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Archive for September, 2006

phytoplankton off norway

Lots of oceanographers think about how our churning oceans decide the distribution of sea life. You can see the effects even from space, as tie-dye streaks of bright plankton mark eddies and current boundaries.

But a few scientists have their thinking caps on backwards, and they’ve made a phenomenal discovery: Sea life, it seems, can toss the oceans around. John Dower and Eric Kunze report in this week’s Science that tiny, shrimplike krill may supply as much as a third of the energy that mixes ocean waters.

Their brawn is rooted in prudence. Krill are pretty low in the food chain – snack food and staple to everything from blue whales to jackass penguins. They stay alive by cowering in the gray depths, fasting all day a hundred meters down. At nightfall, they swim to the surface en masse and start slurping down phytoplankton in the dark.

It’s these mass movements that get the water moving. With literally millions of them moving in the same direction all at once, a trail of water jets downward behind them.

Dower and Kunze actually measured the resulting turbulence by lowering a very small, uh, turbulence-measurer into Saanich Inlet, near Victoria, British Columbia. When the krill were on the move, turbulence values shot up by three to four orders of magnitude.

The scientists took these values and calculated the amount of mixing energy the krill must have been producing. Then, using estimates of krill numbers in the global ocean, they extrapolated from their inlet to take a guess at the total mixing power krill are capable of.

(This kind of extrapolating to the entire rest of the planet is the sort of basic mistake in both logic and optimism that all scientists are supposed to have beaten out of them in graduate school … the only exception being if they’re writing for Science at which point it’s sort of customary to go for broke.)

It is kind of fun, isn’t it? Thinking of those great columns of krill floating skyward like feathers in the world’s biggest pillowfight? And pumping out, or so it has been estimated, 1 terawatt of power. In simpler terms, that’s one million kilowatts, or nearly the power output on the smile of a successful politician.

The staggering importance of keeping the oceans well stirred is a truth I was late in appreciating. But it’s striking when you think of it, only slightly simplistically, this way: All the light is at the top of the ocean and all the nutrients are at the bottom. If you can’t get the two together, no photosynthesis.

But wait, there’s more. The 1.2 billion cubic kilometers of water in the ocean can store a lot of heat and absorb a lot of carbon dioxide…but only if the water periodically comes to the surface and then sinks under again. It appears that we owe at least a third of our thanks to some salty, boneless, very-hard-to-see, backwards lemmings.

Other media interest in the story: Scientific American plays up the power angle; National Geographic points out krill’s role in bringing up nutrients; New Scientist goes one step beyond everyone else and suggests krill may be helping control climate change (by stimulating phytoplankton growth, thereby pulling carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere). Interestingly, here’s a blog debate about whether New Scientist are too sensational for their own good, at least when it comes to physics. MSNBC gets a piece of all these angles, but then tragically confuses krill and anchovies in the very last sentence.

As for me, I’m just interested in what my friend the turbulentologist Tetjana Ross has to say about the whole thing.

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shrimp from the Gulf of Fonseca, Honduras

Cheers to the United Nations Environment Programme for getting savvy and using Google Earth to post some choice then-and-now pictures of the planet. Their “Atlas of Our Changing Environment” pinpoints more than 120 places in 80 countries where things just aren’t the same as they used to be. Going one better than telling us percentages in 12-point Times New Roman, they’ve scavenged 1970s LandSat imagery and placed it side by side with recent shots.

Each scene has a lengthy caption, and in most cases the thoughtful U.N.’ers have even posted a few ground-level pictures so you can see how unfrightening it looks from our everyday myopic viewpoint. It’s all available as you tool around Google Earth (under “Featured Content”). But really, the U.N. site has a Google Earth interface embedded in it and it’s just as easy if not easier to look around.

Many of the stark differences are outrageous: the drying up of the Aral Sea, Lake Chad, Lake Hamoun; the deforestation around Santa Cruz, Bolivia; the way shrimp farms ate up Honduras‘s Gulf of Fonseca. But others are strangely underwhelming, like China’s Three Gorges Dam nightmare. From 20,000 miles up you can’t make out the drowned villages or vanishing river fauna. And no matter how godawful big the dam is, trust me on this, China is a lot bigger.

Population change takes a while to sink in, too: the way gray subdivisions subtly replaced the tan grasses of the Bay Area; or the way thousands of Sierra Leone refugees looking for firewood turned Guinea’s vivid forests to a pale minty green.

After a while, it’s refreshing to run across something we’re not responsible for. Who knew Mount St. Helens was a rolling green hillside once?

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alaska with oystercatcher

The sun periodically vomits superheated plasma at us, knocking down satellites and peppering airline passengers with gamma rays they didn’t order.

On the whole, perhaps it’s better just to stay on Earth, especially since now we don’t have to worry about bird flu anymore. Or so we hear from Korea, where scientists fed kimchee to 13 flu-stricken chickens…and 11 of them got better!

Here at surf.bird.scribble, we’re not above bending a news opportunity into a four-way shout-out: For giving us solar radiation to think about, Mike Carlowicz. For supplying yet another reason to eat kimchee at breakfast, those discerning fashion geeks at Inkycircus. For checking the way I spelled kimchee, my amazing girlfriend, Mea Cook. And to take our minds off space radiation and bird flu while we enjoy our spiced cabbage, the crisp Alaskan photography of Charles Eldermire.

Thanks guys! Back soon with more news…

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ox-eye daisyThe world needs scientists to save it from awful diseases. And the scientists need science writers (and possibly Jackie Chan) to tell the world what the scientists have been up to. But what good is even the best writing about the best science if your generation is devoid of copyeditors?

It’s especially crucial as science gets more complicated and the discoveries get more and more outlandish. I mean, my attention was certainly grabbed by this headline from politics.co.uk: Wildflowers used to monitor avian flu

Wow! My mind starts whirling with the possibilities. Of course! Why didn’t I think of it sooner! There must be some sort of viral RNA binding site on the pollen of some kind of English daisy. As the flu-stricken ducks pour into Britain this fall, shedding virus left and right, the daisy-bound pollen naturally would pick up some flu RNA. Then, with regular monitoring involving pointing some kind of sophisticated molecular laser imaging device at roadside wildflowers, we could pinpoint the arrival of the dreaded virus without ever having to probe the nasal passages of a single migratory wildflow.

I mean wildfowl.

Uh-oh.

That’s right, what the Brits are really using to monitor avian flu is wildfowlers. Not insensate, technologically interrogated daisies at all, but rather large men in rubber boots who hide in marshes tooting on duck trumpets.

Once properly edited, the story makes rather more sense, although it doesn’t seem nearly so brilliant.

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