Climate Change Is Driving Marine Species North, Changing California’s Coast

By Roni Dengler | March 12, 2019 5:47 pm
bodega bay marine heatwave

California’s Bodega Bay, as seen from the iconic Highway 1 in Sonoma County. Scientists studying the area watched as recent ocean heatwaves pushed marine life north as far as 250 miles. (Credit: yhelfman/shutterstock)

Just north of San Francisco, Bodega Bay cuts a crescent moon shoreline into the California coast. Toward the end of summer in 2014, the water temperature of the bay skyrocketed. In one of the most intense marine heatwaves on record, warm water persisted for nearly seven months. Now researchers say that the marine heatwaves that roasted Northern California’s coastline for two years also moved a record amount of marine life north. And these marine animal relocations forecast what California’s coast may look like in the future, the researchers say.

“Against the backdrop of climate change, we hope southern species will track northward because that’s necessary for their persistence and survival,” Eric Sanford, a marine ecologist at the University of California in Davis, who led the new research, said in a statement. “It’s perhaps a glimpse of what Northern California’s coast might look like in the future as ocean temperatures continue to warm.”

Warm Waters

Between 2014 and 2016, some 14 marine heatwaves hit the California coast between Bodega Bay and Point Arena, a nib of land less than 100 miles north. During the heatwaves, sea surface temperatures ballooned by between 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit and 7 degrees F warmer than usual. The heatwaves lasted for anywhere from five to nearly 200 days at a stretch. A strong El Niño event in 2015 made the warming situation even worse. And since past El Niño events have been known to move marine life around, Sanford and his team wondered if the heatwaves were also pushing sea life north.

The researchers visited beaches, state parks, and marine reserves up and down the coast for nearly 3 years recording and collecting sea-life that washed up on shore and along the rocky intertidal zones.

Moving Marine Life

The extensive survey revealed crabs, snails, algae, and barnacles had shifted northward. Some species — like the red sea cucumber — moved a few miles north. But others made bigger moves. The common bottlenose dolphin was spotted 80 miles north of its typical range and the Pacific snake eel relocated nearly 250 miles.

In total, the researchers found 37 species had migrated poleward. That number is unprecedented, the researchers report Tuesday in the journal Scientific Reports.

Although the team’s research focused on the marine heatwaves, the shifts in marine life extend beyond these extreme events and may indicate further change to Northern California’s seascape.

“Before our very eyes, we’re seeing the species composition shift to more warm-water southern animals in just the 14 years I have been at the Bodega Marine Laboratory,” Sanford said. “That’s a barometer of change for these ecosystems.”

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, top posts
MORE ABOUT: climate change
  • Uncle Al

    Cherry-picking. I live in SouCal. We’ve had three straight months of below average temps. But, wait! Renormalize thermal divergence to minimize stochastic tenacity, validating hyperbolic GLOBAL WARMING!


  • Deplorablewinner

    Once they get to Frisco, they’ll move on to Ore.

  • OWilson

    They are obviously “adapting”.

    Right now the Cal deserts are blooming for the second year in a row, and there’s a 10 mile lake in Death Valley! :)

    The “new normal”?

    Look up “co2 greening the Earth”. – NASA

    • Uncle Al

      Jamestown, 1607 deep in a Virginia estuary, had -40 degree winters. Return to that, the Green Revolution collapses, 3 – 4 billion people starve (or demand entry into America as voting illegals). The Carbon Tax on Everythng can unpay for the New World Order!

  • OWilson

    ““Before our very eyes, we’re seeing the species composition shift to more warm-water southern animals in just the 14 years I have been at the Bodega Marine Laboratory,”. “In total, the researchers found 37 species had migrated poleward. That number is unprecedented, the researchers report”.

    If animals can so quickly adapt to a new environment (14 years) maybe there’s hope that humans won’t be going extinct due to a degree or two of warming over the next 50 years, after all? :)

  • Mike Richardson

    It’s good news that some species are adapting and moving northward to survive. Unfortunately, other marine organisms, such as coral reefs and other sedentary life, will not be able to move to cooler waters north of their current habitats. Also, what happens to the creatures currently in the more northern stretches of the coast? Will they be displaced, and have to move further north themselves?

    On land, much the same applies. Some creatures, like crows, foxes, raccoons, rats, and cockroaches, will adapt to almost any environment. Others do not fare so well when the climate changes and disrupts their habitats. Though forests can gradually move by spreading their seeds to niches more favorable to them as the climate changes, the existing trees can die off, and there is not always a new area suitable for their seeds to spread. Of importance to humans, agricultural crops face the same stresses from a changing environment.

    Rather than dismiss climate change and hope everything will be alright based on a little good news, we might want to consider the big picture, and try to avoid the worst case scenario while there is still time to do so.


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