Environmental Hazards, Nature

California Sea Lions Dying Due to Poisonous Algae Blooms

California sea lions are being killed by toxic algae blooms.
California sea lions are being killed by toxic algae blooms.

In the first two weeks of April, the Pacific Marine Mammal Center in Laguna Beach, California, recorded 14 sea lion deaths due to poisoning by domoic acid. Another nine are in various stages of recovery.

Domoic acid poisoning occurs when animals eat fish that have been feeding on toxic algae.

Marine Mammal Center spokeswoman Krysta Higuchi told the Los Angeles Times that 10 years ago, the last time the problem was this severe in southern California, 79 sea lions died due to domoic acid poisoning.

“Other rescue facilities are also seeing the same animals,” Higuchi said. They’re “all over the place.”

How does domoic acid poisoning happen? Normally, blooms of single-celled algae occur for about a week in the spring. However, the heavy rains California has been receiving have intensified the blooms by flushing nutrients from fertilizers and other sources into the Pacific Ocean, and this has intensified the blooms. Small sea animals like anchovies, clams, and mussels feed on the algae, and the sea lions then feed on those animals.

“When the sea lions eat these toxic anchovies, they have serious neurological problems,” said Kathi Lefebvre of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries in Seattle. “The sea lions will have seizures, in some cases they’ll die, in some cases they’ll recover but have permanent brain damage.” In addition, many pregnant sea lions miscarry. The pups that do survive until birth often suffer from the effects of domoic acid poisoning.

The Marine Mammal Center in the northern California city of Sausalito has also treated two sea lions it suspects were poisoned by domoic acid.

Dr. Shawn Johnson, director of veterinary science at the Sausalito center, said that it’s possible more sea lions in northern California may be affected as the water temperatures rise in the summer and fall.

“There’s still a lot of unknowns about what triggers these blooms of algae and what triggers them to become toxic, because not all the blooms are toxic,” Johnson told SFgate. “There’s a lot of research going on to better understand [the causes] so we can better predict when these blooms will happen so that fisheries can be monitored, and for us, so we can be prepared for increased stranding [of sea lions].

California officials have warned consumers not to eat mussels, clams, or whole scallops harvested recreationally in Santa Barbara County. Commercially harvested seafood is typically tested for safety before being distributed.

Climate Change, Environmental Hazards, Science

Arctic Puts in Overtime When it Comes to the Nitrogen Cycle

The arctic works overtime at removing nitrogen.
Photo: Shutterstock

Nitrogen is necessary for all life on Earth, but like many things, its possible to have too much of it.

For most of the Earth’s history, there was a careful nitrogen balance maintained between land, sea, and atmosphere. This was done through a process called denitrification. However, human activity has caused high levels of nitrogen in the earth’s oceans.

When fertilizer and sewage make their way into the ocean, it produces areas where there is simply too much nitrogen. This produces fish kills, toxic algae blooms, shellfish poisoning, and loss of coral reefs, seagrass meadows, and other coastal habitats.

One of the denitrification processes is handled by microbes found on seabeds of continental shelves. Interestingly the Arctic, which only accounts for 1 percent of these shelves, is actually responsible for 5 percent of global ocean nitrogen removal.

“The role of this region is critically important to understand as humans put more nitrogen into the ocean,” says Amber Hardison of the University of Texas at Austin, one of the authors of the paper. “The Arctic is also undergoing dramatic changes linked to climate change, including a rapid decline in sea ice. As sea ice shrinks, it disrupts the natural functioning of the ecosystem, including potentially limiting the vital nitrogen removal process.”

Animals living on and in the seafloor also play a role in denitrifiation. These creatures, including worms and clams, make tubes and burrows in the seabed, which makes a space for the microbes to do their job.

This new information might help us to better understand how ocean nitrogen removal works, as well as how our on actions impact it. By studying the microbes in the Arctic seabed, scientists can get a better understanding of how this denitrification process works. Then, by comparing them to other, similar microbes, they can get an idea of why Arctic microbes are so much better at denitrification. This could help them come to a conclusion about how to assist that process, which could help us offset the extra nitrogen that we’ve been leaking into the ocean.

This also means that protecting the Arctic is even more important. Oil and gas companies have been eyeing Arctic waters as a possible place to find untapped quantities of fossil fuels. They can only do because global climate change, brought about by the use of fossil fuels, has made those waters more accessible, but numerous scientists have argued that tapping such reserves could be bad for the Arctic and the world at large.

Nature, Science

Greenland Sharks Can Live for Centuries

Greenland Shark. Photo by NOAA via Wikimedia Commons
Greenland Shark. Photo by NOAA Okeanos Explorer Program, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Scientists have recently discovered that the Greenland shark is the oldest living vertebrate species on the planet, living up to 400 years, if not longer.

The Greenland shark lives in extremely cold water, and generally very deep in the ocean. As a result, they grow very slowly, about 1cm a year, and also move very slowly, about one mile an hour. They’re mostly scavengers, but apparently sneak up on sleeping seals from time to time, and have been found with all kinds of things in their stomach, including a moose one time.

Born about three feet long, Greenland sharks can reach lengths of around 24 feet, making them among the biggest sharks in the ocean. Luckily they live in water so cold that they rarely share it with humans, because they could easily swallow somebody whole. But there is no record of a Greenland shark ever eating a person.

Unlike many marine species, Greenland sharks aren’t threatened by fishing, which is a good thing. Since they don’t generally breed until they’re about a century and a half old, it would be really easy to accidentally overfish them.

While their meat is considered a delicacy in Iceland, it takes so much effort to make it edible that nobody else really wants to eat it. Because of the depths and temperatures of water at which they live, they create a chemical compound that, if ingested, causes effects similar to being extremely drunk. Sled dogs that have eaten the meat weren’t able to stand up. But if you cook it right, for a long enough time, or ferment it, you can actually eat it.

Most people don’t have the patience to eat these sharks, so we don’t have to worry about them vanishing any time soon, and hopefully they can teach us a great deal.

Climate Change, Science

Climate Change Computer Models Prove The World Is Doomed!

The Philippines is one of many densely populated nations in and around Southeast Asia that are endangered by rising sea levels caused by global warming. Global average sea level is rising 3.1 centimeters per decade.
The Philippines is one of many densely populated nations in and around Southeast Asia that are endangered by rising sea levels caused by global warming. Global average sea level is rising 3.1 centimeters per decade. Photo: Department Of Foreign Affairs And Trade.

Thanks to computer modeling of climate change we know that world is doomed. Actually, doomed might be to strong a word, but it’s definitely in for a wild ride. A ride in which climate change is the driver. He’s a bad driver with a license that will not expire for millennia.

A bad driver with a license to kill is an apt metaphor for climate change. After all, automobiles drove carbon dioxide in the air. Due to the increase of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere our planet will be substantially changed within several centuries. These changes could last up to 10,000 years.

We know that climate change is caused by human activity. But most people seem to think that by reducing the amount of carbon we’re putting into the atmosphere we’ll start mitigating that change soon. That’s not how it works though.

According to a new study by researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, even if we severely reduce the amount of carbon we create, we’ll suffer from the results of climate change for centuries.

This is because carbon sticks around. Sure, by creating less of it we’re adding less, but we’re not getting rid of what’s already there.

Climate change projections generally don’t go more than a few centuries into our future, and many don’t go past 2100, because most humans are shortsighted and don’t much care about a time after they, and maybe their kids, are dead. The problem is that we spend a lot of time patting ourselves on the back about how much better we’re going to be about the creation of carbon dioxide.

We fail to realize that we might limit the temperature rise over the next century or so.

We fail to understand that it’s going to take thousands of years for those temperatures to fall.

Environmental Hazards, Science, Uncategorized

Radioactive Pollution From Fukishima Is Nearing The United States

 NASA satellite photo of Japan’s Fukushima Prefecture after being struck by a tsunami, since the incident in 2011 seawater contaminated with Cesium-134 has been moving closer to the United States.
NASA satellite photo of Japan’s Fukushima Prefecture after being struck by a tsunami, since the incident in 2011 seawater contaminated with Cesium-134 has been moving closer to the United States. Photo: NASA | FlickrCC.

In 2011 a tsunami caused by an earthquake hit the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan, resulting in three reactor meltdowns. Since then, scientists have been testing water in the Pacific Ocean at various distances from the site to determine what kind of contaminants have escaped from the site. The bad news is that contaminants keep entering the ocean from Fukushima, but the good news is that those levels are far lower than they were just after the event.

Cesium-134 is an isotope that acts as a sort of “fingerprint” for Fukushima, and finding it in water means provides the geographical sources for those particular isotopes. Cesium-134 has a half life of two years, meaning that every two years half of it decays, so based on the amount in a given body, scientists can tell how long it’s been there.

Lately, measurements have indicated that levels of Cesium-134 are elevated in water as close to the United States as 1,600 miles west of San Francisco. These samples have 50% more Cesium than previous samples, but those levels are still 500 times lower than safety limits for drinking water, and well below the levels where direct exposure is dangerous.

This information, coupled with samples taken from a kilometer from the site, indicates that Cesium-134 is still leaking out and getting into the water, but it can also allow scientists to figure out how much material actually made it into the ocean in the first place.

An interesting side effect too is that, since these isotopes can only have come from Fukushima, researchers can use them as markers to track how water moves though the Pacific Ocean. That could prove pretty useful for oceanographers, and it’s nice to know that there is at least some small benefit from that disaster.

Green, Nature

Is Whale Poop Destined To Save The Earth?

Great blue whales release poop containing large amounts of phosphorous, an essential nutrient for many plants
Great blue whales release poop containing large amounts of phosphorous, an essential nutrient for many plants. Photo: greatbluemarble | FlickrCC.

According to a recent study, animals have played a much larger part in moving nutrients around the world that previously thought. At least, they did. For years, scientists have assumed that plants and microbes are responsible of making sure that there are enough nutrients in soil to keep plants growing. But now we’re finding that animals enriched the soil by wandering around and pooping.

Take the blue whale, for example. They eat deep below, but go to the bathroom near the surface, which releases a lot of phosphorus into the water. That phosphorus, an essential nutrient for many plants, eventually makes its way to land. Birds and fish helped as well. Before humans came along, megafauna, huge animals like mammoths, dominated the earth and spread nutrients everywhere they went.

Now, according to that same study, animals are responsible for moving about 6% of the nutrients that they used to. The end of the last ice age, and the rise of humans had a lot to do with that. Raising animals like cows doesn’t really do much to offset it because they’re mostly penned in and don’t move about much. So basically the earth is way less nutrient rich than it once was, and it’s getting worse.

And if there were, say, more blue whales helping the water stay more nutrient-rich, the oceans would actually have more capacity for absorbing carbon dioxide from the air. More whale poop means less greenhouse gasses. More nutrient rich soil also means more plants in general, which would also reduce the effects of global warming, by taking in more carbon dioxide.

It’s not all bad though, because whale populations are making a come back. And with help, large herds of bison or other animals might be able to return and help spread around the nutrients the world so desperately needs. Saving endangered species could help save us, as well.



Climate Change, Nature, Science

Digital Map of Ocean Floor Could Help Us Understand Climate Change

A still shot of the world's first digital map of the seafloor's geology.
A still shot of the world’s first digital map of the seafloor’s geology. Photo: EarthByte Group, School of Geosciences, University of Sydney.

A team from the University of Sydney has created the first topographic map of the ocean in 40 years. The last one, made in the 1970s, was hand drawn, while this is the first digital map of the ocean floor, and it contains some pretty interesting things. For one, the ocean floor, especially the Southern Ocean around Australia, is more complex than we realized. Deep basins in the ocean floor, as it turns out, are much more intricate than previously imagined.

Mapping the ocean floor can tell us a lot more about the ocean, which covers 70% of the Earth. It’s especially useful in teaching us how it has adapted to climate change throughout the Earth’s history.

For example, much of the ocean floor is actually made of the fossilized remains of phytoplankton. Phytoplanktons are microscopic creatures that thrive in sunlight, not unlike plants. In fact, phytoplankton process so much CO2 that they create about 25% of the oxygen we breath, and contribute more to controlling climate change than terrestrial forests.

When those phytoplankton die they sink to the bottom of the ocean, and retain the CO2 they had breathed in when they died. That CO2 isn’t released into the surrounding ocean, which is good because when it dissolves in seawater it becomes carbonic acid and the oceans are already rapidly becoming more acidic.

Interestingly, the accumulations of dead phytoplankton don’t match up with the locations of phytoplankton blooms on the surface of the water. So we understand where they tend to live, but we don’t yet understand the process by which they sink. Understanding that process will require more research, and that research is important.

Understanding how phytoplankton live, and how they die, could help us to better understand how oceans adapt to climate change, a task researchers will have earnestly pursue in the coming years. A deeper understanding might even help us find a way to combat climate change.