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Transcript: On the Front Lines of Climate Change in the Ocean

Announcer: Welcome to On the Line, a NOAA Fisheries podcast.

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Rich Press: The climate is changing all over the globe, but the climate that humans experience here on land is only part of the story. It's less than half even. Seventy percent of earth is covered in water and things are changing in the ocean just as fast as they are on land. So how exactly are things changing in the oceans? 

To find out, we've got Bill Peterson on the line. Dr. Peterson is a biological oceanographer with NOAA's Northwest Fisheries Science Center. Bill, thanks for taking my call.

Dr. Bill Peterson: Yeah, no problem, Rich – nice to talk to you.

Rich Press: Bill, I called you because you’ve been running an ocean monitoring program out of Newport, Oregon for twenty years now. It’s called the Newport Hydrographic line, and you go to sea every two weeks to collect data. What kind of data are you collecting exactly?

Dr. Bill Peterson: Well, we make some basic measurements of the ocean, which is the water temperature, the salinity, the transparency. We take water samples to measure the nutrient content. We do plankton net tows for the zooplankton. We collect krill eggs and larvae, and krill themselves, and also fish eggs and larvae. So we're sampling the lower trophic level of the food chain. And then we're on to our next station, and we've got it down so everything goes click, click, click, click. There's no sitting around, okay? [Laughter] Because we don't want to be out there, you know, half the night.

Rich Press: Right. So part of the reason this data is so useful is that you've been collecting the same kind of data for 20 years so I guess it gives you perspective on how things are changing in the ocean. Talk to me a bit about what you're seeing lately and whether it's the same kind of thing you're used to seeing in the past.

Dr. Bill Peterson: Lately things have been even more different. I mean, I was quite shocked back in 1996 by seeing things that I wasn't expecting, but I was even more shocked this past year because of this thing called the "blob". It was called the blob because it was a warm mass, just like from that movie, right? So just think of this big, red mass spreading from the Gulf of Alaska all the way across the Pacific to Japan, up into the Bering Sea, up into the Arctic, and then spread south kind of off the Oregon Coast. 

But in September 14th of 2014 – we know the exact day of this – the blob came onshore and the water warmed up by seven degrees centigrade in a course of about six hours. Six hours. I mean, it was stunning. And, you know, at that time everyone said, "oh, my God, what is this?" Well, we started – of course from our cruises we were taking plankton samples and looking at the plankton – it was like, wow. There was species in those samples I had never seen in my life. And it's kind of like looking out your window and seeing a flamingo walk by your house. [Laughter] It's like, "whoa, whoa – what was that?" And then a parrot flies by and you think, "whoa, what is going on here? This is really weird."

Rich Press: You know, that's interesting because a lot of what I read in the paper about climate and the ocean concerns physical effects like rising sea levels, increasing temperature, decreasing ice covering the Arctic, things like that. And all of those physical effects can be – you know, the data can be collected by satellite. But you're looking at something different. You're looking at copepods and different small organisms in the water that can't be seen by satellite. So you're looking beyond the physical to the biological effects. So, talk to me a bit about how climate change is affecting food webs and ecosystems in the ocean.

Dr. Bill Peterson: One of the key things we've learned from these last 20 years is that the species of copepods that we see off the coast here change as a function of the temperature of the water. So right now, the ocean is very warm and we're seeing these warm water copepod species, and they have an attribute that's – well, two attributes that are not good for the food chain. The first attribute is that they're very small, and the second one is that they have a very, very low fat content. Whereas, when the ocean is colder we get these really much larger copepods and those have a very, very high fat content. 

And this is important in the food chain because a lot of animals migrate up here to the waters off Oregon every spring expecting to find a very fatty food chain. And that's true for whiting, for sardines, for gray whales, humpback whales, sooty shearwaters, albatrosses come from Hawaii – I mean, animals come from thousands of miles away up here to feed on this – what's usually a very, very fatty food chain. So, when they got here last year they would've found the food chain had almost no fat in it, very low numbers of copepods, and basically a food chain that was very bioenergetically poor, let's say.

Rich Press: You mentioned a number of animals that are being affected by the warm temperatures, everything from fish to whales. And, if it's affecting fish then it's obviously affecting fishermen. What's happening in terms of how temperature changes affect our fisheries?

Dr. Bill Peterson: I think the blob basically showed us, there can be a wholesale shift to the north of tropical species up into waters of say Oregon. I mean, this shift was on the order of 1,000 kilometers, even more, maybe even one thousand miles. And the global climate models predict these northward shifts but they predict that they'll be like ten miles per year. So by the year 2100, we'll have tropical species up here off Oregon. Well, the blob shows us that this can happen almost overnight. And so what'll happen is here at Newport where salmon fishing is a pretty important part of the economy, we won't have salmon anymore, at least not very many. We'll have other fish to fish. We'll have tuna fish and probably squids to fish. So it's more an issue that things will shift northwards, but they'll shift so fast that people won't even have time to adapt. There might be a couple years of economic hardship because it's tuna, not salmon. Things like that.

Rich Press: You know, you mentioned salmon. So in terms of the information, the understanding we're getting from this monitoring program, how does that help us in terms of salmon recovery and management?

Dr. Bill Peterson: Well, one thing we've found with our 20 years of work here is that the copepods themselves can be used to actually forecast salmon returns a couple years into the future. So that's one of the values of our work, to use those as indicators of ocean conditions, and they become like early warning indicators of good or bad things into the future. So, the salmon respond to the warm ocean for sure.

Rich Press: One last question for you, Bill. You've been running the Newport line since 1996, so this is sort of a 20th anniversary for you and your colleagues. I know from speaking with you earlier today that's kind of a big deal. Why’s that?

Dr. Bill Peterson: Well, one important reason is that for your work to be included in the IPCC climate reports is that you have to be working from a time series that has at least 20 years of data behind it. So now that we have 20 years, now we can write papers that'll be included in these analyses that come out every five years. 

That's pretty cool. You know, it really is. I mean, there's not many – it's a well-recognized problem – that there aren't very many long-term marine time series that they can draw on to make inferences about the future. So we're gonna be one of the key contributors to the IPCC in terms of the California Current and how it might change in the future. It's very exciting.

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Rich Press: That was Dr. Bill Peterson, a biological oceanographer with NOAA Fisheries and a dude with a long-term perspective. If you want to know more about the Newport Hydrographic line or if you just want to check out some cool pictures of researchers at sea, check out the "Newportal Blog". One of the cool things about this research is they go out every two weeks. So, if you want to know what's happening off the West Coast in almost real time, check it out. You can find that link to the blog on our podcast website. That's www.fisheries.noaa.gov/podcasts. 

Thanks for listening. Join us again next time for more stories about ocean life and ocean science. I'm Rich Press, and you're listening to "On the Line."


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You have been listening to the NOAA Fisheries’ Podcast, "On the Line". Join us next time for a firsthand look at the people and the science behind managing our nation’s fisheries. For more information, visit NOAA Fisheries at www.fisheries.noaa.gov.

"On the Line" is a production of the NOAA Fisheries Office of Communications.
 

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