intensity and frequency of storms, while lowering the reproductive success of Magellanic penguins, the study reported.
During the 27-year-long study, young penguins perished at a high rate due to a combination of starvation and overexposure during exceptionally rainy and hot seasons. The chicks’ feather coats keep them cozy when they are dry, but that changes when they get wet: The fluffy down isn’t waterproof, like adult penguin feathers. So if a penguin chick gets caught in the rain during a storm, it’s like a human “being stuck outside and naked in a wet sleeping bag … the penguins basically die of hypothermia like you or I would,” said Boersma.
Plus, a lack of food leaves the chicks unprepared to cool themselves down when things heat up, since they rely on the food their parents bring them for all of their water. Without adequate hydration, the chicks can’t depend on evaporation to keep cool and become vulnerable to heat stress.
It’s a lethal combination: Over the course of the study, an average of 65 percent of the Punta Tombo chicks died every year, with about 40 percent dying of starvation.
So what was that about climate change again? Mass animal die-offs and starvation epidemics are shocking no matter what, even to hardened scientists. Climate change is just exacerbating these kinds of things.
“The fact is that we have populations responding to warming events, whether the warming is temporary or inexorable,” said Parrish, the researcher studying the dying auks.
The world’s ecosystems are hanging on as best they can, but small things can throw them out of balance. It’s unfair to compare the temperatures that a wild ecosystem can withstand to the temperatures humans can, because we have tools and technology on our side. “Wildlife needs habitat,” Parrish said. “In today’s crowded world, habitat only exists in certain places — places that we protect. And when the climate warms, those places change.”
“[Even one degree] is a huge deal,” Parrish points out. To understand and support conservation efforts, humans need to “think like a fish, a clam, or an oyster, and not like a person.”