January 16, 2020 | 11:06am Enlarge Image Dead common murres lie washed up on a rocky beach in Whittier, Alaska, in 2016. AP Scientists have finally solved the mystery of what suddenly killed tens of thousands of birds a few years ago: It was “The Blob.” Researchers were baffled when as many as 1 million…
January 16, 2020 | 11:06am
Dead common murres lie washed up on a rocky beach in Whittier, Alaska, in 2016.
Scientists have finally solved the mystery of what suddenly killed tens of thousands of birds a few years ago: It was “The Blob.”
Researchers were baffled when as many as 1 million common murres — an abundant breed of North Pacific seabird — died at sea between summer 2015 and spring 2016, with 62,000 of their starved bodies washing up on California and Alaska beaches.
Now, new research published Wednesday in the journal Plos One explains why.
The mass die-off coincided “with the most powerful marine heatwave on record,” the study says, creating “an enormous volume of ocean water (the ‘Blob’) from California to Alaska with temperatures” significantly higher than average. The hot water killed off the plankton species the birds eat, reducing their food supply and causing them to starve.
Sea lions, puffins and whales were also negatively impacted — but the murres were hit hardest. Although seabirds are known to have periodic die-offs, this one was far larger than the typical event.
More than 4,600 of the birds’ carcasses washed up on one beach alone during the Blob’s reign. It is unknown how long the bird population will need to recover from the deaths.
“The magnitude and scale of this failure has no precedent,” said John Piatt, lead study author and a research biologist at the US Geological Survey’s Alaska Science Center, in a press release. “It was astonishing and alarming, and a red-flag warning about the tremendous impact sustained ocean warming can have on the marine ecosystem.”
Researchers began suspecting that warmer ocean temperatures were the cause for the murres’ deaths soon after they occurred, but have only now confirmed it. “If tens of thousands of them are dying, it’s because there’s no fish out there, anywhere, over a very large area,” Piatt announced in 2017, saying unusually warm water temperatures were likely to blame.
Dead common murres lie on a rocky beach in Whittier, Alaska.
A common murre, or guillemot, flapping its wings in the waters of Kenai Fjords National Park, Alaska.
Universal Images Group via Getty