the open-sea buoy ‘Ocean Station Papa

The ‘Blob’ may have temporarily dampened the Pacific Ocean’s ‘biological pump,’ study suggests

A new study suggests that ‘the Blob’ of warmer ocean temperatures, which stretched over 3,200 kilometres off the coast of North America at its peak in 2014 and 15, may have temporarily dampened the Pacific’s ‘biological pump’ that acts as a carbon sink for fixed atmospheric carbon. 

photo credit: Accessing the data on board the research vessel CCGS John P. Tully – Photos by Oceans Networks Canada

“Up until this particular study there really hasn’t been, to our knowledge, the opportunity to look at scale on the impact of heat, or impact of a large temperature anomaly on how the microbial community acts,” said Dr. Steven Hallam, a microbiologist at UBC and one of the paper’s co-authors. 

“In the first couple of years of the Blog, there was a big decline in the phytoplankton biomass – which I think would have an influence on how much carbon dioxide the ocean is sucking, but then in the last year (2016) – all of a sudden they were growing again,” said Dr. Colleen Kellogg, another co-author and a research scientist with the Hakai Institute.

Their team was studying the DNA sequencing and oceanographic measurements from the open-sea buoy ‘Ocean Station Papa,’ when the Blob appeared.

They gathered data from inside the anomaly, 1,400 km off the coast. 

Fig. 1: Geographic and physical description of the “Blob” marine heatwave – courtesy Sachia J. Traving et al, Prokaryotic responses to a warm temperature anomaly in northeast subarctic Pacific waters, Nature Communications Biology, Oct 22, 2021

From 2010 to 2016, they profiled the water column all the way from the surface down 4,000 metres to near the sea floor. 

“We tried to relate the changes we observed in the microbial community structure to a model of what might be happening to that biological pump,” said Hallam.

He and Kellog stressed the fact that more research, over a much longer period of time, is needed. 

One of the big questions: how are these changes impacting fish, marine mammals and seabird populations?

The research vessel CCGS John P. Tully – Photo by Oceans Networks Canada

Kellog will soon be adding a much needed study of the microbial community and phytoplankton in coastal waters. 

The Hakai Institute started studying the waters off Calvert Island since 2013 and Quadra Island since 2014.

“Soon, hopefully, I will be able to report back to you, and others locally, about what is happening right around us and in our waters,” she said. “ .. One thing I found super interesting in our local waters is the phytoplankton is the northern strait of Georgia, so off Quadra Island, is often really small.”

“Why?” Kellogg asks. 

This is the last place juvenile salmon swim through on their way out to sea. 

What kind of impact does this have on salmon?

A major two-year heatwave may have temporarily dampened the Pacific’s ability to sequester carbon, according to research from the University of British Columbia and University of Southern Denmark. Photo by: Jody Wright

“The real challenge here is how do you balance out the need for generational science with fact there are real problems we have to address right now,” said Hallam. 

“ …We have to get less carbon into the atmosphere; we know that. That’s a given, and we need to do it aggressively. Studies like ‘the blob’ help remind us that we can’t continue to behave the way we are behaving, in terms of our carbon emissions, without having, potentially, real impact on what we call ecosystem services that are just provided by nature. We’ve reached the point where can’t just rely on nature anymore to take the waste and deal with it. We have to make conscious choices.”

Top photo credit: the open-sea buoy ‘Ocean Station Papa – Photo by Oceans Networks Canada

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