Archive for January, 2007

reportcard.jpgThe Joint Ocean Commission released its 2006 oceans report card today, accompanied by a letter to President Bush urging more progress, backed up by more funding, to protect oceans and the fish in them.

How did we do? Let’s just say I wouldn’t want to be bringing this one back to show my dad.

Our nation’s lackluster showing ranges from A-minus and B-plus, for talk-the-talk items like reforming ocean governance, to a sorry D-plus on walk-the-walk issues such as research and education, to a solid F at the root of it all, new funding.

On the brighter side,  we’re doing better than last year in most cases: International leadership jumped to a D-minus from an F. Fisheries management reform climbed out of mediocrity (C-plus last year) to reach a sunny B-plus.

To his credit, President Bush seems to have some sort of soft spot for the oceans (at least the non-CO2 part of them). He created the world’s largest protected area  last year, in the Northwest Hawaiian Islands, and recent budget requests have pressed for considerably more funding for ocean science, two points the commission praised. Another point that made the cover sheet: the nation must recognize the importance of the oceans to global climate and climate change.

But it’s not a warm and fuzzy document. It’s sober and specific, stating that progress “has been uneven,” “modest,” and remains “jeopardized by a lack of funding.”

And they’re not interested in simply carping about problems. Attached to the report card are 12 pages of specific analysis and recommendations for making progress this year. The key points are summarized on the 1-page report card, available here as a PDF. The upshot of the document: We know what we should do, so why don’t we do it? I think it’s a model of condensed, usable facts.

Incidentally, the Joint Ocean Commission isn’t some fleeced-out group of environmentalists with an officious but made-up name. It’s the combined efforts of the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy, led by Admiral James Watkins, and the Pew Oceans Commission, headed by Leon Panetta. They’ve been issuing joint findings since 2004, when they realized they were independently doing similar work and coming to remarkably similar conclusions.

(image: Schulz)

Read Full Post »

iss_alvin.jpg At about 11:45 Scribbler time today, NASA astronaut Suni Williams picked up her radio and made the first ever space-to-deep-sea phone call, to Woods Hole oceanographer Tim Shank.

Williams was nearly 250 miles up in space, aboard the International Space Station. Shank was about 2 miles deep in the Pacific Ocean, aboard Woods Hole’s deep-sea sub, Alvin. You can listen to their conversation and view a video feed from the space station on Woods Hole’s site.

The 20-minute video is worth at least a few minutes of your time, if only for the startling immediacy of realizing there are three people at any moment going about their daily routine in zero G. (Inkling mag has a neat commentary about how we have colonized space without really noticing.)

Williams is thoughtfully decked out not in NASA regalia, but in WHOI cap and sweatshirt (is this a gallant gesture on the part of NASA’s publicity hounds? or evidence of a weird coincidence: Williams’s sister, Dina Pandya, is a Web specialist at Woods Hole). Another astronaut bobs around in the background and occasionally takes pictures. It’s pretty cool just to watch Williams’s necklace drift around in mid-air.

They happen to be passing over the eastern Pacific, more or less directly over the tiny sub. But that’s not to say it’s a direct connection: the space feed goes to Houston, gets bounced back up to a satellite, then over to Alvin‘s mother ship, the Atlantis, and finally beamed down to the watery depths.

It’s a stark reminder of the difficulties ocean explorers face in an age when we’re used to seeing ant-eye views of Mars and fly-bys of distant comets. Williams’s voice arrives, crystal clear, on the backs of radio waves, having clocked 250 miles almost instantaneously. On the other end, sound waves carry Shank’s replies laboriously through the depths and back to the surface. There’s a three-second delay, and the sound quality sounds at times like a Starfleet transmission during a Klingon attack.

The pair take turns answering questions sent in by schoolkids. The first one is “Have you seen any aliens?” Williams hasn’t, but Shank describes 10-foot tubeworms clustered around volcanic vents, and other odd beasties. In other words, it may be glamorous in space, but it’s lonely. The action’s down here.

Read Full Post »

nuthatchsamba.jpgJust want to send you over to Contemplative Nuthatch for a fantastic piece of DIY nature show. A recent cold winter morning brought droves of birds out to the Contemplator’s suet feeder. He was ready with his digital camera and 1-Gb flash card.

The budding Atten-boy produced a nature show for the new millennium (or at least as long as YouTube lasts), with a remarkable assortment of birds that you can, depending on your inclination, appreciate for their wintry beauty or race to identify before the scene changes.

A final stroke of genius is the soundtrack – a warm and gentle Brazilian number that sounds as if little nuthatch feet are dancing on the hi-hat. Definitely worth 3 minutes of your day.

Read Full Post »

renstimpy.jpgSea otters – those fantastically adorable, overgrown weasels of the kelp – are highlights of any sightseeing trip along the California coast. But recent years have seen dozens die of toxoplasmosis, a parasite that reproduces in cats and causes neurological problems when it finds its way into otters. That happens when parasite eggs contained in cat feces wash into the ocean, scientists think.

The evidence was always fairly circumstantial – a 2005 San Jose Mercury News article (reposted here) noted that the town of Morro Bay, California, had the state’s highest concentration of otter deaths two years running. At the same time, the town is home to a sewage plant that discharges a million gallons of sewage per day containing up to 7 times more suspended solids than plants in other California cities (well above an EPA limit, but still legal thanks to a 1977 grandfathering agreement, the article says). Still, scientifically speaking, that’s a fairly tenuous link.

Which is why I was so pleased to see an article in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association that went a step or two farther. They polled residents of Morro Bay, as well as nearby Los Osos and Cayucos, and estimated how many cats were out there and how much cat dung they were producing. The results are fairly astounding, especially if you are not really a cat person.

The three towns had an estimated 9,300 cats (more than 20 percent of them feral!). Cats lived in 38 percent of the area’s households, with an average of 1.9 per cat-containing house, which if you ask me is a lot of cats to have walking in front of the TV every time you try to watch a movie.

Worse, the survey suggested that even non-feral cats get outside often enough to contribute 75 percent of their bowel movements into the local greenery rather than in their kitty litter. The final estimate for annual outdoor cat dung deposition was 107.6 metric tons (78 tons of that came from domestic cats). Which strikes me as an awfully large heap of cat poo for three fairly small towns.

I’m always fascinated by these kinds of bulk estimates of our cumulative impact on the landscape – particularly when they’re large enough to be mind-blowing but still small enough to grasp. Just try to imagine the combined, shall we say, “throughput” of all the cats in the whole U.S. And while it’s still not a quantitative link from crapping cats to dead otters, it strikes me as a good argument for three precautions: Keep your cats inside (this will keep local birds alive, too). Don’t flush your kitty litter, even if it’s touted as flushable. And work to reduce feral cat populations (or at least stop putting out kibble for them).

And while this may sound glib coming from your admittedly cat-averse Scribbler, take heart that cats.about.com agrees.

(The basic cats – toxoplasmosis – otters story had tons of press last year – here’s NOAA, the BBC, Nat. Geo., Time (PDF here) and LiveScience for starters.)

Read Full Post »


I’m on record as being happy that climate change has finally become an issue that regular folks can sit up and take notice of. People other than career climate scientists now seem to recognize ideas such as (a) sea levels are rising, (b) warmer waters are to hurricanes as gasoline is to a barbecue, and (c) the Arctic is warming faster than anywhere else.

Even the idea of unpredictability in future weather seems to be gaining traction – a major advance for a public who like to think that science is about making things more certain.

Case in point: I flipped open the new Eddie Bauer catalog (don’t ask) and hit upon this gobsmacker of a pitch:

Weather happens. Be ready. Spring weather patterns keep getting tougher to predict. But you’ve got things to do and you’re going to do them. Luckily, you know us.

For this, Eddie Bauer gets my newly inaugurated “chutzpah” tag. Judging by the catalog photo, protection from climate change can be found in a WeatherEdge Spring Parka (“will have you laughing in the face of spring showers”) for $78.

And look at the attractive middle-aged man laugh as adorable flecks of seafoam spray at him from a New Hampshire seawall! Secure in his breathable waterproofedness, he plunges one hand into his pants pocket (revealing natty yellow-plaid cuff of Patterned Long-Sleeve Oxford Shirt Relaxed Fit) and laughs at the sky. His perky, sky-blue-raincoated companion (no wedding ring) giggles admiringly next to him, as if to say “you choose the greatest vacation spots, you rugged, beautiful man.”

Behind them, a second woman approaches the seawall, cautious arms raised as if the earth may convulse at any moment and pitch her into the ocean. Her lips are parted; perhaps she is whispering “I don’t know, guys, New Scientist claims that weather is only going to get wilder.”

But they keep their windbreakered backs to her.

(image from the New Scientist article)

Read Full Post »


It may look like a deep-space photo from the early days of the Hubble telescope. But it’s actually a new – and very small – kind of life from the ocean, measuring about 2 microns across. The discovery is one of two fantastic but largely overlooked ocean discoveries reported in this week’s Science.

The hubbub comes from that little golden-orange flash nestled in among the green and blue. That’s fluorescence from a “phycobiliprotein,” a kind of protein previously known from the only distantly related cyanobacteria (the oft-misnamed and entirely non-algal “blue-green algae” ).

That flash of color in the picture is a real alga – a eukaryote, a creature more closely related to us than it is to bacteria. But having said that much, it’s not clear what kind of algae it’s related to. DNA tests indicate it has no obvious relatives, not among other exceedingly tiny plankton (officially, the “picoplankton”) or anywhere else in the plant or protist kingdoms. So the scientists did the taxonomic equivalent of shrugging their shoulders, and dubbed the new life form a “picobiliphyte.”

It seems it’s always the case that as soon as you discover something you realize it’s been there all along. Picobiliphyte DNA has now turned up in sea water samples from the Arctic Ocean, North Atlantic, English Channel, and the Mediterranean (though the cells were rarer in warmer water).

(National Geographic News has a story on this, plus a handful of blogs including this one )

tubeworm.jpg The second discovery was made deep inside these funky tubeworms (at left), and deep beneath the sea. Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution’s great magazine Oceanus has the story.

Tubeworms lead lives that are decidedly peripheral. They don’t have mouths or digestive systems. In undersea gardens around volcanic vents, the 6-foot-long tubeworms simply cling to the dark basalt and wave in the hot, dark currents.

They don’t really do much, at least by animal standards. Vivid red lips adorn one end, but it turns out they simply transport water and nutrients inside the animal, where symbiotic microbes do the hard work. In what seems a remarkable degree of interdependence, the tubeworm gathers raw materials, and the microbes make supper.

The news here is that at least some tubeworms contain microbes that can switch between two completely different ways of making sugar out of carbon dioxide. One method (a version of photosynthesis’s Calvin cycle) requires considerable energy to accomplish; the other method works on a shoestring, but shuts down when oxygen levels are high.

In the chaotic waters around vents, tubeworms are alternately buffeted by torrents of cool sea water and scalding vent water. Along with the temperature swings come shifts in available oxygen and other nutrients. By having both pathways available to them, the microbes can roll with the changes, keeping the nourishment coming.

It’s astonishing to me. What we’re talking about – the ability to turn the inorganic world around us into food – is the greatest evolutionary trick ever devised. Indeed, mounting evidence suggests that it was here, around age-old hydrothermal vents where nutrients and heat are plentiful, that life first sparked out of the primordial soup. Seems phenomenal enough to have one method for doing it, let alone one plus a backup.

Read Full Post »

point conception, courtesy Surfline

Point Conception, the grand elbow in California’s coastline, has been sold along with more than 25,000 acres of undeveloped coastal ranches. Surfline has the story along with a prognosis.

Sitting some 50 miles west of Santa Barbara, Point Conception is where Southern California officially begins. The privately held ranches always served as a sort of insulation protecting the Central Coast from the insane development of points south. The ranches also harbored a handful of mysto surf breaks, accessible only by boat, rumored to be so perfect that you couldn’t even see them unless you had been previously anointed by some member of the pantheon.

The article is well researched and thoughtful. The buyer, a firm called Coastal Management Resources, is at least making noises about appreciating the area’s fine natural resources. And nearby military operations place restrictions on what exactly can be built in the area. But for $150 million, you have to believe they’ve got bigger plans for it than putting up some outdoor showers and giving the rest to the Nature Conservancy. Cross your fingers.

Read Full Post »

Nicaraguan grackle stamp

Two curious episodes of mass bird deaths are bewildering authorities and the public in Austin, Texas, and in Western Australia. In Austin on Monday, about 60 dead pigeons, sparrows, and grackles (pictured) looked sufficiently creepy for police to cordon off 10 downtown blocks. The best guess for the cause of death so far is poisoning by some fool harboring a serious grudge and/or poop-splattered vehicle.

Then, the very next day came news of 4,000 birds dropping dead in and around the Western Australia town of Esperance. Circumstances seemed similar to Austin – no apparent natural cause of death and no infections – although the birds involved sound considerably cooler: yellow-throated miners and two kinds of honeyeaters.

The coincidental timing has left people wondering if some common agent is at work. Beyond the likelihood that both groups of birds were poisoned by some moronic prankster (a la the Happy Mondays in Twenty-Four Hour Party People) – the answer is probably no. Sure, the poison could occur naturally, which would let moronic pranksters off the hook (i.e., avian botulism regularly kills water birds in stagnant waters like the Salton Sea). But as a quick-thinking Australian official pointed out, Esperance’s dead birds eat mainly insects and nectar, not aquatic plants. Austin’s city birds are even less likely to sip tainted pond water.

What I like about this raging debate is how it depends on the incredible information flow at our fingertips. In what other age would someone in Santa Cruz, California, stumble across separate reports of grackles and honeyeaters going toes-up on literally opposite sides of the globe?

Our age of connectivity is especially splendid for folks who naturally find connections beguiling. The Austin American-Statesman reports people hazarding explanations ranging from fermented berries to blinding skyscraper reflections to carbon monoxide.

But that’s the small stuff. Check out the Liberty Press, which actually has an interesting interview with an Australian official but then goes straight off the deep end in the Comments section. Apparently, all it would take to pick off these birds would be

a space based satellite weapon capable of transmitting microwave power in the order of mega watts in a narrow or broad beam, and playing into the 20,000 foot thick barium loaded “air” or “aerosol bank” we now all breathe.

or maybe

the aerosol spray that is coming out of these black program jets at high altitude which everyone is calling “chem trails”. That substance is “hydrostatic”, meaning that is absorbs water. If the birds got too much of that they might have died of dehydration.

working out the first possibility, it does sound reasonable, sort of

But if we had such a weapon (and I suppose now that the air will carry power over the free electron tracks provided by all the barium, private individuals might go to work developing such weapons) I can see that they might include a method for adjusting the intensity of the power, as well as the focal point.

and as if you need any further proof

What do I know? Not much. Neither does any other American because SO MUCH MONEY IS BEING SPENT SECRETLY.

Want a prediction? I bet the regular news doesn’t carry this story to any extent, and I predict that the “cause” will never be found.

For what it’s worth, a rather less complicated solution – the poisoning angle – is outlined and some actual poisons proposed here.

P.S. Unrelated advice (imagine conspiratorial whisper if you like): for those of you who think this blog is either too pelagic or not birdy enough, check out the Web’s first blogging nuthatch here. Be sure to check out the YouTube link: a kingfisher thwacking a giant fish against a bridge while trying to figure out how to swallow it.

Read Full Post »

red knots

Two regrettable recent stories, each with mammals in the villain’s role: The humble mouse terrorizes seabird populations on a remote island; and Dutch shorebirds abandon a marine reserve because of shellfish dredging.

In far and away the more macabre story, on tiny Gough Island in the South Atlantic, thousands of endemic albatrosses and hundreds of thousands of petrels are being gnawed to death by house mice run out of control. Sorry if it sounds like TV news hyperbole – it isn’t.

After escaping onto the island from fishing boats a century ago, the mice have bulked up to twice their normal body size and surged to an estimated 700,000 strong on the island (that’s about half again as dense as people in San Francisco). Through constant, aimless nibbling, one imagines, they learned that the docile chicks around them were full of protein and fat.

The knee-high, 20-pound chicks, for their part, remain flummoxed, never in their evolutionary past having dealt with mammalian predators attacking from below. Scientists estimate the carnage at more than 700,000 chicks each year. New Scientist has the story, which hit the South African newspapers as well. (thanks Charles)

Some 6,500 miles to the north, in Holland’s Wadden Sea, even good intentions lead to bad news. Resource managers tried to allow shellfish dredging on the same mud flats where half of Europe’s red knots (see picture) feed for – you guessed it – shellfish.

The science of the study is ferociously good. The authors sampled shellfish availability in 2,800 different locations in each of five years. They traipsed across those same mud flats scraping up red-knot droppings to analyze what they’d been eating. They captured the birds and put bands on their legs to track their yearly survival – and while they were at it they even measured the birds’ gizzards with an ultrasound, for crying out loud. (Knots swallow mussels whole, then crunch up the shells in their gizzards to get to the flesh.)

Dredging didn’t reduce shellfish numbers appreciably, but it did hurt their quality as knot food – more shell and less flesh. Analysis showed that unless a knot could expand its gizzard capacity during the season, it likely could not eat enough food to meet its energy requirements. The result, the scientists calculated, was 58,000 knot deaths over five years, and the departure for parts unknown of four out of every five knots that used to frequent the Wadden Sea.

The good news is that the Dutch government halted dredging in 2004. But the bad news is not just bad for shorebirds. It’s bad news for conservation, because one of the encouraging selling points of marine protected areas is the idea that we can balance resource extraction (and jobs) with habitat protection. This study adds to the evidence that it’s simply harder than that.

(from PLoS Biology: news story and research article; image: Varnamo bird club)

Read Full Post »


In an understated stroke of genius, some clever folks have proposed that we start paying attention to our power meters.

You know, those cobwebby boxes that cling under your eaves like big gray fruit bats. The ones with the quaint row of dials quietly ticking off your power usage with analog precision. It wouldn’t stretch the imagination to envision a cuckoo popping out at every hundredth kilowatt-hour.

So here’s an idea worthy of the Information Age: How about moving the meter indoors, where we can pay attention to it? How about making it digital, so it can read out our usage at any moment? What about posting real-time electricity prices online so we can make up our minds about when to run the dishwasher?

Most of us know, dimly, in a theoretical sort of way, that electricity prices fluctuate during the day. And bargain shopping is a fairly universal trait in modern humans. Now, at least in Chicago, people can put the two together by checking their meters against rate information online. There’s real-time price information as well as an archive of rates – a quick survey indicated a more than five-fold change during just the last two days.

So, when will PG&E in California put this into effect? As the New York Times reports, it’s not really in a utility’s best interest to enable our bargain shopping instincts. But then again, California has major energy demands – and shortages. So while their website gives no indication of real-time metering for customers, they’ve already got a program in place to help large businesses monitor (and optimize) their usage.

Although economics figure highly in this piece of news, it goes without saying that keeping track of energy usage would allow us to reduce overall demand. Which would reduce environmental impact as well. Cheers to Chicago’s Community Energy Cooperative!

Footnote: Like a lot of brand-new great ideas, people were thinking of this one back in the energy crisis of the 1970s, as the Times article reports in a mystified tone of voice. But like fuel-efficient cars, for some reason, the meters just never got off the ground. Maybe they will this time around.

(via Plenty magazine; image courtesy Steven Vandenburg, NOAA)

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »