Archive for the ‘conservation’ Category

The Carnival of the Blue – a monthly collection of the best ocean blogs going – is still rolling along, even though you never hear about it from me any more.***

This month has been so wretched in terms of Scribble posts – and I don’t think I’ve even mentioned the ocean on the Gist – that I’m making a proxy entry:  Jerred Seveyka’s blog, which is either cleverly or indecipherably named Cnido-Site Discharge depending on your level of coral reef knowledge.

Jerred is a dedicated community-college biology instructor deep in the central Washington heartland of Yakima. (You may never have heard of the town, but you’ve eaten plenty of its apples.) Like so many of us, his heart belongs to the ocean. He usually spends summer vacations on a coral reef somewhere – and this year he has scored a sabbatical (sabbeachical?) that sends him to a variety of them. Right now he’s in Belize helping volunteers survey for reef fish, wrestle crocodile for science, and look for sea turtles, among other things.

He started a blog almost as an afterthought, but Internet access from Halfmoon Caye seems remarkably good, judging by all the photos and video he’s uploading. Jerred is interested in almost everything he comes across, especially ugly fish, beach trash, allometric scaling relationships, and things he can take 3-D pictures of. His posts tend to be sharp vignettes of life and research in the salt and sun – you can look elsewhere for sunsets and Coronas. His posts are totally refreshing. Go read them.

(Cuttlefish by Jerred)

***Is it too late to make amends? Here are Carnivals 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, and 14, in case you wonder what I’m talking about.

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north atlantic right whale mother and calf / NOAADetect. Transmit. Analyze. Notify. Avoid.

Sounds like a pretty straightforward way to keep ships from plowing into whales. It’s just in the knick of time then, as collisions are an all-too-frequent occurrence along the busy Atlantic seaboard.

The Boston Globe has the story of the new system, just installed in Massachusetts Bay. Here’s the project website itself, complete with maps of the action, plus multimedia so you don’t have to do any pesky reading.

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orange_duffel.jpg I carried my bright-orange duffel through the last of the crisp 60 degree new Zealand air and onto the C-17, which – unlike last Friday – took off and headed for Antarctica at 300 knots. One of the most comfortable flights ever, despite the reputation, owing to unlimited legroom and even more elbow room than you get on commercial flights. The C-17 is cavernous. We sit backs to the fuselage, facing monstrous shipping containers – one holds an ice-coring drill that aims to go back 150,000 years in time through the West Antarctic Ice Sheet.

Coming out of the dim recesses of the plane and into Antarctic whiteness was breathtaking. The horizon opened up and hulking black mountains appeared as little chevrons in the distance. It felt vast. Looking out the door I had guessed at our orientation from the shadows, and I immediately started piecing together the sights. This must be White Island, where the Polar parties made a dogleg before heading straight to the pole. There’s the Royal Society Range, with the broad Koettlitz glacier running at its feet. Behind me, I realized, was McMurdo, huge brown dorms stacked on the hillside, crosses to fallen explorers standing on windy ridgetops, the geodesic instrument dome I had seen in so many pictures in full view. Like putting a jigsaw puzzle together, it has a familiarity, but also surprise as the pieces come together slightly differently than you’d imagined.

We had landed on the thick blue ice of the Ross Ice Shelf. It wasn’t until 15 minutes later that we touched the gray-brown volcanic rock of Antarctica. It was 20 degrees  outside and cooling off.

So where exactly am I, you ask? Somewhere down in Antarctica, but I have realized in recent conversations that not everyone has been reading quite so much on the subject, nor do they have quite such a grasp on the geography of the place. So let’s start at the beginning:

 Antarctica is big: 40 percent again larger than the U.S., and that’s not counting the tremendous ice sheets or the pack ice that forms each winter. It looks a little like a rubber ducky with a very long beak (just tilt your head to the left). That beak is the Antarctic Peninsula, which is technically part of the Andes and juts up toward South America.


 We’re going to the other side, down behind the neck of the ducky. That curve between neck and back is the Ross Sea, the place where ships can get their farthest south, all the way to about 78 degrees south latitude, or a bit more than 1,320 miles from the pole.

rosssea_n.jpg If the Ross Sea doesn’t look like much on the map, then McMurdo Sound is nothing, just a little comma at the southwest edge. Pretty hard to pick out without zooming in.

Guarding the eastern edge is Ross Island, a speck wedged up against the Ross Ice Shelf that nevertheless contains a 13,000 foot active volcano and 450,000 adelie penguins (if you count the youngsters). Not to mention McMurdo Station, our home base for the next month.

 McMurdo Station is on Hut Point peninsula, where Scott made his Discovery expedition camp in 1902. To the north is Cape Evans, where the Terra Nova expedition stayed, and 20 miles from McMurdo is Cape Royds, our first camp, with David Ainley and about 4,000 pairs of penguins. We’re hoping to be there by Saturday.


 Jump across McMurdo Sound – that comma that you couldn’t even see from the Ross Sea map. About 50 miles from McMurdo is Mt. Morning, where we’ll spend the middle of December with Woods Hole geologists Mark Kurz, Adam Soule, and grad student Andrea Burke.


 After a scheduled laundry day at McMurdo, we’ll head back out to Cape Crozier, of Worst Journey fame, for Christmas with Grant Ballard and some 300,000 penguins (adults and young). Here we’ll hope to investigate Igloo Spur as well as make the trek over to the Emperor penguins huddled on the sea ice south of the Adelies.


(I love the little penguin icons on the map.)

 And that’s our month in Antarctica – now you’re situated. So far it’s been great, but it’s been nine hours of mostly indoor heat and cafeteria food. We’ll see how melting ice for water – not to mention sleeping on it – work out. Hope you stay tuned.

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The first of five articles I wrote about iron fertilization of the oceans for Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution’s Oceanus magazine is online. It’s an overview of the issue from scientific, environmental, economic, and regulatory angles. The other four articles look into each of those angles in a bit more detail and should be online soon.

Iron fertilization of the oceans is a form of geoengineering, a controversial idea that humans can intentionally alter the Earth to make it more hospitable. Critics assail geoengineering as unethical, arrogant, and just begging for tragic side-effects. Proponents counter that the human race has been unintentionally altering the Earth for centuries, so we might as well use some forethought for a change. It’s the stuff of epic arguments, but the fact that it’s even under discussion points at the bigger issue. Climate change has us in a deep hole, and we are furiously digging:

  • Every time you burn through a 15-gallon tank of gas, you put about 300 pounds of carbon dioxide into the air.
  • The world currently emits more than 7 billion tons of carbon every year.
  • That’s about 25 billion tons of carbon dioxide, or enough to raise atmospheric CO2 by nearly two parts per million every year (roughly speaking, and that’s after accounting for the tendency of ocean and land to take up about half of what we emit).
  • Before the Industrial Revolution, atmospheric CO2 was about 280 p.p.m. Now it’s around 380. The most optimistic long-term scenarios talk about stabilizing levels at 560 p.p.m. (double the pre-industrial levels).
  • The remarkably successful E.U. Emissions Trading Scheme last year traded about 430 million tons of carbon emissions equivalents, or one-fourteenth of the problem, assuming all the accounting and regulation was done correctly, which is kind of a big assumption.
  • Emissions reductions are still emissions, and they will continue to accumulate in the atmosphere as long as they are above zero.
  • Early climate models were criticized for including unrealistic emissions scenarios that environmentalists had trumped up to make the predictions more scary. Looking back, our actual emissions have pegged at the highest of those estimates, according to David Keith of the University of Calgary.
  • Even if the U.S. gets its act together and joins Europe to cut emissions, there are roughly two billion Indians and Chinese getting ready to go car shopping. If those people were to match current American levels of car ownership (more than one car per American), global oil demand would more than triple, Elizabeth Kolbert recently reported in the New Yorker.
  • And though we’re not making a ton of progress on alternative fuels, we keep finding more petroleum to burn. Kolbert also recently described the oil sand boom in Alberta, Canada. It has the potential to supply 1.7 trillion barrels of “synthetic crude” oil (yippee!). Worse, the procedure is energy intensive, putting each barrel’s total emissions tab at up to 140 percent that of straight-from-the-well oil.

So while changing light bulbs and carrying groceries in canvas tote bags and driving something smaller than a rhinoceros are great starts, they’re not really getting us anywhere near a solution. That’s why people are talking about iron fertilization and putting sulfur particles into the atmosphere. But just like in Carlos Moffat‘s favorite Seinfeld episode, anytime you find yourself doing something so crazy that it requires a helmet, it may be time to rethink.

Enter the carbon tax: What a concept: paying for producing an undesirable waste product. I mean, we pay to have our trash picked up. Every time we replace car tires we pay to have the old ones disposed of. Every homeowner pays a sewage bill.

Opponents cite the strain such a pervasive tax would place on the economy. Everything we buy that uses petroleum as a material or during shipping would get more expensive. The costs would multiply and suddenly everyday Americans wouldn’t be able to afford their (seemingly) modest lifestyles. We would find ourselves having to make dramatic changes in the way we live, eat, shop.

But then again, isn’t that the point? As long as riding a bike to work seems like a noble deed, many of us are happy to stop there and feel good about ourselves. But if we finally make burning carbon cost something, people and industries will start to make changes on their own, simply out of service to their bottom line. No idealism required.

(Image: New York Times)

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phytoplankton off norway

The controversial “ocean restoration” firm Planktos has set sail from Miami with a hundred tons of hematite, vowing to dump it off the Galapagos to set off a huge plankton bloom. They’re making so much noise about it that bloggers everywhere and even the New York Times is paying attention. It’s exactly what we don’t need.

As it happens, I just spent all of October writing about this idea, called ocean iron fertilization, for Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (articles due out soon). The work was prompted by a 2-day meeting of 80-odd scientists, economists, lawyers, and environmentalists who all met to discuss the issue.

In all the news, Planktos is a polarizing figure – but in making themselves look bad they encourage reporters and bloggers to weigh in with hasty fact-gathering and snide rhetoric that obscures the larger issue: that many intelligent, scrupulous people are thinking very carefully and very clearly about iron fertilization’s prospects.

A few clarifications, then:

  • This isn’t a hastily devised and implemented scheme: the idea is 20 years old, and the first ocean tests were conducted 14 years ago. Since then, there have been a total of 12 ocean experiments on the scale of one ton of iron and 100 square kilometers. Planktos wants to do 100 times that.
  • Iron doesn’t cause plankton blooms everywhere; in fact the only place it’s likely to work on a large scale is the Southern Ocean.
  • The idea is for plankton blooms to draw carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and then sink that carbon so it doesn’t re-enter the atmosphere.
  • Very little carbon will reach the seafloor, but 20% to 50% may escape the top 200 meters or so, where it will drift in currents that may not return to the surface for a few decades to centuries. In that respect, iron fertilization is not all that different from growing a forest, with the bonus that it won’t all leap back into the air at once, the way a forest is susceptible to a forest fire.
  • Even Planktos’s 100-ton experiment is still small on the scale of the oceans. It’s a pity they appear to be doing it without proper scientific support or a published monitoring methodology – it means they’ll likely gain very little useful information from their work. But since it’s relatively small, it’s also unlikely to cause great repercussions in the ocean ecosystem (as Ken Caldeira noted in comments to the NYT piece linked above).
  • But are they going to get rich selling this “global warming snake oil”? Probably not. Despite their stated intent to sell carbon credits in regulatory markets, those markets make absolutely no allowances at present for selling carbon from iron fertilization. That leaves the much smaller voluntary markets, where people buy credits to make themselves feel better about their consumptive lifestyles. In those markets, perceived quality is key, and credits hawked by a salesman in a rusty tanker may have trouble competing.

But bear in mind why people are taking iron fertilization seriously at all: We face a carbon emissions problem at a scale that almost no one comprehends gravely enough. We need to keep 7 billion tons of carbon out of the atmosphere every single year – not counting what’s about to happen in India and China (more on this in a coming post about why you should support a carbon tax). Subtract  from that number whatever progress we make this year, then, come January, add another 7 billion tons. The result is going to be pretty close to 14 billion tons. What about the year after that?

Unfortunately, the visible figurehead of this movement is a shifty businessman with terrible taste in slogans (I mean, “Voyage of Recovery”??). But don’t dismiss the whole field because of one person with a used research ship and a bad business model.

After we’ve changed out all our light bulbs, hiked the price of air travel, switched to biodiesel, planted trees on all the remaining land, and persuaded Congress to begin talking about the possibility of enacting legislation to encourage further changes, we’ll still be facing a hefty carbon liability. What then?

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badge.jpgWell, it’s a new month, and those dedicated bloggers at the Carnival of the Blue have racked up a whole bunch of new posts for you to check out in case surf.bird.scribble hasn’t been exactly pumping out the content lately.


This month’s host is the adorable cephalopodcast.com, a dynamite production that you can either read at work or take with you on your commute.


You can choose from some purplish prose about late-night mangrove-walking or learn about mole crabs (note: they’re over here in the Pacific, too).  Someone points out the sad fact that the most sea stars you’ve ever seen have probably been in bathrooms. There’s a post about that ancient quahog crab that researchers recently killed. (C.A.H. was all over that story already in our own comments section.) Also in local news is a post on the loggerhead turtle bycatch story that UC Santa Cruz broke a couple weeks ago. The Scribbler took secret delight in being linked just above Carl Safina (actual page-hit comparisons notwithstanding), and Miriam Gardner got snarky on iron fertilization, but had the lit. cited to back herself up.


And in case your eyes glazed over in that last paragraph, there’s always the video of the manatee’s heart exploding across a necropsy lab. Happy reading.

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Here’s to good old Al Gore for winning (or sharing, to be exact) the Nobel Peace Prize.

The Scribbler admits to having laughed off Gore’s chances just the day before the prize was announced. I mean, he’s done an incredible job of getting this issue onto people’s radar screens, and finally there’s a slight intimation that we, as a planet, may actually start taking some baby steps to reduce the rate at which our emissions are increasing.

But peace? It’s a fair argument that staving off climate change will avert wars over resources (and, let’s face it, over plain dry land). But it’s a stretch to say that talking about doing something about staving off climate change qualifies as work for peace. On the other hand, Yasser Arafat, Shimon Peres, and Yitzhak Rabin got their Peace Prize for shaking hands – and then Palestine imploded six years later.

Another angle, perhaps, is that there’s not a whole lot of peace breaking out in the world right now.

Ridiculed as he may be by the right-wingers, Gore deserves some respect. Outside of an unfortunate period of focus-grouping in mid-2000, he has spent his energy promoting a cause he actually thinks is important – a refreshing tactic for a politician. He survived the indignity of losing an election by getting more votes than his opponent, went home to think, and returned with an honest conviction to talk incoveniently.

That’s not grandstanding, it’s not opportunism, and it’s not political maneuvering. It’s leadership. Remember that?

Previously on s.b.s: The Al Gore Union

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Polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, are perennial bad guys in environmental stories (see previous scribblings about salmon, seabirds and seafood).

Two reason they’re so perennial – despite significant limits on their production and disposal in the last three decades – are because they don’t degrade spontaneously and they become more concentrated as they move up the food chain.***

Now, PCBs seem to be disrupting vitamin A pathways in harbor seals, according to a report in Aquatic Toxicology by Lizzy Mos and colleagues. Working in British Columbia and Washington, the team caught 24 wild baby harbor seals and took blood and blubber samples. Seals with high PCB levels had less vitamin A in their blood and less vitamin A stored in their blubber.

The vitamin is an essential nutrient involved in hormonal levels and the immune system. The authors note that vitamin A has a variety of hormonal and immune-system functions, and that other studies have implicated PCBs in both reproductive failures and disease outbreaks in marine populations.

But perhaps more worryingly, the scientists seem mainly interested in using vitamin A levels as a flag. In other words, PCBs may be damaging seals in more unobtrusive ways, and vitamin A is a useful way to keep an eye on them.

Adorable image by bibianadesign.com

***As you well-informed Scribble readers probably know, this is called bioaccumulation. At each step in the food chain, animals that eat PCB-laced food store the chemicals in their bodies. By the time you get up to the kinds of animals people tend to care about – ones that are delicious or cute – the rare chemicals are concentrated enough to be toxic. All in all, it’s a useful lesson about the staying power of decisions that sound good at the time.

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The largest dam in the world is the recently finished Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River, China. It’s more than 600 kilometers long and holds about 40 cubic kilometers of water.But it also stops an average of 151 million tons of sediment per year from making its way downstream, new research in Geophysical Research Letters shows. The river makes up for some of that in extra erosion downstream. But by the time the Yangtze washes out into the East China Sea, its sediment load is still lighter by 85 million tons per year.

With ocean waves eating away at it faster than new silt arrives, the Yangtze river delta has begun to shrink. For the record, that’s what happened to Louisiana’s barrier islands after we tamed the Mississippi.

Dams are tricky. On the face of it, they seem like a green miracle: They store water and generate clean power. But – as we’ve learned after damming nearly every American river – they block salmon runs, kill rare mussel species and give invasive plants a toehold by eliminating the annual scouring of spring floods. Worse, the massively expensive projects quickly depreciate: they begin to shrink from the bottom up as soon as they start to fill, as silt piles up behind the dam. At the same time, the precious water they’re hoarding drifts endlessly away into the sky.

At present rates, the authors calculate, the Three Gorges Dam will be full of sediment in about 150 years. Not to worry, though. The Chinese are building four more dams upstream, and they’ll keep much of that sediment from reaching Three Gorges.

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griffon.jpgMore than 100 griffon vultures glided into Belgium this week, some 600 miles north of their breeding grounds in Spain. Taking up residence in an old field, the pack spent the next few days glowering at assorted birders and gawkers. A few got fed up and took off for Holland. On Tuesday, some Belgian environmentalists stopped by with some pig carcasses so the griffons could fuel up for their return flight. And just like that, they left.

The interesting part about the story – above and beyond the simple thrill it must have been to watch a band of feathered Hell’s Angels drop out of the sky unannounced – is the reason being tossed around for the birds’ strange behavior. People think the vultures are starving, getting desperate, and embarking on long flights looking for food.

It’s quite possible. Ever since mad cow disease scared people in 2002, the E.U. has forbidden farmers from leaving dead cattle out on their land to rot. There seems to be little evidence that’s done anything to reduce mad cow disease, but it has made for some very hungry vultures. In addition to kick-starting this vulturine road trip (think Dennis Hopper in Easy Rider), about 100 griffons near Burgos, northern Spain, assembled themselves into a posse last month and took down a perfectly healthy cow and her calf. Yikes.

It sure sounds like a good explanation – perhaps that’s why it crops up in every one of the handful of news reports on the story. And I’m all for vulture survival. But let’s at least wave the scientific method in its general direction. Apparently the E.U. says they’ve given Spanish farmers special dispensation to leave carcasses out, but few farmers actually do. And anyway, why would vultures fly northward, farther into the E.U., to find a meal?

I know, I know, vultures can’t be expected to keep up with politics, but north puts them out of the limits of their historical range, and there probably is some reason why they weren’t in northern Europe already. For an animal that has some degree of latitudinal awareness when it chooses a place to live, it seems a strange time to begin ignoring it.

I think what’s interesting here is not whether the mad-cow carcass ban actually causes vulture rampages. It’s that the hypothesis is attractive enough that it can bypass the scientific process and crop up in the news more or less as fact. (Spiegel Online, the first link in this post, does offer the E.U.’s alternative explanation, but much lower down in the story.) News space is tight, and a couple of shorter articles mentioned only the mad-cow explanation.  Read a couple of these articles in a row, and you (think you) know all you need to know about mad cows, carcasses and vulture conservation. Sound familiar?

(It seems almost unbelievable that there are no videos yet of the birds on YouTube. Perhaps I just don’t know how to search for “Brussels vultures” in Flemish, Dutch or French. I did at least learn that a “Brussels griffon” is a kind of small yappy dog that certain people like to dress up and feature in movies.)

Image: by Rev. Francis Orphen Morris, 1891, via birdcheck

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