The birds arrived in the thousands, as if out of a Hitchcock thriller: white-winged scoters, surf scoters, loons, grebes and murres. All washed up dead or dying on Oregon and Washington State shores, with the natural oils that protect them from hypothermia stripped away by a frothy soap-like substance produced when waves churn decaying algae.
At least 10,000 seabirds have succumbed to the resultant immobilizing cold since Labor Day, and beach walkers (and runners) continue to find more. "This morning, I counted seven dead birds in a mile stretch of beach, and those were only the ones I happened upon just jogging along with my dog," wrote Angelo Bruscas this Wednesday for The Examiner.
Scientists still aren't sure what caused the "biggest and longest-lasting harmful algal bloom to hit the Northwest coast," reported The Seattle Times earlier this week. Could natural weather cycles like El Niño be to blame? Or did warming surface waters or acidifying seas produce the prime blooming conditions? "You can think of it as a jigsaw puzzle with 500 pieces, but we only have about 50," Julia Parrish, a University of Washington fisheries and oceans professor, told the Times.
Half a world away, thousands more birds have been found dead on Australian shores. Local agencies there suggest the shearwaters starved due to a fish shortage, even though, as The Warnambool Standard reports, "Police were also called to investigate what appeared to be blood in the water, but most observers later concluded that it was a type of algae." Could their inability to find food have been the result of encounters with the same paralyzing algae as their counterparts up north? The mystery remains Down Under.
Meanwhile, related research presented at the Geological Society of America's annual meeting in October may shed light on a longer-standing mystery: What caused Earth's five largest mass extinctions? According to Clemson University researchers, the answer could be toxic algae. "Algae growth is favored by warmer temperatures," geologist James Castle said in a statement. "You get accelerated metabolism and reproduction of these organisms, and the effect appears to be enhanced for species of toxin-producing cyanobacteria." The researchers found a spike in the presence of fossil algae coinciding with the time of each large die off. While this is no reason for any apocalyptic alarm—the algae growth could have been triggered by another catastrophic event, pardoning it as the cause—scientists do worry what this link could mean for ecosystems in our warming world. And this just may add support to the possible relationship between increased surface temperatures and the Pacific Northwest's tragedy.
Fortunately, there is some good news. Hundreds of the birds that washed ashore in Oregon and Washington were found alive. After weeks of stressful rehabilitation—tubes down their throats and repeated washings to remove the foamy coat—rescuers released many of these birds back into the wild. "To know the tragedy of the seabirds that happened, to see these little guys have made it, it's like go, be happy, have a great life. It's just so thrilling," Jeani Goodrich, a volunteer at PAWS Wildlife Center, told Seattle's KOMO News.
Watch some of the rehabilitation efforts here: