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Posts Tagged ‘Ocean Research’

JULIETTE JOWIT, Guardian UK, July 28, 2010

Phytoplankton might be too small to see with the naked eye, but they are the foundations of the ocean food chain, ultimately capturing the energy that sustains the seas’ great beasts such as whales.

A new study though has raised the alarm about fundamental changes to life underwater. It warns that populations of these microscopic organisms have plummeted in the last century, and the rate of loss has increased in recent years.

The reduction – averaging about 1% per year – is related to increasing sea surface temperatures, says the paper, published tomorrow in the journal Nature.

The decline of these tiny plankton will have impacted nearly all sea creatures and will also have affected fish stocks.

Phytoplankton provide food – by capturing energy from the sun – and recycle nutrients, and because they account for approximately half of all organic matter on earth they are hugely important as a means of absorbing carbon.

“This decline will need to be considered in future studies of marine ecosystems, geochemical cycling, ocean circulation and fisheries,” add the paper’s authors, from Dalhousie university in Nova Scotia, Canada.

The researchers looked at measurements of ocean transparency and tested for concentrations of chlorophyll, which gives large numbers of phytoplankton a distinctive green sheen. They said that although there were variations in some areas due to regional climate and coastal run-off, the long-term global decline was “unequivocal”.

The Nature article comes as climate scientists published what they said today was the “best ever” collection of evidence for global warming, including temperature over land, at sea and in the higher atmosphere, along with records of humidity, sea-level rise, and melting ice.

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ScienceDaily, June 19, 2010

The first comprehensive synthesis on the effects of climate change on the world’s oceans has found they are now changing at a rate not seen for several million years.

In an article published June 18 in Science magazine, scientists reveal the growing atmospheric concentrations of man-made greenhouse gases are driving irreversible and dramatic changes to the way the ocean functions, with potentially dire impacts for hundreds of millions of people across the planet.

The findings of the report emerged from a synthesis of recent research on the world’s oceans, carried out by two of the world’s leading marine scientists, one from The University of Queensland in Australia, and one from The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, in the USA.

Professor Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, lead author of the report and Director of The University of Queensland’s Global Change Institute, says the findings have enormous implications for mankind, particularly if the trend continues.

He said that the Earth’s ocean, which produces half of the oxygen we breathe and absorbs 30% of human-generated CO2, is equivalent to its heart and lungs. “Quite plainly, the Earth cannot do without its ocean. This study, however, shows worrying signs of ill health.

“It’s as if the Earth has been smoking two packs of cigarettes a day!”

He went on to say, “We are entering a period in which the very ocean services upon which humanity depends are undergoing massive change and in some cases beginning to fail,” says Prof. Hoegh-Guldberg. “Further degradation will continue to create enormous challenges and costs for societies worldwide.”

He warned that we may soon see “sudden, unexpected changes that have serious ramifications for the overall well-being of humans,” including the capacity of the planet to support people. “This is further evidence that we are well on the way to the next great extinction event.”

The “fundamental and comprehensive” changes to marine life identified in the report include rapidly warming and acidifying oceans, changes in water circulation and expansion of dead zones within the ocean depths.

These are driving major changes in marine ecosystems: less abundant coral reefs, sea grasses and mangroves (important fish nurseries); fewer, smaller fish; a breakdown in food chains; changes in the distribution of marine life; and more frequent diseases and pests among marine organisms.

Report co-author, Dr John F. Bruno, an Associate Professor at The University of North Carolina, says greenhouse gas emissions are modifying many physical and geochemical aspects of the planet’s oceans, in ways “unprecedented in nearly a million years.” “This is causing fundamental and comprehensive changes to the way marine ecosystems function,” Dr Bruno said.

“We are becoming increasingly certain that the world’s marine ecosystems are approaching tipping points. These tipping points are where change accelerates and causes unrelated impacts on other systems, the results of which we really have no power or model to foresee.”

The authors conclude: “These challenges underscore the urgency with which world leaders must act to limit further growth of greenhouse gases and thereby reduce the risk of these events occurring. Ignoring the science is not an option.”

In their study, the researchers sought to address a gap in previous studies that have often overlooked the affects of climate change on marine ecosystems, due to the fact that they are complex and can be logistically difficult to study.

According to leading US marine scientist, the University of Maine’s School of Marine Services Professor Robert S. Steneck, the study provides a valuable indicator of the ecological risk posed by climate change, particularly to coastal regions.

“While past studies have largely focused on single global threats such as ‘global warming’, Hoegh-Guldberg and Bruno make a compelling case for the cumulative impacts of multiple planet-scale threats,” Prof. Steneck said.

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JEANNE ROBERTS, Celsias via CleanTechies, March 29, 2010

There is a cascade failure going on in the world’s oceans that promises nothing but trouble in the future, and the problem stems in part from agricultural practices developed over the last half-decade aimed at growing more food on the same amount of land to feed rising populations.

A cascade failure is the progressive collapse of an integral system. Many scientists also call them negative feedback loops, in that unfortunate situations reinforce one another, precipitating eventual and sometimes complete failure.

The agricultural practices relate to “factory farming,” in which farmers grow crops using more and more chemical fertilizers, specifically nitrogen and phosphorus, which are the first two ingredients (chemical symbols N and P) listed on any container or bag of fertilizer. The last is potassium, or K.

But farmers aren’t the only culprits. Lawn enthusiasts add to the problem with their massive applications of fertilizer designed to maintain a species of plant that doesn’t provide either food or habitat, and is grown merely to add prestige. And groundskeepers at parks and large corporate headquarters are equally guilty. In fact, a whole generation needs to rethink its addiction to lawns.

Whoever is guilty of applying the fertilizer, these megadoses are eventually washed off the fields and lawns and into waterways. From there, they migrate to the nearest large bodies of water, where they spark such tremendous and unnatural growth in aquatic plants that the result is eutrophication , or lack of oxygen in the water as bacteria act to reduce the sheer mass of dying organic matter.

One of these aquatic growths is algae, or phytoplankton. Moderate algal growth can produce higher fish yields and actually benefit lakes and oceans, but over-stimulation leads to a whole host of problems whose integral relationship to one another threatens not only aquatic but human life.

A classic example would be the Baltic Sea, where phytoplankton are raging out of control. The Baltic Sea is, as a result, home to seven out of ten of the world’s largest “dead zones,” aquatic areas where nothing survives.

One of the other three is the Gulf of Mexico, where a 2008 dead zone the size of Massachusetts is expected to grow in future years thanks to the U.S. government’s biofuel mandate. Most of the crops for biofuel are grown along the Mississippi River, which drains directly into this dead zone.

In the Baltic, as elsewhere, overfishing has exacerbated the problem. Fish feed on smaller aquatic organisms, which themselves feed on the algae. Take the fish out of the equation, and the balance is lost. It’s very much like removing the wolves that keep down the deer population in order to protect the sheep, and it doesn’t work in the ocean any better than it works on land.

Once the algal blooms begin to thrive, they block sunlight to deeper water and begin to kill off seaweeds and other aquatic plants which are home to fish species. The dying plants then consume more oxygen as bacteria consume them. And, as the seaweeds die, the few remaining fish and shellfish species move away, deprived of habitat.

This is a classic example of a negative feedback loop, and it is reinforced by every meal of fish, every instance of Scotts lawn fertilizer, and every ear of corn grown with a little help from Cargill or Dow, to name just two multinational fertilizer manufacturers.

Another example is occurring in the Pacific Northwest , along the West Coast of the United States, where — in Washington State, Oregon, and even Northern California — piles of Dungeness crab shells on the ocean floor mark areas of severe eutrophication well within sight of land.

Elsewhere along the Pacific shoreline, bird deaths – ranging from pelicans to sea ducks – predict a failure in the natural world that can’t help but reverberate among the planet’s prime predator, man.

These areas of eutrophication have always been present, but their spread – from one or two areas to miles of coastal waters – indicates a larger problem that is likely about to overwhelm not only the fishing industry and tourism but the existence of oceans as living entities.

As Oregon State University ocean sciences professor Jack Barth notes, the once-scarce areas of low oxygen have become the “new normal”, with old areas repeating and new areas cropping up every year. In many of these areas, oxygen levels are 30% lower than they were a mere half-decade ago.

Not all algal blooms are harmful or noxious, of course. But those which occur in response to eutrophication do seem to be, and these – known as HABs, or harmful algal blooms – include pseudo-nitzschia producing algae, which deliver a neurotoxin called domoic acid that can kill humans, birds and aquatic mammals that eat the affected shellfish; golden algae, which under certain conditions produce toxins that cause massive fish and bivalve (clams, mussels, oysters) kills; brown tides, which are not toxic in themselves but create aquatic conditions that can kill fish larvae; red tides, which produce brevetoxins that can affect breathing and sometimes trigger fatal, respiratory illnesses in humans; and blue-green algae, or cyanobacteria, which can form dense colonies that cause water to smell and become toxic to fish, pets and humans.

This last, which has spread from Texas to Minnesota, has led to livestock deaths in the former. In the latter, where having a lake home is a sign of prestige, many homeowners have been forced to sell at a loss to get away from once-pristine lakes so smelly and toxic that dozens of pet dogs have been killed drinking the water.

Lower oxygen levels in oceans are very attractive to one species; jellyfish, and these odd creatures with their many tentacles and poisonous sting thrive under such conditions. In fact, jellyfish have few predators except man, and those few (tuna, sharks, swordfish, a carnivorous coral , one species of Pacific salmon and the leatherback turtle) are all at great risk of extinction because of eutrophication and its related conditions, pollution, overfishing and climate change.

As one of the most prolific species in the ocean, and certainly one with a long history (the species has been around since the Cambrian), jellyfish will probably take over the oceans if things continue as they have been going since the 1960s. This is good news for the Japanese, Chinese and other Oriental cultures who regard the slimy beast as a delicacy.

For the rest of us, jellyfish are an acquired taste, and one we had better acquire if we want to keep eating seafood. Either that, or we can support legislation that, in the U.S. at least, promises some relief through research, monitoring and rule-making regarding the Great Lakes and both coasts.

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FRANK HARTZELL, Mendocino Beacon, December 17, 2009

The Obama administration has launched a new “zoning” approach that puts all ocean activities under the umbrella of nine regional planning bodies.

Public comments are being accepted through Friday, Feb. 12.

The approach is more local and integrated than the current strategy, which puts separate functions under different federal agencies. But it remains to be seen how such a plan can satisfy a plethora of federal laws that now protect the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, the Gulf of Mexico and the Great Lakes.

The issue of whales killed by ships (like the blue whale kill in October off Fort Bragg) is cited in the new report as an example of how the regional planning approach could solve problems that single agencies cannot.

In the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary off Boston, the Coast Guard, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and several other government agencies and stakeholders reconfigured the Boston Traffic Separation Scheme, after numerous fatal collisions between marine mammals and ships.

This kind of joint action is what the new Obama approach anticipates using nationwide.

The reconfigured shipping lanes reduced risk of collision by an estimated 81% for all baleen whales and 58% for endangered right whales, studies show.

NOAA is the lone federal agency dealing with the whale kill issue locally, working with two state agencies, which have regulations that are inconsistent. With the Fort Bragg incident highlighting weaknesses in the regulatory process, a regional board could propose solutions.

In another example of oversight conflict, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) planned and launched a policy for wave energy leasing completely without local governments’ knowledge. Other federal agencies also bombarded FERC with criticism and problems their federal fellow had failed to anticipate when FERC’s program came to light.

The Obama administration’s idea is to bring all the federal and local agencies to the table at the planning stage, not the reactive stage.

“The uses of our oceans, coasts and Great Lakes have expanded exponentially over time,” said Nancy Sutley, chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, who also heads the Ocean Policy Task Force. “At the same time they are facing environmental challenges, including pollution and habitat destruction, that make them increasingly vulnerable.

“Without an improved, more thoughtful approach, we risk an increase in user conflicts and the potential loss of critical economic, ecosystem, social, and cultural benefits for present and future generations,” said Sutley, in a press release.

Many scientific studies have called for ocean zoning, but this is the first effort to make the idea work.

California, Oregon and Washington would be included in a single planning area The participants in the planning process, such as Indian tribes, federal agencies, states and local entities, would be asked to sign a contract modeled on development agreements.

Development agreements are widely used by housing developers to bring all county and state permitting agencies to the table so they can get loans and prepare to launch a project.

Sutley said the administration will reconvene the National Ocean Council to work with the regional planning bodies.

While the new approach promises more locally responsive planning, the job of the National Ocean Council will be to ensure that planning is consistent from region to region. That is likely to create some conflicts with monied interests representing some uses, such as oil drilling, and leave other uses with less ability to advocate at the table.

The proposal comes from the Interagency Ocean Policy Task Force, established by President Obama on June 12. It is led by Sutley and consists of 24 senior-level officials from administration agencies, departments and offices.

The task force’s interim framework is available for a 60-day public review and comment period. After the close of the comment period, the task force will finalize its recommendations in both this report and the Sept. 10 interim report and provide a final report to the President in early 2010.

For more details on the Interagency Ocean Policy Task Force, including the interim framework, and to submit comments, visit www.whitehouse.gov/oceans.

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MendoCoastCurrent, October 27, 2009

Editor’s Note: Over the past few weeks there have been numerous Blue Whales showing up dead on the coast of California and a cause of the recent Blue Whale washing up on the Mendocino coast has been the topic of great discussion and mystery here. Actual cause of death has been identified by propeller of a NOAA research ship. Additionally, here’s a new theory based on noise pollution and new research: Blue whales are forced to make more noise to compete with man-made noise pollution like ship sounds and sonar. More specifically: Blue whales increase their ‘singing’ to cope with noise pollution. And: Man-made noise such as ships’ engines has caused hearing loss in whales.

LOUISE GRAY, Telegraph UK, September 23, 2009

Whale-460_980418cIt has also caused other behavioural changes, including forcing the creatures to strand on beaches because they are unable to navigate.

The endangered blue whale uses sonar to navigate, locate prey, avoid predators and communicate.

However in recent years the increasing use of hi-tech sonar by ships, the noise of propellers, seismic surveys, sea-floor drilling, and low-frequency radio transmissions have made oceans noisier.

New research has shown that the whales are having to ‘chatter’ more often and for longer periods to communicate the location of prey and to mate.

Zoologist Lucia Di Iorio, of the University of Zurich, analysed the song of blue whales recorded by microphones during seismic explorations in the St Lawrence estuary off Canada’s north east coast over an eleven day period in August 2004.

“We found that blue whales called consistently more on seismic exploration days than on non-exploration days as well as during periods within a seismic survey day when the sparker was operating,” she said.

“This increase was observed for the discrete, audible calls that are emitted during social encounters and feeding.”

The study, published in Biology Letters, provides the first evidence that blue whales change their calling behaviour when exposed to sounds from seismic surveys.

“This study suggests careful reconsideration of the potential behavioural impacts of even low source level seismic survey sounds on large whales. This is particularly relevant when the species is at high risk of extinction as is the blue whale,” added Dr Di Iorio.

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MARK CLAYTON, The Christian Science Monitor, September 17, 2009

wave-ocean-blue-sea-water-white-foam-photoWith demands on US ocean resources control growing quickly, the Obama administration today outlined a new comprehensive ocean management plan to guide federal agencies in restoring and protecting a badly stressed US coastal and ocean environment.

Today’s policy shift proposed by the president’s Interagency Ocean Policy Task Force holds enormous potential for sweeping changes in how the nation’s oceans are managed, including energy development, experts say.

At its core, the plan would set up a new National Ocean Council to guide a holistic “ecosystem-based” approach intended to elevate and unify what has long been a piecemeal approach by US agencies toward ocean policy and development — from oil and gas exploration to fisheries management to ship transportation to recreation.

The proposal would include “a more balanced, productive, and sustainable approach to using managing and conserving ocean resources,” Nancy Sutley, chairman of the president’s Council on Environmental Quality told reporters in a teleconference unveiling the plan. It would also set up “a comprehensive national approach to uphold our stewardship responsibilities and ensure accountability for our actions.”

Dr. Sutley, who also chaired the interagency task force, appeared alongside representatives from the Department of Interior, the Coast Guard, the Department of Transportation, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. But the proposal would apply to 24 agencies.

“This will be the first time we have ever had this kind of action for healthy oceans from any president in US history,” Sarah Chasis, director of the ocean initiative at Natural Resources Defense Council wrote in her blog. She called it the “most progressive, comprehensive national action for our oceans that we have ever seen.”

The changes could affect new offshore wind energy proposals as well as oil and natural gas exploration. “We haven’t fully looked at all aspects of the report,” says Laurie Jodziewicz, manager of siting policy for the American Wind Energy Association. “The one concern we have is we don’t want to stop the momentum of offshore wind projects we’re already seeing. So while we’re certainly not opposed to marine spatial planning, we would like to see projects already in the pipeline move ahead and start getting some offshore projects going in the US.”

One senior official of the American Petroleum Institute said he had not yet seen the proposal and could not comment on it.

The new push comes at a time when major decisions will be needed about whether and how to explore or develop oil and gas in now-thawing areas of the Arctic Ocean near Alaska. Policy changes could also affect deep-water regions in the Gulf of Mexico as well as the siting of wave power and renewable offshore wind turbines off the East Coast.

At the same time, desalination plants, offshore aquaculture, and liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminals are clamoring for space along coastal areas where existing requirements by commercial shipping and commercial fishing are already in place.

All of that – set against a backdrop of existing and continuing damage to fisheries, coral, coastal wetlands, beaches, and deteriorating water quality – has America’s oceans “in crisis,” in the words of a landmark Pew Oceans Commission report issued in 2003. More than 20,000 acres of wetlands and other sensitive habitat disappear annually, while nutrient runoff creates “dead zones” and harmful algal blooms. Some 30% of US fish populations are overfished or fished unsustainably, the report found.

Among the Interagency Ocean Policy Task Force’s national objectives were:

  1. Ecosystem-based management as a foundational principle for comprehensive management of the ocean, coasts, and Great Lakes.
  2. Coastal and marine spatial planning to resolve emerging conflicts to ensure that shipping lanes and wind, wave, and oil and gas energy development do not harm fisheries and water quality.
  3. Improved coordination of policy development among federal state, tribal, local, and regional managers of ocean, coasts, and the Great Lakes.
  4. Focus on resiliency and adaptation to climate change and ocean acidification.
  5. Pay special attention to policies needed to deal with changing arctic conditions.

Experts said that the new, unified policy was timely, after decades of hit-or-miss development policies.

“We have been managing bits and pieces of the ocean for a long time, but while some good has been done on pollution and resource management, it hasn’t been sufficient.” says Andrew Rosenberg, professor of natural resources at the University of New Hampshire and an adviser to the president’s ocean task force.”This policy shift comes at a critical time for our oceans for so many reasons.”

The new proposal won’t be finalized until next year, after a 30-day comment period that begins now. Still, environmentalists were quick to hail the plan as a critical and timely step to begin healing disintegrating environmental conditions in US coastal waters and in the US exclusive economic zone that extends 200 miles beyond its territorial waters.

In June, President Obama set up the commission to develop: “a national policy that ensures the protection, maintenance, and restoration of the health of ocean, coastal, and Great Lakes ecosystems and resources, enhances the sustainability of ocean and coastal economies.”

It must also, he wrote, “preserve our maritime heritage, provides for adaptive management to enhance our understanding of and capacity to respond to climate change, and is coordinated with our national security and foreign policy interests.”

“It’s the first time the federal government has put out a decent paper that proposes what a national policy and attitude toward our oceans should be,” says Christopher Mann, senior officer Pew Environment Group, the environmental arm of the Pew Charitable Trust.

In one of the more telling passages buried down in its interim report, the task force called for decisions guided by “best available science” as well as a “precautionary approach” that reflects the Rio Declaration of 1992, which states: “where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environment degradation.”

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