Death of 1 Million Seabirds Tied to Massive ‘Blob’ of Hot Water in the Pacific
An expanse of uncommonly warm seawater in the Pacific Ocean created by a marine heatwave led to a mass die-off of one million seabirds, scientists have found.
According to a study published in PLOS One by the University of Washington, the marine heatwave began in 2013, and grew stronger between 2015-2016 due to irregular conditions from the weather phenomenon El Niño.
The heatwave created a patch of much warmer seawater in the northeastern Pacific that stretched for 1,000 miles — parts of which reached temperatures 10.8 degrees Fahrenheit higher than usual, CNN reported.
Researchers termed it "the blob."
As the blob reached its peak between mid-2015 and 2016, more than 62,000 common murres — a species of seabird that feeds on small fish and is common up and down the west coast of North America — washed up dead on the shores of California, Oregon, Washington and Alaska, The Guardian reported.
The researchers believe that the murres likely died of starvation after the blob increased competition for the small fish they feed on, The BBC reported. And because most birds that die over the ocean never wash ashore, the researchers believe the die-off reached closer to an unprecedented one million common murres.
Larger fish such as salmon, cod and halibut rely on the same prey as the murres. But since fish are cold-blooded and can't self-regulate their body temperature, the warmer waters boosted their metabolic rate and the amount of energy they needed for survival. These conditions required the larger fish to eat more than normal, reducing the availability of prey for the murres, which typically need to eat the equivalent of half their body weight per day.
The resulting die-off was among the largest on record, the researchers said. Most of the birds washed ashore in Alaska, where they were found in densities reaching 4,600 carcasses per kilometer along part of the state's southern coast.
The murre population was so affected that by 2016, 12 breeding colonies had failed to produce any chicks and the population still hasn't replenished, The Guardian reported.
"It remains to be seen when (or whether) murre populations in Alaska will recover from the heatwave in light of predicted global warming trends and the associated likelihood of more frequent heatwaves," the researchers said. According to the United Nations, climate change is projected to make marine heatwaves more frequent.
The University of Washington team has already found another marine heatwave developing off the coast of Washington, while another closer to New Zealand has reached 4,000 square miles and can be detected from space, CNN reported.
The blob caused die-offs in several other animal populations as well, including sea lions, baleen whales and tufted puffins. These die-offs were likely due in part to a drop in the populations of plankton that feed many organisms in the food chain, as the warmer water has less oxygen and essential nutrients to support life, USA Today reported.
The warmer temperatures also spawned the largest harmful algal bloom in recorded history, which contributed to the die-offs and led to significant financial losses for fisheries in the affected area — though none of the losses reached the severity of the murre die-off.
"The magnitude and scale of this failure has no precedent," lead author John Piatt, a research biologist and an affiliate professor at the University of Washington, said in a press release. "It was astonishing and alarming, and a red-flag warning about the tremendous impact sustained ocean warming can have on the marine ecosystem."
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It is undisputed that vitamin D plays a role everywhere in the body and performs important functions. A severe vitamin D deficiency, which can occur at a level of 12 nanograms per milliliter of blood or less, leads to severe and painful bone deformations known as rickets in infants and young children and osteomalacia in adults. Unfortunately, this is where the scientific consensus ends.
Where Does the Deficiency Begin?<p>Nobody knows exactly how much vitamin D a person actually needs. The question of when a deficiency starts is correspondingly controversial. However, vitamin D is becoming increasingly popular.Not only is the pseudo-scientific literature on the "sun vitamin" experiencing an upswing, but the number of published studies has also increased enormously in recent years. For example, in 2019 <a href="https://academic.oup.com/edrv/article/40/4/1109/5126915" target="_blank">a study found that</a> Vitamin D is responsible for keeping the skeleton functional and is associated with cardiovascular diseases, type 2 diabetes and various types of cancer. <br></p>
An All-Rounder<p>Vitamin D levels in the body rise and fall according to sun exposure. If sufficient UV rays reach the skin, the body is able to produce the vitamin itself. However, the human body only derives an estimated 10 to 20 percent of its daily requirement from food.</p><p>The vitamin D that we synthesize from sunlight or food is not biologically active at first. Before the kidneys can produce the biologically active form of the vitamin, known as calcitriol, and release it into the blood, some metabolic processes must take place beforehand.</p><p>In addition, many organs have receptors to which the precursor of calcitriol binds. Further, this substance is also present in blood.</p><p>From this precursor, the organs then produce calcitriol themselves, which the body then uses for countless other processes in the body. This form of vitamin D thus regulates insulin secretion, inhibits tumor growth, and promotes the formation of red blood cells as well as the survival and activity of macrophages, which are important for the <a href="https://www.mdpi.com/2072-6643/5/7/2502/htm" target="_blank">immune system.</a></p>
Low Vitamin D, Severe COVID-19 Disease?<p>A research study carried out <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2352364620300067?via%3Dihub" target="_blank">at the University of Hohenheim</a> has now established a link between vitamin D deficiency, certain previous diseases, and severe cases of COVID-19.</p><p>According to the study, "there is a lot of evidence that several non-communicable diseases (high blood pressure, diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, metabolic syndrome) are associated with low vitamin D plasma levels. These comorbidities, together with the often accompanying vitamin D deficiency, increase the risk of severe COVID-19 events."</p><p>"This statement is completely correct," said Martin Fassnacht, head of endocrinology at the University Hospital of Würzburg. However, he qualifies that it is a pure association, "i.e. a mere observation that these events occur together.</p><p>Dr. Fassnacht is very critical of the hype surrounding vitamin D, but not because he denies the vitamin serves important functions. However, studies on humans have not been able to show that vitamin D has the healing powers many often propagate.</p><p>Fassnacht says, "If you take a closer look, the hopes that the administration of vitamin D has a healing effect have not been confirmed so far."</p>
Association Versus Intervention Studies<p>Many studies on the vitamin are association or observational studies. "By definition, these studies cannot prove the causal relationship, but only point to mere correlations," said Fassnacht. The physician tries to illustrate this with an example:</p><p>"Imagine two groups of 80-year-olds. One group is spry, active and does sports. If you compare them with another group living in nursing homes, the difference in vitamin D levels will be dramatic. Life expectancy would also be extremely different."</p><p>But to try to explain the difference in fitness by vitamin D status alone is far too simplistic. "Vitamin D levels are a good measure of how sick someone is. But not more," says Fassnacht. </p><p>According to Fassnacht, none of the intervention studies carried out to date -- that specifically examined the effect of vitamin D on various diseases -- has been able to confirm the previous association and laboratory studies or the presumed positive effect of vitamin D.</p>
Further Research Is Needed<p>"If a coronavirus infection is suspected, it is therefore absolutely necessary to check the vitamin D status and quickly correct any possible deficit," said the recommendation of the paper published by the University of Hohenheim.</p><p>"Studies are underway to see whether vitamin D helps in COVID-19 infection, but I personally do not believe that this is really the case," says endocrinologist Fassnacht. Nevertheless, he says it is of course useful to carry out these studies.<br></p><p>"I don't want to rule out that there are actually subgroups of people who benefit from an additional vitamin D dose," he says. After all, this has been proven to be the case with a severe deficit.</p><p>In view of the study situation, Fassnacht does not think much of preventive, nationwide vitamin D substitutes. "My belief that the vitamin helps somewhere is very low. But, of course, I can be wrong."</p>
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