Co‑occurrence of aquatic heatwaves with atmospheric heatwaves, low dissolved oxygen, and low pH events in estuarine ecosystems

Heatwaves are increasing in frequency, duration, and intensity in the atmosphere and marine environment with rapid changes to ecosystems occurring as a result. However, heatwaves in estuarine ecosystems have received little attention despite the effects of high temperatures on biogeochemical cycling and fisheries and the susceptibility of estuaries to heatwaves given their low volume. Likewise, estuarine heatwave co-occurrence with extremes in water quality variables such as dissolved oxygen (DO) and pH have not been considered and would represent periods of enhanced stress. This study analyzed 1440 station years of high-frequency data from the National Estuarine Research Reserve System (NERRS) to assess trends in the frequency, duration, and severity of estuarine heatwaves and their co-occurrences with atmospheric heatwaves, low DO, and low pH events between 1996 and 2019. Estuaries are warming faster than the open and coastal ocean, with an estuarine heatwave mean annual occurrence of 2 ± 2 events, ranging up to 10 events per year, and lasting up to 44 days (mean duration = 8 days). Estuarine heatwaves co-occur with an atmospheric heatwave 6–71% of the time, depending on location, with an average estuarine heatwave lag range of 0–2 days. Similarly, low DO or low pH events co-occur with an estuarine heatwave 2–45% and 0–18% of the time, respectively, with an average low DO lag of 3 ± 2 days and low pH lag of 4 ± 2 days. Triple co-occurrence of an estuarine heatwave with a low DO and low pH event was rare, ranging between 0 and 7% of all estuarine heatwaves. Amongst all the stations, there have been significant reductions in the frequency, intensity, duration, and rate of low DO event onset and decline over time. Likewise, low pH events have decreased in frequency, duration, and intensity over the study period, driven in part by reductions in all severity classifications of low pH events. This study provides the first baseline assessment of estuarine heatwave events and their co-occurrence with deleterious water quality conditions for a large set of estuaries distributed throughout the USA.

Tassone S. J., Besterman A. F., Buelo C. D., Walter J. A. & Pace M. L., in press. Co‑occurrence of aquatic heatwaves with atmospheric heatwaves, low dissolved oxygen, and low pH events in estuarine ecosystems. Estuaries and Coasts. Article.

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