BY: CAROLINE WANG, CONTRIBUTOR
It is undeniable that this year’s weather has set some of the highest records in the books. A mix of rising global temperatures, mysteriously warmed waters, and suspiciously Northern situated storms have conspired to create one of the most impactful El Niños ever seen in history. The symptoms have spread far and wide, reaching from the dried coasts of the California to the coasts of major South American countries like Chile. And while the effects have been positive for some, El Niño has created an environmental disaster for the Chilean government.
Over the past few months, reports estimate that thousands of tons of dead marine wildlife have washed upon the shores of Chile, leaving the once tourist-friendly shores infested with unsavory carnage. This is not hyperbole; reports estimate that around 40,000 tons of salmon, 8,000 tons of sardines, 300 whales, and thousands of clams have washed up on the shores of the South American country. Researchers believe that El Niño is to thank for such a significant loss of marine wildlife.
El Niño has been causing a multiplicity of different problems around the world this year. For many countries, its effects have been economically depressing. For others, it’s created havoc for the unique wildlife with rising temperatures. For Chile, El Niño has caused both economic problems and environmental disaster. But why?
While headlines are quick to make it sound scary, El Niño is essentially a climate cycle. As the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) explains, El Niño causes westerly winds to blow in different directions, prompting differences in direction of warm sea water. This domino-chain reaction of shifting warm water causes a variety of weather events across affected areas, like flooding, drought, or unusual thunderstorms. El Niño’s equally important twin, La Niña, essentially is the complete 360 degree turn from its counterpart. Instead of causing warm water movement, La Niña notoriously pushes colder waters into new areas. In a gross simplification, one may think of these climate cycles as the Pacific Ocean inhaling and exhaling; cold air is inhaled, and warm air is exhaled.
When ocean waters suddenly warm up (thanks to El Niño), it can create a plethora of events that can prove deadly to sea wildlife. In Chile’s case, that means red tides.
Also known as harmful algal blooms, or HABS, a red tide is a natural process caused by algal blooms that grow so large, they can actually change the color of the water. They deplete the oxygen supply in the ocean water and release toxins that can cause illness to both important wildlife and humans alike. Chile is no stranger to red tides, though this year’s event has stretched much further north at an intense rate, causing the Chilean government to ban fishing in the affected area. Consequently, not only are the marine wildlife dying, but many local fisherman are out of work: El Niño’s one-two punch on Chile.
While most researchers agree that this increase in aquatic deaths on Chilean beaches is caused by the notorious El Niño, many also disagree. Some scientists claim that the whale deaths have no link to the El Niño, while others point to fish farms as the cause of salmon death.
While the debate continues, the message is clear for Chile: more oceanic research is necessary to comprehend all the variables creating die-offs. Hopefully, as the El Niño begins to subside, life will return to a semblance of normalcy for the Chilean locals and these precious marine species.