Biggest Mass Die-Off of Seabirds Blamed on 'the Blob'

Huge mass of warm water killed 1M along US West Coast, says study
By John Johnson,  Newser Staff
Posted Jan 16, 2020 7:35 AM CST
'The Blob' Blamed for Massive Ocean Die-Off
In this photo from January 2016, dead common murres lie washed up on a rocky beach in Whittier, Alaska.   (AP Photo/Mark Thiessen, File)

The name is a little jokey, but the consequences were not: Scientists are blaming the deaths of an estimated 1 million seabirds on the US West Coast on a giant patch of warm water they call "the Blob." Researchers think that amounts to the biggest mass die-off of seabirds in recorded history, reports Australia's ABC. The birds, called common mures, washed ashore from Alaska to California in 2015 and 2016. About 62,000 were found, but because only a fraction of dead birds wash ashore, researchers extrapolated to reach the figure of 1 million, reports New Scientist. In their study in Plos One, the scientists say the birds were done in by a mass of warm water—a stretch of 1,000 miles—that formed off the coast of North America between 2013 and 2016 and wreaked havoc on the birds' food supply.

"The magnitude and scale of this failure has no precedent," lead researcher John Piatt says in a news release from the University of Washington. "It was astonishing and alarming, and a red-flag warning about the tremendous impact sustained ocean warming can have on the marine ecosystem." Scientists think the warming doomed the birds in an unusual way: It increased the metabolism of larger fish such as cod and salmon, causing them to eat more of the smaller fish that typically sustain the seabirds. Murres need to eat half their body mass each day and will die after 3 to 5 days without food, explains New Scientist. "There’s very little else that could have caused the extensive effects they document,” says the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Andrew Leising, who was not involved with the study. (Read more discoveries stories.)

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