Everyone in Washington is feeling the heat this summer, and Puget Sound is no exception. It's been hot and dry, with all kinds of weather records being set. These unusually hot temperatures don't end at the water's edge. We're also seeing the record-breaking warm water temperatures from “the Blob” of North Pacific Ocean water that made its way through the Strait of Juan de Fuca and into Puget Sound late last year.
“The Blob entered Puget Sound on a massive scale in the fall of 2014 and rapidly changed conditions for temperature and also oxygen,” said Dr. Christopher Krembs, Ecology senior oceanographer. “We’re measuring water temperatures 4 degrees Fahrenheit higher than normal from our past 25 years of record keeping. We’re seeing the warm water everywhere, from Olympia to Bellingham.”
Monitoring suggests that these warm conditions are having many negative consequences on the Puget Sound marine environment. This year we've seen increasing harmful algae blooms, increasing and early shellfish closures, lower dissolved oxygen levels, and unfavorable conditions for salmon and other cold-loving marine species.
Why is Puget Sound warm?
Puget Sound waters have been hit with a double-whammy. Late last year, "the Blob" was followed by an extremely warm winter and the usual snowpack didn’t form in the mountains. We rely on this melting snow to drive river flows in the spring and summer. Without snow to melt and flow down the rivers, Puget Sound does not have enough estuarine circulation to push the Blob out of Puget Sound. Decreased circulation can lead to low oxygen conditions and allow pollution to hang around longer.
Monitoring Puget Sound: A joint effort
Puget Sound is a vast, complex ecosystem with many interacting variables. To keep tabs on conditions, Ecology has a long-term water quality monitoring program of more than 30 sites in Puget Sound and in the coastal estuaries. But it takes a village to monitor and protect this valuable resource, so we work with scientists from county, state and federal agencies. Together, we monitor Puget Sound health by working to better understand the Blob and drought, monitor and improve water quality, track marine life, and prepare for climate change.
We are keenly interested in this year's unusual conditions and how they impact Puget Sound. It is important to us to understand the impacts of warm water and weather in our region.
As Nick Bond, Washington State's Climatologist, put it, "The overall weather conditions of the last year are expected to occur much more commonly in the future decades. The present short-term climate event therefore provides an opportunity to better understand how the region will be impacted by global climate change, and the potential adaptations that could be undertaken to reduce its deleterious effects."
Climate change impacts on Puget Sound
Climate change is always a major focus of our work. Our long-term monitoring data helps us understand trends and changes when we see them. Our complex computer models can predict the impacts we may see in the future.
Dr. Mindy Roberts leads a team of scientists and engineers at Ecology that are investigating how much human activities and climate influence Puget Sound water quality through computer modeling. She works with the multi-agency Climate Impacts Group, UW's Washington Sea Grant, and several other partners to try to identify effective actions to improve conditions.
Mindy recently explained, "Unfortunately, while 2015 conditions are quite unusual in terms of the warm water and low flows in the rivers, they will become more common in the future. Our computer modeling team has found that warmer ocean water and low summer river flows decrease the amount of oxygen available throughout Puget Sound, which is not good news for fish. We should learn as much as we can this year to be better prepared for the future."
We are looking at this year's combination warm weather, warm water and low oxygen anomaly as a glimpse into the future. In the same way we track King Tides — the highest tides of the year — to see how sea level rise will affect the shoreline, we're tracking the warm weather, water, oxygen and low rivers this year to see how they negatively impact the ecosystem.
It's hot out, how's the heat affecting Puget Sound waters?
Temperatures in Puget Sound are 4° F warmer than usual for this time of year. Four degrees may not seem like much, but humans are much more resilient to temperature change than marine life. That slight temperature change for us is similar to if you were sitting in a hot tub. The hot tub wouldn't bother you at first, but sit in it longer than 15 minutes and you might start feeling a little flustered. Sit in it for an hour and you may start feeling sick. Now imagine that you can't get out of the hot tub no matter how ill you feel. This paints a picture of how our cold-loving marine life are beginning to feel in Puget Sound.
Warm water holds less oxygen than cold water
Fish need oxygen to live just like humans, but their oxygen is dissolved into the water. When we have low dissolved oxygen in our waters, it's similar to humans experiencing thin air. So now, picture you're stuck in a hot tub, and the hot tub is picked up and set on top of Mount Rainier. It's hot, and it's hard to breathe.
Diseases have it easier in warm water
Diseases can more easily attack weakened species and as they grow, their increased microbial respiration begins taking up more of the oxygen that's dissolved in the water. This could lead to even less dissolved oxygen overall. Now, you're stuck in a hot tub, on top of Mount Rainier, and you're sick. This is not ideal for marine wildlife.
Even the rivers are warm
“Eighty percent of the streams we monitor in Washington are running below normal.” Reports Jim Shedd, surface water hydrologist for Ecology. Our “below normal” means less than the 25th percentile of all recorded flows on a specific date throughout a period of record. “We’ve been seeing flows for months that mimic typical flows for September,” he continued, “these low flows inhibit fish migration into upstream spawning areas and limit the habitat available for spawning.”
Lower flows lead to warmer river water temperatures. Jim reports that water temperatures are above normal for throughout the freshwater tributaries that feed into Puget Sound. “Right now,” said Jim, “many river and stream temperatures are consistently exceeding temperatures at which fish diseases become more virulent and oxygen stress occurs.” In short, he’s concerned.
Warm conditions are impacting all levels of marine life
Kimberle Stark, a research scientist from King County's Marine Monitoring program, measures plankton in Puget Sound waters. "Some of the conditions observed in the past 10 months have never been seen since consistent monitoring began in 1989." She explains, "Changes were seen at the base of the Puget Sound food chain in the past year. In 2014 and 2015, abundance, timing and composition of the plankton community was different from prior years. These changes in the food web can have negative consequences for marine fish, birds and mammals."
In Washington, we enjoy an abundant resource of shellfish. It's part of the culture, it's a healthy food source, and an important contributor to the economy. This year, shellfish are taking a hit from these unusual conditions. Jerry Borchert works for the Shellfish Safety Program at Washington Department of Health; he's responsible for testing shellfish in Puget Sound and along the coast, and determining whether an area is safe for harvesting.
This year, Jerry reports that we've had shellfish harvest closures due to marine biotoxins much earlier than usual, more frequently than usual, and in areas that are typically resistant to these biotoxins--leading to first-time-ever closures. He said, "Elevated marine water temperatures in Washington this year are likely responsible for the very unusual early start to the marine biotoxin closures." He also added bad news for crab lovers.
"This year crabbing on our coast has not been allowed because we've had a domoic acid biotoxin closure for razor clams since May 7 and crabs since June 5. Closures like this haven't happened in more than a decade. This closure has effectively shut down all crabbing along the Washington coast south of Grays Harbor."
We've also experienced some of the most extensive toxic algal blooms ever recorded in the Pacific Northwest this year. On the coast, we experienced the largest bloom in more than a decade, perhaps ever, of toxic algae causing Amnesic Shellfish Poisoning that stretched from central California to southeast Alaska.
We're also worried about fish. Dr. Jan Newton, University of Washington's principal oceanographer at the Applied Physics Lab and NANOOS, points out that one area of Puget Sound is seeing low oxygen at it's most extreme: Hood Canal. "Some conditions we are seeing in Puget Sound this year are more extreme than we have on record. In the southern reach of Hood Canal, deep water oxygen is actually absent. While the low oxygen conditions are currently at depth, their appearance so early in the year, in July, is worrisome. We are especially concerned that extreme lack of oxygen in the deep waters of lower Hood Canal, well below the hypoxia concentration, may result in fish kills this year."
The future of Puget Sound
This year's strange warm conditions are giving us a glimpse into what decades ahead may look like for Puget Sound waters. Scientist Correigh Green of NOAA Fisheries, tells us, "A warmer Puget Sound looks less like a paradise for fishing and wildlife viewing, and more like a haven for jellyfish. Forage fish and juvenile salmon avoiding higher temperatures appear to be leaving for the Washington Coast, marine mammals have been impacted by harmful algae blooms and jellyfish are proliferating within Puget Sound."
However, continuous monitoring helps us understand and keep a pulse on conditions, computer modeling helps us predict the future, and working together with our partners and the people of Washington gives us an opportunity to restore and protect Puget Sound. This area is one of the most ecologically diverse ecosystems in North America.
Together, we are looking up and down the shoreline, under the water, and through our microscopes. It is important that we continue to study our waters so we have sound science to base environmental decisions upon. Scientists from our agencies are thinking generations into the future — are you?