It just wasn’t roadways and real estate that got overwhelmed by higher than normal high tides last Friday night. In the wake of several days of persistent easterly winds that whipped up surf and kept pushing more and more ocean water inshore, along with very high tides because of a new moon, a combination that caused nesting shorebirds to come up short.
The sad results could be seen at Sandy Hook, an approximately seven mile long and one mile wide barrier peninsula located at the entrance to New York Harbor and part of Gateway National Recreation Area. A Saturday morning beach walk near the park entrance revealed at least one flooded Piping Plover nest and a washed away American Oystercatcher nest. The tide quickly came up and just wiped them out, not even a trace is visible.
The plover’s predator enclosure cage was filled with water. The cage is placed over individual nests (with mesh diameter large enough to allow incubating bird access, but small enough to exclude most potential predators) to help control predators, including foxes and gulls, from harassing adult plovers and eating eggs. Regrettably, the cages do not protect the birds from flooding storm events.
It’s a terrible loss, because every shorebird counts. Piping Plovers are protected as a federally listed species and American Oystercatchers are listed as a species of special concern in the State of New Jersey. According to the US Fish & Wildlife, Piping Plovers were common along the Atlantic Coast during much of the 19th century, but nearly disappeared due to excessive hunting for the millinery trade. Following passage of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act in 1918, numbers recovered only to have a massive population decline due to increased development and recreational use of beaches. The most recent surveys place the Atlantic population at less than 2,000 pairs.
Hopefully, this tragic incident occurred early enough in the breeding season for plovers the re-nest. The birds have been known to make a new nest three or four times during a season, about 10 days after the previous one failed.
What kind of storm did this damage? Surprisingly, this wasn’t done by a nor’easter or tropical storm. In fact, if you weren’t paying attention to local weather forecasts you probably wouldn’t even have know what happened.
It was done by a little known upper level weather pattern called a blocking high or an “Omega Block” in the jet stream. An Omega Block gets its name because the upper-level weather pattern or jet stream looks like the Greek letter Omega: Ω.
Look out, because if you get trapped on either side of an Omega Block, then you are in for some wicked weather for weeks or even months.
This latest Omega Block caused an area of high pressure to anchor itself near the Great Lakes for over a week. The high was crammed between two southward dips in the jet stream, one over the western Atlantic Ocean, and the other over the western United States. As a result of this blocking pattern, New York Harbor and the surrounding environment was hammered for several days with soggy conditions, cooler than average temperatures, and an unrelenting east wind building up water in bays and along beaches.
By the time the Omega Block was ready to move on, quite a few coastal roadways and properties were flooded, and tidal wetlands, islands, and shorelines disappeared on the southern shore of the harbor during periods of very high tides underneath a big buildup of water.
Could Omega Blocks and other strange behavior in the jet stream become more common? There is a growing body of evidence to suggest the jet stream is getting stuck in one place more often – crammed into extreme configurations – and causing extreme weather over large areas and for the weather to remain the same for more prolonged periods.
This could be a result of recent warming in the Arctic. As the Arctic warms faster than the rest of the world, the temperature difference between the pole and the equator is getting less. Since this temperature contrast drives much of the atmospheric circulation in the northern hemisphere, the less difference, the weaker the circulation. Robust atmospheric circulation patterns are responsible for delivering the weather systems that create sunny skies, cloudy days, warm or cold temperatures, or heavy rainstorms or snowstorms in the northern hemisphere. Thus, disrupting the circulation will, in turn, have consequences for the weather we experience in and around New York Harbor.
So while the loss of a few bird nests along a beach might not sound like much to the average person, more wild weather for longer periods of time could portend even more stressful and strained days ahead for many shorebirds.
In 2015, about 11 percent of nest failure for the New Jersey Piping Plover population was due to flooding. Could this increase due to the effects of extreme weather and sea level rise?
In an article entitled, “Effect of sea-level rise on piping plover (Charadrius melodus) breeding habitat” by Jennifer R. Seavey and others in a 2010 edition of the Biological Conservation journal suggest that habitat loss associated with sea level rise will reduce the populations of many nesting shorebirds, including Piping Plovers. The authors propose that “coastal flooding will likely increase the risk of negative impacts on plover nesting habitat...global climate change is predicted to increase the frequency and intensity of storm events in the future. These storms are expected to have increased wind speeds, heavier precipitation, larger and more frequent tidal surges, and wind-driven waves, all of which will increase flooding along the Atlantic Coast during the breeding season. Increased flooding of plover nesting habitat is expected to amplify nest abandonment and bird (especially eggs and chick) mortality.
For many of us, beaches are highly dynamic and inspirational places to enjoy and explore. This fragile and shifting boundary between land and water can also be places of danger and sudden death. Yet, generations of species have called this place home, being tenacious and tough. Hopefully this will be enough in a land of not only wind water, and sand, but sea level rise and wild weather events due to global warming.