Late-arriving pink salmon stormed into Prince William Sound this week to push the statewide harvest for 2019 well above the five-year average of more than 170 million fish.

The big catch put the state on track to mark the fourth decade in a row in which salmon numbers have reached record numbers. Were the fishery to end today, the 2019 harvest would rank as the 11th largest on record since 1975 but it appears destined to push into the top-10.

And the big national story in the news is how a few thousand salmon that might have cooked to death in warm water this summer were the victims of climate change.

The evidence for the hot-water deaths that CNN and other new organizations say is “killing large numbers of salmon” is slim, though there is no doubt hot water will kill salmon. And given record-breaking temperatures across the state, it is certainly likely over-heated streams caused salmon to die from some combination of heat and low stream flows, which diminish the available oxygen, somewhere in Alaska this year as has been happening on and off again for decades.

An estimated 25,000 thousand died in eight streams during a drought in Southeast Alaska in 1988-89, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. There are other reports of hot water or low flows killing fish in years well before that, but they are not available online.

Substantiating that fish died from hot water is not easy because, as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s old “Field Manual for the Investigation of Fish Kills” notes, the known causes of natural mortalities include “oxygen depletion, gas supersaturation, toxic algal blooms, toxic substances, sudden or excessive temperature changes, lightning, bacterial infections, fungi, viruses, parasites, and others.”

Not to mention the complicating factor of the stress of warm water or low oxygen levels on fish already weakened by carrying “a significant burden of parasites, harboring a subclinical bacterial infection, or are already weakened by malnutrition,” as the manual notes.

The reality is that no one really knows what caused the much-reported die-off of hundreds of salmon on the Koyukuk River of northern Alaska. It is not impossible the widely scattered chum killed earlier this year were electroshocked to death. The area was hit by a swarm of lightning strikes that left several wildfires burning in the drainage.

The fisheries biologist now an advocate for a non-governmental organization who reported the presumed hot-water-related salmon kill on the Koyukuk herself said this on her Twitter feed:

“We took water temp data. Not very warm. Low 60s. However, locals noted dead salmon starting July 12. Looking at temp history at this location it was 90 degrees for several days starting July 7. That’s 25 degrees above average!”

Temperatures in the low-60s do not kill chums, unless they are already compromised by other problems, and air temperature do not immediately or necessarily translate into water temperature. How air temperature affects water temperature is a drainage-wide issue, not a local one.

Salmon rising

The one salmon phenomenon that is well documented in Alaska in these days of rising temperatures is increasing abundance.

Since the North Pacific Ocean’s cold-water years of the late 1960s and ’70s, Alaska has seen a salmon boom of a size hard to imagine in the 1970s when the catch averaged about 48.3 million fish per year. Since then, it has increased decade by decade:

  • 122.4 million on average in the ’80s.
  • 157.5 million on average in the ’90s.
  • 167.4 million on average in the 2000s.
  • And now on track for something around a 180 million average for this decade.

“The mid-1970s (environmental) shift in the Gulf of Alaska ecosystem wasn’t widely appreciated for at least a decade,” biologists Milo Adkinson and Bruce Finney wrote in a 2003 report on “The Long-Term Outlook for Salmon Returns to Alaska.”

They added then that no one expected the growing trend of abundance to last, writing that “in the last 15 years, we have seen numerous dates proposed as the beginning of a major shift in (declining) salmon production; so far, the bulk of these warnings of collapse in Alaska’s salmon runs have failed to materialize. Future shifts in
salmon production are inevitable, but we must expect that these changes will be unexpected. However, it is important to distinguish between climate-induced and
human-induced causes during low productivity phases, and to not use climate as a scapegoat, because negative human impacts can be corrected.”

The human causes have been tightly controlled by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game since firm, biological escapement goals were first set in the 1970s. Those goals have in many cases been increased since that time.

When harvest numbers and escapements (the number of salmon escaping fishermen to reach the spawning grounds) are combined, the total number of salmon returning to Alaska waters every year now is far, far bigger than at any time in recorded history, a fact underlined by a peer-reviewed, now often-cited study by Seattle scientist Greg Ruggerone and Canadian scientists James Irvine concluding that there are now more salmon in the North Pacific than ever. 

Following on the heels of that study came another by Swiss scientists who reported the “metabolic theory of ecology” is holding in the world’s oceans. The metabolic theory stipulates that as temperature increases so does biomass up to some as yet unknown point of too hot.

After sorting through 1 million observations of 1,300 species of phytoplankton, Damiano Righetti of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich with colleagues from the Swiss Federal Research Institute reported that plankton – the plants of the sea – are today richest in the warmest parts of the ocean.

“Analyzed by latitude, richness declines steeply poleward of 30 degrees, reaches its minimum ( approximately 50 species) and associated inflection points at mid-latitudes (between  45- to 65-degrees N and approximately 45 degrees S), and increases slightly toward the poles,” Righetti wrote in the peer-reviewed study published in Science Advances in May. “This latitudinal pattern is composed of species with notable wide thermal ranges (15.8° ± 6.8°C) and broad geographic distributions, with more than 60 percent of high-latitude species (those ranging as far as 70 degrees N and S) recorded close to the equator as well.”

The study attracted little to no attention in the mainstream media and went unmentioned by scientists turned advocates committed to the idea global warming/climate change is all bad no matter what the science says.

Other scientists have been more blunt about climate realities.

“Climate change in the last century was associated with spectacular growth of many wild Pacific salmon stocks in the North Pacific Ocean and Bering Sea, apparently through bottom-up forcing linking meteorology to ocean physics, water temperature and plankton production,” Alan Springer from the University of Alaska Fairbanks and independent, Alaska scientist Gus van Vliet wrote in a peer-reviewed paper published by the Proceedings of the National Academies of Science five years. 

Their findings generally agree with those of Righetti and his colleagues. Warming has been especially good for pink salmon which have become the dominant species in the Pacific. Ruggerone and Irvine calculated pinks now comprise nearly half the biomass of all five North American salmon and 67 percent of adult abundance, making more than two out of every three salmon finning around the Pacific today what Alaskans call a “humpie.”

“Water temperature,” wrote Springer and van Vliet, “can be important to the early growth and survival of pink salmon fry directly by its effect on physiology and indirectly by its effect on the timing and development of zooplankton prey stocks in nursery areas, which commonly is advanced and greater in warmer years than in cooler years.”

The Pacific is increasingly experiencing these warm years.


In the partisan world of today, unfortunately, the unwillingness of the mainstream media and climate change advocates to look objectively at the issue of climate change only serves to strengthen one of the many partisan divides splitting the U.S.

When people trained as scientists start to sound like ministers, science starts to look like religion, where belief is based on faith rather than evidence. There might be a reason a lot more young Americans fear climate change than older Americans. 

Warnings that the sky is falling fade with every day the sky remains near the same. Former President Barack Obama might have talked the politically correct climate change talk during his Alaska tour, but it is fair to wonder how great the concern when the Obamas are on the verge of purchasing 27 acres of beachfront property on the Atlantic Ocean.

They would not appear to be living in fear of a catastrophic rise in sea levels that have began rising in the 19th century and have been continuing to rise at about 3 mm (about a tenth of an inch) per year since 1993, according to the European Environment Agency, which projects the rate to continue to a total increase of about a foot to almost three feet by 2100.

Of course, it could be more. It could also be less. Predicting the future is difficult. The trend lines point toward a steady increase. But as Anchorage residents dealing with something of a miniature “nuclear winter” due to smoke from forest fires might have noticed, there are a lot of variables to climate.

Usually warm, summer temperatures cooled off noticeably in the state’s largest city when smoke blocked solar radiation.

“Projections of future sea-level rise carry numerous sources of uncertainty,” concluded a U.S. National Academies of Science panel trying to project future sea-levels along the West Coast. “This uncertainty arises from an incomplete understanding of the global climate system, the inability of global climate models to accurately represent all important components of the climate system at global or regional scales, a shortage of data at the temporal and spatial scales necessary to constrain the models, and the need to make assumptions about future conditions (e.g., population growth, technological developments, large volcanic eruptions) that drive the climate system.”

Climate change is real

There is little doubt the global climate has warmed since the beginning of the 20th Century. And there is no doubt atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) has increased since the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration began tracking levels at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii in the late 1950s. 

There is no denying that CO2 is one of several gases that slow the escape of radiated energy from the sun that keeps the earth from becoming like the moon – a cold, frozen rock where temperatures can drop to 280 degrees below zero in the darkness and rise to 260 degrees in the daylight.

And it is reasonable to believe that humans – who have increased in number from 1 billion in 1800 to 7.7 billion today – have added significantly to that volume of CO2 since they began using large volumes of hydrocarbons for heat, electricity and transportation.

But what it all means for the future gets complicated because environmental changes of any sort create both losers and winners. The unwillingness of climate advocates torecognize the latter only fuels climate-change skeptics prone to dismiss concerns about global warming as so much Henny Penny, Chicken Little nonsense.

Chicken Little, for those who might not know the popular fable, was the unlucky foul hit on the head by an acorn only to conclude “the sky is falling! The sky is falling!” She later teamed up with Henny Penny and Ducky Lucky to pursue their panic to a deadly end. 

Well-meaning advocates for action on climate change today face the same problem journalist Amanda Ripley has recognized in the media.

“Again and again, we have escalated the conflict and snuffed the complexity out of the conversation. Long before the 2016 election, the mainstream news media lost the trust of the public, creating an opening for misinformation and propaganda,” she wrote at the Solutions Journalism Network after a lengthy study of conflict resolution. 

“….When people encounter complexity, they become more curious and less closed off to new information. They listen, in other words,” she observed. And when the “truth” is rolled downhill at them?

“…Conflict takes control,” Ripley wrote. “Complexity collapses, and the us-versus-them narrative sucks the oxygen from the room.”

Climate change is a very real problem looming on the horizon for an already overcrowded planet. Forget the Arctic with all the hype about how it is the fastest-warming part of the world.

More than twice as many people live in New York City than the whole of the U.S., Russian, Scandinavian and Canadian Arctic, home to only about 4 million people in total. The permafrost scattered beneath the whole of it could melt and turn to muck and most of the world wouldn’t notice let alone care.

And 4 million people scattered over 5.5 million squares miles of real estate – a density of less than one person per square mile – are unlikely to cause a global problem. No, the global warming problem is in sub-Sahara Africa and the Middle East, now home to almost 1 billion people and regularly ravaged by violent conflicts in recent times.

The United Nations projects the population there to hit 1.5 to 2 billion by 2020. The African continent already faces a water crisis. Climate change is expected to only make that crisis worse.

Human populations under stress have a long, nasty history of going to war, and in these times – as the U.S. witnessed vividly with 9-11 – the conflicts don’t always stay where they began. Most of the world stands to benefit from a global effort to control CO2 emissions and slow climate change even if some countries – notably Canada, Scandanavia, Russia and, yes, that little part of the U.S. called Alaska – have been benefiting.

Climate change to date “has decreased economic growth of countries in the low latitudes and increased economic growth of countries in the high latitudes,” a study by Stanford University scientists concluded in May.

In the high latitudes, Noah S. Diffenbaugh and Marshall Burke wrote in the peer-reviewed examination published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, “many countries exhibit greater than 90 percent likelihood of positive impacts.”

The researchers found big increases in per capita, gross domestic product (a measure of economic success) in all the northern countries and projected they would only become more successful as the planet warmed even more.

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If you are selfish and you live in the north, there are reasons to be a fan of global warming. But it’s not that simple. It’s complicated.

Unfortunately, there are a lot of folks at advocacy organizations and in the media who would prefer to ignore the complications. They have helped to leave the U.S unable to come up with a rational policy for shifting its economy away from hydrocarbons to renewable and other forms of energy although some progress has been made and the free market does appear to be producing some results.

Electric use in the U.S. has flatlined thanks to technological improvements that have made electronic devices more efficient and shifted lighting from high-demand incandescent bulbs to low-demand light-emitting diodes (LEDs). And government did play a role in that.

“Overall residential consumption per household has generally been trending downward since 2010 in response to greater energy efficiency. In particular, federal efficiency standards that came into effect in the early 1990s require minimum performance levels for space heating, cooling, and other energy-consuming appliances and devices,” the  U.S. Energy Information Administration reported in April. 

The Senate version of the National Appliance Energy Conservation Act of 1987 had 68  co-sponsors, more than a third of them Republicans at a time when the party was a minority in the Senate.

The legislation was signed into law by late President Ronald Reagan, a Republican. It was a simpler time in America when people were willing to talk about how complicated the nation’s problems.

Now many just want to win a debate as to who is right.

























5 replies »

  1. Bryan,

    Wikipedia has a one-sentence paragraph tacked onto the end of the Concepts section that reads:

    “There is no consensus on if climate change will have any influence on the occurrence, strength or duration of El Niño events, as research supports El Niño events becoming stronger, longer, shorter and weaker.”

    Such an insertion suggests an editor working on his own, possibly past the scowls of other editors.

    We have records perhaps to the beginning of the 20th C, although the phenomenon has been known – and named – for several more centuries.

    My guess is, it’s neither the cause nor the effect of warming; instead it’s an effect that’s ‘set up’ by differential warming and cooling of the Pacific, at the equator and the high latitudes.

    Oscillations – this is the ENSO “El Nino Southern Oscillation” – are common & characteristic of the oceans … if the climate changes a lot, we might see different oscillations.

    The oceans also have other oscillations, currents & effects on other scales of time & area, and they can affect each other.

    We’ve observed the El Nino effect since early Colonial times, but only recently could collect any realistic coverage of ocean data.

    The oceans are far</strong more difficult than the atmosphere to plumb & gauge.

    • Ted, many thanks for the explanation. Alaska has been in a strong el Nino pattern for the last 5yrs where the Winters have been wetter and warmer which is normal. Yet, there are some here that go “oh my God, it is raining when it should be snowing, we need to do something, Global Warming is going to kill all of us”. I mean, it MUST be Global Warming right?? So silly. Same thing with the salmon. “Global Warming must have killed them all” when we are in a record year.

  2. Just think, a few short weeks ago the salmon where never coming back. Talking to a scientist 2 weeks ago and he said “there are no salmon, rhe heat has killed them all”. He was 100% serious. Amazing actually.

    So let me try this again, is el Nino a product of “Global Warming” or is “Global Warming” a product of el Nino?

  3. “There is little doubt the global climate has warmed since the beginning of the 20th Century.” Personally I don’t know anyone who doubts this. The key is in the data, the little ice age was just ending prior to the beginning of the 20th Century. Another way of stating this could easily be since the little ice age ended the earth has warmed up. Which should be an obvious statement to anyone, since if an ice age ends clearly that means it got warmer. When we take a data set and use it in a vacuum, whether it be 150 years, 250 years, or 2000 years it simply distorts the data. Here in Alaska we have maybe 30 years of good data on climate and fisheries, probably another 30-50 years of decent data, and another 40-60 years of marginal data. It’s worth mentioning that when we reference our historic timelines since it is such a brief amount of time, and Craig does a good job at this. While you certainly can glean data from small samples, climate, especially worldwide climate is best viewed through the lense of time.

  4. In a cooler/cold climate, the decay of organic matter in streams is slower, and there can be a larger ‘inventory’ of it that accummulates.

    So when an unusual warm period does arrive, there can be a spike in biotic activity, working on the generous supply of … gunk. This tends to lead to low oxygen levels, and other issues.

    If it gets good-n-warm on a routine basis, then the ‘trigger’ to rot undecayed matter in the stream doesn’t happen as strongly, because the stream warms-up & cleans-out, each season.

    Hot country – Eastern Washington, Interior Oregon, Idaho … and of course California … they all have salmon streams, and eventually most anadromous fish end up in the creeks, which are especially subject to heating. These streams aren’t as subject to eutrophication, and the cascade of follow-on & related effects … and plus, runs into those parts of the landscape are probably adapted to better-tolerate hotter water.

    Here in the coastal Temperate Rainforest of the Olympic Peninsula, little streams especially receive very high detritus-input, and when we get our few warm days (or more than a few, like this summer), You Can Smell The Stream.

    The gunk laying and even swirling in creeks, starts to rot fast, and there is both the odor, and visible distress of bullheads and resident little trout … and of course any salmon that think it’s time to spawn.

    Throughout the more-southerly regions, most salmon runs are in the fall-winter-spring. Our gold-dredging season is a few weeks at the height of summer … because that is when salmon are mostly giving the spawning-urge a pass.

    We are subject to summer-drought as a norm, too, so small streams dry-up, but here where it is normally on the cool side, accelerated rotting is noticeable when it gets warm.

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