Environmental News for a Healthier Planet and Life

Massive Starfish Die-Off Linked to Warming Oceans

Massive Starfish Die-Off Linked to Warming Oceans

Starfish, otherwise known as sea stars, have been suffering the effects of a mysterious disease that has decimated their numbers in both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

The disease was first observed a few years ago and now scientists have found a link between its prevalence and warming waters.

Starfish, otherwise known as sea stars, have been suffering the effects of a mysterious disease that has decimated their numbers in both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Photo credit: Thinkstock

The disease that has plagued them has become known as sea star wasting syndrome, which features a number of symptoms that eventually leads to them disintegrating into what’s been described as goo.

Unfortunately, since the latest outbreak was discovered in 2013 it’s impacted dozens of species and is believed to have killed millions of them. According to scientists, it wiped out 90 percent of some populations from Mexico to Alaska between 2013 and 2014.

While the disease has been linked to a fast-acting virus, according to a new study just published in the journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, scientists have also linked sea stars’ risk of becoming infected with the disease to warmer temperatures for the first time.

The disease that has plagued them has become known as sea star wasting syndrome, which features a number of symptoms that eventually leads to them disintegrating into what’s been described as goo. Photo credit: Pete Garland / NOAA

For the study, a group of scientists from Cornell University’s Ecology of Infectious Marine Diseases Research Coordination Network focused on the ochre star in a lab setting and various locations around the San Juan Islands off the coast of Washington.

“We were able to show warmer temperatures were related with the higher risk of disease,”� said Drew Harvell, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Cornell University and a co-author of the study. “We suspected there was a temperature link, but we really needed to look at the field data to pull that out and we were able to back that up with lab experiments that found that in warmer temperatures, they died faster.”

Sea stars are beautiful and fascinating, but there are plenty of other reasons to want to save them. As a predator and keystone species, their presence keeps marine ecosystems healthy. It’s not entirely clear what will happen if whole populations continue to vanish, but their absence is already being felt in some places.

Scientists hope their work will lead to more clues about the disease and whether some survivors may have a resistance that can be used to help stop its spread.

While they are bringing attention to the plight of disappearing sea stars, they’re also raising concerns about how other species are being affected by diseases that are helped along with warmer temperatures. In a second study they examined how disease outbreaks were affected by temperatures that impact species including corals, turtles, bivalves, eelgrasses and lobsters, in addition to how threats could be mitigated.

“Advanced warning of the right conditions for disease allows marine managers to increase surveillance and implement preventive strategies, such as reducing pollution, boat traffic and transmission dangers,” said Harvell.

While scientists continue to look for solutions, UC Santa Barbara, the University of Washington and Cornell University have set up sites for the public to help with a little citizen science by reporting observations. More info on how to help can be found here and here.


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A plume of smoke from wildfires burning in the Angeles National Forest is seen from downtown Los Angeles on Aug. 29, 2009 in Los Angeles, California. Kevork Djansezian / Getty Images

California is bracing for rare January wildfires this week amid damaging Santa Ana winds coupled with unusually hot and dry winter weather.

High winds, gusting up to 80- to 90 miles per hour in some parts of the state, are expected to last through Wednesday evening. Nearly the entire state has been in a drought for months, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, which, alongside summerlike temperatures, has left vegetation dry and flammable.

Utilities Southern California Edison and PG&E, which serves the central and northern portions of the state, warned it may preemptively shut off power to hundreds of thousands of customers to reduce the risk of electrical fires sparked by trees and branches falling on live power lines. The rare January fire conditions come on the heels of the worst wildfire season ever recorded in California, as climate change exacerbates the factors causing fires to be more frequent and severe.

California is also experiencing the most severe surge of COVID-19 cases since the beginning of the pandemic, with hospitals and ICUs over capacity and a stay-at-home order in place. Wildfire smoke can increase the risk of adverse health effects due to COVID, and evacuations forcing people to crowd into shelters could further spread the virus.

As reported by AccuWeather:

In the atmosphere, air flows from high to low pressure. The setup into Wednesday is like having two giant atmospheric fans working as a team with one pulling and the other pushing the air in the same direction.
Normally, mountains to the north and east of Los Angeles would protect the downtown which sits in a basin. However, with the assistance of the offshore storm, there will be areas of gusty winds even in the L.A. Basin. The winds may get strong enough in parts of the basin to break tree limbs and lead to sporadic power outages and sparks that could ignite fires.
"Typically, Santa Ana winds stay out of downtown Los Angeles and the L.A. Basin, but this time, conditions may set up just right to bring 30- to 40-mph wind gusts even in those typically calm condition areas," said AccuWeather Senior Meteorologist Mike Doll.

For a deeper dive:

AP, LA Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Washington Post, Weather Channel, AccuWeather, New York Times, Slideshow: New York Times; Climate Signals Background: Wildfires, 2020 Western wildfire season

For more climate change and clean energy news, you can follow Climate Nexus on Twitter and Facebook, sign up for daily Hot News, and visit their news site, Nexus Media News.

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