Wednesday, February 1, 2017

The Detective of Northern Oddities

When they captured her off Cohen Island in the summer of 2007, she weighed 58 pounds and was the size of a collie. The growth rings in a tooth they pulled revealed her age—eight years, a mature female sea otter.

They anesthetized her and placed tags on her flippers. They assigned her a number: LCI013, or 13 for short. They installed a transmitter in her belly and gave her a VHF radio frequency: 165.155 megahertz. Then they released her. The otter was now, in ­effect, her own small-wattage Alaskan ­radio station. If you had the right kind of ­antenna and a receiver, you could launch a skiff into Kachemak Bay, lift the antenna, and hunt the air for the music of her existence: an ­occasional ping in high C that was both solitary and reassuring amid the static of the wide world.

Otter 13, they soon learned, preferred the sheltered waters on the south side of Kachemak Bay. In Kasitsna Bay and Jakolof Bay, she whelped pups and clutched clams in her strong paws. She chewed off her tags. Some days, if you stood on the sand in Homer, you could glimpse her just beyond Bishop’s Beach, her head as slick as a greaser’s ducktail, wrapped in the bull kelp with other ­females and their pups.

“They’re so cute, aren’t they?” said the woman in the gold-rimmed eyeglasses. She was leaning over 13 as she said this, measuring a right forepaw with a small ruler. The otter’s paw was raised to her head as if in greeting, or perhaps surrender. “They’re one of the few animals that are cute even when they’re dead.”

Two weeks earlier, salmon set-netters had found the otter on the beach on the far side of Barbara Point. The dying creature was too weak to remove a stone lodged in her jaws. Local officials gathered her up, and a quick look inside revealed the transmitter: 13 was a wild animal with a history. This made her rare. She was placed on a fast ferry and then put in cold storage to await the attention of veterinary pathologist Kathy Burek, who now paused over her with a sympathetic voice and a scalpel of the size usually seen in human morgues.

Burek worked with short, sure draws of the knife. The otter opened. “Wow, that’s pretty interesting,” Burek said. “Very marked ­edema over the right tarsus. But I don’t see any fractures.” The room filled with the smell of low tide on a hot day, of past-­expiration sirloin. A visiting observer wobbled in his rubber clamming boots. “The only shame is if you pass out where we can’t find you,” Burek said without looking up. She continued her ­exploration. “This animal has such dense fur. You can really miss something.” She made several confident strokes until the pelt came away in her hands, as if she were a host gently helping a dinner guest out of her coat. The only fur left on 13 was a small pair of mittens and the cap on her head, resembling a Russian trooper’s flap-eared ushanka.

It had been nearly a year since Burek’s ­inbox pinged with notice of a different dead sea otter. Then her e-mail sounded again, and again after that. In 2015, 304 otters would be found dead or dying, ­mostly around Homer and Kachemak Bay, on Alaska’s ­Kenai Peninsula. The number was nearly five times higher than in recent years. On one day alone, four otters arrived for necropsy. Burek had to drag an extra table into her lab so that she and a colleague could keep pace—slicing open furry dead animals, two at a time, for hours on end.

As they worked, an enormous patch of unusually warm water sat stubbornly in the eastern North Pacific. The patch was so persistent that scientists christened it the Blob. Researchers caught sunfish off Icy Point. An unprecedented toxic algal bloom, fueled by the Blob, reached from Southern California to Alaska. Whales had begun to die in worrisome numbers off the coast of Alaska and British Columbia—45 whales that year in the western Gulf of Alaska alone, mostly humpbacks and fins. Federal officials had labeled this, with an abstruseness that would please Don DeLillo, an Unusual Mortality Event. By winter, dead murres lay thick on ­beaches. The Blob would eventually dissipate, but scientists feared that the warming and its effects were a glimpse into the future under climate change.

What, if anything, did all this have to do with the death of 13? Burek wasn’t sure yet. When sea otters first began perishing in large numbers around Homer several years ago, she identified a culprit: a strain of streptococcus bacteria that was also an emerging pathogen affecting humans. But lately things hadn’t been quite so simple. While the infection again killed otters during the Blob’s appearance, Burek found other problems as well. Many of the otters that died of strep also had low levels of toxins from the Blob’s massive algal bloom, a clue that the animals possibly had even more of the quick-moving poison in their systems before researchers got to them. They must be somehow interacting. Perhaps several problems now were gang-tackling the animals, each landing its own enervating blow. (...)

Burek often spends her days cutting up the wildest, largest, smallest, most charis­matic, and most ferocious creatures in Alaska, looking for what killed them. She’s been on the job for more than 20 years, self-­employed and working with just about every organization that oversees wildlife in ­Alaska. Until recently, she was the only board-­certified anatomic pathologist in a state that’s more than twice the size of ­Texas. (There’s now one other, at the University of Alaska.) She’s still the only one who regularly heads into the field with her flensing knives and vials, harvesting samples that she’ll later squint at under a microscope.

Nowhere in North America is this work more important than in the wilds of Alaska. The year 2015 was the planet’s hottest on record; 2016 is expected to have been hotter still. As human-generated greenhouse gases continue to trap heat in the world’s oceans, air, and ice at the rate of four Hiroshima bomb explosions every second, and carbon dioxide reaches its greatest atmospheric concentration in 800,000 years, the highest latitudes are warming twice as fast as the rest of the globe. Alaska was so warm last winter that organizers of the Iditarod had to haul in snow from Fairbanks, 360 miles to the north, for the traditional start in Anchorage. The waters of the high Arctic may be nearly free of summertime ice in little more than two decades, something human eyes have never seen.

If Americans think about the defrosting northern icebox, they picture dog-­paddling polar bears. This obscures much bigger changes at work. A great unraveling is underway as nature gropes for a new equilibrium. Some species are finding that their traditional homes are disappearing, even while the north becomes more hospitable to new arrivals. On both sides of the Brooks Range—the spine of peaks that runs 600 miles east to west across northern ­Alaska—the land is greening but also browning as tundra becomes shrub­land and trees die off. With these shifts in climate and vegetation, birds, rodents, and other animals are on the march. Parasites and pathogens are hitching rides with these newcomers.

“The old saying was that our cold kept away the riffraff,” one scientist told me. “That’s not so true anymore.”

During this epic reshuffle, strange events are the new normal. In Alaska’s Arctic in summertime, tens of thousands of walruses haul out on shore, their usual ice floes gone. North of Canada, where the fabled Northwest Passage now melts out every year, satellite-tagged bowhead whales from the Atlantic and Pacific recently met for the first time since the start of the Holocene.

These changes are openings for contagion. “Anytime you get an introduction of a new species to a new area, we always think of disease,” Burek told me. “Is there going to be new disease that comes because there’s new species there?”

A lot of research worldwide has focused on how climate change will increase disease transmission in tropical and even temperate climates, as with dengue fever in the American South. Far less attention has been paid to what will happen—indeed, is already happening—in the world’s highest latitudes, and to the people who live there.

by Christopher Solomon, Outside |  Read more:
Image: Joshua Corbett