A marine heat wave in the Pacific Ocean, stretching from Alaska to California, is threatening fish stocks including British Columbia’s salmon.
Five years ago, these waters experienced a similar weather event that was dubbed the Blob – a mass of unusually warm water that left a trail of dead sea creatures in its wake. These events used to be rare, now they are becoming distressingly common.
Last week, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released vivid heat maps showing the current heat wave mirrors the Blob. The earlier event, which peaked in 2014 and 2015, created a series of fishery disasters that in turn took a toll on marine mammals.
Mike Jacox, of NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory, cautions that scientists have not confirmed these specific weather patterns are driven by global climate change. But the changing climate is warming the oceans, and the experience of the Blob demonstrated just how damaging that shift can be.
The Blob created a huge bloom of harmful algae all the way up the west coast that closed down crab fisheries for months. This proved disastrous for humpbacks and other whales, Dr. Jacox noted, because by the time fishermen were allowed to put their gear in the water, the whales were feeding close to shore and there was a record number of whale entanglements in fishing gear. His job now is to monitor this latest event: There is some hope that it won’t last as long.
For B.C.’s Environment Minister, George Heyman, the Blob sequel is just the latest grim tidings, as the province experiences larger and more frequent extreme weather patterns.
“It’s more evidence that we are on the right track,” Mr. Heyman said in an interview. He is overseeing the implementation of a climate action plan to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, but the province can only do so much on a global scale. Climate change is unavoidable, he said, and his other, perhaps more challenging task is to prepare the province for the risks that lie ahead.
This summer, Mr. Heyman received a thick report chronicling the potential impacts of climate change on the province. The preliminary strategic climate risk assessment report lays out more than one dozen catastrophic scenarios, many of them deemed likely to occur in the next three decades. It also looks at the risk of compounding events.
“The likelihood of a long-term water shortage, followed by severe wildfire, and precipitation-induced landslide in a critical provincial area will increase through mid-century,” the report warns. “The project team found that climate-related causes such as increasing air temperatures and changing precipitation patterns will make water shortages and wildfires more severe and frequent in British Columbia.”
Reading the report, Mr. Heyman said, was sobering. “I worry about these impacts because I know that even if we eliminated [greenhouse gas] emissions today, we have a build-up of carbon dioxide and equivalents in the atmosphere that are going to have impacts – fire, flood, drought.”
Mr. Heyman is careful not to ascribe a single extreme weather event – such as the Blob or Hurricane Dorian – to climate change. It is the pattern of more frequent, more severe weather and wildfire events that is frightening.
“The potential risks are significant,” he said. “We need to provide the support and resources and investments for people, for communities, to be ready for the impacts of climate change.”
The final climate risk assessment for the province is due next year. It will lay out the cost – to the environment, to people and to the government – of inaction.
Severe wildfire seasons, by themselves, could be devastating. The preliminary findings point to loss of life, health effects owing to stress and smoke inhalation. “Tens of thousands of people could experience disruptions to daily life that last for months to years.” Economic losses could surpass $1-billion.
Armed with these risk assessments, British Columbia will need insurance. The province will have to invest in efforts to reduce fire hazards, to improve sea dikes against the threat of severe coastal storm surges and to help the agriculture industry adapt to a future that may change growing conditions.
“I refer to the impacts as unavoidable,” Mr. Heyman said. “Like most people, I hope that we are able to find technological advances that will mitigate that to some extent but until they exist, we have to be ready for those impacts.”