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SAN FRANCISCO — Marine biologists are spotting ominous signs all along the Pacific Coast this year: higher nearshore ocean temperatures, plummeting catches of groundfish, an explosion of dead birds on coastal beaches and perhaps most disturbing, very few plankton — the tiny critters that form the basis of the ocean’s intricate food web.
From California to British Columbia, unusual weather patterns have disrupted the marine ecosystem, scientists say. The normal northerly winds failed to show up this year, preventing the usual upwelling of colder water that sustains the plankton and, in turn, many other species from anchovies to cormorants to whales.
Is this just a strange year, or is this what global warming looks like? Few scientists are willing to blame the plankton collapse on the worldwide rise in temperatures attributed to carbon dioxide and other gases believed to trap heat in the earth’s atmosphere.
Yet few are willing to rule it out.
If these patterns continue, it could show that something in the atmosphere — and the Pacific Ocean — has permanently changed, with serious consequences for coastal birds, fish and marine mammals.
“These natural changes can teach us a lot about what might happen if global warming came along,” said Francisco Chavez, an oceanographer at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute. “That global change is going to affect the ocean is a given.
We just don’t know how or what the effects will be.”