Environment

Tidepools warn of serious climate problems

Wednesday, February 06, 2008
Fitzgerald Tidepools

Scientists have long warned that climate change will affect fragile fringe areas before anywhere else.

The waters along the Peninsula are warmer now than they were 50 years ago. Is it a sign of climate change along our coastline? Biologists say the effects are quite evident in the tide pools and the change in wildlife that live in them.

On California's coast, there are places where time seems to move more slowly. One of them is the Fitzgerald Marine Reserve in Moss Beach.

"Well it's been this way the last 5,000 years," says Bob Breen who has watched closely for the last 30 of them.

Breen teaches marine biology at Half Moon Bay High School and also consults for the state of California. He's a guy who views these tidepools as a giant laboratory. He can name every plant and animal there, including the ones that have left.

"It's starting here. It's easily observable. You just have to come down and know what you're looking at," says Breen.

These are not the kinds of effects you would see over days or weeks, but if we put a time lapse camera at the tidepools 30 years ago and let the picture run, you would see massive changes along the tidepools -- plants and animals moving out, others moving in. All driven by changes in temperature.

"It's a litmus test. It's the canary in the coal mine that's warning us what we can look forward to in the future," says Breen.

Independent and reputable scientific records show that these waters have warmed by a degree-and-a-half in the last 50 years. That's a lot, and it's enough to push out leafy seaweed that used to cover rocks. In its place, turf-like seaweeds have taken over.

Bob Breen: "This is more reminiscent of what you might see down in Southern California."

Wayne Freedman: "And now it's moving up here?

Bob Breen: "Well, actually it's becoming more common."

Same story for animal life. A few years ago, the Fitzgerald tidepools crawled with starfish. Now, you must look hard for them. Meantime, a predatory snail has moved in from warmer waters in Southern California.

The sea anenomes are changing, too. Twenty years ago, the giant green dominated here. Now, a different species, the sunburst aneonome, outnumbers them. They're from the south, as well. And these are only the changes we see.

"It moves up the food chain. Already, scientists are noticing a drastic decline in plankton out here in the north Pacific Ocean," says Breen.

It might mean nothing, but probably something. Scientists have long warned that climate change will affect fragile fringe areas before anywhere else. The tidepools of Fitzgerald Reserve appear to be among them.

Wayne Freedman: "If you look at the big picture, here, is there anything to be alarmed at?"

Bob Breen: "Yeah, there is. This is just the beginnings of some very serious problems we're going to have with the climate."

Reluctantly, Bob Breen can say that he saw it here, first.

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