Archive for the ‘ocean’ 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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There are laws about how close a nosy tourist can sneak up on a whale, and most people assume that’s to keep the whales safe from the people. So imagine this couple’s surprise at learning the law also keeps people safe from whales.

Through some combination of whale movements and people movements, the kayakers got closer to this mother humpback and her calf than she approved. First she thwacked the water with a humongous flipper. A moment later she launched out of the water for a full-body layout to encourage the couple to put on a little more distance. Great picture of the splashdown here.

As a totally unexpected bonus, we get an eye-opening comments board at the Times Online’s version of the story. Comments aren’t about whale conservation or close calls with wildlife. They’re about how annoying the metric system is. Amazingly, almost all the comments are pro-Imperial units. And they seem serious! You almost think one of the commenters is Grandpa Simpson (“My car gets forty rods to the hogshead, and that’s the way I likes it!”).

I’m still in shock from hearing recently about some U.S. undergraduates fighting to comprehend the metric system – one in particular whose preferred way to get from centimeters to meters was to convert to inches, then to feet, then back to meters. When did powers of 10 become arcane?

Maybe we should just measure everything in elephants, a la this Onion story. My favorite line:

We saw a rat in the street the other day and he kept going on and on about how huge it was, saying, ‘That thing must’ve been at least .074 elephants long!’

For the record, a full-grown humpback whale is only about 2 full-grown elephants long. But thanks to the power of allometry, it weighs in at 4 elephants. Probably only around 1 elephant of lifespan. Top speed? Just 0.5 elephant (but here the system breaks down: though slower on land, a humpback can surely outswim an elephant. Vice versa is just not worth contemplating.)

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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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Against my better judgment, I continue with the cute baby pictures.

This is a Leptasterias pusilla, or six-rayed star, from Greyhound Rock about 15 miles north of Santa Cruz. Pusilla is Latin for eentsy-weentsy. Apparently, they can get to be a few inches across, but that’s about it. This one was nosing around the sea lettuce in the minus-tide tidepools brought on by the new moon.

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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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The CD was invented while I was in high school. Late each night, my local Florida radio station used to showcase one newly remastered CD in its entirety, in a show called “Laser Holography.” A gravelly voice would invite us to ease back into our leather armchairs and surrender to the pure digital sound experience. Steve Miller or Bob Seger would ensue.

So imagine my surprise when I learned today that far from being a passe (and possibly cheesy) method of listening to classic rock, laser holography is totally brand-new. And you use it for watching killer plankton hunt down their prey inside a drop of water.

Researchers from University of Maryland and Johns Hopkins studied two kinds of tiny dinoflagellates from Chesapeake Bay. Don’t be fooled by their size: “dinoflagellate” means “terrible whip,” and once the scientists got the interference pattern from their backscattered collimated laser beam magnified and fed into a high-speed digital camera (creating a holographic image), they sure found out why.

The single-celled organisms flagellated their terrible whips, scooting through the water as they tracked down even smaller single-celled creatures. The holography kept everything in sharp focus “like being at NASCAR with a magical pair of binoculars,” according to lead researcher Robert Belas.

In the picture above, the dinoflagellate Karlodinium sidles up to an unsuspecting herd of plankton and then pounces. It scares the bejeezus out of all but one of them, which is too dead to be scared. The green line shows the stalker’s track; the inset pictures are snapshots of the action. Another species, Pfiesteria, took down its prey on raw speed alone.

Read all about it in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences: Digital holographic microscopy reveals prey-induced changes in swimming behavior of predatory dinoflagellates. All told, it’s a considerably more thrilling way to spend an evening than Take the Money and Run.

image: National Academy of Sciences of the U.S.A. and Florida Game and Freshwater Fish Commission

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krill.jpg Thanks to the loyal Scribble readership (those half-dozen or so of you who aren’t just here for the cute baby pictures) for bearing with me over the last couple of weeks. Even the laziest of us have to work for a living every now and then, the Scribbler has discovered. It’s one of the chief downsides of being a professional.

Anyway, I just survived a prolonged trip to the East Coast, where I was hammered by a deluge of scientific information that felt like a shipload of iron had been dumped on my head. Wednesday in particular was so bad that I couldn’t even scratch out a “Worst Wednesdays” for you.

Thank goodness for Christy Reed. She emerged from a roughly 7-month period of hibernation and book-writing to give me something quick to post about: an amateur rap video about towing a plankton net behind a research vessel. Modeled after Vanilla Ice’s sole hit, “Ice Ice Baby.”

That right there should be all you need to know in order to stay the hell away. But the surprise is that it’s funny and educational, kinda (ever wonder what MOCNESS stands for? or get your sharks and whales confused?). Even the amateur and presumably caucasian rappers carry through with flow and a bit of style. Check it out.

(It’s perhaps not quite up to the gold standard, Weird Al’s White ‘n’ Nerdy – but then how do you top Al? The guy’s a professional.)

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badge.jpgLast month, the good folks at Blogfish organized a carnival of ocean blogs, wherein we saw all sorts of neat things including video of tiptoeing invertebrates and French fishermen mooning Oceana activists. Little did I know the carnival is a monthly thing, like a spring tide. And here we are in July. Head on over and poke around. On offer:

Learn how overfishing of bait eels could be knocking out Arctic terns in the Shetland Islands, at 10,000 Birds.

If you’ve never seen a map of where the U.S. has been dumping cyanide, arsenic, phosgene, phosphorus and mustard gas, Deep Sea News can change that.

Way back in the early years (okay, months) at Scribble, I posted about an alarming increase in jellyfish off Namibia (see What’s Next? Jellyfish and Chips?). Shifting Baselines has an update on the topic – as well as a scrumptious picture of a jellyfish burger.

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