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Posts Tagged ‘ocean’

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Photo: Smithsonian
A surfeit of carbon in the oceans is destroying coral reefs, home to a wide variety of marine life. But a few reefs may offer lessons for survival.

Earlier this month, I posted about an improbably successful coral reef in the busy harbor of Cartagena in South America. Scientists were thinking that if they could figure out why the reef was doing well despite inimical conditions, they might be able to save other reefs.

Now comes a story about scientists finding hopeful reefs in the Pacific Ocean and elsewhere.

Josh Gabbatiss reports at the UK’s Independent, “Sections of coral in the Pacific and the Caribbean are fighting back against the global threats that have decimated reefs worldwide. While the discovery does not allow any room for complacency in the fight to save the world’s reefs from extinction, scientists are tentatively optimistic about what they can learn from these pockets of resistance.

“Climate change, hurricanes and human activities such as intensive fishing have destroyed vast swathes of the planet’s reefs, but in a new study scientists found this destruction was not uniform. …

” ‘There are a number of reasons why one coral reef might survive while its neighbour dies,’ said Dr James Guest, a coral reef researcher at Newcastle University who led the study. ‘It could be that the location is simply better for survival – deeper water that is outside the storm tracks, for example.’

“Coral reefs might also possess certain biological characteristics that make them able to resist damage, or characteristics of their environment may allow them to rebuild themselves effectively following damage. …

“These findings were laid out in a study published in the Journal of Applied Ecology that explored dozens of these cases from tropical regions around the world. …

“The study’s lead author, Professor Peter Edmunds from California State University, Northridge, [says], ‘There are kernels of hope in places where corals are doing better, or where they are doing less badly than elsewhere and these places provide us with a focus of attention that might be used to enhance coral conservation efforts.’ …

“Scientists have voiced the need for ‘radical interventions’ such as genetic modification of corals.”

OK, I’ll let you read the rest at the Independent while I ponder the metaphors here.

Since my sister’s surgery and her diagnosis of a serious kind of cancer, I feel like I’m living in metaphor, by which I mean a couple things. For example, I can’t read about certain reefs that heal themselves because they have unique characteristics (or about scientists racing the clock to figure out how to replicate that) without thinking about how every cancer and every patient’s response to cancer is different and how researchers and physicians are trying to understand all the ways that plays out (sometimes using genetics, like the coral researchers). I also mean that literary metaphor, especially poetry, is among the few things that can help me get my head around what is going on. When you can’t understand, metaphor can be calming and provide a sense that eventually there might be answers.

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Photo: Stephen Bay  
Bioluminescent waves crashing against rocks at Torrey Pines State Beach in San Diego, Calif., last month.

How I loved the glowing waves we sometimes saw at night in late summer on Fire Island! The microscopic marine organisms that light up when disturbed apparently visit California earlier in the year.

Vanessa Romo writes at National Public Radio, “It took four attempts for Stephen Bay to see the neon blue waves crashing against the rocks at Torrey Pines State Beach in Calif., but when he did, just one thought went through his mind: ‘Holy cow, the waves are glowing!’ …

“A red tide off the San Diego coast is behind the brilliant display of bioluminescence that is lighting up the water and drawing huge crowds to marvel at the rare phenomenon.

“According to Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego, the red tide is due to a cluster of dinoflagellates — microscopic organisms — that live in phytoplankton and light up when there is movement or are disrupted. …

“Bioluminescence expert Michael Latz said that local red tides like the one visible this week from Encinitas to La Jolla — about a 20 mile stretch — ‘have been known since the early 1900s due to observations by Scripps scientists.’ …

“It’s not clear how long the current red tide will last; in some instances they’ve lasted from a week to a month or more. The last red tide in San Diego took place in September 2013 and lasted a full week. A similar event in October 2011 lasted a month. More here.

Swimming in a warm, glowing ocean at night — heavenly. Some red tides are harmful, but NOAA says, “Most blooms, in fact, are beneficial because the tiny plants are food for animals in the ocean. In fact, they are the major source of energy that fuels the ocean food web.”

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Photo: Phil Torres, Dr. Geoff Wheat
Seventeen octopods huddled on the Dorado Outcrop, two miles underwater near Costa Rica. Most are in a brooding (in the sense of baby-launching) posture.

Not sure where I picked up this octopus story, maybe from twitter. But who knows? Sometimes I learn facts about sea creatures from the Octonauts-loving grandchildren. (I’m grateful that cartoons these days have educational content. The cartoons I watched as a child were often no more than a bunch of mice running around and squeaking.)

Maddie Stone reports at Earther, “Scientists have made a truly bizarre discovery on an expanse of cooled lava 150 miles west of Costa Rica and nearly two miles underwater. There, they laid eyes on more than a hundred female octopuses, tending to eggs that didn’t seem to be growing in water that seemed too warm for their liking.

“Deep sea octopuses are a rare sight, and it’s even rarer to catch them in the act of brooding. So when Janet Voight, a deep sea biologist at the Field Museum of Natural History, examined footage collected at the Dorado Outcrop during a 2013-14 study of warm hydrothermal fluids seeping out of cracks in the rocks, it was nothing short of shocking to discover an enormous camp of tentacled, seemingly-expectant moms. …

“It’s [puzzling], because deep sea octopuses tend to thrive in near freezing temperatures. Warm water speeds up their metabolism, causing them to use up too much oxygen. And indeed, when lead study author Anne Hartwell examined the octopods’ breathing patterns in hundreds of hours of video footage collected by an ROV and a crewed underwater vehicle, she learned that those in or near hydrothermal fluids were breathing faster, suggesting oxygen stress.

“Moreover, none of the nearly 200 eggs the researchers examined appeared to be developing at all. …

“The researchers go on to speculate that females are drawn to the area because of the lack of sediment, which makes it easier to anchor their eggs, blissfully unaware of their new home’s thermostat problem.

“As the authors explain, hydrothermal fluid discharges can ramp up quickly at any given site, and once a female chooses a place to brood, she’s stuck with it — stressful environment or not. …

“Nicole Morgan, a deep sea biologist at Florida State University who also wasn’t involved, told Earther in a Twitter DM that while the water is warm, it’s ‘not outside known ranges for the octopus genus.’ The oxygen levels are also low but not lethal, she said, suggesting ‘the authors are probably right that this is sub-par brooding habitat.’

“ ‘I think they have captured a snapshot of what evolution looks like in real life — they are brooding in an area that is stressful but available and not immediately lethal,’ Morgan continued. ‘More likely than not this subpopulation will die out because of the high egg fatality, but if some eggs do survive, that could be a start to speciation.’ ”

More here.

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I have been learning all sorts of strange marine facts from Suzanne and Erik’s children. They are hooked on a video series called The Octonauts, which features cartoon characters living in the sea. One piece of wisdom from the grandchildren was about wraith-like creatures called siphonophorae, a word that gives me trouble but rolls right off a child’s tongue. Siphonophorae live even deeper in the ocean than the Octonauts and some are light emitting, which makes for a good storyline.

All this leads me to another light-emitting sea creature recently discovered near Hawaii, a shark.

Lauren Smith writes at the Guardian, “Light emitted by a new species of lanternshark, Etmopterus lailae, is camouflage and helps them to hunt, communicate and find partners. Early [in 2017] a new species of deep water shark, Etmopterus lailae, was discovered in waters surrounding the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands in the Pacific Ocean.

“Measurements of external features, teeth, vertebrae and intestines, along with specific external markings and patterns confirmed that it was indeed a new species – a member of the lanternshark family. Lanternsharks (Etmopteridae) are one of the most species-rich shark genera. …

“The lanternsharks are one of two deep sea shark families to possess the ability to bioluminesce – in other words, they are able to glow in the dark. The other shark family with the ability to do this are the kitefin sharks (Dalatiidae). This family houses the infamous cookie cutter shark, which was known for its impressive ability to disable US Navy submarines in the 70s and 80s. …

“Bioluminescence is the emission of light as a result of a biochemical reaction. In contrast to fluorescence and phosphorescence, bioluminescenct reactions do not require the initial absorption of sunlight or other electromagnetic radiation by a molecule or pigment to emit light. …

“Bioluminescence in vertebrates is found exclusively among fishes living in marine environments. At present the only known terrestrial animals capable of bioluminescence are arthropods. …

“It is also worth noting that bioluminescence is not just exhibited by deep sea dwellers existing in perpetual darkness. [One study] analysed 17 years of video footage taken from the sea’s surface down to a depths of almost 4000 metres. Observations showed that the percentage of bioluminescent animals is remarkably uniform regardless of depth.”

More at the Guardian, here.

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Photo: Auscape/Getty Images/Universal Images Group
Scientists hope to restore damaged coral on the Great Barrier Reef with a technique that has seen success in the Philippines.

As I was preparing this post on an effort to save the Great Barrier Reef, I stumbled upon the news that the 37-year-old ocean warrior behind the climate-change movie Revolution, Rob Stewart, died a year ago in a dive off Key Largo.

That gives a whole different cast to my thoughts. I was going to say something about how happy he must be about the new coral-breeding program that offers a “glimmer of hope” to the Great Barrier Reef. Now it’s “how happy he would have been.” The world can ill-afford to lose an energetic ocean crusader like Stewart.

As the Guardian reports, the coral-breeding project has seen success in the Philippines and is now being tried in Australia.

“Scientists have stepped in as environmental matchmakers by breeding baby coral on the Great Barrier Reef in a move that could have worldwide significance.

“Coral eggs and sperm were collected from Heron Island’s reef during [the November 2016] coral spawning to produce more than a million larvae. The larvae were returned to the wild and placed on to reef patches in underwater mesh tents, with 100 surviving and growing successfully.

“The lead project researcher and Southern Cross University professor Peter Harrison, who discovered mass coral spawning in the 1980s, says the ‘results are very promising.’ …

“The project has the ability to restore damaged coral populations and has seen similar success in the Philippines where blast fishing using explosives to kill schools of fish has destroyed coral.

“The Great Barrier Reef Foundation managing director, Anna Marsden, said the research is an important step for the reef, but one that should not lessen the strong action needed against climate change.”

That’s because, as I learned watching Stewart’s movie, it’s the CO2 resulting from climate change that is the big danger.

More at the Guardian, here. See also my review of the movie Revolution, here.

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On the principle that “one and one and 50 make a million,” a better world relies on everybody pitching in. Ordinary people can help scientists and other leaders of worthy initiatives.

Lisa Mullins and Lynn Jolicoeur report at WBUR on one example.

“It’s a cloudy, cool July morning, and we’ve come to the docks at Fairhaven Shipyard, near New Bedford, to meet Chris Parks. She’s a tall, elegant, retired Boston banker in jeans and a sweatshirt.

“Parks is a volunteer with the Buzzards Bay Coalition. Residents formed the group 30 years ago to help the struggling bay.

“She’s got a plastic bottle attached to a long metal pole. She submerges it and fills it with sea water. Then she pulls out her tool box full of vials and chemicals. She mixes and measures.

“Parks determines the water is pretty cool on this day — 67 degrees. … In addition to temperature and clarity, Parks tests the water for how much salt and oxygen are in it. She’s been coming to this dock, fastidiously, one or two mornings a week for 17 years.

” ‘I’m doing it because it’s one of the few things that I can do that is a tangible task towards helping the environment,’ Parks says. ‘It’s a little bit of science that helps tell us what’s going on in Buzzards Bay.’

“What’s going on is that the water is warming — and that may be contributing to long-lasting pollution problems in the bay.”

Buzzards Bay Coalition science director Rachel Jakuba says, ” ‘If you have too much algae in the water, that’s when you get cloudy, murky water, loss of eel grass, low oxygen levels that make it hard for fish and shellfish to survive … Bay scallops are very rare now because part of their life cycle depends on eel grass blades.’

“The Buzzards Bay Coalition is attacking that pollution aggressively. It’s working with homeowners to upgrade their septic systems with technology that reduces nitrogen. …

“Jakuba says as researchers figure out how global warming fits into the bay pollution picture, citizen scientists will be key.

“Mark Sweitzer, 68, is a citizen scientist and lobsterman based at Point Judith in Galilee, Rhode Island. …

“Six times a month while he’s catching lobster, Sweitzer lowers a device to the bottom of the ocean — about 200 feet. It tracks the temperature and other characteristics of the water at every depth, and it syncs the data to an iPad on board. …

” ‘I’m just happy to do it, because I feel like I’m providing some information — even though it might not have immediate effect on my boat, but in long-term trends in the fishery and how it might influence policy or regulations,’ Sweitzer says. …’

” The settlers — the tiny little ones that are four days old that have reached the bottom — there is a temperature at which they will not survive … and there are temperatures at which we have an influx of fish. Black sea bass used to be primarily a mid-Atlantic fish. And now … the black sea bass are down there gobbling up these little lobsters that don’t have much of a chance to make it in the first place.’ ”

Read how other fishermen are noticing ocean changes before scientists do and reporting back, here.

We have a friend who sets lobster pots off New Shoreham, Rhode Island. His catch has gone down steadily over the past few years, so I know there is a problem.

Photo: Mark Degon/WBUR
Lobsterman Mark Sweitzer works out of Point Judith, Rhode Island.

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Image: Wallenius Wilhelmsen Logistics
Wallenius Wilhelmsen Logistics scooped two Singapore Environmental Achievement Awards for sustainability.

In The Sea Around Us, Rachel Carson suggested that Earth’s oceans might be too vast for humans to completely ruin. At least that’s what I remember, but I was only 14 when I tried to tackle the grown-up books on my new school’s summer reading list.

I wonder what Carson would say now, given that increased carbon dioxide is damaging reefs and many sea creatures.

She might also be concerned about shipping, but as Hannah Koh reports at Eco-Business, sustainable practices are starting to appear.

“Despite being in an industry that is predisposed towards environmental degradation, Swedish-Norwegian shipping company Wallenius Wilhelmsen Logistics (WWL) has not let the circumstances define it.

“The company has been proactively putting in place measures to reduce sea and airborne pollutant emissions and set up an international coalition to champion the enforcement of sulphur emission regulations – critical to minimising the impact of the shipping industry.

“Its initiatives impressed the judges of the Singapore Environmental Achievement Awards – which aims to increase the level of awareness and adoption of good environmental approaches within organisations, held by the non-profit Singapore Environment Council – that WWL won the SEC-CDL Outstanding Singapore Environmental Achievement Award and the SEC-MPA Singapore Environmental Achievement Award (Maritime).

“Speaking to Future Ready Singapore in a phone interview, WWL’s head of sustainability Anna Larsson shares that the company’s award-winning approach to sustainability is guided by a combination of its long-term vision as well as immediate-term targets.

“Having and acting on a sustainable vision for the future has reaped rewards for WWL, from saving costs to staff retention, and prepares WWL for the future of the shipping industry today, which challenges companies to balance their bottom lines against their environmental impacts. …

“Ship operators today are under pressure to clean up their act, especially after the United Nations shipping agency ruled in October 2016 to implement a global sulphur cap of 0.5 per cent by 2020. …

“Experts have estimated that this will cost the industry some US$35 to $40 billion alone for the container shipping industry, at a time when the shipping industry is suffering its worst downturn ever.” More here.

Gotta love those Swedes for biting the bullet!

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