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
March 16, 2009
It starts off in the Portuguese town of Aveiro, which for centuries thrived by sending its men to the waters off Newfoundland to harvest the abundant cod there. This fishery supplied the world with more than 3 billion pounds of fish per year before it collapsed at the end of the 20th century. And when the fishery collapsed, so did Aveiro and many other fishing towns, including one that Portuguese fisherman had settled, New Bedford, Massachusetts. How did this happen? A University of Massachusetts scientist provides the answer: the fishermen were too good. The film asks if we would allow such a thing to happen on land, noting that the water hides what we’re doing in the ocean. We’re now consuming the final 10 percent of the world’s large fish, which is rather scary to think of.
The next section takes the viewer to a marine reserve off the Tortugas Islands. It is a successful marine sanctuary, but only because it is well-patrolled. The film follows law enforcement on the water as they board some boats. While interesting, this part seems to not have much of a point, but it passes quickly and I guess viewers will like the crime aspect.
It’s on to Greenland where scientists are measuring glacial movement. The glaciers are moving towards the sea faster than ever—nine miles per year in this location, three times faster than ten years before. If Greenland melts, sea level would rise by 23 feet. (note: That’s just an average. As I wrote last month, sea level rise won’t be the same everywhere.) While that won’t happen for a long time, a rise of just a few feet will devastate those regions that are close to sea level, such as…
Bangladesh, our next stop. Sea level is predicted to rise five feet in this century. Just three feet, and half of Bangladesh’s rice fields will be underwater. People will flood into the cities by the tens of millions. They will riot over food. Some will flee into India. “Poverty does not recognize boundaries,” the movie notes. (The CIA is paying attention to this, right?)
The more immediate threat from climate change is the melting of glaciers in the Andes. Glaciers in Peru could be gone in just a year or two and with them goes much of the country’s fresh water. The connection to the ocean is through a few steps: When the water is gone, the farmers will leave their land and move to the cities along the coast. The major source of inexpensive protein for coastal Peruvians is fish. The fisheries off the Peruvian coast are currently sustainable, but they won’t be if there’s a huge influx of population. In addition, all those extra people will mean an increase in the sewage dumped into the ocean, more pollution and resulting dead zones.
It was about this time in the movie when I wrote the following question in my notes: Why are all the scientists white men? This is my peeve, I warn, but it seems somewhat unlikely that the filmmakers were lacking in female marine scientists to use in their movie. And while scientists from minority groups may be rare, they do exist. The only women in the film to this point were a few locals in Portugal and Peru.
To give the filmmakers credit, in the last section—after we’re treated to one success story, Laughing Bird Key off Belize—famed oceanographer Sylvia Earle closes the movie by sharing her views about the magic of the ocean, complete with beautiful photography. However, the lack of women throughout the film soured it for me. That said, the movie managed to cover an immense array of problems facing the world’s oceans in just an hour.
Watch The State of the Planet’s Oceans Wednesday, March 18th at 8pm on PBS.
February 9, 2009
Some unknown day in the future, ongoing climate change virtually assures the West Antarctic Ice Sheet will melt away. This ice sheet sits on a bit of land that rests below sea level. Some of the water will fill up this hole and the rest will spread out over the globe. Models that assume the world is something like a bathtub in which the water rises evenly worldwide predict that sea level will rise about five meters.
But, of course, the world is not a bathtub; it’s a bit more complicated than that. And a new study from Science shows that some places, such as North America, would be even worse off than previously thought.
The researchers cite three complicating factors to the bathtub model:
1. Because of its mass, an ice sheet has a gravitational pull that attracts water. As the ice sheet melts, its gravitational pull lessens and water moves away from it. Counterintuitively, sea level within 2,000 kilometers of an ice sheet will fall as the ice sheet melts. But that means that sea level farther away will rise; the water has to go somewhere.
2. The ice sheet is so heavy that it depresses the ground beneath it. Remove the ice and the ground will rise. The models of sea level rise depend on a certain amount of water filling up the hole in Antarctica beneath the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. But under the new model less water will fill up the hole and more will end up in the ocean.
3. The melting of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet would be dramatic enough to cause a change in the earth’s rotation axis, ultimately moving water northward in the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans.
These factors add another 1.3 meters to the total sea level rise (6.3 meters total, or 20.7 feet) in Washington, DC, more than enough to put the National Mall—and much of the Smithsonian Institution—underwater.
But the West Antarctic Ice Sheet is not the only one vulnerable to climate change, the scientists warn in a National Science Foundation video. To get the whole picture, researchers will need to add Greenland, Alaska and mountain glaciers to the models. How much would it take to put your hometown underwater?
See the world under six meters of sea level rise in a CReSIS animation.