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Fork in the Road: Deli from hell—Featuring pre-cooked seafood, scorched greens and field-boiled jam

Reckoning with billions of West Coast sea creatures boiled alive, and more
FD-Quest University life sciences professor Marjorie Wonham by Colin Bates submitted 28.29  image002
Quest University life sciences professor Marjorie Wonham explored possible impacts from the heat dome to the beautiful Squamish estuary framed by the Stawamus St’a7mes Chief, a huge granitic dome.

“This week in hell,” wrote the smarty-pants at The Baffler in a recent dispatch, “an all-you-can-eat bouillabaisse sourced from the coastal regions of British Columbia, where it’s so hot mussels and clams are roasting in their shells. Mmm!”

They were, of course, referencing the shocker reports from B.C. about shoreline temperatures hitting 50-plus degrees Celsius the same time low tides hit. Billions of sea animals—mussels, clams, sea stars and more—cooked to death. And that ain’t all. Farmers in Pemberton report young greens and berries scorched in the heat dome, and strawberries in fields cooked, and smelling, like strawberry jam. In the Fraser Valley and Okanagan, up to 70 per cent of some fruit crops were lost.

But when New Yorkers take notice, you know you’re worth noticing. And The Baffler, “The Journal That Blunts the Cutting Edge,” very selectively applies its rapier wit and lefty, outsider view to stories like this.

Things didn’t stop there. Bill McKibben, such a venerable leader on the climate file I needn’t say more, also picked up the heat dome story—the cooked seafood, the extraordinary deaths, the extraordinary fires—for his New Yorker Climate Crisis dispatch. 

Bill is frightened. I’m frightened. So are many others. UBC marine biologist and professor Chris Harley, who first brought the whole bouillabaisse thing to light after walking Vancouver’s Kitsilano Beach amid the stench from thousands of dead sea creatures, used the word “stunned.” Around the same time, hubby and I gasped at the same unmistakable stink in False Creek. We couldn’t figure it out, but thankfully scientists can. 

“The heat dome coincided with the lowest midday tides of the summer, meaning that an especially wide swath of the intertidal [zone] all along the coast was exposed to the baking sun for an especially long time,” explained life sciences professor at Squamish’s Quest University, Marjorie Wonham. 

“Intertidal organisms (algae and animals) are champions at tolerating fluctuating temperature, salinity, and moisture—but these conditions were way outside their range, and it was just too much for them.”

As for Chris’s initial estimates of more than a billion sea creatures cooked in the Strait of Georgia and Puget Sound—particularly in the calmer, inland waters where low-tide effects were pronounced, and in the Vancouver-Seattle corridor, where temperatures were hotter—that’s only going to increase as more dead creatures and more areas impacted are documented. (See below, for citizen scientists’ input.) 

Now Chris is adding in things like barnacles, which take a while to determine if they’re dead. But a survey of a one-kilometre stretch of beach near 1,001 Steps in White Rock already indicates tens of millions of barnacles died there. 

“A lot of early estimates were the mussels, which were the first thing to be obviously dead because they open up right away and, just like when you get them on your plate in a restaurant, they open because they’re cooked,” says Chris. 

As for Howe Sound, Chris surveyed some shoreline at Porteau Cove, south of Squamish, 10 days after the heat dome, and estimates 75 per cent of mussels there died. 

Things will get worse before they get better.

“Although we don’t have more sampling sites in Howe Sound yet, the fact that we got very similar patterns on the Sunshine Coast, in West Vancouver and Galiano Island suggests this is a very broad-scale thing and there are almost certainly similar numbers of dead in other places,” he says. 

As for impacts throughout the ecosystem, we know that juvenile salmon use shoreline waters as a migratory corridor, and lots of larger species come to what Marjorie calls “the intertidal buffet” to feed. 

“Fish (not salmon though) and crabs and octopus come up when the tide is in, and birds and bears come down when the tide is out,” she says. But it’s not yet clear what impact this die-off will have on those major predators, or how far through the food web it will reverberate.

One thing she and other scientists do know, though, is we can expect more heat waves, forest fires, floods, storms and more extreme weather events of all kinds.

Stand by, Baffler.

Cuts to the bone

I've said it before and I'll say it again: Two facts from a research scientist at the World Conference for Science Journalists in London in 2009 jarred me to the bone. The scientist worked at the British Antarctic Survey—Britain's national polar research institute in Cambridge that does "polar science for planet Earth" like drilling ice core samples to analyze the carbon content of air bubbles trapped inside. It was amazing to hold a 120,000-year-old ice core sample. But when I asked her what would she tell world leaders if she could have their ear, her answer was even more amazing:

1. We need to get 1/3 of the carbon out of the atmosphere, now. That was July, 2009.

2. The gyres in the Earth's atmosphere and oceans are so huge and slow-moving, and it takes so long to register the impacts from changes to those systems, that the effects of climate change we were feeling that day, 13 years ago, were the result of carbon pumped into the atmosphere in the 1970s! 

Picture how much more carbon we've pumped into the atmosphere since then, and what it will do. For one, we had about 250 million cars on Earth in 1970; 500 million in 1986; more than 1 billion in 2010. Now add on about 300,000 more cars each year since 2010.

So what can we do? As Marjorie points out, the climate crisis is driven by one thing: human behaviour. Yes, go meat-free. Consume with a conscience. Drive an electric car if you must drive. Better, bike. Use public transit. But come on, folks, we've got to go big or we won't have a home to go to.

So get politically active. Vote, vote, and vote again. Protest. Better, help power political parties and candidates who'll make the big moves we—and our planet—are dying for.

Citizen scientists wanted! 

 The Harley Lab, Chris's very cool lab at UBC's department of zoology, is looking for citizen scientists to help gather data about the impacts of heat waves on the Salish Sea. You'll find protocols for data collection at: zoology.ubc.ca/harleylab/current-projects, or email Chris at harley@zoology.ubc.ca.

Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning journalist who applauds good scientists.