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The Heat Wave Is Broiling Billions of Marine Animals Alive

And it could happen again.

The Heat Wave Is Broiling Billions of Marine Animals Alive
Endless mussels and barnacles. Wilson44691 / Wikimedia

The world is undeniably interconnected, which means global climate change takes its toll on the creatures that inhabit it.

And researchers have estimated that more than 1 billion marine creatures, including mussels, snails, barnacles, and clams, were literally boiled to death throughout the record heat wave that struck the Pacific Northwest, according to the estimation of Chris Harley, a marine biologist at the University of British Columbia, in a CBC interview.

This underscores the seismic effect on local ecosystems of the recent heat wave, which was also linked to hundreds of human deaths while the climate crisis continues to unfold.

Crustaceans trapped on the beach sunlight broil alive and die

While walking along Vancouver's Kitsilano Beach in late June, Harley said he was "pretty stunned", and could smell the maddening stench of death from the horizon-stretching volume of mussels cracked open, revealing the meat contained within, which is what happens when they die. Vancouver's unusually hot weather combined with an unfortunate coincidence of tides left crustaceans in the region in a tough spot (on the beach, in the blistering sunlight). The June heatwave saw temperatures soar to 104ºF (40ºC) in Vancouver, during which Harley's lab noted temperatures of 122ºF (50ºC) throughout the shoreline via a thermal imaging camera.

Once the tide receded, marine creatures like clams and mussels then broiled alive in the world-historical temperatures for more than six hours. "A mussel on the shore in some ways is like a toddler left in a car on a hot day," said Harley in the CBC report. "They are stuck there until the parent comes back, or in this case, the tide comes back in, and there's very little they can do. They're at the mercy of the environment. And on Saturday, Sunday, Monday, during the heat wave, it just got so hot that the mussels, there was nothing they could do." As of writing, Harley and his students are gathering evidence to identify how many marine creatures died amid the recent heat wave in the Salish Sea, which is an inland body of water comprising the waters near Seattle and Vancouver.

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Climate change radically damages local ecosystems

Harley estimates that at least 1 billion died, according to some quick napkin math he did on the beach. "If you're losing a few hundred or a few thousand mussels for every major shoreline, that quickly scales up to a very, very large number," he explained in the report. And, we are saddened to report that this has happened before, during the Australian bushfires of 2019 and 2020, when roughly 3 billion animals died or lost their livelihood. Unfortunately, these mass death events are becoming data points in the ever-strengthening case for climate change, and how a warming climate has tragic consequences on local ecosystems around the world.

Populations of marine animals in the area of Vancouver and Seattle will likely bounce back in one to two years, but this won't stop yet another future heat wave from wiping them out once more. And, if or when it does, it will disrupt the food chain between the plankton that clams and mussels eat, and the larger animals that (in turn) feed on them. "Eventually, we just won't be able to sustain these populations of filter feeders on the shoreline to be anywhere near the extent that we're used to," said Harley in the report. We really can't emphasize enough how dire the situation is becoming for vulnerable species around the world, even and especially for humans living in or near the equator.

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