December 18, 2012
Despite covering 70 percent of the earth’s surface, the ocean doesn’t often make it into the news. But when it does, it makes quite a splash (so to speak). Here are the top ten ocean stories we couldn’t stop talking about this year, in no particular order. Add your own in the comments!
2012: The Year of the Squid From the giant squid’s giant eyes (the better to see predatory sperm whales, my dear), to the vampire squid’s eerie diet of remains and feces, the strange adaptations and behavior of these cephalopods amazed us all year. Scientists found a deep-sea squid that dismembers its own glowing arm to distract predators and make a daring escape. But fascinating findings weren’t relegated to the deep: at the surface, some squids will rocket themselves above the waves to fly long distances at top speeds.
James Cameron Explores the Deep Sea Filmmaker James Cameron has never shied away from marine movie plots (See: Titanic, The Abyss), but this year he showed he was truly fearless, becoming the first person to hit the deepest point on the seafloor (35,804 feet) in a solo submarine. While he only managed to bring up a single mud sample from the deepest region, he found thriving biodiversity in the other deep-sea areas his expedition explored, including giant versions of organisms found in shallow water.
Small Fish Make a Big Impact Forage fish—small, schooling fish that are gulped down by predators—should be left in the ocean for larger fish, marine mammals and birds to eat, according to an April report from the Lenfest Forage Fish Task Force. These tiny fish, including anchovies, menhaden, herring and sardines, make up 37% of the world’s catch, but only 10% are consumed by people, with the rest processed into food for farmed fish and livestock. With the evidence mounting that forage fish are worth more as wild fish food, state governments and regional fishery management councils are making moves to protect them from overfishing.
Marine Debris and Plastic Get Around In June, a dock encrusted with barnacles, sea stars, crabs and other sea life washed ashore on the coast of Oregon. It had floated across the Pacific from a Japanese port more than 5,000 miles away—a small piece of the estimated 1.5 million tons of marine debris set afloat by the 2011 Tohoku tsunami. But that’s not the only trash in the sea. Researchers found ten times as much plastic in the “pristine” Antarctic oceans than they expected. Some species are even learning to adapt to the ubiquitous ocean plastic.
Taking Measure of Coral Reef Health Australia’s iconic Great Barrier Reef, so large it can be seen from space, is not doing well. An October study found that since 1986, half of the living coral has died because of warming water, predation and storm damage. And it’s not just Australia: the December Healthy Reefs report gave most Mesoamerican reefs a “poor” rating. It’s hard to escape that gloom, but there were glimmers of hope. Some coral species proved able to adapt to warmer water, and changing circulation caused by the warming ocean may create refuges for coral reef habitat.
Shark Finning Slowing Down? The fishing practice of shark finning—slicing off a shark’s fins before tossing it back in the ocean to slowly sink and suffocate—began its own slow death in 2012. A steady stream of U.S. states have banned the sale of shark fins
ning; the European Union will now require fisherman to land sharks with their fins on; four shark sanctuaries were created in American Samoa, the Cook Islands, Kosrae and French Polynesia; and, in July, China announced that official banquets would be prohibited from serving shark fin soup (although the ban may take up to three years to go into effect).
Arctic Sea Ice Hits All-Time Low On September 16, sea ice extent reached a record low in the Arctic, stretching 3.41 million square kilometers—that’s 49% lower than the 1979-2000 average minimum of 6.7 million square kilometers. What’s more, its melt rate is increasing: 2012 had the largest summer ice loss by more than one million square kilometers. This change is expected to affect ecosystems—from polar bears to phytoplankton—and accelerate warming in the area, eventually melting Greenland’s ice sheet and raising sea level dramatically.
Hurricane Sandy Elevates Awareness of Sea-Level Rise This year certainly opened our eyes to the severity of climate change and sea-level rise. The east coast of the U.S., where scientists project sea-level will rise three to four times faster than the global average, got a glimpse of its effects when Hurricane Sandy caused $65 billion in damage, took at least 253 lives, and flooded Manhattan’s subways in October. The disaster inspired The Economist, Bloomberg Businessweek and other major news sources to take a closer look at climate change and what it means for us all.
Counting Ocean Animals from Space Scientists took advantage of satellite technology this year to learn more about ocean wildlife. The first satellite-driven census of an animal population discovered that there are twice as many emperor penguins in Antarctica as previously thought, including seven new colonies of the large flightless birds. A second study tracked the travels of sea turtles by satellite, which could help researchers get a better idea of where they might interact with fisheries and accidentally end up caught in a net.
The Ocean Gets a Grade The first tool to comprehensively assess ocean health was announced in August 2012—and the ocean as a whole received a score of 60 out of a possible 100. This tool, the Ocean Health Index, is novel in that it considered ten ways the ocean supports people, including economies, biodiversity, and recreation. The U.S. scored a 63, ranking 26th globally, while the uninhabited Jarvis Island took home an 86, the top grade of the 171 rated countries.
–Hannah Waters, Emily Frost and Amanda Feuerstein co-wrote this post
June 14, 2012
After spending nearly 30 years studying polar bears in Alaska, researcher Steven Amstrup was the lead author on a series of studies that led to the species becoming the first to be officially listed as threatened, in 2008, due to the dangers of climate change. Since 2010, he has worked as the chief scientist for the organization Polar Bears International. Today it was announced that he is the 2012 recipient of the Indianapolis Prize, the world’s leading award for animal conservation. He spoke with the us about why he’s fascinated by polar bears, how they suffer from melting sea ice and why it’s still not too late to halt catastrophic climate change.
What first drew you to polar bears?
For some reason, I’ve been captivated by bears ever since I was a kid. From the age of 5 or 6, I had this idea in my mind that I was going to go into the woods and study bears. As I matured, I realized that to do that, I needed to get a certain education, become a wildlife biologist. I was fortunate enough to get a project working on black bears in Idaho for my master’s degree, and when I graduated, I got a job with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service. At that time, they were redesigning the polar bear research program. Because I was the only one at the time that had much experience with bears, I was a logical choice for that. My thought then was the same as my thought now—working with polar bears is about the ripest plum in the wildlife profession.
At that time, did you imagine polar bears would be such a crucial species in terms of climate change?
I did not have a clue. I started in 1980, and people were starting to talk about global warming, but it was limited to atmospheric science specialists and physicists. For us, it was cold in the arctic, and none of us ever thought about it much. There’s so much annual variation, so if we had periods of cooler weather or warmer weather, it just seemed like it was part of the natural order of things. What we didn’t realize was that the underlying baseline was moving up, so the warmer periods and the poorer ice years were becoming more frequent.
When I first went to Alaska, the summertime sea ice receded only a few miles from the shore. You could stand on the beach and see the ice out there, and maybe even see a polar bear out there. Now the ice is something like 300 miles off shore in the middle of the summer. It’s a very profound change, one I would never have imagined that I’d see in my lifetime.
How does climate change affect polar bears?
Polar bears have a very specialized lifestyle. They catch their food—largely two species of seals—from the surface of the sea ice. So the habitat that they require to catch their prey literally melts when the temperature rises. The link between a warmer world and polar bear welfare is very direct—more direct than probably for any other species. Their habitat is literally melting.
But polar bears are just one of many, many species affected by climate change. So if we act in time to save polar bears, we will have benefited most of the rest of life on earth, including humans.
What can we do to protect them?
An important thing to realize is that the challenge is more difficult now than it was just a few years ago. Every year that we delay, it gets increasingly difficult. But we really need to orient society towards a concept of sustainability, rather than continual growth.
Specifically, you can look at the different segments of our economy and see where the greatest gains could be. If you look at different sectors—things like heating buildings, transportation—you can see a variety of ways that we can reduce our emissions. We need to reduce our emissions by about 80 percent in the next 20 years to not exceed 450 parts per million [of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere] by the end of the century. That’s a fairly daunting challenge. But if you think about the 80 percent, and then look at our per capita emissions compared to other parts of the world—we have nearly three times the per capita emissions as France, and nobody thinks of France of being undeveloped. We are, in this country, fairly wasteful.
Saving polar bears is first about recognizing this problem and what you can do about it as an individual, and then growing that to the community, and ever-larger communities, until we’re talking about national and international efforts. Right now, governments aren’t leading the charge. So what we’re trying to do is to start from the grassroots and then work it up to where we can force the government to lead.
What have you been doing since your team published those crucial papers that led to the listing of polar bears as threatened in 2008?
Somehow, one of the things that came out of our reports was the concept that polar bears were doomed, that the damage to the sea ice was irreversible because of “tipping points” in ice melt. We didn’t really say that, and if that’s the message that people were getting, it was not a good one: If people think there’s nothing they can do, they will do nothing.
So some of the members of my team, we did an analysis to look at whether there really were tipping points in sea ice melt. If there were, it might mean that future conservation initiatives, like mitigating greenhouse gases, would confer no benefit. We enlisted some of the best sea ice modelers in the field, and we produced a report published in 2010 in Nature that showed that, in fact, there didn’t appear to be tipping points in the Arctic sea ice, and that we certainly hadn’t crossed any. So the good news was that there was still time to take actions that will save polar bears.
At that point, I realized that although there were still more research questions, we already knew what we needed to do to save polar bears. It was a nice point in my career to move from being a researcher to doing outreach and education, to try to take advantage of the wisdom I had gained in 30 years to pass that on to the public and policymakers.
So I’ve since been working for an organization called Polar Bears International. It’s a small non-profit devoted to conserving polar bears and their arctic habitat. We’re mainly an education organization, so we do a variety of outreach initiatives. Every fall, we go up to Churchill, Manitoba—the place where polar bears are most visible—and we set up a high-speed Internet connection out on the tundra, and we invite scientists in to do interviews. We have a camera looking at the scientist, and polar bears roaming in the background, and students from all over the world can call in and talk to leading scientists.
Another one of our main initiatives is working with zoos around the country. One hundred seventy million people per year go through North American zoos, so our idea is: let’s have zoos be not just places of entertainment, but have their principal mission be focused on conservation. We’re channeling that specifically for polar bears, but it benefits everything else. The polar bears that are in the zoos can become ambassadors for their wild counterparts. People come in, they see the polar bear, and they get that sense of power and mystique of it, and then there’s important messaging that goes along with it. Hopefully, they take it home and are inspired to do something that will save polar bears in the wild.
Do you miss the arctic at all?
Well, I hate being cold! But I really do miss the Arctic. The past two years, I haven’t gotten to go up North. It can be a horrible place in terms of comfort level, but on a clear day, when the sun is shining, and the sea is blue, it’s just fantastic. It’s hard to imagine a place that’s more captivating. You look at it, and it’s like the surface of the moon. So to think that out there somewhere are these giant white bears that have figured out a way to make a living, it’s amazing. It’d be nice to think that they’ll be able to do that into the future.
April 6, 2011
When you hear the term “ozone hole” you think about the ozone depletion over Antarctica, and how people in the far south of the Southern Hemisphere have to protect themselves from the Sun. It’s why my friends have to buy hats for their little girl and slather her with sunblock every time she goes outside.
In 1987, countries around the world adopted an ozone-protecting agreement called the Montreal Protocol to phase out ozone-depleting chemicals such as chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). Concentrations of these chemicals in polar regions have fallen about 10 percent from their peak years before the protocol, and the Antarctic ozone hole has been getting smaller and will disappear by sometime in the middle of this century.
But the announcement this week of record low levels of ozone above the Arctic is a reminder that CFCs and similar chemicals have a long life in the atmosphere, and the problem of ozone depletion isn’t going away anytime soon.
The winds of the polar vortex, which was stronger than usual this year, prevented the mass of air over the North Pole from mixing with mid-latitude air, resulting in low stratospheric temperatures. When sunlight arrived in March, the CFCs (and other chlorine- and bromine-based compounds) went to work breaking down the ozone, destroying 40 percent of the ozone in the Arctic stratosphere. (An average year sees only 25 percent or so of Arctic ozone depleted and 55 percent of Antarctic ozone).
Antarctic weather, and the ozone hole, is fairly predictable, but things are more variable in the Arctic. That means that a big loss from year to year, as with 2010 to 2011, isn’t necessarily something to worry about, but it will also make any efforts to understand Arctic loss more difficult.
“In a changing climate, it is expected that on average stratospheric temperatures cool, which means more chemical ozone depletion will occur,” said Mark Weber, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Bremen. “On the other hand, many studies show that the stratospheric circulation in the northern hemisphere may be enhanced in the future and, consequently, more ozone will be transported from the tropics into high latitudes and reduce ozone depletion.”
The World Meteorological Organization recommends that people living in far northern latitudes pay attention to local UV forecasts. Exposure to UV radiation can lead to cancer, cataracts and damage to the immune system.
Watch a NASA animation of changing Arctic ozone here.