MAR 14, 2024 4:50 PM PDT

Ecosystem Overhaul: Marine Heat Waves' Ripple Effects on West Coast Wildlife

How can ocean heat waves disrupt their corresponding ecosystems? This is what a recent study published in Nature Communications hopes to address as a team of researchers from Oregon State University and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) investigated how ocean heat waves occurring in the northeast Pacific Ocean create disturbances in the marine ecosystem’s food web that could both help and harm a myriad of oceanic species across the globe. This study holds the potential to help researchers, climate scientists, and legislators better understand the short- and long-term effects of climate change on the world’s ecosystems.

For the study, the researchers developed ecosystem models and compared them to before and after heat wave occurrences, which are extended durations of increased ocean temperatures. The goal of comparing the models was to ascertain how these ocean heat waves impact on the entire ocean ecosystem, as opposed to individual marine species and/or populations. In the end, the team found that the food webs for most prey and predators changed during the heat waves, they also discovered that pyrosomes experienced the largest changes, as their populations increased drastically, thus threatening food security across ecosystems.

“What I found both alarming and fascinating is the extent to which these pyrosomes absorb all of the energy in the system,” said Dr. Joshua Stewart, who is an assistant professor with the Marine Mammal Institute at Oregon State University and a co-author on the study. “Because nothing else really eats the pyrosomes, they just become this dead end, and that energy is not available for anyone else in the ecosystem.”

This study comes as the NOAA continues to monitor ocean temperatures in waters surrounding the United States, specifically the Gulf of Mexico and the northeast U.S. coastlines. Monitoring ocean temperatures is vital since 90 percent of climate change’s heat surplus is consumed by the oceans.

What new connections between ocean heat waves and ecosystems will researchers make in the coming years and decades? Only time will tell, and this is why we science!

As always, keep doing science & keep looking up!

Sources: Nature Communications, EurekAlert!, Oregon State University, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration 

About the Author
Master's (MA/MS/Other)
Laurence Tognetti is a six-year USAF Veteran who earned both a BSc and MSc from the School of Earth and Space Exploration at Arizona State University. Laurence is extremely passionate about outer space and science communication, and is the author of "Outer Solar System Moons: Your Personal 3D Journey".
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