Archive for December, 2006

mackerel.jpg It’s rare for the Scribbler to scribble about the same thing two evenings in a row (endocrine -disrupting chemicals in the water) …but I’ve just stumbled over a paper reporting, get this, the “estrogen-like activity of seafood.”

Researchers in the Mediterranean caught 13 types of seafood including shrimp, cuttlefish, squid, and mackerel – all part of what they call “the Italian diet.” (Hey, their names are Garritano, Pinto, Calderisi, etc., so they should know.)

When they tested their samples’ fat tissues, they found that 38 percent had estrogen-blocking contaminants in them. In the most active sample, the tested tissue was 43 percent as active as real estrogen used in controls.

Which compounds were the ones mimicking the estrogen? That’s hard to say, with around 87,000 compounds on the EPA’s list of possibilities. The team sampled for seven common types of contaminants (all PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls) and found two really interesting results.

First, 59 percent of the samples showed at least one of the seven contaminant types. But more worryingly, there was no correlation between the degree of estrogen-mimicking and the amount of the seven contaminants found in the fish.

That means that the most powerful estrogen mimics were some other kind of chemical – something not routinely tested for. And here I thought ignorance was bliss. Maybe that was the estrogen talking.

(Photo: glaucus.org.uk)

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sewage.jpgSewage treatment plants may hold a low-cost key to keeping household chemicals out of surface water, says a new study in Environmental Science and Technology.

What we’re talking about here is a much more insidious problem than the occasional bleach spill. Pollution by pesticides and “personal care products” is coming to be understood as a pervasive problem in fresh water. (The EPA has an extensive fact sheet.)

It turns out that nearly anything you rub on your skin or swallow – lotion, sunscreen, insect repellent, birth control pills, antibiotics – finds its way back into the water. We imagine lotions and medicines entering our cells and fixing tiny molecular problems and we think that’s the end of it.

But unused chemicals wash off our skin or out of our kidneys, then pass through sewage plants and into streams or coastal waters. There, constant replenishment is making the chemicals a new ingredient in the soup of everyday streamwater.

Unused birth control hormones have gotten perhaps the most press, since they lead to “feminized” or “intersex” fish. But flame retardants, insecticides, and perfumes have their share of unpleasant or unknown side effects on aquatic critters (check “Macho Waters” in Science News; resources from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and a news article from Tonya Clayton, a Santa Cruz classmate.)

Sewage plants have never been expressly designed to clear these chemicals from the water, says the EPA. But that’s where researchers led by Joan Oppenheimer of the consulting firm MWH picked up the trail.

One thing sewage plants are designed to do, they noted, is to remove excess nutrients like nitrates and phosphates from the water. They do this by pouring the evocatively named “effluent” into settling ponds. Microbes degrade much of the nutrient supply using ingenious biochemistry they evolved over millennia.

Studying six sewage plants in California and New Mexico, Oppenheimer and colleagues found that a simple lengthening of the settling-out period (to 5-15 days) gave those microbes the opportunity to digest many of the “personal-care” chemicals as well. Now, if federal and state regulators were to make longer retention periods mandatory, it might buy salamanders, minnows, turtles, etc., time while our treatment plant engineers catch up to the chemistry of microbes.

(photo: Greenpeace)

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Finding (Captain) Nemo

super-colossal.jpg Japanese researchers have finally caught on film a live giant squid. CNN has the video here.

While the achievement brings to a close a decades-long effort, the actual video is actually a bit sorrowful to behold. The researchers caught the squid on a line and hauled it to the surface. So the video isn’t of a majestic, free-swimming squid, but rather it looks like someone’s trophy-fishing home video.

Still, the squid is impressive, a lobster-colored tangle of tentacles. Occasionally, its long, graceful body drifts around and you can glimpse one volleyball-sized eye. The squid – a fairly small female – expels a few jets of water – presumably its last attempts to wrestle free of the hook. She died as researchers (who had hoped to keep her alive in captivity) hauled her aboard.

I have misgivings about this kind of brute-force biology. It seems that in today’s world we shouldn’t have to resort to Victorian-era description by destruction. But then, the first still photos of a live giant squid only arrived in the news last year – before that, all scientists had to work from were dead specimens washed ashore or found in the bellies of sperm whales (see this great 2004 New Yorker article). I suppose that’s one facet of the story to admire: as much discovery as the world has already given up, it still has room to hide a squid the length of a small elephant parade.

Giant squid (Architeuthis dux) can be as long as 18 meters, or more than two London buses, says the BBC. (This one was only about 4 meters long.) Their main predators are sperm whales, as judged by sperm whale stomachs as well as the whales’ sucker-scarred hides (Wikipedia has a photo), evidence of what clearly must be some epic underwater battles.

But don’t despair, there’s still time to get in on the documenting-massive-squid game. The giant squid pales in comparison to the even more mighty “colossal squid” recently pulled up from the very deep waters of Antarctica. No word on what this one had in its stomach, but I like the idea of a few lingering, indigestible pieces of the Nautilus.

Thanks to Nick Beck for the tip and BBC for the illustration.

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Trapdoor on the seafloor

operculum.jpgLast February, the head Scribbler and some compatriots were sitting on the beach in Hawai’i (at the Banzai Pipeline, to be specific). One of us noticed that scattered amid the large, corn-colored grains of sand were lots of tiny, shiny white discs. On closer inspection, they were glossy spirals about the size of a pencil eraser, with a satisfying heft and the sweet liquid clink of marbles when you rolled them in your hand. They were opercula, said the group’s paleoceanographer.

The operculum is the snail’s equivalent of a hobbit’s door – a neat, round entrance that can be shut up securely to protect the occupant from intrusions by the outside world. When sea snails die, the operculum drifts away, separate from the shell, someday to wind up dashed on a distant beach by a barreling 4 to 6 foot Pipeline bomb.

Ordinarily, I wouldn’t trouble you with such details – even though, as it turns out, operculums are an age-old ingredient in incense. But in absently reading about them this evening I ran across this beautiful website dedicated to “the humble operculum: a celebration of the diversity and beauty … of this neglected element of gastropod mollusca.” The page has fine photos (like the ones above) of more than 35 types of shells that switch to the corresponding operculum when you mouse over them. Good enough to win webmaster Nancy Smith a Web award from (no kidding) worldwideconchology.com

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OK, U.N.K.L.E. already

alphabetsoup.jpg After about five days in intensive post-AGU recovery, I’d like to raise a plea for some mercy when it comes to those clever abbreviations scientists invent for their projects.

Granted, stretching the English language is a venerated activity. It worked for James Joyce, Lewis Carroll, Edward Lear, William S. Burroughs, etc. etc. But if you are a tenured scientist with multiple NSF grants under your belt, take it from me: you have better things to do with your time than think up words that have something to do with your project and sort-of make a cute word like ReSciPE when you abbreviate them.

In my brief time running with the oceanography crowd, I have barely survived a mini-assault by the likes of ORION, MARS, PLUTO, VENUS, NEPTUNE and most of the remaining denizens of Mt. Olympus, not to mention their assorted demons and troglodytes with less recognizable names like ASIMET, BIOMAPER, REMUS, OceanSITES, MOOS, and ABE. (For those of you who think I am making this up, those gods/planets above are the Ocean Research Interactive Observatory Networks, the Monterey Accelerated Research System, the Panama Liquid jungle lab Undersea Tropical Observatory, the Victoria Experimental Network Under the Sea and the North-East Pacific Time-series Undersea Networked Experiments, god help us.)

My advice? If you want to give your project a cute name, JUST NAME IT and then tell people YOU THINK IT HAS A NICE RING. That way when you find something earth-shattering and journalists are dying to write about it, they don’t have to spend 30 percent of their word limit just explaining what it stands for.

If I sound a little punchy, well, here’s a taste of the acronym-battering one must endure at AGU week. Here’s a sampling of acronyms plucked from the titles of talks given at the meeting, starting with my favorite: PUS (for Public Understanding of Science). Then there’s ReSciPE, TEXAQS/GoMACCS, SEAREX, EARLINET, ELF, CALIPSO, PARASOL, CRYSTAL-FACE, TROCCINEX/TroCCiBras, MASTER, MECA, WISDOM, SCREAM, CLUSTER, STEREO, GLIMPSE, MELT, PKIIKP, IRIS, PANTHER, CR-AVE, DADDI, MORVEL, SCAMPI, SPICE, SuperDARN, CHIRP.

And that was just Thursday and Friday. All I can say is T.G.I.F.

(image thanks to some inventive baby bib makers)

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As if the Apple folks hadn’t made Macs cute and quirky enough straight out of the box, other people are writing freeware to turn your MacBook Pro into a seismograph.

It all started in early 2005, when Apple decided to put motion sensors into the new laptops. Why, you ask? So that if you happen to be playing Frisbee with your laptop, the computer can sense the dangerous accelerations and pull the disk drive head off the disk, safeguarding any tax records or blog archives you haven’t backed up recently.

Enter Seis Mac. Download the freeware and moments later you’re watching the results of your nervous leg-jiggling in three dimensions. There’s even free calibration software in case the fact that the graphs don’t precisely zero out disturbs you.

Here at the Scribble headquarters, we borrowed a handy MacBook Pro, downloaded SeisMac and started waiting for an earthquake. We’ll let you know when we feel one. In the mean time, we made a quiz for you.

Match the graphs in this post to the cause:

blue-danube.jpg jiggling.jpgvolleyball.jpgwmd.jpgfour-oranges.jpg

(a) a bouncing volleyball

(b) four oranges being unsuccessfully juggled

(c) the Crystal Method playing their big hit “Weapons of Mass Distortion”

(d) a table that didn’t seem nearly so unsteady until we ran Seis Mac

(e) your humble Scribbler waltzing with the MacBook donor

And that’s not all the quirky freeware out there. You can download a program that shows you a near-real-time, 3-D view of how your computer is oriented in space. (You do have to be looking at your computer in order to see the view of your computer, but that’s beside the point.) Soon, you may be able to play your favorite video game simply by shoving your laptop around the table.

Of course, what all this giddy experimentation does to your poor disk drive reader remains unresearched. But Seis Mac creator Daniel Griscom has a detailed disclaimer that only gets better from its first paragraph:

If you’re waving your laptop around watching Seis Mac graph the accelerations and your laptop slips from your hands and goes flying out of a tenth story window, it’s not my fault.

Thanks to Adam Soule for the tip.

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Alaskan storms are literally rocking the South Polar ice – jarring it about 5 mm vertically and sometimes bouncing icebergs along the sea floor.

The image of house-sized waves detonating on a reef is a standard one in any surfing tale, but when the waves hit a “nascent iceberg” carrying a $7,000 seismometer there’s actually proof – in the form of a pretty blue-and-orange picture like the one above. No, it’s not an image swiped from a natural-gas ad, it’s actual data as it appears on Mac Cathles‘s poster (and recorded on my cell phone).

The bands of orange and red come from waves smacking into the iceberg. Time (calendar months) is on the horizontal axis and wave frequency is on the vertical axis. Frequency is better known to surfers as period, their single most coveted wave statistic. Low frequency waves (low on the graph), are the beautiful, widely spaced, high-energy lines that sneak up on point breaks and explode out of the deep water. Higher on the axis is the depressing, confused, beach-break windslop that knocks down unwary tourists and fills their ears with sand.

As storm winds sweep over the ocean, they stir up waves at many frequencies. But lower-frequency waves move faster than higher frequencies. So when storms are far away, low frequencies arrive ahead of high frequencies. On the graph, that means the scatter of datapoints leans to the right. It’s such a reliable relationship, in fact, that the degree of lean quite clearly indicates the distance to the storm.

In the record from 2006 on this picture, Cathles said, at least eight of the “flames” are leaning far enough to have come all the way from the Gulf of Alaska, more than 8,000 miles away.

Of course, Cathles and his coauthors didn’t do all this just so surfers could daydream about sharing epic waves with penguins. They’re interested in the cumulative effect of all those incessant waves (“like wiggling a tooth”) on the composition of the Antarctic ice sheets. If global warming causes fiercer storms, it could batter Antarctica with more wave energy, perhaps leading to earlier or more frequent ice breakup. With their iceberg-seismometer contraption, Cathles and colleagues Douglas MacAyeal and Emile Okal hope to keep track of that wave energy as it arrives.

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The Al Gore Union


For brief minutes at lunchtime today, I was on the other side of a cavernous ballroom from the gray and blue pixels in the center of this photo. It was Al Gore, carrying his message of hope and responsibility to 5,000 scientists who don’t need to hear the dire part of the “Inconvenient Truth” talk.

Gore put the problem as simply and forcefully as it needs to be put: we are witnessing a collision between our planet and our species. At the same time, the free exchange of ideas that Gutenberg invented and our founding fathers built a nation on has been stymied by the one-way information flow of television.

Using Abraham Lincoln’s word, he charged scientists to “disenthrall” the nation from the shared illusions that allow economists, TV programmers, and the rest of us to think only in the short term.

Citing this administration’s infringements on the freedom of government scientists, but stressing that the problem goes beyond Bush and Cheney (and beyond political parties), he asked how we could have become so desensitized to stories like these when they appear on the news.

In a talk that ranged from a brief (but very funny) Clinton impersonation, to tropospheric ozone, to the amygdala, to Mahatma Gandhi, Gore nailed his message. To call them his lines would make the talk seem calculated. And even though it must have been, Gore managed to be funny, friendly, strident, expansive, impassioned, and utterly authentic.

The proof was in the pudding. Speaking to the largest body of earth scientists on the planet, who else could get away with saying that by committing ourselves to the cause, “streams of energy will flow and converge, and they will remove obstacles from your path.”

As Gore finished, the standing ovation seemed spring-loaded. Oceanographers swelled; volcanologists erupted in applause; seismologists beat their hands together with tectonic force; solar physicists radiated enthusiasm; biogeochemists fizzed; I think even those wretched Mars rovers paused for a moment in appreciation. For three glorious minutes of ovation, it had become the Al Gore Union.

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Eddies the size of Eastern states spin like smoke rings in the north Pacific, drawing in elephant seals with the promise of food.

The eddies peel off the Alaska gyre – a large current that circles the Gulf of Alaska – and linger in slow rotation for as long as a year at a time. Called “mesoscale eddies” because they’re big but not really big, they can be hundreds of miles across and 300 feet or more deep. (The black lines in the Seawifs picture above are roughly 300 miles apart.) They can be warmer or cooler than the surrounding water. Other qualities, like salinity, can differ also.

At the AGU meeting today, I met some scientists from University of California, Santa Cruz who follow elephant seals by tracking battery-powered tags they glue onto the seals’ heads. The tags don’t disturb the animals, but transmit information on where the seals are, how often and how deep they dive, and characteristics of the water they’re in.

The seal location reports, which arrive by satellite at least daily, often show seals altering course as if seeking out these eddies, said Samantha Simmons, one of the UCSC team.

Eddies can be either warmer or colder than the surrounding water. And just like their atmospheric counterparts, cold eddies spin counterclockwise and warm ones spin clockwise. As they do so, cold eddies bring water and nutrients up from the depths, aiding phytoplankton blooms but dispersing animals at the surface, like water coming up out of a fountain. Warm eddies drive water down and may help concentrate the seals’ food of squid and fish collected from 1,000 feet or deeper, said Luis Huckstadt, Simmons’s colleague.

I talked to these helpful folks at a poster session that was supposed to feature their colleague Scott Shaffer’s work on albatrosses collecting sea surface temperature readings. But Shaffer ran out of time and didn’t prepare his poster – you’ll have to read the BBC News report instead.

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David Attenborough suggests the battle against climate change could start with a “moral change.” Such as, the BBC reports, the one Attenborough grew up with during World War II, when wasting resources was viewed as simply wrong. This shift in attitude might finally get us past that tired excuse that small differences can’t produce large results. After all, he says, “It’s not that we thought we were going to defeat Hitler by eating a lot of gristle.” But they finished their supper anyway.

Of course, charging emitters 14 bucks per ton of carbon dioxide sounds like a pretty sane suggestion, too. Particularly coming from a Harvard economist.

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