How Local Effects of Climate Change Could Affect Invasive Species in the
Lower Coos Watershed

    Several climate change-related changes are expected on the Oregon coast that will potentially affect invasive species:

  • Climate-related changes will likely facilitate invasive species invasions to alter the ecological communities in the Coos estuary

  • Climate change is expected to increase the severity of extreme weather events, water temperature, hypoxia, sea level rise and alter oceanographic conditions each of which may promote invasive species invasions by creating conditions hospitable to non-native species

  • Climate change could allow non-native species to more readily out-compete native species altering the population dynamics of biological communities in the lower the Coos watershed.

Invasive tunicate (Didemnum vexillum) infestation.

Invasive tunicate (Didemnum vexillum) infestation.

Gorse. Photo: David Dalton, Reed College.

Gorse. Photo: David Dalton, Reed College.

El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO)

ENSO, characterized by an abnormal
warming of tropical Pacific waters, is a
cyclical climate pattern that occurs every
two to seven years. It affects weather and
ocean currents in and around the Pacific
ocean. Locally, ENSO is associated with
drier conditions, warmer temperatures,
and lower precipitation levels, although it
can also result in greater winter storminess
and flooding.

Source: Mysak 1986

Sea Level Rise

Our local NOAA tide station in Charleston has documented an average rate of sea level rise (SLR) of 0.84 mm (0.03 inches) per year averaged over the past 30 years (0.27 feet in 100 years). The rate of SLR is expected to accelerate over time. For example, according to the National Research Council (NRC), predicted SLR rates for the area to the north of California’s Cape Mendocino (the study’s closest site to the Coos estuary), are reported as high as +23 cm (9 inches) by 2030; +48 cm (19 inches) by 2050; and +143 cm (56 inches) by 2100.

Sources: NOAA Tides and Currents 2013, NRC 2012

Climate change and invasive species are two
topics at the forefront of the global environmental
change crisis. Scientists have only
recently begun to investigate the complex
interactions between these two drivers of environmental change (Rahel and Olden 2008). Each poses a great threat to both
ecological and human communities especially
since the local and regional effects of climate
change are expected to facilitate the spread of invasive plant and animal species. Changing
climate may promote species invasions by
creating environments that favor the survival
of non-native over native species (Stachowicz
et al. 2002).

Coastal regions are responding differently to
climate change, so predicting the climate-related
changes the project area will experience
in the future is difficult (Scavia et al. 2002;
USGS n.d.). We can predict that many aspects
of climate change, including changing weather
patterns, increasing ocean temperatures,
increasing hypoxia events, sea level rise, and
change in oceanographic conditions, will
more than likely facilitate local non-native
species invasions and range expansions.

In addition, the incidence of human-induced
species introductions will likely change.
Humans both knowingly and unknowingly
transport plants, animals, fungi, and molds,
(including vectors for pathogens), throughout
the world. But successful introduction of
these organisms to new habitats and hosts is
often prevented due to the inhospitable conditions
they encounter.

Increasing ocean and air temperatures, and changing storm patterns and hydrologic conditions may create
more hospitable conditions for new invaders
making successful formerly unsuccessful invasions
(Stachowicz et al. 2002). It should be
noted that climate-related changes will also
make inhospitable some formerly hospitable
habitats and hosts. So in some areas climate
change will also likely result in invasive species

Changing Weather Patterns

Increased frequency and intensity of winter
storms may change the current distribution
of some invasive species in intertidal and
subtidal estuarine habitats. For example,
Bando (2006) showed that disturbance events
“substantially enhanced Zostera japonica (a
non-native eelgrass) productivity and fitness,”
suggesting that this invasive species’ success
is the result of both competitive interactions
with native eelgrass and its positive response
to disturbance events.

Although shifting weather patterns are likely
to result in distributional changes to eelgrass
species, this trend may not necessary result
in a net loss of native species. Researchers in
Willapa Bay, Washington, for example, have
noted that the establishment of Z. japonica
in intertidal habitats has resulted in changes
to sedimentation that have facilitated the
spread of native eelgrass into areas that
would have otherwise been unsuitable (Fisher
et al. 2011).

Increasing Ocean Temperatures

According to the Oregon Climate Change
Research Institute (OCCRI)(2010), ocean
surface waters are expected to increase
2-4°C (4-7°F) in Oregon within the next 100
years. Increased ocean temperatures will
lead to range shifts requiring native marine
organisms to shift northward or deeper in
the ocean in pursuit of the cooler waters
they require (OCCRI 2010). Higher ocean
temperatures could exceed the physiological
tolerances of many native species, allowing
non-native species to out-compete them and fill their ecological niches (OCCRI 2010).

Increased ocean temperatures can also
affect water quality, cause shifts in food web
dynamics, and alter the length or timing of
reproductive and growing seasons each of
which could aid the spread of non-native
species (Carlton 2000).

For example, the invasive clubbed tunicate
(Styela clava), present in the Coos estuary,
is capable of withstanding temperature and
salinity fluctuations beyond the range of
many local native invertebrate species (Global
Invasive Species Database n.d.). Clubbed
tunicates have been collected on the Oregon
Coast in water temperatures ranging from 11-
27°C (52-81°F)(OSU 2013) but they’re unable
to reproduce at temperatures less than 15°C
(59°F)(Eno et al. 1997). The clubbed tunicate
may exhibit more reproductive success in
higher ocean temperatures, allowing it to
out-compete native species.

Increasing Frequency of Hypoxia Events

Dissolved oxygen concentrations in estuaries
could be influenced by many factors associated
with climate change including temperature,
river flow, and ocean conditions. Dissolved
oxygen concentration along the coastal
Oregon ocean floor have been close to or
fully depleted during recent summers (called
hypoxic or dead zones), and have occurred
more frequently along the Oregon coast in
recent decades (OCCRI 2010, Grantham et al.
2004). Jewett and colleagues (2005) found
that invasive invertebrate species cover was
greatest on experimental settlement plates
exposed to low dissolved oxygen waters and
concluded that low dissolved oxygen events
may enhance the success of invasive species.

Although scientists predict that global climate
change will facilitate invasive species
introductions that will likely alter community
structure in estuaries (Stachowicz et al.
2002), all hope may not be lost. Norkko and
colleagues (2011) showed that an invasive
polychaete (Marenzelleria spp.) aided in the
mitigation of hypoxia in the Baltic Sea through
“bioirrigation” behavior (i.e., flushing their
burrows with overlying water), which in turn
decreased sediment-induced eutrophication.
The Baltic Sea is far from the Coos estuary but
this case study demonstrates possible local
responses to climate change and its effects on
invasive species.

Increasing Ocean Temperatures

Worldwide, ocean temperatures rose at an
average rate of 0.13°F per decade between
1901 to 2012. Since 1880, when reliable
ocean temperature observations first
began, there have been no periods with
higher ocean temperatures than those
during the period from 1982 – 2012. The
periods between 1910 and 1940 (after a
cooling period between 1880 and 1910),
and 1970 and the present are the periods
during which ocean temperatures have
mainly increased.

Translating worldwide ocean temperature
trends to trends off the Oregon coast is
complicated because of the high variability
of sea surface temperatures affected by
seasonal upwelling/downwelling and
various climatic events that occur in
irregular cycles (e.g., El Nino). Nearly 30
years (1967-1994) of water temperature
data collected near the mouth of the Coos
estuary suggest a very weak trend towards
warming water temperatures. Fifteen
years (1995-2010) of data from multiple
stations in the Coos estuary’s South Slough
inlet show very little water temperature

Sources: EPA 2013; Shore Stations Program
1997; Cornu et al. 2012

The Humboldt squid (Dosidicus gigas), a voracious
predator that feeds on invertebrates
(e.g., crustaceans) and small fish, and which
normally ranges in warm waters from Chile
to California, is an example of how increasing
ocean temperatures can influence natural
ranges. This species has already been sighted
as far north as Puget Sound, WA, a northward
range expansion expected to increase as
oceans continue to warm (OCCRI 2010). Although
this species has not been introduced
from overseas, its arrival has the potential to
significantly affect the structure of existing
marine communities, because altering fundamental
interactions within an ecosystem
(e.g., predator-prey relationships) can change the way that plants and animals distribute
themselves in their environment (Yamada
1977; Carlton 2000). Along with ecological
concerns, there are economic implications to
disrupting food webs that support commercially
important fish in the northern Pacific

Anthropogenic dispersal of non-native species
will be affected by warming ocean waters.
Aquaculture is a major source of inadvertent
non-native species releases into local environments.
Increased ocean temperatures
will force these facilities to move northward
into colder waters (Rahel and Olden 2008),
further increasing the non-native species pool
available to invade new waters. This will be
a concern for the Coos estuary should new
aquaculture operations become established

Sea Level Rise

Sea level rise is another climate-related
change that has the potential to facilitate the
spread of existing and newly arriving invasive
species in our area. For example, Chinook
salmon (Oncorchynchus tshawytsacha) compete
for food and space with the non-native
American shad (Alosa sapidissima), a competition
that has caused migratory delays for
Chinook in the Columbia River (Hesselman
2012). Since changes in sea level have been
linked negatively to Chinook salmon growth,
maturation and return rates (Wells et al.
2007), these fish could be placed at a competitive
disadvantage with respect to American
shad as sea levels continue to rise- potentially
leading to an increase in shad populations.
As sea level rises, Oregon’s estuaries will
become more inundated with marine water.
Organisms associated with tidal wetlands
further up the estuary will need to adjust
to both longer tidal inundation periods and
higher salinity levels. As changes in species
distributions occur through the slow-moving
disturbances caused by sea level rise, estuarine
habitats may become more susceptible
to invasive species.

On the other hand, sea level rise may aid in
the management of invasive species already
established in Oregon’s estuaries. For example,
purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria), an
invasive freshwater marsh plant present in
the lower Coos watershed (ODA 2014), does
not tolerate saline conditions (Konisky and
Bordick 2004). Sea level rise has the potential
to relieve the Coos estuary of some of its
purple loosestrife stands and other non-salt
tolerant species (e.g., reed canary grass) in
freshwater wetlands located in tidal systems.

Ocean Upwelling

Ocean upwelling is a seasonal winddriven
phenomenon that influences
nutrient abundance in coastal waters.
Upwelling occurs when strong spring and
summertime winds drive surface ocean
waters both along the coast and offshore
in a process known as “Ekman transport.”
Ocean bottom waters, typically cold
and nutrient-rich, rise to the surface to
replace surface waters moved by the wind.
Uninterrupted upwelling events can last
days to weeks and are characteristic of the
Oregon coast.

By providing nutrients that promote
plankton growth, upwelling reinforces the
base of the marine and estuarine food web
that supports seabirds, marine mammals,
and fisheries, including Dungeness crab,
Pacific sardines, Chinook salmon, albacore
tuna, halibut and other fin and shellfish

Source: Peterson et al. 2013, Iles et al.
2011, Dalton et al. 2013

Change in Oceanographic Conditions

Climate-related changes in oceanographic
conditions including ocean acidification, local
wind patterns, ocean currents, timing and
intensity of coastal upwelling, and El Nino
Southern Oscillation (ENSO) events (see sidebars)
will have myriad effects on non-native
species in Oregon’s coastal watersheds by
changing the productivity and water quality
(including pH) in estuarine environments- the
same conditions which are likely to facilitate
the spread of invasive species (OCCRI 2010).

Change related to ocean conditions is expected
to affect both terrestrial and aquatic organisms’ dispersal patterns, a primary driver
shaping ecological communities (Davis et al.
1998). Carlton (2000) explains that non-native
marine organisms, especially those whose
dispersal patterns are strongly affected by
ENSO patterns, are generally expected to
gradually shift northward with rising ocean
and air temperatures, establishing themselves
in newly hospitable environments in
northward regions. He cites several examples
of this phenomenon, including northward
migrations of the following non-native marine
species that originated in the western Pacific
ocean and were first found in northern and
central California then transported by ocean
currents to the southern Oregon coast: Blackfordia
virginica (hydroid), Sphaeroma quoyanum
and Iais californica (isopods), Palaemon
macrodactylus (shrimp), and Styela clava
(clubbed tunicate).

Over the past 20 years, the Oregon coast has
experienced increased intensity of coastal upwelling.
However, OCCRI (2010) suggests that
future changes to the coastal surface winds
that drive upwelling are likely to be minimal.
However, they warn of increased variability
in coastal upwelling. For example, Barth and
colleagues (2007) found that early season upwelling
was delayed and late season upwelling
was stronger than average during their
2005 study. This finding was consistent with
work done by Snyder and colleagues (2003),
who predicted that increases in the contrast
between land and ocean temperatures are
likely to continue, driving stronger and more
variable upwelling conditions.

Another effect of increased intensity of coastal
upwelling exacerbate ocean acidification’s
effects on marine and estuarine organisms.
Increased coastal upwelling intensity is expected
to expose native marine and estuarine
communities to low pH ocean waters with
limited calcium carbonate (necessary for
skeleton and shell formation)- specifically
aragonite, the more soluble form of calcium
carbonate (Feely et al. 2008). Rising ocean
acidity (lowering pH levels) is expected to
adversely effect the larvae of many marine invertebrates
that incorporate calcite or aragonite
into their shells (Orr et al. 2005). If those
larvae are unable to mature, competition
in estuarine invertebrate communities will
diminish, potentially creating opportunities
for non-native species to invade more readily
(OCCRI 2010).

Ocean Acidification

Since the late 18th century, the average
open ocean surface pH levels worldwide
have decreased by about 0.1 pH units, a
decrease of pH from about 8.2 before the
industrial revolution to about 8.1 today.
A 0.1 change in pH is significant since it
represents about a 30 percent increase in
ocean acidity (the pH scale is logarithmic,
meaning that for every one point change
in pH, the actual concentration changes by
a factor of ten). Scientists estimate that by
2100 ocean waters could be nearly 150%
more acidic than they are now, resulting
in ocean acidity not experienced on
earth in 20 million years. The best Pacific
Northwest ocean acidification data we
have so far are from the Puget Sound area
where pH has decreased about as much
as the worldwide average (a decrease
ranging from 0.05 to 0.15 units).

Sources: Feely et al. 2010; NOAA PMEL
Carbon Program 2013

Uncertainty in Predicting Local Effects of
Climate Change

There is inherent uncertainty in predicting
what the local effects of climate change are
likely to be. The uncertainties generally fall
into three categories: 1) Natural variability
of the earth’s climate; 2) Climate sensitivity
(how the earth’s climate system responds to
increases in future greenhouse gas levels);
and 3) Future greenhouse gas emissions.

To manage for these uncertainties, climate
scientists use multiple models (“multi-model
ensembles”) that incorporate the estimated
range of possible natural variability, climate
sensitivity, and future greenhouse gas
emission values when investigating climate related
change. The models typically
generate a range of values for potential
future air temperatures, ocean surface
temperatures, sea level rise…etc., which
naturally become increasingly variable the
longer into the future the model predicts.
This approach gives communities a range
of projections to consider when developing
climate change vulnerability assessments
and adaptation plans.

Sources: Sharp 2012, Hawkins and Sutton

Increasing Air Temperatures/Decreasing
Summer Precipitation

According to the OCCRI (2010), average annual
air temperatures are estimated to increase
0.2-1.0o F each decade in Oregon. Summers
in particular are expected to become warmer
and drier, with an estimated decrease in
summer precipitation of 14% by 2080 (OCCRI
2010). While warmer average air temperatures
may provide beneficial opportunities
to various agriculture industries (e.g., wine
grape growers), it will also almost certainly
mean new invasive plant pathogens will
become more prevalent (Brooks et al. 2004;
OCCRI 2010).

Changes to precipitation and air temperature
are likely to increase invasive plant
species’ ranges, further altering native plant
ecosystems – with serious economic implications
such as increased fire disturbance (by
increasing fuel load) and decreased livestock
production (OCCRI 2010). Increasing fire
events, in turn, will cause openings, providing
additional opportunities for the expansion of
invasive species (D’Antonio 2000 as cited in
OCCRI 2010).

As summer precipitation decreases, the timing
of amphibian breeding are likely to shift,
possibly causing competition for breeding
habitats where none currently exist (OCCRI
2010). For example, the invasive American
bullfrog (Lithobates catesbeianus) has a later
breeding period than native amphibians. As
amphibian breeding periods shift to match
higher moisture conditions earlier in the year,
competition with native species for breeding
habitat will increase (Bury and Whelan 1984).


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