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At left, thousands of sunflower sea stars swarm Croker Rock, British Columbia, on Oct. 9, 2013. At right, the same site, three weeks later, with the sea stars vanished. Photos: Neil McDaniel

The predatory sunflower sea star, whose limbs can stretch 4 feet across, is rapidly disappearing due to infectious disease outbreaks worsened by marine heat waves, a comprehensive new study found.

Why it matters: The sea star, Pycnopodia helianthoides, is a vital component in marine ecosystems. In its absence, scientists documented a large increase in many types of urchins and a subsequent decline in kelp populations, to the potential detriment of many other species. The study warns of the potential for a "trophic cascade" to occur, "causing urchin populations to explode and kelp to rapidly diminish."

Details: Researchers investigated the effects of the Northeast Pacific sea star wasting disease event, which hit its epidemic phase from 2013 to 2015 but continues to have major impacts. Infected sea stars suffer a gruesome fate, beginning with dermal lesions and ending in "white piles of ossicles and disconnected limbs."

The impact: More than 20 species have been hit with this disease from California to British Columbia, and the predatory sunflower star has seen an 80–100% decline across its approximately 1,800-mile range. The study utilized biomass data from deepwater-trawl surveys from 2004 to 2016, as well as diver surveys of shallow nearshore regions from Alaska to California.

They found that steep drop-offs in sunflower sea star populations coincided with periods of unusually high sea surface temperatures.

  • Much of the area affected by the sea star wasting disease was within the zone of a marine heat wave known to meteorologists and oceanographers at the "The Blob." That lasted from 2014 through 2016, and has been tied to global warming.
  • A statistical analysis conducted as part of the study found that temperature alone explains more than one-third of the variance in sunflower sea star abundance.
  • In other words, where and when the waters got warmer, pathogens turned deadly.

The bottom line: The study warned that continued exposure to sea star wasting disease, along with warming waters, could cause the predatory sunflower sea star to disappear completely.

Go deeper

Scoop: U.S. begins denying Afghan immigrants

Afghan refugees on a bus bound for temporary housing after arriving in Greece. Photo: Byron Smith/Getty Images

The Biden administration has begun issuing denials to Afghans seeking to emigrate to the United States through the humanitarian parole process, after a system that typically processes 2,000 applications annually has been flooded with more than 30,000.

Why it matters: Afghans face steeper odds and longer processes for escaping to the U.S., despite the earlier sweeping efforts by the Biden administration to assist its allies. Immigration lawyers and advocacy groups say the government has set untenable barriers to a safe haven in the U.S.

10 mins ago - Politics & Policy

Dems invoke Robert Byrd to sell Manchin on Senate rules changes

Photo illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios. Photos: Diana Walker, Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

A small group of Senate Democrats is privately invoking the legacy of late West Virginia Sen. Robert Byrd in an effort to sway Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) to support their plans to change the chamber's rules, Axios has learned.

Why it matters: Manchin — who holds Byrd's Senate seat — has often referenced his predecessor's strong moral conviction and insistence on preserving the Senate as an institution, as justification for some of his tough positions.

House votes to ban imports from Xinjiang over forced labor concerns

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Photo: Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

The House voted 428-1 on Wednesday to pass a bill that would ban all imports from the Chinese region of Xinjiang unless the U.S. government determines that the products were not made with forced labor.

Why it matters: Both the Trump and Biden administrations, as well as several foreign parliaments, have recognized China's repression of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang as genocide.