Understanding last year’s heat dome and its impact on countless seashells

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As extreme heat grips the Pacific Northwest, it’s hard to forget the record-breaking heat dome that hit the region this very week a year ago.

While the immediate effects included loss of life and wildfires, scientists working on beaches in British Columbia and along the Washington coast also saw the loss of marine life increasing at a rapid rate.

“It just hit us; it was more intense than normal,” said Wendel Raymond, the lead author of a research paper examining the shellfish impacts of the 2021 heated dome.

The article, just published in the Journal of Ecology, describes a perfect storm – the lowest tides of the year, coupled with a rare heat event, baking tens of thousands of seashells.

What we learned

As Raymond explained to FOX 13 News, shellfish death is normal to some degree, but the scale of death in 2021 was beyond what biologists were used to seeing. The same sea life that dies is used for heat and tides, and even resistant to some extent.

“So the fact that there was mortality on top of that really highlights that these organisms have been pushed way beyond their physiological limits,” Raymond said. “That’s why they died.”

Species that were on the inland coast suffered, on average, the greatest mortality events.

The outer coast experienced low tide earlier in the day, meaning the water was ebbing when the warmer weather hit.

However, the individual composition of the different beaches seemed to provide additional resilience.

“On a beach, maybe the oysters seemed to be hit really hard, but just up the road they looked fine, only a few miles apart,” Raymond said. “It’s really interesting, and the scientist in me goes, ‘Well, why?'”

A glimmer of hope

This survival offers a glimmer of hope, especially with what is to come.

In the first days after the 2021 heat dome, researchers from the World Weather Attribution Network determined that the conditions we saw were “virtually impossible without human-caused climate change.”

They also noted that these events will be less rare, as warming trends continue.

“It was a huge learning experience for us,” said Alana Quintasket, siwəlcəʔ, a swinish senator. “We’ve been through this now. How do we learn to react to this? This is just the beginning. We have to learn to adapt in these circumstances.”

Quintasket said the initial reaction to the forecast was concern for human life, but as marine life died out on Swinomish beaches, concern shifted to shellfish.

“Shellfish are our way of life,” she said. “We have only been able to survive here since time immemorial because of the shells. When there are times of the year when the fish don’t run, or there is no game, on this we depend.”

Marine life is like relatives in the water – as such the Swinomish are the stewards of this land. That’s why the tribe put in place a climate change plan in 2007, long before non-tribal governments adapted such plans. Quintasket said the way forward must be one of adaptation, so they don’t lose their livelihoods or way of life.

“How are we going to be able to provide for our people, not just this year, but what is that going to do for next year, the next generation and so on,” she asked. “We have to ask when we have children, ‘Will they be able to taste the taste of clams from the land where we come from?'”

And after

“It’s very likely to happen again,” said Julie Barber, collaborator on the new study.

Barber is the Senior Shellfish Biologist for the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community. According to her, some beaches have proven resilient, despite being surrounded by high-mortality event zones.

While this latest study establishes a knowledge base about the 2021 event, it also serves as a starting point for other studies examining the event. Barber and Raymond noted that the oysters and clams, and their resilience in some places compared to others, piqued their interest.

“So to move forward from a scientific point of view, we have created a group of scientists and co-managers who will continue to talk to each other and maybe come up with better plans on how to react when a prediction like this happens,” Barbier says.

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In the meantime, there are real-world impacts that are still playing out. The Swinomish people will not harvest cockles from certain beaches after they die in large numbers. What future harvests will bring is a lingering question, until researchers understand how reproduction worked before, during and after the heat dome event.

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