In the record heat wave that scorched America
's Pacific Northwest
and claimed hundreds of human lives last week, an estimated 1 billion sea creatures were cooked to death
off the Canadian coast.
Chris Harley, a marine biologist at the University
of British Columbia
, calculated the massive toll on mussels and other marine animals
that died in the heat along the Salish Sea off Vancouver, which stretches from the Campbell River north of Vancouver all the way down to Seattle
and Olympia in Washington state
Harley was "stunned" when he discovered endless rows of gaping dead mussels on Vancouver's Kitsilano Beach in late June, along with dead clams, snails, sea stars, and barnacles.
Mussels, according to the scientist, are the “poster child
” indicator of the ocean
’s devastation caused by the heat because they can’t move to cooler water
“A mussel on the shore is like a toddler left in a hot car on a hot day,” Harley explained to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. “They’re stuck there until the parent comes back or, in this case, the tide comes back in. They’re at the mercy of the environment
... During the heat wave, it just got so hot that the mussels, there was nothing they could do.”
Mussels can tolerate temperatures as high as 86 degrees Fahrenheit for short periods of time, but Harley and a colleague discovered temperatures as high as 122 degrees along the rocky shoreline of the Salish Sea using a thermal imaging camera.
Mussels, which are in the middle of the food
chain, provide a critical transition between shore and ocean, filtering out particles and making water clearer, and providing important nutrition to other animals like starfish and sea ducks
“They grab plankton that's floating around in the water and use it to grow, and then they feed other things on the shore, so they sort of connect the open water habitat to the shoreline,” Harley told the Toronto
Similar discoveries of dead shellfish have already been made in areas of Washington state, according to Harley, who plans to visit the Gulf Islands and Vancouver Island to investigate seashore deaths caused by the crushing heat.
As a result of climate change
, such lethal heat waves
are more likely to occur more frequently and with even higher temperatures, according to Harley.
“Eventually, we just won’t be able to sustain these populations of filter feeders on the shoreline to the extent that we’re used to,” he said.
According to Harley, the deaths are just the most recent and dramatic evidence that climate change is having a negative impact
on the environment.
“If we don’t like it, we need to work
harder to reduce emissions
and take other steps to mitigate the effects of climate change,” he told the CBC
Thousands of mussels were cooked to death on a Northern California
beach in 2019 due to record heat. It was believed to be the worst heat die-off in 15 years.