Thursday, January 28, 2016

Eyes Over Puget Sound: 2015 was the year of the jellyfish!

Our 2015 Eyes Over Puget Sound sampling year was marked by the Blob, colorful algae blooms and jellyfish galore. Take a trip through the past year in photos that tell the 2015 story of Puget Sound.

View the 2015 year-in-review report

January: Warm coast, clear Sound

We started out 2015 with the Blob lurking on our coastlines. The warm water had just started entering Puget Sound, and our mild winter left those waters a bit warmer than usual. Whereas a very cold winter would lead to a down-season for jellies, we noticed patches of jellyfish hanging around through the winter. While flying over the coasts, we saw phytoplankton blooms in the surf, which are uncommon to see so early in the year.

February: Rivers run high and more jellies

Remember how warm February was last winter? This led to large amounts of snow melting, gushing down our rivers and dumping water into Puget Sound. As a result, we observed a lot of sediment entering our waters from the Fraser River, which is one of the biggest influences to the Sound. The sunny weather, dry air and warm water also made our waters run green in areas due to our first signs of growing phytoplankton. We saw numerous patches of jellyfish lurking in the southern inlets of Puget Sound.

March: Unusually warm and even more jellies

Come March, we started to notice how unusual the year was shaping up to be. Abundant jellyfish patches were showing up in uncommon places for the winter, such as Totten Inlet. By this time, all of the major rivers that feed Puget Sound were running high as the mountains lost snow in response to our remarkably warm weather conditions. As a result, just three months into 2015, Puget Sound was dressed in brown.

April: Summer blooms and jellies arrive early

April brought some truly bizarre observations. The red-brown phytoplankton blooms we typically see in Puget Sound during late summer were already going strong. This painted areas such as Sinclair Inlet near Bremerton in swirling tie-dye patterns of brilliant red that contrasted with our bold blue waters. We also saw--you guessed it--more jellyfish! These jellyfish patches persisted through the spring bloom in large numbers.

May: The turning point for an extreme summer

Most of the rivers that feed into Puget Sound fell below their expected flows in May. The large rush of melting snow came early and faded quickly. This is the turning point when the Sound transitioned from lower-than-normal salinities, to higher-than-normal salinities. This, along with decreased flows from our rivers, causes water circulation to slow down. Waters began to warm, and this warmer water held less oxygen and was stressful for fish.

June: Conditions get real interesting, real quick

Warm temps and weak circulation are not typical Puget Sound conditions for June. We, and the public, were very interested in how the extreme weather was taking effect. Jellyfish began outnumbering the crunchy, more nutritious zooplankton we normally find, making it harder for wildlife to find sustaining meals, and adding to the stress caused by warm water and low oxygen levels. Massive Noctiluca and other phytoplankton blooms appeared across Puget Sound in response to low river flows from the drought.

July: Small plants make big stink on beaches

The Blob fully infiltrated Puget Sound in July. This gave us warm water temperature readings at every depth throughout the Sound. From the air, the water looked like someone spilled green slime into Puget Sound. In fact, these were huge mats of small plants, what our scientists call "macro-algae," floating throughout the Sound, Dyes Inlet and Samish Bay. These caused a smelly situation as they washed ashore and piled up in huge rotting heaps, leading to swimming closures on some beaches.

August: Millions of jellies take center stage

By August the public and media took notice of the major influx of jellyfish. Waters were warm, salty and fairly stagnant due to record low river flows. Massive jellyfish patches stretched hundreds of feet long all across Puget Sound. While other marine wildlife were stressed by our marine conditions, the warm water was ideal for these jellies. Red-brown algae blooms were abundant across the Sound. We all began asking, "Is this what climate change will make the new normal in our region?"

September: Jellies flourish in record temps

Huge jellyfish patches continue throughout the Sound, showing up in unusual places and reaching peak numbers. Despite the little rain that returned to our region, the arrival of fall did not mark an improvement to our marine conditions. Water and air temperatures remained at record highs, and river flows remained extremely low. Warm waters and sunny conditions fostered green tides throughout the Sound, which caused another wave of stinky tides along some local beaches.

October: Finally, tides turn toward normal

After a long, hot and grueling summer, October brought welcomed cool air and rainstorms. As the rivers that feed the Sound recovered their flows, Puget Sound got a much needed dose of relief as a result. This marked a turning point in conditions, and we finally began seeing closer-to-normal data readings. Even with conditions trending toward normal, waters remained warmer than usual for this time of year. Uncertainty continued, as El Niño and the Blob were both likely to keep waters warm throughout winter.

November & December: As rain rejuvenates waters, storm runoff hits Puget Sound

The winter months brought torrential rains rushing over our landscape, down our rivers, through our storm drains and out into Puget Sound. Although this improved temperature conditions and greatly helped with water circulation, it dumped huge amounts of sediment and stormwater runoff into the Sound. Snow built up in the mountains and even the Blob began fading.

This brings us to today 

El Niño is still at the equator and big questions remain. Will the snow stay in the mountains or come down early like last winter? Will Cascade snowpack reach normal levels? Will the Blob return, stronger than ever? Will we face another drought? Will climate change make extremely warm years more common in the future? Our scientists are anxiously watching Puget Sound to see how things shape up. Every month, as we fly, we monitor and take the pulse of Puget Sound.

What's Eyes Over Puget Sound?

Eyes Over Puget Sound combines high-resolution photo observations with satellite images, ferry data from travel between Seattle and Victoria BC, and measurements from our moored instruments. We use a seaplane to travel between our monitoring stations because they are so far apart. Once a month, we take photos of Puget Sound water conditions and turn those out, along with data from our stations, in the monthly Eyes Over Puget Sound report.

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