This chart of rising ocean temperatures is terrifying

This year’s biggest climate change news was that 2014 was hottest year on record. Turns out, there’s bigger news: It was also the hottest year in the oceans, which are warming so fast they’re literally breaking the NOAA’s charts.

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.

Ocean heat content data to a depth of 2,000 meters
Ocean heat content data to a depth of 2,000 meters

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.

From sea lions to penguin chicks, adorable animals are dying in droves

We know and love sea lions for their soulful eyes and playful antics — they’re basically the golden retrievers of the ocean. But recently, sea lionsdsc_0224 have been making headlines for much sadder reasons: Droves of malnourished sea lion pups have been washing up all over the Southern Californian coast. More than 1,450 pups have stranded without their mothers since January, reported the Washington Post.

The cause? Starvation.

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.)

As sad as it sounds, starvation events and mass mortality events (in which vast numbers of animals die), are becoming more and more common in this wacky, warming world. Thanks to a number of large-scale, systemic alterations (lookin’ at you, El Niño and warming ocean temps), the world’s ecosystems hang in a delicate balance.

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.

D. Derickson/COASST

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.

Chicks that died of hypothermia after a rainstorm.
Chicks that died of hypothermia after a rainstorm.
Dee Boersma / University of Washington

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.”

Leave fossil fuels buried to prevent climate change, study urges

Fracking for Oil within 100 miles of Williston North Dakota. Along the Missouri River and the Bakken shale formation. Gas burning off from newly tracked well, there is no infrastructure to capture any of this gas.

New research is first to identify which reserves must not be burned to keep global temperature rise under 2C, including over 90% of US and Australian coal and almost all Canadian tar sands

Also see:

Florida isn’t the only state trying to shut down discussion of climate change

In a growing number of states, conservatives have been taking a rather novel approach to climate change — simply prevent people from talking about it.

Florida state employees say they were barred from using the term “climate change”

There’s a big uproar in Florida this week after an investigation alleged that the state has an unwritten policy barring environmental officials from using the terms “climate change” or “global warming” in their work. On Monday, Republican Governor Rick Scott denied any such policy was in place. But state employees and outside scientists insist there’s heavy pressure not to talk about the topic, despite the fact that Florida faces a serious threat from future sea-level rise.

If so, that wouldn’t be the first time state officials — Republicans, usually — have taken steps to prevent people from discussing global warming or climate science.

In 2012, North Carolina’s GOP-controlled state legislature passed a law to prevent the state from considering the most up-to-date climate science in formulating predictions of rising seas. In Pennsylvania in 2014, back when Republican Tom Corbett was governor, one former state employee alleged that she was ordered to remove references to “climate change” from the conservation agency’s website.

In a somewhat different vein, states like Tennessee and Louisiana have been passing laws making it easier to teachers in the classroom to present alternative theories to climate change — even though there’s a broad and firm consensus among climate scientists that human activity is responsible for the rise in global temperatures over the last 50 years.


Global warming helped trigger Syria’s bloody civil war

[Watch for more of this kind of news in the coming years as anthropogenic climate change leads to more drought, weather disruption and food scarcity…]

by Andrew Freedman

Manmade global warming helped spark the brutal civil war in Syria by doubling to tripling the odds that a crippling drought in the Fertile Crescent would occur shortly before the fighting broke out, according to a groundbreaking new study published on March 2.

The study, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, is the first to attribute the drought in Syria in large part to global warming.

In doing so, it provides powerful evidence backing up the Pentagon and intelligence community’s assessments that climate change is likely to play the role of a “threat multiplier” in coming decades, pushing countries that are already vulnerable to upheaval over the edge and into open conflict.

Previous studies had shown that the drought, along with other factors such as an influx of refugees from the Iraq War next door, helped prime Syria for conflict by 2011, when the uprising began, before transitioning into an all-out civil war. Today, once-cosmopolitan Syria has been reduced to rubble, with the terrorist group known as ISIS taking over large swaths of territory.

At least 200,000 people are estimated to have died in this conflict so far.

A Syrian refugee woman is seen between a line of tents in a refugee camp near Azaz, north of Aleppo province, Syria, Sunday, Feb 17, 2013.

AP Photo / Manu Brabo

Turkey, Lebanon, Israel and Jordan may face an even more tenuous security situation in the coming decades.

The drought, which gripped the country between 2007 and 2010, forced 1.5 million farmers and herders in northeastern Syria to flee their lands and travel to urban areas in search of food and work.

This profound demographic shift helped further destabilize the country, the study says.

The study also found that much of the eastern Mediterranean, including Syria, parts of Turkey, Lebanon, Israel and Jordan — no bastions of stability today — may face an even more tenuous security situation in the coming decades as global warming increases temperatures and reduces rainfall throughout much of the region.

According to this study and others, global warming along with unsustainable water use is causing the Fertile Crescent, where agriculture and animal herding first began 12,000 years ago, to lose its fertility.

“This region is going to continue to get drier and continue to get hotter, so this is only a problem that is going to continue to get worse in that region,” says Colin Kelley, the study’s lead author and a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California at Santa Barbara.

Although the drought did not directly cause the war and subsequent rise of ISIS, which the U.S. and its allies are combating using military force, it formed a significant part in the cascading series of events that led to the deadly Syrian conflict.

Government policies that encouraged the unsustainable use of water resources and provided inadequate aid to displaced persons, among other factors, also ratcheted up Syria’s vulnerability to conflict around the time of the drought.

“We would not say and did not even attempt to say that the uprising was caused by climate change,” Kelley says. Rather, the drought was one in a chain of events that led to the breakout of hostilities.

“[Syria’s] vulnerability was so acute that all it took was something to push them over the edge,” he said in an interview.

Kelley says the drought set in motion a series of events that wound up sparking one of the deadliest conflicts of the 21st century to date. “A lot of these farming communities abandoned their villages and went to the cities at the same time that Iraqi refugees were coming in,” Kelley says.

“There was a very big population shock to these urban areas.”

Urban areas in Syria saw a population jump of 50% between 2002 to 2010, from 8.9 million to 13.8 million, as a result of refugees fleeing fighting in Iraq as well as those who were abandoning their land in northeastern Syria.

“That’s a tremendous increase in people to these urban areas over this period,” Kelley told Mashable. “It’s not at all surprising that the uprising happened shortly after this.”

Richard Seager, a climate scientist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Laboratory in New York and a co-author of the study, told Mashable that farmers were prepared to cope with a one-to-two-year dry spell, but three years exceeded their ability to cope.

“The length and severity of this drought [that was] made more likely by human climate change was absolutely key in driving the agricultural community toward a threshold where they had no other opportunity but to pick up and leave,” Seager says.

Arctic Methane Release and Global Warming: Is anybody listening?

Excerpts from Methane Release and Global Warming

Global Research, July 30, 2013
… the “release of methane from thawing permafrost beneath the East Siberian Sea” would come with an “average global price tag of $60 trillion.” The news should have sent a shock wave through the media. But instead, predictably, the public were encouraged to celebrate—again and again, and again—the birth of the royal son.

Shakhova–Semiletov and Whiteman–Hope–Wadhams Studies

During the 1990s Russian scientist Dr. Natalia Shakhova had done studies of methane release from terrestrial permafrost in Eastern Siberia. In the fall of 2003, Shakhova and her colleague Dr. Igor Semiletov took the study offshore—to the East Siberian Arctic Shelf. Every year since then, they conducted annual research trips, mostly on ships during summer, but also one aerial survey in 2006, and one winter expedition on sea ice in April 2007. They published their findings in the 5 March 2010 issue of the journal Science.

Methane release from the East Siberian Arctic Shelf. Credit: Zina Deretsky, National Science Foundation.

Their research, for the first time, brought attention to the East Siberian Arctic Shelf as a key reservoir of Arctic methane that “encompasses more than 2 million square kilometers of seafloor in the Arctic Ocean,” and is “more than three times as large as the nearby Siberian wetlands” that was previously “considered the primary Northern Hemisphere source of atmospheric methane.” Their findings showed that the “permafrost under the East Siberian Arctic Shelf, long thought to be an impermeable barrier sealing in methane, is perforated and is starting to leak large amounts of methane into the atmosphere.” Shakhova pointed out that the current average methane concentrations in the Arctic is “about 1.85 parts per million, the highest in 400,000 years.”

The East Siberian Arctic Shelf is shallow, only about 164 feet in depth, which means that the methane that is getting released there, most of it is escaping into the atmosphere rather than getting absorbed into the water, which would have been the case if it was a deep seabed. Shakhova had warned at the time that the release of “even a fraction of the methane stored in the shelf could trigger abrupt climate warming.”

Shakhova and Semiletov now hold joint appointments with the International Arctic Research Center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and the Pacific Oceanological Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences. Their research is ongoing, and Shakhova is the lead scientist for the Russia–US Methane Study.

I pointed out earlier that the rapid loss of summer sea ice in the Arctic Ocean is a key contributor to—thawing of terrestrial permafrost. It is also a key contributor to—thawing of the subsea permafrost in the East Siberian Arctic Shelf.

With all these background information, I’m finally ready to discuss the Whiteman–Hope–Wadhams study.

Arctic nations, including US, Russia, Canada, Norway, Denmark, as well as some non–Arctic nations, including China and India—are eyeing on the Arctic Economic Prize: “oil and gas” underneath the Arctic seabed. It is estimated that the Arctic Ocean contains 13 percent of undiscovered oil and 30 percent of undiscovered gas. These nations are also working to open up the Arctic sea route for moving all that crude around. It’s a great irony that the rapid melting of the summer sea ice is making the Arctic Ocean accessible for extraction and shipping.

Whiteman, Hope, and Wadhams point out that this frenzy for short–term profit is ignoring the long–term huge “economic impacts of a warming Arctic.” By using modeling they tried to understand the global economic impact of methane release from the East Siberian Arctic Shelf.

Referring to the Shakhova–Semiletov study, Whiteman, Hope, and Wadhams write: “A 50–gigatonne (Gt) reservoir of methane, stored in the form of hydrates, exists on the East Siberian Arctic Shelf. It is likely to be emitted as the seabed warms, either steadily over 50 years or suddenly.” They use “a decade–long pulse of 50 Gt of methane, released into the atmosphere between 2015 and 2025” as input to the PAGE09 economic model. They took into account “sea–level changes, economic and non–economic sectors and discontinuities such as the melting of the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets.” They ran the model 10,000 times under two emissions scenarios: low–emissions and business–as–usual emissions. The result is a shocker: a $60 trillion price tag for the global economy.

That’s just the beginning, because there is much more methane in the Arctic than what is in the East Siberian Arctic Shelf. Furthermore, Whiteman, Hope, and Wadhams write, “The full impacts of a warming Arctic, including, for example, ocean acidification and altered ocean and atmospheric circulation, will be much greater than our cost estimate for methane release alone.”

“The economic consequences will be distributed around the globe, but the modeling shows that about 80 percent of them will occur in the poorer economies of Africa, Asia and South America,” Whiteman, Hope, and Wadhams write. The $60 trillion number is astounding, beyond the comprehension of most human minds. It has the capacity to cripple the economy of many small nations, that are already stressed from global economic crises. This is what I’d call—economic dystopia. …

Coast Guard Cutter Alert rescues sea turtles

February 26, 2015

Alert’s rescue diver, Seaman Brandon Groshens, cuts away the netting to free the sea turtles.

The second sea turtle swims away unharmed after being freed from the netting by SN Brandon Groshens.



The Alert, a Coast Guard cutter homeported in Astoria, encountered the struggling turtles while on patrol Feb. 10 in the eastern Pacific

Two sea turtles caught in fishing net were freed earlier this month by a Coast Guard rescue swimmer.

The Alert, a Coast Guard cutter homeported in Astoria, encountered the struggling turtles while on patrol Feb. 10 in the eastern Pacific, according to a statement from the guard.

The cutter’s bridge watch team flagged plastic containers used as buoys floating in the water and then saw the two entangled turtles.

“Jumping into the ocean to free a couple of sea turtles is not something you wake up in the morning expecting to do” Seaman Brandon Groshens, Pendleton, said in a statement. “It was a really great feeling as they swam away, knowing that we just saved their lives.”

Commander Brian Anderson, the Alert’s commanding officer, said he was “especially proud of my diligent watch standers, and how the crew quickly came together in performing their good deed for the day.”

As Climate Disruption Advances, 26 Percent of Mammals Face Extinction

Tuesday, 06 January 2015 09:33
Written by 
Dahr Jamail By Dahr Jamail,

Excerpts from a Truthout report found here:

Two recently released studies brought bad news for those living near coastlines around the world. One published in the peer-reviewed Nature Climate Change, the other in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the studies showed that existing10264634_10152337495904586_9174164310757903244_n computer models might have severely underestimated the risk to the Greenland ice sheet from warming global temperatures.

Bear in mind that if Greenland’s entire ice sheet melts, 20 feet would be added to global sea levels.  …..

Warming temperatures in the Arctic are causing shifts in the gene pool of animals: Scientists are reporting an increasing likelihood of “grolar bears,” which are a cross between grizzly and polar bears. According to scientists, this would bring deleterious consequences, given that “genetic incompatibilities in hybrids will erase traits crucial to the long-term survival of both parent species.” They warn that if that happens, “then we can expect a great reduction in those populations, and possibly extinctions.”  …

tropical deforestation, caused by both ACD and logging, could cause “significant and widespread” shifts in rainfall distribution and temperatures, which will affect agriculture far and wide.

Pine bark beetle infestations, which are exploding across vast swaths of North America, are now happening as far south as Tucson, Arizona, where pine trees are now dropping like flies.

California’s ongoing drought is having profound impacts on wildlife: Animals like squirrels, deer and bear are fleeing their homes and even risking their lives to search for food sources that have been dramatically diminished.

Another recent study showed that ACD-related habitat loss is now a threat to 314 more species of birds, whose numbers are already in decline. …

As storms continue to intensify, the Philippines’ climate chief warned recently that his country lacks the systems necessary to cope with the worsening impacts of ACD. The Philippines was recently hammered by yet another massive typhoon.

In Australia, Sydney and its surrounding region can expect an increasing number of hot days, shifting rainfall patterns and more extreme fire danger as a result of ACD, according to recently published high-resolution modeling of the future climate there.

A recently published study revealed that deadly cholera outbreaks are almost certain to increase in the more vulnerable regions of the world due to ACD, since severe heat waves and more frequent and intense flooding are on the rise.

Lastly in this section, another recent study showed that the Amazonian peatlands store approximately 10 times the amount of carbon as do undisturbed rainforests in adjacent areas, which makes them all the more critical in efforts to mitigate ACD. The areas in question are already mostly unprotected, and the deforestation there would result in “massive carbon emissions,” according to the report.

deadly heat waves in Europe are now 10 times more likely than they were just a decade ago. This is troubling news, given that during the summer of 2003 when temperatures soared to over 100 degrees throughout Western Europe, more than 35,000 people were killed – and that was the most intense heat the continent had seen in over 500 years.

As the planet goes, so goes Europe. A recent study by three independent teams of climate scientists has tied that continent’s record-breaking heat of 2014 directly to ACD. The report also showed that record-breaking years are now 35 to 80 times more likely, again thanks to ACD.

Extremes of both hot and cold temperatures across the planet are increasing faster than previously believed.

Indeed, recently released research shows that extremes of both hot and cold temperatures across the planet are increasing faster than previously believed… the Arctic is continuing to warm faster than the rest of the planet, as annual average temperatures there have continued to heat up twice as fast as the rest of the globe.

Two recent studies revealed that millions of abandoned oil and gas wells spanning the United States are likely releasing a “significant quantity” of methane into the atmosphere, which is not being included in total Environmental Protection Agency emission counts.

Lastly and perhaps most distressing in this section, new modeling revealed how warming ocean waters could well already be triggering massive methane leaks off the Pacific Northwest Coast, where 4 million tons of the potent greenhouse gas have already been released since 1970.  …

…and Nature magazine has sounded the alarm that a staggering 41 percent of all amphibians on the planet now face extinction, and 26 percent of mammals and 13 percent of birds face the same threat. …

For California Salmon, Drought

For California Salmon, Drought
And Warm Water Mean Trouble

With record drought and warming waters due to climate change, scientists are concerned that the future for Chinook salmon — a critical part of the state’s fishing industry — is in jeopardy in California.

by alastair bland

Gushing downpours finally arrived in California last month, when December rains brought some relief to a landscape parched after three years of severe drought.

But the rain came too late for thousands of Chinook salmon that spawned this summer and fall in the northern Central Valley. The Sacramento River, running lower than usual under the scorching sun, warmed into the low 60s — a temperature range that can be lethal to fertilized

Chinook salmon

Pacific Northwest National Lab
Chinook, the largest species of Pacific salmon, need cool waters to reproduce.

Chinook eggs. Millions were destroyed, and almost an entire year-class of both fall-run Chinook, the core of the state’s salmon fishing industry, and winter-run Chinook, an endangered species whose eggs incubate in the summer, was lost.

The disaster comes on the heels of a similar event the previous autumn. It is also reminiscent of ongoing troubles on northern California’s Klamath River, where diversion of water for agriculture has at times left thousands of adult Chinook — the largest species of Pacific salmon — struggling to survive in water too shallow and warm to spawn in.

Now, scientists — who are observing increasing human demand for water, genetic decline of hatchery-reared salmon, and climate change models predicting intensified droughts — are concerned that the Chinook salmon will be unable to tolerate future river conditions and will all but vanish from California’s landscape.

Robert Lackey, a professor of fisheries at Oregon State University, Corvallis, says that as the climate continues to warm, “salmon at the southern edge of their range will be the first to go.” Lackey doubts any

Historically huge salmon runs could be reduced to almost nothing before the end of the century.

Pacific salmon species will go fully extinct soon, and in Alaska, Russia, and other northern regions he expects populations to remain relatively strong. But farther south, where rising water temperatures will reach or exceed the limits of the salmon’s physiological tolerance, Lackey predicts historically huge runs will be reduced to almost nothing before the end of the century.

Just two centuries ago, as many as two million Chinook spawned in the Central Valley each year. The fish headed from the Pacific into San Francisco Bay, and at the confluence of the valley’s two big rivers, about half turned north into the Sacramento River system while the rest went south into the San Joaquin River, seeking the cool headwaters where they would lay and fertilize their eggs.

In this large valley — where the Mediterranean climate is friendly to desert-loving crops like pistachios, figs, and olives — salmon may seem out of place. Yet they thrived here. That’s because some of the highest mountains in North America flank the Central Valley — the Sierra Nevada along the eastern side and the Cascades at the north end. These ranges are buried in snow most winters, and through the summer and fall meltwater gushes into the lowlands below, providing the cold flows Chinook salmon require to successfully spawn.

The 19th-century flood of miners and settlers to California rapidly changed the ecosystem. Mining destroyed watersheds while overfishing dented the huge salmon runs. Then, in the 20th century, came the extensive systems of dams and canals built for agriculture. Reservoirs filled. So did the irrigation canals, and in the western San Joaquin Valley, a region naturally too arid to support intensive farming, vast orchards proliferated. The salmon fared poorly, though. The dams blocked the way to their historic spawning grounds and in some cases dried out rivers. In the San Joaquin, salmon vanished. On the Sacramento and its tributaries, populations hung on, though mostly because of artificial propagation in hatcheries.

Today, climate change is emerging as the next great threat to California’s remaining salmon runs. Peter Moyle, a fisheries biologist at the University

The mountain snowpack that has made life possible for salmon runs in California is expected to retreat.

of California, Davis, says the mountain snowpack that has made life possible for salmon runs in the state will retreat in the coming decades, as average temperatures escalate. Just a few spring-fed streams, he says, may remain cold enough year-round to support spawning.

This fall, scientists and environmentalists got a glimpse of what snowpack loss could mean for salmon statewide. Shasta Lake, its inflow from tributaries greatly diminished, dropped, while its waters warmed. Most years, even after a long, hot summer, cool water is available at the bottom of the reservoir, where an intake system draws the water through Shasta Dam and into the Sacramento River downstream. But by October of 2014, the water was 61 degrees, top to bottom, according to Jim Smith of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

“There was no cold water available,” he says.

Tens — possibly hundreds — of thousands of salmon laid and fertilized their eggs through the autumn before any rain fell. “It would be a miracle if we had much survival in the river,” Moyle says.

Another autumn spawning disaster had occurred a year earlier, during the driest year in California’s recorded history. Government officials, hoping to ration reservoir water for later agricultural use, abruptly lowered the outflow from Shasta Lake in the midst of the largest spawning event the

Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers

California Dept. of Fish and Wildlife
Chinook salmon historically headed inland from the Pacific Ocean and up either the Sacramento or San Joaquin rivers to spawn.

Sacramento had seen in years. The river, teeming with 20-to-40-pound fish, shrank by half its volume. Thousands of salmon nests, or redds, were left high and dry.

Even the remote Klamath River, which flows into the sea just south of Oregon in a region of rain-drenched forest, is not immune to drought and thirsty farms. Last summer, the diversion of Klamath basin water to the Sacramento Valley, compounded by a year with virtually no rain, caused the dewatering of the Klamath during a large salmon run. Thousands of adult Chinook almost died in lukewarm water before the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, persuaded by Native American tribal leaders and environmentalists, reluctantly allowed more water to flow into the river, saving the fish. The action helped avoid a repeat of the kill in 2002, when sun-warmed waters caused a disease outbreak that killed roughly 34,000 adult fish.

The Klamath’s problems will get worse with climate change and increasing river temperatures, says Rebecca Quiñones, a U.C. Davis researcher who has extensively studied the Klamath ecosystem. “All the climate models show that the main stem of the [Klamath] river is going to be really

Some conservationists say hatchery production is making Chinook salmon more vulnerable to warming trends.

inhospitable to salmon,” Quiñones says.

Hatcheries in the Klamath and Sacramento basins produce most of the salmon that head out into the Pacific and are caught by fishermen off the California coast. But these facilities may now be causing more problems than they’re solving. For one thing, hatchery production is making Chinook salmon more vulnerable to warming trends, according to Jacob Katz, director of salmonid restoration initiatives with the group California Trout. He says hatcheries have traditionally harvested the very first salmon to swim through their processing rooms. In doing so, they have selected for a fall-run population that returns on the early end of the spawning season — exactly when waters may be warm and low, especially in the future.

Meanwhile, hatchery inbreeding and the elimination of natural selection is stripping the Chinook salmon genome of its evolutionary assets, Moyle says. The result is a domesticated animal not well suited to survive in a natural environment. Eventually, Moyle warns, hatchery fish will be so incompetent at finding food, evading predators, and finding their way back upriver to spawn that, even with tens of millions of them released each year, the Central Valley returns will diminish beyond hope. Hatcheries, without enough returning adults to provide sufficient eggs, will be forced to shut down. “This may take years, but the trajectory is there,” Moyle warns.

Today, in the Central Valley, juvenile salmon face multiple threats. In the Sacramento-San Joaquin delta, irrigation pumps draw the fish off their migration routes and into remote backwaters. Non-native bass and catfish, which are proliferating in the delta (and whose futures look bright in the warming waters), wait in ambush at reed clusters and pier pilings.

If rain falls at the right time, fast-moving torrents can wash the salmon safely out to sea; but in dry years, they drift slowly and precariously through the delta, and most perish before ever touching saltwater. Indeed, even critics of the hatcheries recognize that, were they to shut down, a fishing industry worth more than a billion dollars would collapse almost instantly.

Some scientists believe the Central Valley could still support a large, naturally spawning salmon population if the river system were restored to

Federal officials are considering a plan to trap adult salmon downstream and truck them upstream of Shasta Dam.

some semblance of its original state. Drained wetlands along the Sacramento River’s floodplains would need to be reconnected to the main channel, and dams would need to be operated to ensure that cold water always flowed downstream. In some cases, Moyle notes, dams could actually help salmon, since deep reservoirs would be the most reliable sources of cold water.

However, even outflow from the 500-foot depths of Shasta Lake will probably be too warm most years for endangered winter-run Chinook to spawn. To save this run from vanishing, the National Marine Fisheries Service is considering a long-term plan of trapping adult salmon downstream and trucking them upstream of Shasta Dam each winter so they can spawn where they did historically, in cool, high-elevation waters. The program — which Moyle calls a “desperation measure” — would also require trucking the juveniles back downstream in August.

Prospects for the Sacramento’s spring-run Chinook may be even worse. Most of the fish spawn in Butte Creek, a small tributary in the low hills just south of Mount Lassen. Each summer, this watershed is baked by the sun, and in the future, without reliable snowmelt from Lassen, successful spawning may not be possible here.

Along the West Coast of North America, the future for Chinook salmon looks bleak in the face of rising water temperatures. A study published in


The Ambitious Restoration of
An Undammed Western River

Elwha Dam restoration

With the dismantling of two dams on Washington state’s Elwha River, the world’s largest dam removal project is almost complete. Now, in one of the most extensive U.S. ecological restorations ever attempted, efforts are underway to revive one of the Pacific Northwest’s great salmon rivers.

December in the journal Nature Climate Change predicts that Chinook salmon will likely experience “catastrophic” population losses by 2100 due to warming river temperatures. Lackey says collective compromises in water use and lifestyle choices in the American West must be made before West Coast salmon, now reduced on average to less than five percent of their pre-Columbian numbers, can rebound. He doubts Americans are willing to pay this price. “Everywhere that we’ve seen economic development and [human] population growth, salmon runs have crashed,” Lackey says.

Moyle thinks that salmon could rebound, but only with the long-term cooperation of the water agencies that played a lead role in the loss of fish and habitat to begin with.

“California only has so much water available,” Moyle says. “Now, we are going to have to decide how we want to use our resources.”