Nature, Science

The World’s Oceans Now Have A Health Record

The oceans now have a health record, thanks to a team of scientists at UC Santa Barbara

Thanks to a team of researchers at UC Santa Barbara, the world’s oceans now have a health record.

And that health record is revealing clues about what might be behind ocean improvements or declines.

Analyzing data from 220 countries, the team gathered five years’ worth of ocean “vital signs” in a variety of areas ranging from water quality to food provision to tourism potential in order to create an Ocean Health Index. Their conclusion: While ocean health appears to be stable, the oceans around many of the countries analyzed are changing for the worse.

“With five years of assessments about where oceans are healthy and not as healthy, we finally have enough information to get a clear signal of what might be causing changes,” said study lead author Ben Halpern, executive director of the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis at UC Santa Barbara.

Countries like Indonesia, Mexico, and Samoa, that are seeing improvements in their oceans are taking action to make things better, including improving management of wild-caught fisheries and creating marine protected areas.

On the other hand, the countries that saw a decline in ocean health where in consistent political turmoil. Many Arctic and sub-Arctic countries are seeing declines as well, due to the fact that coastlines are losing sea ice, which is a natural protection from storm damage and erosion.

“The Ocean Health Index created the first opportunity any of us has had to measure the health of our oceans in a comprehensive way and track changes with a single measure,” Halpern said.

According to the researchers, the index has scored the oceans’ overall health staying steady at a 71 out of 100. This shows that while the oceans aren’t dying, they aren’t thriving, either. The team will continue to collect data on ocean health every year.

“We believe the Ocean Health Index gives reason for hope by providing a detailed diagnosis of the state of ocean health and a framework that allows countries to identify and prioritize the most necessary resilience actions to improve ocean health,” said study co-author Johanna Polsenberg, senior director of governance and policy for Conservation International’s Center for Oceans. “This is where our work is most valuable. It helps to identify and highlight the necessary steps to ensure a healthy ocean into the future.”

I don’t know about you, but after seeing all the news about dying reefs, pollution, and overfishing, I’m surprised the oceans are as healthy as they are. Hopefully this new information will help governments and scientists to improve their health.

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.