A blob of hot water in the Pacific Ocean killed a million seabirds, scientists say

CNN's Jennifer Gray talks about the warming phenomenon called "The Blob" and explains how it's changing the Pacific Ocean.

Posted: Jan 16, 2020 10:05 AM
Updated: Jan 16, 2020 12:35 PM


As many as one million seabirds died at sea in less than 12 months in one of the largest mass die-offs in recorded history -- and researchers say warm ocean waters are to blame.

The birds, a fish-eating species called the common murre, were severely emaciated and appeared to have died of starvation between the summer of 2015 and the spring of 2016, washing up along North America's west coast, from California to Alaska.

Now, scientists say they know what caused it: a huge section of warm ocean water in the northeast Pacific Ocean dubbed "the Blob."

A years-long severe marine heat wave first began in 2013, and intensified during the summer of 2015 due to a powerful weather phenomenon called El Nino, which lasted through 2016.

The heat wave created the Blob -- a 1,000-mile (1,600 km) stretch of ocean that was warmed by 3 to 6 degrees Celsius (5.4 to 10.8 Fahrenheit). A high-pressure ridge calmed the ocean waters -- meaning heat stays in the water, without storms to help cool it down.

Those few degrees of warming wreaked havoc on the region's marine ecosystems. There was a huge drop in the production of microscopic algae that feed a range of animals, from shrimp to whales. The warmth caused a massive bloom of harmful algae along the west coast, that killed many animals and cost fisheries millions of dollars in lost income.

Other animals that experienced mass die-offs include sea lions, tufted puffins, and baleen whales. But none of them compared to the murres in scale.

About 62,000 dead or dying murres washed up on shore -- but the total number of deaths is likely to be closer to one million since only a small fraction of birds that die at sea wash up, said researchers from the University of Washington, who published the study in the journal Plos One on Wednesday.

Alaska saw the most birds washed up -- in Prince William Sound, to the south of the state, more than 4,600 bird carcasses were found every kilometer (0.62 miles), the study said.

The murres likely starved to death because the Blob caused more competition for fewer small prey. The warming increased the metabolism of predatory fish like salmon, cod, and halibut -- meaning they were eating more than usual. These fish eat the same small fish as the murres, and there simply wasn't enough to go around.

The Blob devastated the murres' population. With insufficient food, breeding colonies across the entire region had reproductive difficulties for years afterward, the study said. Not only did the population decline dramatically, but the murres couldn't replenish those numbers.

During the 2015 breeding season, three colonies didn't produce a single chick. That number went up to 12 colonies in the 2016 season -- and in reality it could be even higher, since researchers only monitor a quarter of all colonies.

"The magnitude and scale of this failure has no precedent," said lead researcher John Piatt in a University of Washington press release. "It was astonishing and alarming, and a red-flag warning about the tremendous impact sustained ocean warming can have on the marine ecosystem."

The study warned that it remains unknown how long it would take for the population to recover -- or if it would recover at all, "in light of predicted global warming trends and the associated likelihood of more frequent heatwaves."

There have been several other marine heat waves emerging in recent months. In September 2019, the University of Washington researchers discovered one almost as big as the Blob, forming off the coast of Washington state -- and they're bracing for its potential effects.

Another blob has also formed off the eastern coast of New Zealand. This blob is so big it's detectable from space -- it's about a million square kilometers (400,000 sq miles), an area larger than the size of Texas.

It's especially rare to see a patch of warm ocean water over such a large area, but scientists say global climate change is making these phenomena more common.

From 1982 to 2016, there was an 82% rise in the number of heat wave days on the global ocean surface, according to a 2018 study. That's because heat waves are increasing in both frequency and duration, with the highest level of maritime heat wave activity occurring in the North Atlantic.

Indiana Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Confirmed Cases: 46915

Reported Deaths: 2681
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Marion11499683
Lake5053242
Elkhart316443
Allen2717128
St. Joseph186366
Cass16369
Hamilton1518100
Hendricks1386100
Johnson1254118
Porter71237
Tippecanoe6778
Madison64864
Clark63844
Bartholomew58244
Howard56057
LaPorte55326
Kosciusko5124
Vanderburgh4806
Jackson4653
LaGrange4657
Noble45728
Hancock43735
Boone43443
Delaware42949
Marshall4273
Shelby42025
Floyd37144
Morgan32531
Montgomery29320
Grant29026
Clinton2852
Monroe26628
Dubois2646
White26010
Decatur24832
Henry24315
Lawrence23624
Vigo2288
Dearborn22723
Harrison21022
Warrick21029
Greene18432
Miami1812
Jennings17111
Putnam1688
Scott1607
DeKalb1594
Daviess14116
Orange13523
Wayne1346
Perry1279
Steuben1262
Franklin1248
Jasper1142
Ripley1147
Carroll1102
Wabash1102
Fayette987
Newton9710
Whitley884
Starke853
Randolph784
Huntington712
Wells711
Jefferson701
Fulton681
Jay680
Washington661
Knox630
Pulaski621
Clay604
Gibson592
Rush563
Adams481
Benton480
Owen471
Sullivan441
Brown381
Blackford372
Posey360
Spencer351
Fountain302
Tipton301
Crawford290
Switzerland260
Martin220
Parke220
Ohio140
Warren141
Union130
Vermillion130
Pike90
Unassigned0193

Ohio Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Confirmed Cases: 55257

Reported Deaths: 2903
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Franklin9825417
Cuyahoga7392372
Hamilton5605197
Marion273038
Lucas2669302
Pickaway218441
Summit2079206
Montgomery191826
Mahoning1805231
Butler151144
Columbiana128860
Stark1079112
Lorain98367
Trumbull91665
Warren81421
Clark7619
Belmont54322
Delaware54115
Fairfield52916
Tuscarawas52910
Medina50632
Lake48018
Miami45531
Licking44212
Portage42858
Ashtabula42544
Wood40451
Geauga39942
Clermont3906
Wayne35951
Richland3255
Allen30540
Mercer2788
Darke24525
Greene2449
Erie23422
Holmes2203
Huron1992
Madison1928
Ottawa13923
Crawford1345
Washington13020
Putnam12615
Sandusky12614
Hardin12012
Morrow1161
Ross1133
Auglaize1044
Coshocton902
Monroe8817
Jefferson832
Union801
Hancock781
Hocking788
Muskingum761
Preble701
Williams682
Guernsey673
Lawrence670
Clinton660
Shelby644
Fulton610
Ashland581
Carroll583
Logan581
Wyandot585
Brown541
Defiance493
Fayette460
Knox451
Highland441
Athens431
Champaign391
Scioto380
Seneca332
Perry321
Van Wert320
Henry290
Paulding230
Adams221
Pike220
Vinton222
Jackson180
Gallia141
Harrison121
Meigs110
Morgan110
Noble110
Unassigned00
Fort Wayne
Few Clouds
86° wxIcon
Hi: 92° Lo: 64°
Feels Like: 92°
Angola
Clear
84° wxIcon
Hi: 89° Lo: 64°
Feels Like: 87°
Huntington
Clear
85° wxIcon
Hi: 89° Lo: 65°
Feels Like: 90°
Decatur
Clear
86° wxIcon
Hi: 92° Lo: 64°
Feels Like: 89°
Van Wert
Clear
86° wxIcon
Hi: 93° Lo: 63°
Feels Like: 89°
Hot & Humid Weekend
WFFT Radar
WFFT Temperatures
WFFT National

Community Events