June 7, 2013
Ocean plants produce some 50% of the planet’s oxygen. Seawater absorbs a quarter of the carbon dioxide we pump into the atmosphere. Ocean currents distribute heat around the globe, regulating weather patterns and climate. And, for those who take pleasure in life’s simple rewards, a seaweed extract keeps your peanut butter and ice cream at the right consistency!
Nonetheless, those of us who can’t see the ocean from our window still feel a disconnect—because the ocean feels far away, it’s easy to forget the critical role the ocean plays in human life and to think that problems concerning the ocean will only harm those people that fish or make their living directly from the sea. But this isn’t true: the sea is far more important than that.
Every year, scientists learn more about the top threats to the ocean and what we can do to counter them. So for tomorrow’s World Oceans Day, here’s a run-down of what we’ve learned just in the past 12 months.
This year, we got the news that the apparent “slow down” in global warming may just be the ocean shouldering the load by absorbing more heat than usual. But this is no cause to celebrate: the extra heat may be out of sight, but it shouldn’t be out of mind. Ocean surface temperatures have been rising incrementally since the early 20th century, and the past three decades have been warmer than we’ve ever observed before. In fact, waters off the U.S. East Coast were hotter in 2012 than the past 150 years. This increase is already affecting wildlife. For example, fish are shifting their ranges globally to stay in the cooler water they prefer, altering ecosystems and fisheries’ harvests.
Coral reefs are highly susceptible to warming: warm water (and other environmental changes) drives away the symbiotic algae that live inside coral animals and provide them food. This process, called bleaching, can kill corals outright by causing them to starve to death, or make it more likely that they will succumb to disease. A study out this year found that even if we reduce our emissions and stop warming the planet beyond 2°C, the number considered to be safe for most ecosystems, around 70% of corals will degrade and die by 2030.
Although coral reefs can be quite resilient and can survive unimaginable disturbances, we need to get moving on reducing carbon dioxide emissions and creating protected areas where other stressors such as environmental pollutants are reduced.
More than a hit of acid
The ocean doesn’t just absorb heat from the atmosphere: it also absorbs carbon dioxide directly, which breaks down into carbonic acid and makes seawater more acidic. Since preindustrial times, the ocean has become 30% more acidic and scientists are just starting to unravel the diverse responses ecosystems and organisms have to acidification.
And it really is a variety: some organisms (the “winners”) may not be harmed by acidification at all. Sea urchin larvae, for instance, develop just fine, despite having calcium carbonate skeletons that are susceptible to dissolving. Sponges that drill into shells and corals show an ability to drill faster in acidic seawater, but to the detriment of the organisms they’re boring into.
Nonetheless, there will be plenty of losers. This year saw the first physical evidence of acidification in the wild: the shells of swimming snails called pteropods showed signs of dissolution in Antarctica. Researchers previously found that oyster larvae fail under acidic conditions, potentially explaining recent oyster hatchery collapses and smaller oysters. Acidification may also harm other fisheries.
Plastic, plastic, everywhere
Americans produced 31 million tons of plastic trash in 2010, and only eight percent of that was recycled. Where does the remaining plastic go? A lot of it ends up in the ocean.
Since last World Oceans Day, trash has reached the deep-sea and the remote Southern Ocean, two of the most pristine areas on Earth. Most of the plastic trash in the ocean is small—a few centimeters or less—and can easily be consumed by animals, with damaging consequences. Some animals get hit on two fronts: when already dangerous plastic degrades in their stomachs it leaches toxic chemicals into their systems. Laysan albatross chicks are fed the bits of plastic by their parents in lieu of their typical diet and one-third of fish in the English Channel have nibbled on plastic.
Where have all the fish gone?
A perennial problem for the ocean, overfishing has only gotten worse with the advent of highly advanced gear. Despite fishing fleets going farther and deeper, the fishing gains are not keeping up with the increased effort.
Our brains can’t keep up either: even as we catch fewer fish, we acclimate to the new normal, adjust to the shifting baseline, and forget the boon that used to be, despite the fact that our memories are long enough to realize that most of the world’s fisheries (especially the small ones that aren’t regulated) are in decline.
Thankfully, those responsible for managing our fisheries are aware of what’s at stake. New knowledge about fish populations and their role in ecosystems can lead to recovery. A report from March 2013 shows that two-thirds of U.S. fish species that are closely managed due to their earlier declines are now considered rebuilt, or on their way.
Learn more about the ocean from the Smithsonian’s Ocean Portal. This post was co-authored by Emily Frost and Hannah Waters.
March 13, 2013
Anyone who has gone scuba diving or snorkeling in a coral reef will likely never forget the dazzling colors and other-worldly shapes of these underwater communities. Home to some of the world’s most diverse wildlife hotspots, reefs are worth an annual $400 billion in tourist dollars and in the ecosystem services they provide, such as buffering shores from storms and providing habitat for fish that people eat.
Yet it’s a well known fact that coral reefs around the world are in decline thanks to pollution and rapidly warming oceans. However, determining just how reefs are faring–and designing steps to protect them–requires a way to accurately measure their health. Researchers tend to rely upon invasive, damaging techniques to figure out how corals are coping, or else they perform crude spot checks to determine reef health based on coral color alone. But now, scientists have announced a new method of determining coral health that relies upon measuring the intensity of corals’ fluorescent glow.
Yes, glow. Corals naturally produce fluorescent proteins which glow an eery green when seen under a blue light–nearly all corals exhibit this physiological phenomenon.
“This is the first study to follow the dynamics of coral fluorescence and fluorescent protein levels during temperature stress, and shows that coral fluorescence could be utilized as a early indicator of coral stress,” said Melissa Roth, a marine biologist at the University of California, Berkeley (formerly of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego), in an email. “Because coral fluorescence can be measured non-invasively in the field, it could be an important tool for management of reefs,” she said. Roth and her colleague Dimitri Deheyn described their findings this week in Scientific Reports.
The degree to which a coral glows depends largely on another group of organisms, dinoflagellate algae. Corals are actually a symbiotic assembly of itself and these microscopic dinoflagellate algae–the dinoflagellates help corals attain nutrition, which in turn fuels the growth of coral reefs. The tiny organisms are also responsible for giving corals their typical brownish hue.
But dinoflagellates can abandon ship due to stressors such as increased temperature, a phenomenon known as coral bleaching. Left on their own without the aid of their dinoflagellate covering, the corals’ naturally white skin becomes glaringly visible. The coral can live for a little while after a dinoflagellate exodus, but not for long. If the algae do not return, the coral will die.
Knowing this, Roth and Deheyn decided to investigate how coral fluorescence might reflect the current state of a coral and its dinoflagellates’ relationship. They chose to use Acropora yongei, a common branching coral, in their experiments since it’s often one of the first corals shows signs of stress and bleaching in a reef. They subjected individual corals to one of two different experimental setups in their lab. In some containers, they pummeled corals with cold water, and in others they doused corals in hot water. Another group of corals served as a control. Then they let the corals pickle in their temperature-regulated waters for almost three weeks.
The researchers found a distinct correlation between the degree of bleaching and the concentration of a coral’s fluorescent proteins, which in turn determined the strength of it’s glow. In the first 4 to 5 days, the fluorescent protein concentration and glow of both cold and heat-treated corals dropped. But by the end of the 20-day experiment, cold-stressed corals had acclimated and recovered to their normal level of fluorescence. Heat-stressed corals, on the other hand, bleached and began to glow even more strongly, probably because their dinoflagellate communities no longer blocked the coral’s underlying fluorescence. Like a supernova before a star’s final collapse, the corals send out a steady stream of intense glow just before their inevitable demise.
After death, the glow stops. In a reef system, the bone white coral would gradually get masked by a film of green algae that coats the ruins of the now deceased organism.
Once corals start to bleach, conservationists or wildlife managers have few options for helping reefs as they begin to decline and often eventually die. But if they catch the problem ahead of time, they could try to help the coral with strategies such as shading with artificial structures or sediments, adding antioxidants to the water or introducing heartier dinoflagellates, though scientific studies validating these potential rescue methods are largely lacking.
This new finding, Roth hopes, can be used to preempt reef collapse, serving as a sort of canary in the coal mine for corals in distress. “Managers could focus on the most sensitive corals on a reef, like branching corals, and look for rapid drops in fluorescence as an early sign of stress,” Roth said. This would give them about a week-long window to take action before full-blown bleaching began. “Bleaching would be like a heart attack,” she explained. “You would rather detect signs of high blood pressure or clogging of the arteries to address and avoid a heart attack.”
Managers who want to visualize their reef’s health can observe the glow by using a blue flashlight and a yellow filter over their snorkel mask, or they can film the phenomenon with a camera equipped with these same features. If managers notice the initial drop in coral glow that indicates an impending problem, for example, immediate action could perhaps be taken to try and rescue the reef.
“So the idea is that we can use coral fluorescence as a early indicator of coral health prior to bleaching, which could actually give time for managers to do something if they wanted to take actions to protect the reef. Obviously that may be difficult on a large scale,” she explained, adding that “as reefs become degraded the few that we have left might be protected more aggressively.”
Further research on how these findings might apply to other species of coral is needed, the authors write. They also hope that future studies will combine biology with engineering to help design a digital imaging system that better captures and quantifies the extent to which corals change their glow.
January 23, 2013
Installing a giant mirror in space to block sunlight, dispersing mass quantities of minerals into the oceans to suck carbon dioxide from the air and infusing the Earth’s upper atmosphere with sun-reflecting chemicals might sound like the stuff of science fiction, but they’re actual techniques that have been contemplated by scientists as possible quick solutions to climate change. More specifically, they’re examples of geo-engineering, a hotly contested subset of climate science whereby the Earth’s environment is intentionally manipulated in order to mitigate the effects of global warming.
Since cutting greenhouse gas emissions has been something of an exercise in futility, the idea behind geo-engineering is to put systems in place that manage the carbon dioxide that’s already emitted into the atmosphere. The two basic methods are solar radiation management—whereby a small amount of the sun’s heat and light is reflected back into space—and carbon dioxide removal, which involves the capture of CO2 or its uptake by the oceans.
A new study published yesterday in the journal Environmental Research Letters poked holes in one proposed approach to carbon dioxide removal. The research, conducted by scientists from Germany’s Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research, showed that dissolving the mineral olivine into the oceans would be an inefficient way of reducing atmospheric carbon dioxide.
The researchers used computer modeling to study six scenarios of dissolving olivine into the oceans—a process that increases the alkalinity of the water, which in turn allows the seas to absorb more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The results revealed the following limitation: Dispersing three gigatons (equal to three billion tons) of olivine into the oceans compensated for just roughly nine percent of the planet’s current CO2 emissions. To do the entire job would require 40 gigatons–an excessively large amount of the mineral.
Crushing all of that rock into a fine-enough powder for it to easily dissolve would present another set of environmental problems, according to the researchers. “[E]nergy costs of grinding olivine to such a small size suggest that with present day technology, around 30 per cent of the CO2 taken out of the atmosphere and absorbed by the oceans would be re-emitted by the grinding process,” the lead author of the study, Peter Köhler, said in a statement.
“If this method of geoengineering was deployed, we would need an industry the size of the present day coal industry to obtain the necessary amounts of olivine,” Köhler added. Olivine is found beneath the Earth’s surface. To distribute such a large quantity of it would require a fleet of 100 large ships.
The researchers also concluded that mass dissolution of olivine would have a few side effects. Iron and other trace metals would be released into the seas, which would result in ocean fertilization, a process that can spark plankton blooms. On the flip side, ocean acidification, another climate change woe, would actually improve with olivine dissolution. The rise in alkalinity would counteract ocean acidification.
But overall, the process would be far from a quick cure-all. “The [world’s] recent fossil emissions… are difficult if not impossible to be reduced solely based on olivine dissolution,” the researchers wrote. “It certainly is not a simple solution against the global warming problem,” Köhler added.
This study aside, many scientists have debated the merits of geo-engineering. Some are skeptical that greenhouse gas emissions will ever be effectively reduced and they see solar radiation management and carbon dioxide removal as viable alternatives. “People worry that if we use geoengineering, we wouldn’t reduce our greenhouse gas emissions,” Scott Barrett, a professor of natural resource economics at Columbia University, said in an interview published on the school’s Earth Institutes blog. “But we’re not reducing them anyway… And given that we have failed to address climate change, I think we’re better off having the possibility of geoengineering.”
Others disagree. “There’s no reason to think it’s going to work,” environmental activist and author Bill McKibben said in a recent interview with The Rumpus. “The side effects will probably be worse than the disease. And none of the things anyone’s talking about doing will do anything about the way we are destroying the ocean, which, even if nothing else was happening, would be enough to get off fossil fuels immediately.”