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A bit of scribbling just cropped up in New Scientist. Here’s the first 200 words or so:

It’s about some neat research into the way rip currents work – great food for thought during those endless counterproductive paddleouts at your local beachbreak.

It was interesting to write for a straight-ahead magazine like New Scientist. Forget these fanciful Scribble posts, where I get to mosey around in whatever I think is interesting; this story was concerned with explaining What Happened. And I didn’t even get to do all of that in my 1,200 words. Here are some things that had to get left out:

By the way, the above picture of rip currents is all wrong. Here’s something a little closer to reality, according to drifters deployed by Jamie MacMahan and colleagues (thanks, Jamie). White arrows indicate current speed and direction:

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The term “rip current” wasn’t even invented until about 1925, in Science, when some scientists rebelled at the notion of the “undertow myth,” kicking off a flurry of indignant correspondence.

Francis Shepard, of Scripps, pioneered rip current research – taking measurements while dodging set waves in a rowboat.

In the 1960s, other researchers tossed waterlogged whiffleball-like floats into the surf. They tracked where they went using a camera dangling from a helium balloon.

Until this year, even the most intensive rip current studies recorded very few measurements in rip channels themselves. It’s just too dang hard to install a current sensor with a freakin’ rip current whipping past you at 4 knots.

Jamie MacMahan, one of the scientists I wrote about, said six years ago they did manage to install a sensor in a rip channel north of Monterey. It ran on batteries and logged data to a chip to be recovered after 3 weeks or so. They’ve never found it. “As far as we know, it’s still down there, it’s just a lot deeper,” he told me.

MacMahan is cool. Young, already an assistant professor at the Naval Postgraduate School. He’s a little shorter than me, fit but rounded, kind of like a polar bear. Most of the time I talked to him, he had salt water running down his nose. When he’s in the office, he kicks his flip-flops off next to his hard drive. He figured out how to use off-the-shelf GPS for his surf drifters by cruising techie blogs. He invented a way to measure sea floor contours in pounding surf using a depth meter and a jet ski.

The GPS surf drifter was invented by Wilford Schmidt when he was a Ph.D. student at Scripps. He’s now a professor at U. of Puerto Rico in Mayaguez, where he surfs choice Caribbean waves early in the morning. He’s starting to study wave turbulence by installing video cameras in the crystal clear tropical water. He says, kind of gloatingly, that the only reason no one’s done it before is that at the world’s major oceanographic research centers, the water’s just too murky.

Tim Stanton, the other Naval Postgraduate School researcher in the story, studies the other side of rip currents. Where MacMahan’s interested in how the sand shapes the water currents, Stanton’s interested in how the water moves the sand around.

Here’s a classic example of the trials of field research: Stanton’s focus for this year’s field experiment was deploying a super-high precision instrument that measures how much sand is moving in the current, in 1-centimeter slices through the water. He designed the electronics himself and built the instrument to measure continuously for several weeks.

How’d it work? Well, one drawback to studying rip currents is you have to put your instruments in rip currents. The very first day, some kelp got caught up in a rip, recirculated in the eddying flow, and knocked the instrument flat. Last time I saw Stanton, he was planning an expedition for the next low tide to look for any remaining pieces of the instrument.

In the New Scientist article, Ad Reniers is a Dutch modeler who’s a whiz at fluid dynamics. In person, he wore a flaming orange Hawaiian shirt. It was unbuttoned far enough to see his Tecate temporary tattoo. (“Hey, Cinco de Mayo, man.”)

I had an interesting chat with Dr. Edie Gallagher, who studies sand transport at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Standing there in a wetsuit, still dripping wet, she looked at the undulating beach in front of us and said something like, “It’s basically an exact reflection of the waves that strike this beach. The sand that’s here is here because these waves leave it. Anything finer, they carry out. Anything coarser stays up in the rivers.” That, to me, was a whole new way of looking at beaches.

Thanks to all the scientists who helped me write the story.

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Thanks to the pharmaceutical industry, most of us are familiar with the concept of time-release capsules. Our tummies ache and we soothe them – not with a concentrated blast of raw medicine, but with a pill that gently releases its ingredients through the day.

Now picture a 13-mile-wide time-release capsule floating in the Weddell Sea – that nook of water that hides out in the lee of the Antarctic Peninsula. That’s the picture that Ken Smith, of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, and his colleagues offered this week in Science Express.

Smith and his team studied a couple of large icebergs as they drifted away from the Frozen Continent. Granted, it doesn’t take eight scientists and an NSF grant to realize that icebergs melt in water. But what Smith found interesting was all the dirt sprinkled throughout the ice. While dirt is pretty unremarkable on land, it gets increasingly rare and precious as you head out to sea. The minerals and nutrients it contains are simply missing from large swaths of ocean water. In this respect, an iceberg is sort of like a humongous Jolly Rancher candy drifting through the sea, slowly distributing its goods.

iceberg_smaller.jpg Smith’s study measured the effect of the added nutrients – evident to more than 2 miles away – and traced them up the food chain. They found more phytoplankton, more krill and more seabirds around their icebergs than in open water. In 4,300 square miles of the Weddell Sea, they counted a thousand more icebergs and calculated they could be spurring productivity in as much as 39% of the Weddell’s waters. When all that fertilization is combined, they suggest, it could have a significant contribution to drawing carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and sequestering it in the ocean.

Sound familiar? This is a neat illustration of a nearly self-contained ecosystem, the kind of microcosm – like a termite mound, or a tree frog living in a bromeliad plant – that never fails to capture our imagination. That’s why I like the story. And yet, didn’t Science just report something far less optimistic about fertilizing ocean waters and carbon dioxide? Yes, not two months ago, in fact, we learned that most of that carbon – 50% to 80% of it – gets recycled by zooplankton and never makes it to the safety of deep waters.

I suppose it’s hard to blame Smith et al. for not fleshing out their argument. They are, after all, writing in Science, which is so tight on space that it no longer bothers printing study methods (relegating them instead to “supporting online material”). But then, if academia has become so compartmentalized, is it fair to turn around and blame journalists for misrepresenting the broader issue? Their word counts are even stingier (and their syllable counts? forget it).

Science Express, where Smith’s article appeared, is the online-only, rush-publication branch of Science that its editors reserve for the coolest, latest-breaking research. This same week, Science ran two articles about carbon sinks – basically, the question of where all the carbon that doesn’t stay in our atmosphere winds up. One reported that tropical forests do more carbon uptake and northern forests less than we previously thought. The other suggests changing wind patterns in the Southern Ocean have reduced its capacity for soaking up carbon over the last 25 years.

To help Science‘s readership keep all this research straight, David Baker, of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, offered a “Perspective” article summarizing the two papers. But even here, the scope was reined in. The editorial didn’t mention Smith’s article, even though the same publisher ran it the very same week and it broached the very same topic: carbon dioxide uptake in the Southern Ocean

For academia, this is appropriate. Smith and co. didn’t offer any actual data about carbon sequestration, so it’s premature for scientists to talk about it. And yet, which of these various papers should a reporter draw from? As long as scientists drop nuggets of research haphazardly into the literature, we have to expect it to diffuse on its own, slowly and gently, into the ocean of public awareness. So far, climate change seems to have taken some 50 years to acheive an effective dose.

Illustration: Nicolle Rager Fuller, National Science Foundation; photo: Rob Sherlock, MBARI.

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I’m sorry to report that yesterday’s post about disease-causing organisms in ocean water is only half the story: there’s also disease-causing chemicals out there, too.

Now I realize that in the back of pretty much everyone’s minds, there’s the knowledge that ocean water contains nasty chemicals. So I won’t take a lot of your time here – I’ll just remind you of a few names to keep track of.

Lead and mercury aside, most can be neatly tied up in one or a few generic terms: organochlorines, polyhalogenated aromatic hydrocarbons, polychlorinated biphenyls. Big names like DDT, dioxin, and PCBs fit into one or more of those categories. But as with microbes, it’s pretty difficult to keep the subcategories straight: what’s the difference between PCDD, PCDF, PBDE, PCN, or the murky-sounding DBP, or “chlorination disinfection byproducts”? HFINo***

But again, we can count ourselves lucky to have people who do know the difference – and who are getting pretty good at measuring it. A couple of recent studies did the math all the way through to estimating roughly how much of these chemicals a typical seafood-enjoyer ingests.

For instance, a typical Catalonian hombre might eat 1.53 nanograms of polychlorinated naphthalenes (PCN) in a day – more if he eats a lot of salmon or sole and less if he prefers shrimp or cuttlefish. A Belgian study analyzed “market baskets,” comparing the chemical contamination of many typical foods. Fish topped the list of most contaminated, with PBDE levels nearly twice as high as the second place (dairy and eggs). Fast food was a distant third, with steak and chicken breast registering even safer. The authors noted one exceptional salmon filet that raised the bar, coming in with a PBDE concentration five times the seafood average and nearly an order of magnitude above second place.

In eastern U.S. fish markets, you can find more than 20 times as much PCB and PBDE in wild bluefish as you can in farmed salmon (and wild salmon had only half as much of these chemicals as farmed salmon).

That may sound like yet another plug for wild salmon, but then again, consider the wildness of your salmon’s homeland. Does it cavort in essentially urban waters like Portland’s Columbia River or the Nisqually estuary south of Seattle? Because if it does, it’s likely to pick up PCBs, DDTs and PAHs from runoff.

Young chinook salmon heading out to sea from the Duwamish Estuary, the Columbia River and Yaquina Bay had PCB levels in NOAA fisheries’ red zone – above 2,400 nanograms per gram of fat. (I imagine it has been argued that as these salmon grow up in relatively pure open ocean waters, those levels will come back down. But still.)

It’s also curious that coho salmon sampled from the same locations as the chinooks were consistently less contaminated – by factors of 2-5. Sounds like a mystery for the ecologists to solve.

There’s still the question of how much and how steady of a diet of these compounds one needs before cancer sets in. Part of the trouble lies in toxicity differences among the many compounds (called congeners) that are contained within the categories I listed at the top of this increasingly glum post. Unfortunately, for almost every one of those thousands of congeners, we just don’t know specific toxicity levels.

Well, if it’s any comfort to you, all those omega-III fatty acids are still really good for you.

Image: Alaska’s Wildlife. Thanks to SeaWeb for the tips.

***HFINo = HellifIknow

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Reports of the declining state of the world’s fisheries aside, there’s a whole new frontier opening up in the world of ocean life.

They’re called “emerging diseases”: small, aggressive specks of life working like hell to get noticed in a mostly hostile environment. Kind of like “emerging indie-rock,” just less noisy and more likely to stick around.

Many of the diseases aren’t exactly new, they’re just cropping up in new places as a side-effect of how good we are at detecting tiny things. And while your best chance of catching a nasty marine disease probably still involves a raw oyster, every new virus or bacterium that shows up in a water sample is another possible period of porcelain worship for you. And, joking aside, death by diarrhoea happens some 1.8 million times per year, with 90% of its victims younger than 5.

Still, you don’t read a lot about the culprits, at least in part because once you get down to the level of microscopic things there are few terms familiar enough for a reader to hang onto. I mean, the bright and ferociously well-informed Scribble readership can probably keep their bacteria straight from their viruses, but is that true for USA Today’s? Even for our lofty selves, the smugness evaporates as soon as we go one level down: Where would you file Hepatitis E? the polyomaviruses? the adenoviruses? The rotaviruses? The enterococcans? The nematodes? Which of those contain DNA? (And no, the answer is not all of them.)

The pattern with most of these emerging diseases is that they’ve become better at surviving in places we assume are unlivable. Salt water is a great example – it’s famously antiseptic and has long been considered a great receptacle for treated and untreated wastewater. But several bits of biological fine print seem to have created some loopholes. With more humans in the world flocking to the same number of beaches, more contaminants are washing directly into the water – where odds are they spend less time combating the elements before encountering another bather. One more reason to surf alone.

A University of Miami study put 10 normal-looking, clean adults with good jobs into a kiddie pool filled with 4,700 liters of sea water. After 15 minutes, they found that on average, each person had contributed 600,000 enterococcus (indicative of fecal contamination) and 6 million staphylococcus (skin infection) colony-forming units. Each person. Finally I understand what those signs mean by “Please shower before bathing.”

Cooperation is another way microbes confound us. The bacterium that causes cholera, Vibrio cholerae, is not especially dangerous to people until it winds up in the gut of a little zooplankton called a copepod. Then it becomes one of the most dangerous of all waterborne illnesses.

The cholera-copepod link is pretty well known – Rita Colwell helped figure it out and soon found that Bangladeshi women could use folded sari cloth to filter out copepods from their drinking water. The Vibrio bacteria passed straight through the filter, but cholera infection still dropped by about 80% because the copepods were gone.

Alliances like this seem to be another stratagem pathogens have for staying alive long enough to do us in. Last year I got to write about Rebecca Gast‘s work isolating Legionella and other bacteria and amoeba from sea water. It appeared that shortly after riding out of the sewer outfall pipe, some bacteria managed to get themselves ingested by amoeba. They were quite happy with the arrangement, as the insides of the amoeba were more hospitable than the surrounding sea water. As time goes on, the colonies inside the amoeba grow in number and virulence.

Enter large, sunburned man bobbing in inflatable seahorse ring, slurping from warm can of beer. In the world of emerging diseases, that’s a picture that’s not going to get any prettier.

A single table of contents in a single journal like Water Research offers enough material to go on and on. But I don’t even know what most of these things are – I don’t even know what they sort of are. I guess we can be thankful that, like so much of the rest of science, there are people making their careers solving problems we may never hear of. Ignorance is bliss. So far, anyway.

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Happy World Ocean day – at least, to all of you in the western hemisphere, since by coincidence I am writing this at midnight Greenwich Mean Time, meaning that for the whole eastern hemisphere it’s already tomorrow. Weird.

The good ocean advocates over at Blogfish organized a blog carnival to celebrate the day. Lead blogfish Mark Powell (no relation, but there’s more about him here) compiled links and summaries for a few dozen thoughtful ocean bloggers. He ends with a fitting conclusion: Who knew there were so many of us?

Or that we were so good? A fascinating post at Zooillogix on creeping crinoids shows something that looks sort of a like a zombie underwater sunflower tiptoeing across the seafloor in a totally Tim Burtonish way. I’d say it even beats out the walking octopus from a few years ago.

The Surfrider Foundation puts in a good word for menhaden, those teeny schooling fish that people have been hauling out from Chesapeake Bay and elsewhere on the East Coast for decades.

Oceana has been filming French fishermen illegally using drift nets, and apparently the fishermen recently attempted a raid to confiscate the evidence.  Didn’t work.

Pharyngula even gets into the game with some background on how an octopus can change color so fast. Not to be outdone, the Daily Kos has about 1,000 words on how pearls form (Hint: they’re not the tears of angels, nor are they the result of an oyster swallowing a dewdrop. Interestingly, they also don’t come from a grain of sand.)

The blog links just keep coming: Gulf Restoration Network snuck one into the comments section, correcting an absence of news from the Gulf of Mexico. (The Scribbler spent a good portion of high school a small distance above the Gulf of Mexico, hanging off the side of a catamaran.)

And if you’re too on-the-go to sit still for all this silliness, take your ocean blog with you at cephalopodcast. It is a carnival, after all.

Now, to find the frozen fried Twinkies.

Carnival badge: cephalopodcast

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OK, so with any luck you’ve read yesterday’s post and you’re up – sort of – on the tools oceanographers use to look into the past. So what did Tom Marchitto and friends see?

They saw evidence of two distinct, massive burps of carbon dioxide, one lasting 3,000 years and beginning about 18,000 years ago; the other following on its heels about 14,000 years ago and, like its predecessor, lasting about as long as all of Western civilization so far. The scientists calculate that the CO2 came from water that had been submerged for at least 4,000 years – 1,300 years longer than the oldest water we know about in today’s ocean.

The nice part about this finding is that it plugs a gap in our knowledge. We’ve known for some time that atmospheric CO2 levels rose – and, curiously, radiocarbon levels fell – as the glaciers retreated. We just couldn’t be sure where it all came from.

But how does water get to be “old” anyway? That’s where the radiocarbon comes in. All of us have at least a hazy understanding that we can age things like Egyptian artifacts by comparing how much radiocarbon (C-14) they contain relative to regular carbon (C-12). The reason it works is that while something’s alive, its tissues pretty closely reflect the radiocarbon levels in the atmosphere. When the tissue dies, the C-14 begins a steady decay while the C-12 remains stable: so the ratio lets us back-calculate its age. This is why you can’t use carbon dating to find out how old something is, you can only find out how long it’s been dead.

Ocean water isn’t alive, but it does move around a lot, and it mixes surprisingly poorly. So when chunks of water sink below the surface they can wander the ocean depths for centuries, the water clinging to itself like a ghost wrapped up in its own shroud.

Now, radiocarbon is only made high up in the atmosphere, where cosmic rays bash into regular carbon atoms, making C-14 that rains down on us in a sort of high-energy game of bagatelle (oops – they bash into nitrogen atoms; see comment). What this means for water is that when it sinks below the ocean surface, it’s like a dead Egyptian artifact, cut off from its source of radiocarbon. The water starts recording its age immediately.**

So putting it all together, Marchitto found evidence – in the shells of 18,000 year old protists – of 4,000 year old deep water moving around in the upper ocean. (To stretch an analogy, it’s as if the ghosts in the cellar had gotten restless and moved up to the ground floor). He and his colleagues think much of that water reached the surface and came back into contact with the atmosphere.

Like the burps of a Scribbler drinking a tamarindo-flavored Jarritos, only considerably larger, these would have raised the carbon dioxide level in the atmosphere. But because the water had been submerged so long, the burps would have been much less radioactive than the Scribbler’s (who contains only the most up-to-date radiocarbon). And because we’re talking about so much carbon dioxide, the overall effect would be an observable dip in the radiocarbon signature of the atmosphere – one that’s been puzzled over for some time in the Greenland ice cores.

In “Deglaciation Mysteries,” Ralph Keeling, of Scripps Institution of Oceanography, offers his perspective on the research, in the same issue of Science. For readers who want something more technical than this post, but less technical than the full paper.)

**This neat trick is one of the main ways oceanographers map the deep currents of the ocean, and it’s how we know that once carbon makes it below the surface waters, it can drop out of the climate picture for millennia.

Radiocarbon is phenomenally useful in other situations, too: It helps us detect manmade organic pollutants when we find them, because they’re made from petroleum, and petroleum is very, very old (so its radiocarbon ratio drops off the chart). And if you’ve ever heard someone say that atmospheric CO2 comes from forest fires rather than fossil fuel emissions? Radiocarbon lets us put a number on that claim.

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A paper last week in Science reached back 38,000 years to trace how the ocean dumped heaps of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere just as the last glaciation was starting its decline. Tom Marchitto and colleagues discovered that around 18,000 years ago, atmospheric carbon dioxide began its steady rise from 180 ppm to the oft-quoted 280 ppm before the start of the industrial revolution. They think the CO2 came from very old, very deep ocean water that burst to the surface in two prolonged belches.

You could be forgiven for wondering how we’re so sure what the molecular composition of air and ocean water were 14,000 years before the pyramids had been built. Paleoceanographic research is a scavenger hunt of bizarre techniques on unlikely objects: sea mud; old ice; corals.

First you bring up some seafloor mud in what is essentially a very long soda straw. Put it under a microscope and pull out the shells of tiny dead creatures called forams (Not plants, not animals; they’re protists.). During their brief but happy lives, some of these floated in the surface water while others lived on the seafloor. Learn how to tell them apart, and you can compare their radiocarbon ages – along with oxygen isotopes – to surmise how the deep water was different from the surface water way back then.

If that sounds shaky, there are at least supplementary techniques that scientists use to make sure they’re in the right ballpark. Some 3-km deep holes in the Greenland ice sheet (and Antarctica) provide similar information from gases caught in the annual snow layers. People actually count, layer by layer, 100,000 years into the past. When they see a series of spikes in ice-core isotopes mirrored in seafloor mud isotopes, they can  be reasonably sure they’re looking at the same time in prehistory. In the pages of Science, these are called “tie points.” In the bar after work, it’s called “wiggle matching.”

Other people pull up coral from the seafloor and look at heavy elements trapped in its layers. A neat trick with the way uranium transmogrifies into thorium and protactinium as it decays – and how those elements tend to sink differently – lets them figure out the volume of ocean currents in the past.

With me so far? Me neither. This is one reason why it’s so hard to find good articles about paleoceanography in People or Reader’s Digest: too much background.

Tomorrow: We’ll step back and just think about radiocarbon. Everybody knows what carbon dating is. But how does it work? And what does it tell us about the ocean?

Photo: Francis Frith, 1862

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Longtime readers may remember a cool story about very small ocean creatures mixing the water column with their daily, en masse commutes. A Canadian study had calculated the amount of power exerted by all those millions of tiny, simultaneous wiggles and it was roughly equal to the amount supplied by winds or tides. This was big news – a huge source of power for mixing the ocean,*** hiding in the tiny pink muscles of krill.

Unfortunately, André Visser has gone on record in this week’s Science to puncture that bubble of enthusiasm. Give him credit for letting us down easy, though. His endearing first sentence:

“Every now and then, an idea comes along that is so appealing, it seems bad manners to challenge it.”

Visser points out, using only three Greek letters and two fractional exponents, that although the power all those krill produce is tremendous, it doesn’t mean much mixing gets done. That’s because to mix water you don’t just impart energy on it. You need to get it to form eddies or currents that move far enough to run into some different water. For a krill that’s 1.5 centimeters long, it’s hard to push water that far, no matter how hard they wiggle.

A krill’s “mixing efficiency,” Visser estimates, hovers between 0.01 percent and 1 percent of the mechanical energy of its wiggling. That is to say, between 99 percent and 99.99 percent of the krill’s efforts vanish almost immediately into heat. No word yet as to how good krill are at heating the ocean.

***So who cares? Well, it turns out that mixing the ocean is a lot harder than it sounds. Think about adding half-and-half to your coffee without being allowed to stir it. At first, in a clear mug, it would look pretty cool. But as the cream stalled out in mini-eddies or pooled at the bottom of the mug you would quickly get impatient. Especially if your mug covered 2/3 of the Earth’s surface and was 4,000 meters deep on average. And mixing turns out to be crucial for all sorts of planetary chores: moving heat around, absorbing or releasing carbon dioxide, and stirring nutrients from where they’ve fallen on the sea floor up to the sunlight, where plankton can use them.

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Every year, microscopic phytoplankton turn about 50 billion metric tons of carbon into plant life. Much of that carbon comes straight out of the atmosphere. On the surface of things, that sounds pretty good – but a paper in today’s Science reports that below the surface it’s rather more complicated.

The study – called VERTIGO, in one of oceanography’s acronymic triumphs – involved 17 authors and more than 40 scientists from seven countries. They sailed the seas off Hawai’i and Japan, chucking recently invented, free-diving samplers overboard to follow what happens to all that carbon after it becomes phytoplankton. The short answer is, it gets recycled. And while recycling is a good thing to do with bottles and cans, doing it with carbon is counterproductive.

When phytoplankton decomposes near the ocean surface – between 100 and 1,000 meters depth, in a literally gray area called the twilight zone – it results in no net carbon storage. It’s the same reason that burning biodiesel creates no net emissions (the french-fry-scented carbon coming out your tailpipe is just going back where it had been during the last growing season).

Before VERTIGO, hopes had been high that most of those gigatons of phytoplankton sank to the bottom of the ocean, far from the atmosphere, where they could start their million-year conversion to more oil. Evidence from the project suggests that 50 to 80 percent of the carbon never sinks past 500 meters. The amount varied between the tropical and temperate sampling sites. Extrapolate those two estimates across the globe, and that’s a difference of 3 billion tons of carbon reaching the deep ocean. For perspective, that uncertainty is equal to half the world’s current fossil-fuel emissions.

How does the plankton decompose? That’s ecology at work for you. Even though diminishing light shuts out plant life below about 100 meters depth, zillions of intrepid zooplankton squirt around in the twilight zone scavenging falling detritus. The recycling happens over and over as well-fed zooplankton excrete marine snow (one of the most delicate euphemisms ever invented), to be scavenged by deeper, even more intrepid creatures. The result is that surprisingly little carbon makes it from surface waters into the depths.

If you’ve ever heard of a global-warming solution involving fertilizing the ocean with iron, this is what people have been talking about. Dump iron in the surface waters and phytoplankton multiply like crazy, pulling extra carbon dioxide out of the air, dying, and sinking. Oceanographers were once hopeful about this, but actual experiments – involving 100 square kilometers near the Galapagos and in the Southern Ocean – made them suspect that very little carbon made it down to the depths. The VERTIGO results indicate their skepticism was warranted, but might also suggest that some parts of the ocean are better places to try than others.

Image (detail): Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. Cheers to Woods Hole wunderkinder Carl Lamborg and Phoebe Lam.

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The Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society has set a life-size blue whale loose online, where it placidly swims past the browsers of millions of viewers. The picture starts at the whale’s eye, which pretty much fills your screen. Bubbles drift past, and a soothing underwatery sound wafts from the speakers.

Nitpicking viewers, the Scribbler among them, will be impressed to see that resizing the browser window doesn’t change the size of what’s onscreen – lending confidence to the life-sizeness of the image. On the other hand, change the pixel size of your display and you can immediately magnify your whale by about 50% – but then, that’s the kind of buzzkilling lawyerliness that gets people like us kicked out of parties.

All in all, a worthwhile diversion. Leave it running in the background, as Anne over at Inkycircus did, and you can check back in from time to time to contemplate new regions of the leviathan’s topography. (e.g., the whale lips, above, full size)

AND a note: Thanks to all those relatives, friends, and relatives of friends who have completed the Scribble Readers’ Poll. Your responses have been excellent proof of the fact that people who like this blog like this blog (thanks!). It really does interest me to know what, roughly, you’re reading for. Plus, I have some great ideas to forward on to the Biologically Inspired Robotics Group now that they’re finished with their salamander. My only remaining task is to get people who don’t read the blog to stop in and explain why not (hmm…the first annual Scribble Non-Readers’ Poll…must get to work on that).

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