Climate changes and the local environment:
Between 2013 till early 2017, the east pacific along the west coast of the United States experienced incredibly high temperatures. In 2013, a patch of alarmingly warm water developed along the Gulf of Alaska, due to a force called “The Blob.” The Blob was a patch of warm air that built up when decreased winds failed to distribute and cool the sea surface. In January of 2014, a natural cycle called the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO) shifted to a warm phase and began adding to the pre-existing heating from the Blob. The PDO naturally alternates between periods of warming and periods of cooling along the Gulf of Alaska, and in 2014 it began a warming trend that continued into 2016.
However, while the PDO is a natural cycle, it is likely that it has been increasingly impacted by human caused climate changes in the last 30 years. Human actions, such as greenhouse gas emissions, have led to increases in temperature, which intensify the natural warming of the PDO. While they have already begun to have an impact on Sitka and the Gulf of Alaska, these human effects will only continue to magnify the PDO’s effect further in the next few decades, as sea surface temperatures continue to increase.
Because of the high temperatures in the Gulf of Alaska, a toxic algae bloom formed along the coast of Sitka and lasted longer than normal. Algae flourishes in hot areas, so the unusually warm trend was perfect for growth.
How we know:
The warming trends seen in the Gulf of Alaska between 2013 and 2016 can be accessed online through various sources, such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Northwest Fisheries Science Center and the NOAA National Data Buoy Center. NOAA’s buoy data has been organized in this article to show the rising temperatures along the United State’s coastal waters.
NOAA’s data on sea surface temperature is gathered from satellites observations and from drifting buoys stationed along coasts that collect temperatures at different depths. Data on algal blooms is collected by sampling water along the coast and counting the algae present in the sample. This article from National Geographic shows the trend between the increased temperatures starting in 2013 and algal blooms.
Large scale changes in climate such as the PDO can be modeled by combining measurements of sea ice, taken by satellite measurements, with sea surface temperatures overtime. This study from the journal Climate Dynamics uses these two measurements to discuss the likely connection between human caused warming and magnified PDO cycles.
The increase in temperature along the coast of Sitka killed zooplankton on a large scale. With zooplankton populations low, animals that rely on plankton for food and others further up the food chain, like starfish, sea birds, whales, and sea otters, experienced large die offs. These trends also impacted the Coho salmon populations, leading to a harvest in 2016 that was below the 10 year average. Impacts of the warming trend in 2015 and 2016 will not be observed for the Chinook salmon until later in 2017, but they are predicted to have a similarly negative impact. In an economy where 1 in 10 jobs are supported by salmon, decreases in Salmon production have major impacts on the community.
The large-scale algal bloom also put Sitka’s subsistence harvesters at risk. The toxic algae collect in the body of shellfish as water filters through them. When people harvest and eat infected shellfish, the toxins from the algae can cause symptoms as severe as brain damage or death. The first death in Sitka recorded as a result of poisoned shellfish appeared in 1799 and more have continued to pop up throughout the years. Large-scale algal blooms, like the one in 2015, spread the toxins and put the harvesters of Sitka at risk. Shellfish that is collected on the Sitka shore provide a cheap source of protein that is becoming increasingly vulnerable.
While the effects of the Blob and PDO began receding in 2017, they foreshadowed how the ocean will look in a warming world. For the people of Sitka in particular, a warmer ocean could undermine local food sources and employment.
Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning (PSP) Warning Issued for Southeast Alaska. Sitka Local Foods Network
Harmful Algal Blooms—Exacerbated by Warming Ocean Temperatures. U.S. Climate Resilience Toolkit
Run Forecasts and Harvest Projections for 2017 Alaska Salmon Fisheries and Review of the 2016 Season. Alaska Department of Fish and Game
Article author: Eve Kelly, Georgetown University
Article editor: Dr. Dagomar Degroot, Georgetown University