After a long summer of drought, fire, and smoky skies, the sharp clarity of autumn has arrived. There has been dusting, like confectioners’ sugar, on the mountains for the last week, but this morning broke to blinding brightness, a snowline halfway to tidewater. The sun, just clearing treetops, pours in from a brilliant sky laced with shredding filaments of cloud. It plays over the slough, sparking the water like so many flickering stars, its own cosmos.
As I settle against the lee of a gravel bank, I consider where I am. I work backwards: Universe, Solar System, Earth, Pacific Ocean. Gulf of Alaska. Cook Inlet. Kachemak Bay. A bay within the bay. A cove within that bay. A slough at the head of the cove.
My magic place I will not name.
The tide is pulling out in a hurry, uncovering mud flecked with clamshells, a rim of fluorescent-green algae, beds of thickly tangled eelgrass. The faint smell of wet earth, its tiny organisms easing into decay, reminds me again of the turning of seasons, the circling round, the approaching winter that will muffle this world before, eventually, birthing new life.
Behind me on the beach lies a tideline of stranded jellyfish, strung out like an archipelago. There are hundreds. Many are as large as platters, their colors deep red, purple, yellow, brown, and white. They washed up yesterday, on a storm tide, and they were beautiful—such ornate architecture, symmetries of line and pattern, colors pale and bright. Their translucent bells shielded globular and feathery masses of reproductive parts and strands of tentacles. Now, they’re drying out, collapsed over the stones beneath them, glazed like melted plastic. Some I recognize as sea nettles. Others I have never seen before.
Wind rattles the alder leaves beside me—leaves crisp at their edges, browning and curling. Now and then, one breaks free to twirl acrobatically to the beach, where it skitters over pebbled ground.
Farther off, the deeper melancholia of wind in spruce forest: needles swishing, branches knocking, the creak of one tree leaning into another, the crescendo of a gust working through. Farther yet, the rhythmic crashing of waves along the shore and an emphatic cymbal strike against the rocky point.
Between bursts of wind, bird voices float from the forest. I focus on the familiar dee-deeing of the chickadees and the lighter notes of the kinglets, those flitty small birds I’ve only recently begun to recognize by sound. Late in life, I’ve made one of my ambitions to hear the differences between a black-capped chickadee and a boreal one, between a ruby-crowned and a golden-crowned kinglet.
Despite all that is right in the natural world, I’m troubled by what is not: the summer’s drought, which led to water shortages in nearby villages and a wildfire that burned for months, closing off a major highway; the leafless, stick-bare blueberry bushes; more dead, broken spruce trees, killed by bark beetles after the aphid attacks that sucked the juice from needles.
And the jellyfish.
What I know about jellyfish: They are not fish at all, but gelatinous zooplankton. They have a short lifespan, usually only a few months as adults, the Medusa form of bell and tentacle. They have lived in our oceans for at least 500 million years and are remarkably resilient. They have been under-studied by scientists because they lack commercial value, yet they may play key roles in ocean ecosystems as well as contributing to biomedical research.
And this: A global increase in jellyfish blooms has scientists concerned. Jellyfish resilience makes them well-adapted to changing ocean conditions that stress other species. Specifically, they not only survive but can multiply rapidly in warmer, more acidic, and less oxygenated conditions.
Warmer, more acidic, and less oxygenated conditions are exactly what we’re getting these days, these years, as a result of greenhouse gas emissions. Marine heat waves used to be rare occurrences but are now common, disrupting the ocean environment. “The Blob,” a mass of warm water in the North Pacific, appears in NASA’s images like a giant red sore covering a vast area of ocean, from Alaska to California. Between 2014 and 2016, it was linked to devastating environmental change. Starved seabirds washed up on our beaches. Toxic algal blooms proliferated. Whales and other marine mammals died. Warm water fish showed up well north of their usual ranges, and cold-water cod disappeared. Salmon runs crashed.
In 2019, “The Blob” returned, with water temperatures in the North Pacific five degrees Fahrenheit above what is considered “normal.”
If warming continues on the current trajectory, scientists say, marine heat waves will become many times more frequent than they have been and will cover more area and last longer. Parts of our oceans may remain in continuous states of extreme heat. “The Blob” may become a permanent feature of our maps—and our lives.
Ocean temperature is hitched to plankton production, to algal blooms, to whale migrations, and to such phenomena as hurricanes and droughts, in ways that are difficult, measurably and causally, to prove. But we know that up to 90 percent of the warming caused by human carbon emissions is absorbed by our oceans and that they are heating up considerably faster than scientists have predicted.
Each day, these lines and knots tighten in their connections. More corals are bleaching. Fish biomasses are dropping. Seabirds and marine mammals are still starving to death. The authors of a 2018 study published in Nature concluded that the predicted speed and degree of warming will result in “probably pushing marine organisms and ecosystems to the limits of their resilience and even beyond, which could cause irreversible changes.”
That word again. Resilience. What jellyfish are so good at. They’ve lived already through five mass extinctions, and we can expect them to survive what’s coming, as other species struggle and diminish.
The slough is emptying, currents carrying its nutrients into the cove, the bay, the ocean, to the creatures great and small that form the web of life as we know it, and on around our blue globe. A kingfisher sounds his ratchety call as he swoops from one bare branch to another along this cherished map-point in our beautiful, mysterious, and threatened world.