Tens of thousands of dead mussels lay along the coastline in Vancouver, British Columbia, boiled alive by the extreme heat wave that swept across the Pacific Northwest late last month. The Canadian city’s beaches transformed into mass gravesites for the bivalves, their shells forced open by the extreme temperatures, innards dried out or picked over by hungry scavengers. It is one of the most searing images yet of the ongoing climate crisis.
What makes this bizarre and depressing moment even more difficult to grapple with is the fact that mussels have evolved to withstand high temperatures — they hold water inside their shells to prevent from drying out, and live in beds, or clusters, which ordinarily help to protect the collective against the heat. But those evolutionary tools, developed over literally millions of years, were no match for temperatures that climbed as high as 121 degrees Fahrenheit in British Columbia and coincided with low tides, leaving the mussels exceptionally exposed.
It wasn’t just mussels that died off en masse in the region: From the Puget Sound to Vancouver Island, countless other bivalves, including oysters and clams, and other assorted ocean dwellers boiled to death amidst the extreme heat. According to researchers at the University of British Columbia, more than 1 billion marine animals died in the waters of the Salish Sea during the record-breaking heat wave. One Washington state-based shellfish farmer told the Tacoma News Tribune that they lost 50,000 oysters and 10,000 clams, a quarter of their total stock, worth about $60,000 at market. Oysters take anywhere from 12 to 18 months to reach maturity, so the die-offs will affect the business of oyster farmers — and what restaurants are able to offer diners — for years to come.
Where the heat wave didn’t kill oysters, it made the people who ate them sick. According to Washington state’s department of public health, the state is experiencing an historic outbreak of vibriosis, which is caused by eating raw or undercooked shellfish and causes diarrhea, abdominal cramps, vomiting, headaches, and a host of other unpleasant symptoms. Vibrio is naturally occurring in salt water environs, but it thrives at warm temperatures, and the low tides, combined with scorching hot days, created the perfect conditions for the bacteria to grow.
If you want to see what climate disaster looks like in real time — the fires, the mass die-offs, the pathogens, the effect on our food system (and our food system’s effect on it) and your plate — you don’t have to look any further than the Western U.S. and Canada.
In California, the record high temperatures could result in the death of all juvenile Chinook salmon in the Sacramento River, nudging the endangered fish to the brink of extinction. Chinook salmon are not able to survive in water temperatures above 56 degrees Fahrenheit. In a normal year, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation would release water from Shasta Lake in order to keep the waters of the Sacramento cool enough for the young fish, but historic droughts in the Sacramento–San Joaquin Delta have necessitated that large amounts of water be released to farmers instead. This year, there’s just not enough water left to keep the salmon cool, and instead they might all die.
As the Chinook salmon swims toward the point of no return in northern California, much of the wildfire prone state is up in flames. Hundreds of thousands of acres in California are currently on fire, due to the confluence of an extremely dry winter and spring and a series of heatwaves. In Oregon, the Bootleg Fire, which has been burning since July 6, is in the process of incinerating 300,000 acres. And the same drought that transformed the Western U.S. into a tinderbox is forcing ranchers to shrink the size of their herds because there isn’t enough quality pasture land for animals to graze.
Add to the mix the wildfires destroying vineyards in Napa Valley, cherries in Oregon cooked on the branch by (yet again) record breaking temperatures, a new-ish cycle of droughts and floods affecting broad stretches of farmland in the Midwest, among other disasters, and it’s clear that climate change isn’t some terrifying eventuality for future generations to deal with — it’s happening right now, and it will continue to happen without extreme intervention, including big changes to the global food system (for example, cutting way back on meat and dairy production) to cut greenhouse gas emissions.
At the moment, climate disaster is most visible in the U.S. and Western Canada in the forms of mass die-offs, unprecedented conflagrations, and struggling farmers, and in Europe in the form of deadly flooding. But the climate crisis has more subtle and insidious effects, ones that tend to impact less industrialized countries, poor people, and people of color more acutely than anyone else. In the Republic of Palau in the Western Pacific, for example, rising sea levels are salinating its agricultural land, making it impossible to grow crops that aren’t salt-tolerant. And in the U.S., decades of racist housing policy, known as redlining, have left Black neighborhoods in many of the nation’s cities sweltering in the summer heat — as average temperatures in cities across the Eastern seaboard now average what they did in their far more southern neighbors just a decade ago — due to a lack of green spaces and an abundance of pavement and concrete. White neighborhoods, on the other hand, tend to be much cooler.
The more extreme effects of climate change may not be knocking at your front door just yet, but it’s inevitable that climate disaster will affect everyone, eventually. According to a report by the United Nations, climate change will redefine life on Earth going forward, even if humans are able to rein in greenhouse gas emissions. The report cites species extinction, more widespread disease, unliveable heat, ecosystem collapse, and communities endangered by rising seas among the many complications that will arise in the coming decades.
For more than a century, scientists have understood that greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide cause the Earth to warm, but an intractably powerful cohort of legislators and fossil fuel lobbyists continue to do their damndest to deny that this is true. Still, no combination of political pressure, bad policy making, or bald-face lying can change the fact that global temperatures continue to rise, oceans continue to warm (and acidify), sea levels continue to rise, ice sheets continue to shrink (further contributing to the rise of sea levels), glaciers continue to retreat, and extreme weather events (tropical storms, 100-year floods, wildfires, etc.) continue to wreak havoc across the globe.
For decades, we’ve wondered what climate change might look like, and when it might arrive. It looks like thousands of boiled alive mussels spread across a beach in Vancouver, and it’s here now.