Bering Sea temperatures increasing

dwheeler at dwheeler at
Sat Jan 30 11:48:00 EST 1999

The following article appeared in The Oregonian on Jan. 29, 1999, p C4

Ocean changes worry, perplex experts

By JAMES LONG, of The Oregonian staff

	The North Pacific Ocean is acting strangely, scientists say. They're
not sure why. And El Nino might not explain everything.    "It's not the same
ocean out here that it was 10 years ago," said Vicki Osis, a marine educator
at Oregon State University's Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport.      
  The plankton species normally found off the Oregon coast have been changing
for a decade. A trademark seabird, the common murre, has been dying or
disappearing in disturbing numbers. Burrowing mole crabs, usually found in
warmer climates, have become common on beaches as far north as Astoria.  
Even the 30-ton gray whales are behaving oddly. 	About 23,000 grays
normally migrate down the Oregon coast each year, blowing their spouts within
sight of the beach. But for the past two years, the whales have swum farther
out to sea and arrived late. The peak migration off Newport is usually near
Christmas, but this year it was in January.   "The big buzz with researchers
is, what's going on out there?" Osis said. "It is a natural shift we're going
through? Is it global warming? We don't know."	   Robert Pitkin, a U.S. Fish
and Wildlife Service biologist at the Hatfield center, said El Nino warming
can't be blamed for all the new developments. The two El Ninos were in
1991-92 and 1996-97, while alterations in the coastal ocean seem to have
increased through the decade.	 The El Nino phenomenon involves warm ocean
water pushing up from the south. But most of the warming off the Oregon coast
resulted from a slackening of northwest winds in the summer, Pitkin said. The
summer winds, working in a complex way with the rotation of the Earth,
usually peel away the warm surface of the ocean and replace it with cold,
nutrient-rich water from the depths, just when aquatic life needs it most.   
  Pitkin has tracked the slackening of the wind by counting dead birds on the
beach. In June 1996, he did two surveys on four miles of beach and counted
the remains of 122 murres. They had starved. "That's an awful lot of adult
birds," Pitkin said.  Spot surveys of nesting colonies show that Oregon might
have lost 20 percent of the about 720,000 common murres that lived on the
coast at the beginning of the 1990s.  Murres, which resemble small penguins,
except they can fly, have the curious dark flesh of a whale. The darkness
comes from an abundance of iron, which stores oxygen and hints at the murres'
extraordinary ability to hold their breath. The birds have been seen
maneuvering underwater at inky depths of 600 feet or more.  A murre pair
produces just one chick a year. Adults live so long - perhaps 30 years - that
a decline in a large colony becomes apparent only gradually.	     It's
possible that some murres left after discovering that the ocean had failed
and before laying the crucial egg to which they would dedicate their lives.  
  Why anyone should care about murres is a question that Pitkin answers
quickly.  "We're all connected," he said, "and what happens to the murres
will happen to us eventually. They're telling us they don't have enough to
eat. This means the ocean is not healthy. And eventually we need to start
asking the question of why is the ocean not healthy."	   Most experts agree
that the changes in the north Pacific are tied at least to climate, if not
specifically to El Nino. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
scientists are trying to find the cause of ominous developments in the Bering
Sea that might affect Oregon.	   The Bering traditionally has provided
almost half the fish and shellfish caught in the United States. But steep
increases in the Bering's summertime water temperature seem to have triggered
a collapse of the food chain and affected other areas of the North Pacific.  
    In the Bering, temperature increases of 6 or 7 degrees in 1997 - a huge
increase by ocean standards - have been marked by extensive die-offs of
seabirds, rare algal blooms, low salmon runs and altered ocean currents.     
  Bill Peterson, a National Marine Fisheries Service oceanographer, says the
Bering's poor feeding conditions could have caused the late migration of gray
whales past Oregon. "The whales may not have gotten fat enough and had to
hang around (the Bering) a little longer," he said.  A warmer Bering could
have derailed the Oregon coast's summer winds and, with them, the vital
upwelling of ocean nutrients for birds and salmon, some scientists say.   But
questions outnumber answers.	    No one knows for sure why the Bering
warmed up, although it seems to be caused by an extraordinary clearing of
clouds and fog that allowed sunlight to pour in. Whether El Nino somehow
altered the jet stream and caused the unusual conditions, from afar, is a
topic under discussion.       Another question is whether the Bering, in
turn, somehow scrambled the coast's summer wind patterns and disrupted the
ocean upwellings that feed murres and salmon.	  Osis, the marine educator
at the Hatfield center, is uncertain what to make of the changes - whether
nature is committing some periodic brand of mischief or the human race is
tying itself a noose, say, with climate-changing greenhouse gases.	 "We
haven't been around on Earth long enough to know what kind of climate cycles
we've got," Osis said. "Everybody has a different theory. It's a terrible
puzzle to put together."

Comment by poster: I'm sure global warming is just a theory. Even though the
1990's produced 4 of the hottest 10 years on record globally in the past 150

Truffle production in Oregon dropped during 1998. A well-known site in 1998
produced less than a pound. Over 2 acres. Another site in Washington (20
acres, produced 15 pounds in 2 weeks in 1997, not-inoculated) this year
produced the only truffles available between Nov. 1 and Nov. 20: about 10
pounds total. A little less than the 20 pounds an average acre of forest is
thought to produce.

And today, another rainy day in Oregon: the 25th such day this month with

Daniel B. Wheeler
"I like to walk a mile in a man's shoes before criticizing him. That
way, if he gets angry, I'm a mile away. And he's barefoot."

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