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)


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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.

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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.

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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.)

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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)

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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.

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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.

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