Tuesday, December 15, 2015

The Climate and the Crabs

The Paris agreement is historic, a paradigm shift.  But it isn't a panacea.  (Some of its problems are described in the aforementioned Weather Underground piece, and elsewhere.)  In fact no agreement can make it all better.  Because the climate crisis is here, and will be for a long time.

The effects caused by past greenhouse gases emissions will still happen, and the consequences will pile up as each change affects other elements in specific ecologies.  While we address these effects, we must continue to address the causes so the effects in the farther future don't add up to even greater catastrophe.

For example the climate crisis is here, literally here, in Arcata.  While rising seas will be a near future threat, our weather will be less affected than most other places in the US.  Yet the climate crisis is here now, in a way that few would anticipate, in crabbing season.

Crabs are a big deal here, economically, socially, culturally.  Our collegiate summer baseball team is the Humboldt Crabs.  But suddenly, there is no crabbing.  None at all.  There are ups and downs from season to season.  But nothing like this has happened since records were kept more than a century ago.

Our Dungeness crabs are suddenly poisonous, due to high levels of a neurotoxin caused by unprecedented levels of algae blooms. This neurotoxin can harm humans when ingested.

 The entire season may be lost, though that's yet to be determined.  It's the same problem that's halted crabbing in Oregon and Washington.  This is a multi-billion dollar industry.  For this relatively small place, Humboldt harvests could bring in as much as $30 million in a season.

  The climate crisis, together with El Nino and the mass of near-shore warm water called the Blob, are all implicated.  But it is global heating that may push things over the edge to hotter water--and more algae--for a long time to come.

Update: This problem now apparently also extends to lakes, which are getting warmer and so experts fear the same algae bloom problems.

Officials hold out the hope that crabs will be safe later in the season.  But more evidence emerged last week of the destructive power of the algae-created neurotoxin.  The poison doesn't appear to harm the crabs (although that sounds like a guess).  But tests indicate that it is devastating the brains of sea lions.

A study published in the journal Science shows that increasing numbers of California sea lions are being impaired in various ways, including severe spatial memory loss, which hampers their ability to survive.  Additional effects include devastating harm to the heart and fetus of a pregnant sea lion.

This plus more direct evidence indicates how serious the problem can be for humans and other animals.  This huge algae bloom may transfer poison to other species besides crabs that humans eat.  An entire ecosystem--that includes humans--is being disrupted.

Ecosystems are affected by a number of factors, and global heating can be a force multiplier.  Species affect other species, creating spiraling consequences and feedback loops.  Balances that have taken many centuries to establish can be thrown into chaos.  Plus when global heating becomes a factor, it's all much harder to "fix."  All of this adds up to the climate crisis, and we'd better start understanding it better.

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