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Archive for February, 2007

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Smoking seafloor vents enliven the depths with audible rumblings, according to an amusing press release from the University of Washington. The din comes as news to the scientific community, which has always assumed that the corrosive burps from undersea volcanoes are essentially silent.

The UW team, led by an enterprising grad student named Timothy Crone, settled the matter by driving a remote-controlled sub more than a mile down into the Pacific Ocean and placing a hardy recording device in a stream of caustic, 750 degree-C vent water. The answer: Hell yes it made some noise, and you can hear mp3s of it on Crone’s site. The sound is reminiscent of a breeze sweeping past a microphone, coupled with a stomach gently digesting a chili dog.

The acoustic team even extracted some resonant tones coming from two of the vents – most likely generated when sounds reverberated within pockets and crannies inside the vent. Isolated from the background noise, they’re not exactly lute-like. They’re rather more like hearing several varieties of horsefly of increasing bloodthirstiness circling your head.

Crone gets my respect for studying this new angle on vents, for picking the open-access journal PLoS ONE to publish in, and for posting graphs, data, audio, and video on his own website. UW gets points for collecting all those resources in one multimedia press release. They get mixed reviews for the press release itself.

I appreciate the efforts of science writers everywhere to make dry science into something not just digestible but actually juicy. Enticing. In so doing, we all cultivate our own relationship with the facts of the matter, and presumably cleave pretty close to them. So for a paper that is about measuring sound energy, I have to question the headline “‘Good vibrations’ from deep-sea smokers may keep fish out of hot water.”

The paper itself only sidles to the edge of biology, with sentences like this:

…fish, crustaceans, and cephalopods, which are common in these environments [33], [34] and can typically detect and process sound [35][38], might utilize this source of environmental information to their advantage.

So, much as I enjoy the quirky first-fish narration that opens the press release:

So you’re a fish. Right now some tubeworm tartare and clams on the half shell would really hit the spot, so you’re headed for the all-night cafe. “All-night” being the operative word because the volcanic ridge you’re tooling along is nearly 1.5 miles below the surface. The term “where the sun don’t shine” perfectly describes the place. It’s always pitch black. Darn, but what’s that loud rumbling up ahead? Must be one of those pesky black smokers. Some of those babies can fry your face off. A detour is highly indicated.

I have to wonder if that’s stretching things perhaps a little too far.

(Thanks, Hannah. Image: Oceanus primer on black smoker vents)

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Check out Science‘s cool “interactive poster.” It’s all about sea urchins and the ways they’ve helped us understand genetics, embryos, development and the immune system.

The main poster is cool looking – those blacklight-purple urchins popping out from an inky screen. Click on topics listed at right, and the Science folks will walk you through sea urchin research, discipline by discipline. The language is technical – they weren’t expecting readers from People, I guess – but the pace is slow and metered. Cool video clips really help – When was the last time you watched a sperm cell wriggle through the cell membrane of a massive egg, then smack into the nucleus? I kept thinking of the cartoon chicken hawk doggedly pursuing Foghorn Leghorn.

David McClay, of Duke University, recaps the sea urchin’s importance in science (there’s a timeline, too, in case he misses anything). He wades right in, saying, “The sea urchin is in a very unique place in phylogeny, in that it’s right past the branch point of the deuterostomes.” Later, we learn that that means it’s actually more closely related to us than fruit flies are. Pretty cool.

This is a great piece of science communication. It’s also interesting to think that science is such a vast endeavor that even career scientists need this kind of primer, even for a fundamentally important branch of research. Where does that leave the rest of the country? Makes me want to get in on writing a popular-science version of this thing.

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Amid all the gloomy projections about the effects of climate change, a study in today’s Science reports a new effect that might inject some hope into the sorry state of ocean fisheries: increased upwelling.

What’s upwelling? Funny you should ask. I was surfing in dreadfully cold Monterey Bay water last week when I turned and looked straight in the eye of a surfacing gray whale about 40 meters away. Both my ice-cream headache and the whale’s presence were products of upwelling, a fact of life along the western coast of North America and other continents.

During upwelling, vagaries of wind patterns and fluid dynamics draw very cold, nutrient-laden water up from the depths, freezing surfers’ skulls and kick-starting a food-chain party for krill, squid, fish, seals and whales. (For more specifics, see Bay Nature.) Upwelling zones around the world occupy less than 1 percent of the ocean, but account for 20 percent of the world’s fish catch.

In the new study, Helen McGregor from Germany’s University of Bremen and colleagues used sediment records to reconstruct the sea surface temperature at Cape Ghir, Morocco, over the last 2,500 years (around 2,490 years longer than previous studies of upwelling and climate change). The record showed colder waters – indicative of upwelling – during warm times like the Medieval Warm Period. But the strongest signal by far came during the twentieth century, when water temps dropped by 1.2 degrees C. If the standard air-temperature records look like a hockey stick, the water temperatures look like a mirror image.

But how could global warming do anything to change ocean currents? The authors suggest that more atmospheric CO2 could change the air-temperature balance between coastal land and waters. That would change the prevailing air pressure (i.e., weather systems), and the pressure difference would fuel stronger winds along the coast, stirring more upwelling. (See the Science article for a suitably technical description of this.)

With ocean fisheries in dire trouble (thanks to population growth and the fact that seafood is so yummy), increased upwelling could nourish more fish and slowly help us out of trouble in that respect. Upwelling also brings up centuries-old water that has never seen our CO2-rich atmosphere. That deep water would draw more CO2 out of the atmosphere than a similar amount of surface water. (Although this sounds good from a global-warming standpoint, it would speed the acidification of the oceans, a slowly building nightmare that Elizabeth Kolbert recently discussed for the New Yorker.)

One of the major problems with getting people to take notice of climate change is its complexity: we can’t predict exactly what’s going to happen, and we can’t even assemble a complete list of the kinds of things that will happen. Often, this uncertainty winds up skewed into either a simplistic doomsday scenario or a “jury is still out” assessment – both rather easily dismissable, I’m afraid. Fortunately, the scientists are still out there, assiduously working out the specifics.

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