Blobs, Garbage Patches, and Dead Zones

According to current evolutionary theory, life evolved in the oceans a long, long time ago. According to current climate change theory in another hundred years or so millions of us humans will be going right back into them – or at least our homes will be.

Just what kind of waters will our not-so-distant relatives soon find lapping around their ankles? The answer is, as anyone remotely interested in our environment will know, ‘unhealthy ones‘. Which should be hard to imagine given the vastness of the world’s oceans (our planet is actually two-thirds ocean), but our once pristine seas are rapidly resembling a microplastic cocktail blended with a large shot of fertiliser and sewage.

Specific areas are now so bad – and so huge – that we’ve started to give them names. Yes, forget the ‘doldrums‘, the ‘roaring forties‘, or even the ‘Bermuda triangle’ – we now have the ‘Great Pacific Garbage Patch‘ (a loose aggregation of tonnes of discarded fishing nets, waste from Japan’s 2011 tsunami, and trillions of bits of garbage that has collected in an area THREE times the size of France); we have the ‘Gulf of Mexico Hypoxic (or Dead) Zone‘ (an area of low oxygen that can kill fish and marine life near the bottom of the sea and is caused by algal blooms feeding primarily off the nitrogen found in agricultural fertilisers which die and are consumed by bacteria which then release toxic hydrogen sulphide: in 2019 this one dead zone – and there are many others – covered 6,952 square miles). And – new for 2020 – there is ‘The Blob’.

 

The Blobs. Copyright CNN

Many of us will know about the problems of ocean plastic and garbage patches. Even if the oft-repeated statistic that, by weight, there will be more plastic then fish in the oceans by 2050 seems to be extrapolation bordering on guesswork, every year about 8 million metric tonnes of plastic joins the estimated 150 million metric tonnes of plastic circulating through the oceans. Dead Zones (a description which on a planet that was once bursting with life and biodiversity should send chills up our spines, but amidst so many warning of apocalypse perhaps now sounds like ‘yet another thing we need to fix‘) are perhaps less well-know. However, as far back as 2008 Scientific American was warning that there were 405 dead zones around the world (up from 49 in the 1960s), and that the world’s largest dead zone was the Baltic Sea, whose bottom waters lacked oxygen all year-round.

It’s a staggering thought that the industrial-scale manufacture of plastics and our current extravagant fertilizer practices both date back to just the last half of the 20th century.

Think about that: our plastic habit is less than a hundred years old, but plastic has now been found in more than 60% of all seabirds (heartbreaking photographs by Chris Jordan taken on Midway Island of rotted seabird chicks with their bodies rammed full of plastics filled inboxes several years ago) and in 100% of sea turtle species.

And now we have The Blob (s).

 

The Blob entered the vernacular this month. In some media outlets it was given the almost mock-horror name of the ‘Giant Blob’ as if it were some sort of lovable CGI ‘monster’ which just need needed a cuddle from the heroine to turn into a purring domesticated pet. As comedic as a giant blob might sound to some, it was discovered during research into the deaths of an estimated one million seabirds between 2015 and 2016 in the waters off north-western North America. One million dead seabirds (which come on top of the by now usual piles of other dead seabirds around the world caused by entanglement in fishing nets, starvation, and oil spills) is equivalent to one-seventh of the number of all the seabirds that breed in the UK every year. Whole eco-tourist industries are built around seabird colonies that don’t come close to matching those numbers: in fact all of the seabirds breeding on the world-famous Farne islands PLUS all the seabirds breeding on the Galapagos Islands don’t add up to a million birds.

The Blob, as explained in a peer-reviewed study conducted by a team of researchers at federal and state agencies, conservation groups, and universities, is actually an area of warm ocean water nearly 11F (6C) above average. Heat maps at the time showed a huge glowing area spanning more than 380,000 sq miles (1m sq km), or four times the size of New Zealand. These warmer ocean waters apparently boosted the metabolism of predatory fish such as salmon and halibut which caused them to seek out the limited supply of smaller fish which the seabirds that died (mostly Common Guillemots/Murres Uria aalge) were also looking for.

Most of the dead or dying birds that were found showed clear signs of starvation, presumably losing out as food grew scarce amid intense competition from other creatures. Will numbers rebound? Many seabirds have small clutches and produce few young. During the 2015 and 2016 breeding seasons more than 15 local breeding colonies didn’t produce a single chick to offset the loss of so many adult birds. Researchers say that even those startling figures may be hiding the true scale of this disaster as they only monitor a quarter of all colonies.

 

Unlike dumped plastics and nitrate run-off, which are clearly linked to human activity, it might be argued that ‘the blob’ – which arose during a natural El Nino (an irregularly occurring and complex series of climatic changes affecting the equatorial Pacific region) – has nothing to do with us.

However, average ocean temperatures have been climbing for decades, and that IS down to us and our use of fossil fuels (since 1955, over 90% of the excess heat trapped by greenhouse gases has been stored in the oceans). While New Yorkers (as advised in a typically rash Presidential tweet) should prepare by simply getting their “mops and buckets ready”, for wildlife the issue of warming seas is less easily brushed away. According to the IUCN, marine fishes, seabirds and marine mammals all face very high risks from increasing seawater temperatures, “including high levels of mortalities, loss of breeding grounds and mass movements as species search for favourable environmental conditions“.

Given predicted global warming trends and the associated likelihood of more frequent heatwaves, it’s highly unlikely that the ‘Giant Blob’ will be a one-off. And that will create additional pressures that seabirds and marine life – already dealing with plastics ingestion, pollution, and huge areas of dead ocean – really don’t need. After all, we have been steadily pillaging the oceans of fish (nearly 80 MILLION tonnes of fish were taken out of the oceans in 2016 alone), and seabirds specifically – for the reasons mentioned above – are already one of the most threatened groups of vertebrates in the world.

Most threatened? It’s sobering to do a search for what is/are the world’s most threatened groups of animals as different sources list practically everything from big cats and the great apes, to turtles and tortoises, amphibians – and now seabirds. And who knows, if we carry on like we are now, perhaps the data-crunchers will be adding ‘Homo sapiens‘ to the list in the coming century: at least – unlike the million or so life-forms on the planet we’re currently pushing toward extinction – we’ll have seen it coming…