Scientists say warming oceans leading to widespread deaths of some starfish

Scientists say that rising ocean temperatures likely exacerbated by human-caused global warming were behind the deaths of millions of starfish along the Pacific Coast.

According to a new scientific study released Wednesday, millions of starfish began dying off in 2013 when the Pacific Ocean became unusually warm during a heat wave, dubbed the Blob.

Twenty species of starfish were affected by the widespread disease, which began with starfish developing white lesions before dissolving their flesh and limbs and ultimately leading to their death.


The New York Times reported that Cornell University professor Drew Harvell and her colleagues focused on the population of sunflower star — the predatory star known for having between 16 and 24 limbs spanning four feet across — for the study.

Published in the Science Advances journal, the study shows a relationship between where sunflower stars developed the disease and died and where heat spread through the ocean. The study shows a correlation, but does not determine that heat is the direct cause of starfish deaths.

The research was partly funded by a group of students in Arkansas who sent $400 to Harvell in 2013 when they learned about the disease afflicting the starfish.

"These kids were so upset about the idea of starfish disappearing from the oceans that they went out and they did this fund-raiser and raised 400 bucks for us to help in our research. I never asked them to do this. They just did it,” Harvell told The Times.

A group of sea stars has begun returning to waters on the United States's West Coast, but sunflower stars have not yet been spotted along the continental U.S..

Harvell cautioned that humans must reverse climate change in order to protect sea stars. 

Research released earlier this month found that the world’s oceans were warming far more quickly than previously thought.

Records of ocean warming between 1971 and 2010, the time period used in United Nations climate reports, were underestimated how quickly they are warming by an average of 40 percent.