Tag Archives: Eyes over Puget Sound

Puget Sound freshens up with a little help from winter snowpack

In the latest “Eyes Over Puget Sound” report, one little note caught my attention: “Puget Sound is fresher than it’s ever been the past 17 years.”

Jellyfish are largely missing this fall from Puget Sound. Some patches of red-brown algae, such as this one in Sinclair Inlet, have been observed.
Photo: Washington Department of Ecology

At least temporarily, something has changed in the waters of Puget Sound over the past few months. It may not last, but it appears to be a good thing.

The monthly EOPS report, compiled by a team of state environmental experts, lays out recent water-quality data for the Department of Ecology. The report also includes personal observations, aerial photographs and scientific interpretations that keep readers abreast of recent conditions while putting things in historical context.

The “fresh” conditions called out in the report refers to the salinity of Puget Sound, which is driven largely by the freshwater streams flowing into the waterway. The reference to 17 years is a recognition that the overall salinity hasn’t been this low since the current program started 17 years ago.

Dissolved oxygen, essential to animals throughout the food web, was higher this fall than we’ve seen in some time. Hood Canal, which I’ve watched closely for years, didn’t come close to the conditions that have led to massive fish kills in the past. The only problem areas for low oxygen were in South Puget Sound.

Water temperatures in the Sound, which had been warmer than normal through 2015 and 2016, returned to more average conditions in 2017. Those temperatures were related, in part, to the warm ocean conditions off the coast, often referred to as “the blob.” In South Puget Sound, waters remained warm into October.

Why is the water fresher this fall than it has been in a long time? The reason can be attributed to the massive snowpack accumulated last winter, according to oceanographer Christopher Krembs, who leads the EOPS analysis. That snowpack provided freshwater this past spring, although rivers slowed significantly during the dry summer and continued into September.

“We had a really good snowpack with much more freshwater flowing in,” Christopher told me, adding that the Fraser River in southern British Columbia was well above average in July before the flows dropped off rapidly. The Fraser River feeds a lot of freshwater into northern Puget Sound.

Freshwater, which is less dense than seawater, creates a surface layer as it comes into Puget Sound and floats on top of the older, saltier water. The freshwater input fuels the circulation by generally pushing out toward the ocean, while the heavier saltwater generally moves farther into Puget Sound.

“The big gorilla is the upwelling system,” Christopher noted, referring to the rate at which deep, nutrient-rich and low-oxygen waters are churned up along the coast and distributed into the Puget Sound via the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Lately, that system has been turned down to low as a result of larger forces in the ocean.

In an advisory issued today (PDF 803 kb), NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center says a weak La Niña is likely to continue through the winter. For the northern states across the country, that usually means below-average temperatures and above-average precipitation. (It’s just the opposite for the southern states.)

With a favorable snowpack already accumulating in the mountains, experts can’t help but wonder if we might repeat this year’s conditions in Puget Sound over the next year.

Christopher told me that during aerial flights this fall, he has observed fewer jellyfish and blooms of Noctiluca (a plankton known to turn the waters orange) than during the past two years. Most people think this is a good thing, since these organisms prevail in poor conditions. Such species also have a reputation as a “dead end” in the food web, since they are eaten by very few animals.

Christopher said he noticed a lot of “bait balls,” which are large schools of small fish that can feed salmon, birds and a variety of creatures. “I assume most of them are anchovies,” he said of the schooling fish.

I would trade a jellyfish to get an anchovy on any day of the year.

Plankton bloom in Puget Sound: art on the water

Eyes Over Puget Sound shot some amazing plankton blooms this week, including this one between Bainbridge Island and Seattle. Photo courtesy of EOPS
Eyes Over Puget Sound shot some amazing plankton blooms this week, including this one between Bainbridge Island and Seattle. / Photos courtesy of EOPS

Team members for Eyes Over Puget Sound, a Washington Department of Ecology program, were excited to discover and report on a second major plankton bloom during their flight this week.

Here are a few notes provided in the latest EOPS report, dated June 17, presumably by team leader Christopher Krembs:

Bloom2

“The real show came at the end of the day when we got to Edmonds and started to see a bright orange Noctiluca bloom. It was huge! It persisted all the way to South East Passage. It was the most extensive bloom I have ever seen. Every direction you looked, there it was. It’s as if Puget Sound was on fire!

“The size of this bloom made me wonder … Why is it happening in the Main Basin and not in South Sound? Why is it happening again? Why don’t we know more about its appearance and ferocious appetite for phytoplankton? Could it be that our imprint on Puget Sound is artfully surfacing to remind us of our daily connection to the Sound? Could these large blooms be a clue of a shift in the food chain?”

The report provides all kinds of good information, which I will review more carefully when I get the chance. General observations include red-brown blooms in Port Townsend Bay, Discovery Bay and Bellingham Bay. Large mats of accumulated plankton were seen in Samish Bay. Clusters of jellyfish were spotted in Budd, Totten and Eld Inlets, all in South Puget Sound.

References were made to a previous Noctiluca bloom, which we discussed in Water Ways May 23. Also check out the previous EOPS report.

EOPS provides aerial observations of sea surface conditions between landings, when water is sampled for a variety of conditions. Weather and general oceanographic conditions also are reported after each flight.

Plankton blooms observed throughout Puget Sound

Taken over Winslow on Bainbridge Island, this photo shows a Noctiluca bloom with the Bainbridge ferry in the background. Photo by Christopher Krembs, Ecology
Taken over Winslow on Bainbridge Island, this photo shows a Noctiluca bloom with the Bainbridge Island ferry in the background. / Photo by Christopher Krembs, Ecology

Plankton blooms reported last week from numerous locations in Puget Sound were confirmed and examined from the air Monday by Christopher Krembs and his colleagues at Eyes Over Puget Sound.

The marine monitoring group for the Department of Ecology reported notable Noctiluca blooms, as I reported in a story in Friday’s Kitsap Sun. The blooms are relatively harmless and not unexpected, given the mild weather and freshwater flows that bring nutrients into Puget Sound. They are earlier than in recent years, however.

Christopher also observed heavy sediment flows coming out of the Fraser River near Vancouver and moving south along the Canadian border. These and many other observations can be reviewed by downloading the latest report on Ecology’s website.

A brightly colored plankton called Noctiluca was observed last week along the shore of Bremerton’s Evergreen-Rotary Park. Kitsap Sun photo by Meegan M. Reid.
A brightly colored plankton called Noctiluca was observed last week along the shore of Bremerton’s Evergreen-Rotary Park. / Kitsap Sun photo by Meegan M. Reid.