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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

Capitol repairs, security top $30M since Jan. 6 attacks

Photo: Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

The Architect of the Capitol Brett Blanton on Wednesday said that repairs and security expenses related to the Jan. 6 insurrection have already cost more than $30 million.

The state of play: Congressional appropriations committees have allocated the $30 million for repairs and perimeter fencing around the Capitol building through March 31, per NPR.

Updated 3 hours ago - Politics & Policy

White House stands by imperiled Tanden nomination after Senate panel postpones hearing

Neera Tanden. Photo: Anna Moneymaker/The New York Times/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The Senate Homeland Security Committee is postponing a confirmation hearing scheduled Wednesday for Neera Tanden, Axios has learned, a potential death knell for President Biden's nominee to lead the Office of Management and Budget.

The latest: Asked Wednesday afternoon whether Tanden has offered to withdraw her nomination, Psaki told reporters, "That’s not the stage we’re in." She noted that it's a "numbers game" and a "matter of getting one Republican" to support the nomination.

Acting Capitol Police chief: Officers were unsure of lethal force rules on Jan. 6

Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Acting U.S. Capitol Police Chief Yogananda Pittman wrote in prepared remarks for a House hearing on Thursday that officers in her department were "unsure of when to use lethal force" during the Jan. 6 insurrection.

Why it matters: Capitol Police did deploy lethal force on Jan. 6 — shooting and killing 35-year-old Ashli Babbit — but have faced questions over why officers appeared to be less forceful against pro-Trump rioters than participants in previous demonstrations, including those over Black Lives Matter and now-Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.