How a Massive Marine Heatwave Known as "The Blob" Killed 1 Million Seabirds in the U.S.

The Common Murres birds were found washed ashore on the west coast of the U.S. in 2015 and 2016.
Fabienne Lang
Common Murres, the type of seabird that died because of the phenomenonLinda Burek/iStock

More victims have fallen into the grips of climate change. Approximately one million seabirds on the west coast of the U.S. died due to an unprecedented marine heatwave in the Pacific Ocean.

This heatwave is unpoetically referred to as "the blob." Scientists uncovered the news after 62,000 common murres (Uria aalge) washed up ashore between 2015 and 2016. It seemed as though they had died of starvation.

In total, researchers believe around one million seabirds died of the same causes in the area.


6,000 kilometers where starved seabirds ended their lives

John Piatt of the U.S. Geological Survey wondered, "The amazing question is, how could a million die over 6000 kilometers, pretty much all at the same time, and what could cause it."

Furthermore, the sheer magnitude of these seabirds deaths over those years had researchers scratching their heads in wonder. Given the birds were so well adapted to that geographical area, it made no sense that they should die en masse in such a way. 

After looking into the issue, it turns out that "the blob" is to blame. 

This is a large, record-breaking patch of warm water that occurred off the west coast of the U.S. between 2013 and 2016.

By observing the beached murres, sea surface temperatures and fisheries information, Piatt and his team were able to come up with the plausible explanation of "the blob." 

With warmer waters, fish in the area such as cod had to feed on more fish so as to regulate their core body temperatures. This minimized the amount of fish available for the murres to feed on. If these birds aren't able to eat half of their body mass worth of food every day, they die within only three to five days.

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"It’s very convincing, and I would actually say it’s fairly conclusive. There’s very little else that could have caused the extensive effects they document," said Andrew Leising of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association.

How a Massive Marine Heatwave Known as "The Blob" Killed 1 Million Seabirds in the U.S.
Common murres, Source: Green Fire Productions/Flickr

Luckily, Piatt said that the murres will not become extinct anytime soon, however, the ecosystems that are affected by warmer waters will take decades to recover.

Their findings were published in the journal Plos One on Wednesday.

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