Warming Pacific waters could signal trouble ahead

NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center has been recording warm waters off the west coast.

There’s no arguing we’ve had a remarkably warm winter. Looking back, the west coast hasn’t had a typical winter for six years.

“To date, our March temperatures continue at greater than 2 degrees C to 3 degrees C above normal with local mountain snow packs at a record low of only 15 per cent of normal,” said Roger Pannett, volunteer weather observer for Environment Canada.

And we’re not alone.

According to the National Climatic Data Center (NCDC) of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), “The Northern Hemisphere had its warmest winter on record and the Southern Hemisphere had its fourth warmest summer.”

NCDC said that, combined, the record warm December, second warmest January and the second warmest February all came together with their combined average temperatures over global land and ocean surfaces to set the highest on record for this period at 0.79°C above the 20th century average of 12.1°C, surpassing the previous record warmth of December–February 2006/07 by 0.04°C.

All that heat set in motion the Arctic sea ice extent which reached its winter maximum on February 25, the date that marks the end of sea ice growth and the beginning of the sea ice melt season. The remarkable thing is that this year’s maximum extent not only occurred early but it was the lowest amount in the satellite record by which winter Arctic ice extends.

According to the National Snow and Ice Data Center, the sea ice measured 14.54 million square kilometers with below-average ice conditions everywhere except in the Labrador Sea and Davis Strait. This winter’s sea ice was 1.10 million square kilometers below the 1981 to 2010 average of 15.64 million square kilometers.

The fact is, though, that the winter extent for Arctic ice has been following a decades-long trend for a lessening surge in ice growth which has implications for the complicated Arctic food webs, and when and how people and animals hunt and fish from the ice.

Just how all this factors into the behavior of the jet stream, the west coast’s lack of winter and too much winter on the east coast is still causing climate scientists to scratch their heads looking for answers. But there has been no doubt that the Arctic has been warming at a faster rate than the rest of the planet with implications affecting the global weather patterns.

Closer to home, there is already concern for the survival of returning salmon this summer and fall given the potential for low stream flows, a hot summer and possibly high water temperatures.

According to the DFO website, the North Pacific Ocean was unusually warm in 2014 with conditions of a magnitude not seen before. How that impacted the salmon cycle scheduled to return this summer still isn’t known.

Currently, weak El Nino conditions are still present in the ocean and NOAA scientists say there is a 50 per cent to 60 per cent chance that warm waters will continue through the summer. There is already talk of a rare double El Nino when warm waters continue two years in a row. The entire Pacific Ocean is currently 3 degrees C above normal.

Which brings up another conundrum. NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center has been recording warm waters off the west coast. Warmth means less productivity. And according to a UBC study, marine species are moving northward at a rate of about 30 kilometres per decade. Some 28 near-surface species are looking for the cooler waters they are more used to.

The shake-up could put pressure on existing ecosystems, lead to a re-shuffling of marine communities and an evolution of new food webs that will profoundly affect what we fish, and where.

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