San Francisco, CA -- Oceanographers, climatologists, and ecologists at the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting report that unusual ocean conditions and marine die-offs are changing the way scientists think about the future of ocean resources off the US West Coast. The researchers' new synthesis of decades of atmospheric and oceanographic data reveals that increasingly wild fluctuations in winds and currents appear to account for a series of recent anomalous ocean events -- from repeated low oxygen zones larger than the size of Rhode Island to massive die offs of seabirds. The scientists say that the underlying swings in winds and position of the jet stream are consistent with climate change predictions.
"There is no other viable suspect right now, no other obvious explanation," says Jane Lubchenco of Oregon State University. "We've entered new territory. These arrhythmias in the coastal ocean suggest we're observing a system that is out of kilter."
Understanding the interplay of warming, winds, and storms with ocean currents and biological productivity is a whole new area of study that is proving urgent. In 2002, when scientists first documented low-oxygen zones off the US Pacific Northwest coast, they thought it was a startling, once in a lifetime, event. But these "dead zones," which suffocate crabs, fish, sea stars, and anemones on the ocean floor, have continued, with 2006 now on the books as the largest, most severe and longest lasting dead zone on record for the west coast.
"It was unlike anything that we've measured along the Oregon coast in the past five decades," says Francis Chan of Oregon State University. "We're seeing more and more evidence that changing climate and changing currents can lead to big and surprising changes in something as fundamental as oxygen levels in the sea."