Mauritius races to contain oil spill from grounded ship, protect coastline

https://www.nbcnews.com/news/world/mauritius-races-contain-oil-spill-grounded-ship-protect-coastline-n1236294?fbclid=IwAR3lPpoplITQsP0M44c9xUN1i9gVCGPQ-jc4Sme4hwRXdJsGWOVXH-31MiI

Thousands of residents and environmental activists had been working to contain the damage before the Japanese-owned tanker breaks apart.

Drone footage shows oil spill snaking towards Mauritius coast

AUG. 9, 202001:14Aug. 11, 2020, 1:43 AM PDT / Updated Aug. 11, 2020, 7:19 AM PDTBy Ariel Saramandi

MAURITIUS — Within minutes of hearing about the oil spill, David Sauvage raced to the waterfront.

The MV Wakashio, a Japanese-owned ship heading to Brazil and carrying an estimated 4,000 metric tons of oil, ran aground on Mauritius’ southeast coast on July 25.

Tons of oil have gushed from cracks in the vessel, streaking the island’s turquoise water black and threatening to ruin its coral reefs, protected lagoons and shoreline.

Sauvage, an environmental activist, wasn’t confident that officials in this Indian Ocean island nation would act in time to protect the pristine coastline for which it’s renowned.

So along with members of a local political party he worked through the night, using a net stuffed with dried sugarcane leaves in an effort to prevent the oil from flooding the island.

“Low-cost, low-tech, readily available materials that soak up oil,” Sauvage told NBC News.

The group busied itself making more of the “booms” and word soon spread. The next day thousands of Mauritians across the island had gathered to craft the natural barriers.

Hundreds more donned gloves, masks and other personal protective equipment and plunged neck-deep into the oil, cleaning the mangroves and ocean as best they could.

Mauritius oil spill: ‘How are we supposed to clean this up?’

AUG. 11, 202001:20

The volunteers have ignored a government order to leave the clean-up operation to local officials, potentially risking a fine or other punishment. NGOs asked volunteers on Tuesday not to risk their health cleaning up the oil on the coast but to concentrate on boom-making instead.

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High winds and waves are pounding the Japanese bulk carrier, which is showing signs of breaking up and dumping its remaining cargo into the waters surrounding the postcard-perfect island off the east coast of Africa.

Nearly 2,000 metric tons of oil, diesel and petroleum lubricants could inundate the lagoon if the Wakashio breaks apart, and experts believe it’s a matter of hours.

“The situation is very critical. Cracks have expanded over the course of the day,” said Dr. Vassen Kauppaymuthoo, the island’s premier oceanographer.

“The situation’s about to get 10 times worse. It’ll be a major catastrophe,” he said.

The oil is traveling up the coast, Kauppaymuthoo told NBC News, which could lead to huge stretches of lagoon being affected.

“It’ll take decades to rehabilitate the lagoon, and it’ll never be as it was before the spill. We have thousand-year-old coral here, protected species in our waters,” he added.

“I’m so sad, so angry. Larm koule,” he said in creole. The phrase means “tears run down my face.”

Image: Oil leaking from the MV Wakashio, a bulk carrier ship that recently ran aground off the southeast coast of Mauritius
Oil leaking from the MV Wakashio on Sunday.Gwendoline Defente / EMAE / AP

Tourism has long been at the heart of the country’s economy, with a string of luxury hotels punctuating every coastline.

The country had emerged from the restrictions of the COVID-19 pandemic two months ago relatively unscathed, with only 344 total cases and 10 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins’ Coronavirus Resource Center. The government recently launched a fresh series of tourist campaigns in an effort to revive business.

But now schools in the region have been closed because of the overwhelming smell of petrol and dead fish that permeates the air.

There’s concern that residents near the coast where the ship is stranded, among several sites of great ecological importance, may have been exposed to hazardous substances washing ashore.

“I can’t smell it anymore,” said Sauvage, who has barely left the waterfront since the spill.

Image: CORRECTION-MAURITIUS-ENVIRONMENT-POLLUTION-SHIPPING
Bystanders look at the MV Wakashio bulk carrier that had run aground and from which oil is leaking near Blue Bay Marine Park in south-east Mauritius.DEV RAMKHELAWON / AFP – Getty Images

Prime Minister Pravind Jugnauth has declared a state of emergency and appealed for international help. He said the spill “represents a danger” for the country of 1.3 million people.

Japan on Sunday said it would send a six-member team of experts to assist. French experts have arrived from the nearby island of Reunion.

But pressure is mounting on the government to explain why it did not act sooner to avert the environmental disaster.

The opposition and activists are calling for the resignation of the environment and fisheries ministers.

“We’ve seen the trailer but not the movie yet, of the crisis to come,” said Dr. Vikash Tatayah, director of the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation.

He’s been leading rescue efforts on Ile aux Aigrettes, an islet central to conservation efforts, evacuating species of plants and animals to safety.

The oil has encircled the islet like a noose.

“It’s a disaster,” Tatayah said.

“Never in my wildest nightmares would I have imagined something like this.”

Wandering humpback whale likely killed in ship collision, says necropsy team

Dead whale shows signs of acute trauma, says veterinary professor

The lifeless body of young humpback whale was found drifting in the St. Lawrence River, near the Verchères archipelago, early Tuesday. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)
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Preliminary results of a necropsy show a boat strike likely killed the humpback whale whose body was found drifting down the St. Lawrence River near Varennes, Que., early Tuesday, say veterinarians who are examining the carcass where it was hoisted from the water, in Sainte-Anne-de-Sorel.

The whale, vigorous when she was first spotted near the Jacques Cartier Bridge on May 30, drew hundreds of people to the Old Port to catch a glimpse of the rare sight. The whale was last spotted alive Sunday near Pointe-aux-Trembles, at the northeastern end of the island of Montreal and was then seen, lifeless, near Île-Beauregard, six nautical miles away.

Université de Montréal Prof. Stéphane Lair, a veterinary pathologist leading the team conducting the necropsy, said the whale had suffered trauma under its skin and in its muscles. The accumulation of blood in the whale also suggests that a collision fatally wounded the animal, said Lair.

Lair confirmed the young humpback was a female, between two and three years of age.

He said his team will analyze samples from the necropsy in the lab before confirming the cause of death in a month or two.

If indeed a boat did strike and kill the whale, Laird said, the vessel would have had to have been very large.

WATCH: Veterinarian on what he found in whale necropsy:

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Preliminary findings show whale was hit by boat

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The team led by Université de Montréal veterinary Prof. Stéphane Lair says early findings from the necropsy suggest the humpback whale was struck by a boat. Lair says a final diagnosis could take as long as two months. 0:30

“If they hit the whale during the night, there’s a good chance they might not have noticed it,” Lair said.

The whale had some skin damage from the time it had spent in fresh water, Lair said, but it otherwise looked to be in good health.

Humpback whales can survive a journey through fresh water for at least three weeks and return safely to the ocean, said Robert Michaud, the co-ordinator of the Quebec Marine Mammal Emergency Response Network.

“We thought this animal could make it,” said Michaud, who is also the founder and scientific director of the Group for Research and Education on Marine Mammals, based in Tadoussac, Que.

Lair said he can’t yet confirm if the whale had been eating but said it is possible the whale, at least in the early part of her journey from salt water upstream to Montreal, could have been chasing schools of fish.

Michaud and his network had hoped they could help the whale return safely to her natural habitat, keeping close tabs on her until they lost track of the whale Sunday morning, he said.

A crew from the University of Montreal veterinarian school performs a necropsy on the whale in Sainte-Anne-de-Sorel, Que. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)

Crab blood to remain big pharma’s standard as industry group rejects substitute

Animal rights groups have been pushing a synthetic alternative to horseshoe crab blood in drug safety testing

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/may/31/crab-blood-to-remain-big-pharmas-standard-as-industry-group-rejects-substitute

An Atlantic horseshoe crab on a beach

The copper-rich blue blood of the horseshoe crab has long been used to detect contaminants in pharmaceuticals. Photograph: Mike Segar/Reuters

Reuters
Published onSat 30 May 2020 22.53 EDT

Horseshoe crabs’ icy-blue blood will remain the drug industry’s standard for safety tests after a powerful US group ditched a plan to give equal status to a synthetic substitute pushed by Swiss biotech Lonza and animal welfare groups.

The crabs’ copper-rich blood clots in the presence of bacterial endotoxins and has long been used in tests to detect contamination in shots and infusions.

More recently, man-made versions called recombinant Factor C (rFC) from Basel-based Lonza and others have emerged.

An industry battle has been brewing, as another testing giant, Lonza’s US-based rival Charles River Laboratories, has criticised the synthetic option on safety grounds.

Maryland-based US Pharmacopeia (USP), whose influential publications guide the drug industry, had initially proposed adding rFC to the existing chapter governing international endotoxin testing standards.

USP has now abandoned that, it announced late on Friday, opting instead to put rFC in a new stand-alone chapter. This means drug companies seeking to use it must continue to do extra validation work, to guarantee their methods of using rFC tests match those of tests made from crab blood.

The decision gives the drug industry fewer incentives to end its reliance on animal-based tests, even as companies like Lonza and France’s bioMerieux promote man-made alternatives and wildlife advocates worry about crab bleeding’s effect on the coastal ecosystem.

USP told Reuters on Sunday its experts concluded there was too little practical experience with drug products tested with rFC to put the synthetic tests on equal footing with crab blood tests, which have been widely used for decades.

Horseshoe crabs being bled at Charles River Laboratory

Horseshoe crabs being bled at Charles River Laboratory. Photograph: Timothy Fadek/Corbis via Getty Images

“Given the importance of endotoxin testing in protecting patients … the committee ultimately decided more real-world data [was needed],” USP said in a statement, adding this approach will give the US Food and Drug Administration flexibility to work with drugmakers on rFC validation requirements.

USP did say it supports efforts to shift to rFC tests, including for potential testing of Covid-19 medicines or vaccines, where it is offering technical assistance.

Endotoxin tests number 70 million annually and estimates put the relevant market at $1bn annually by 2024.

Eli Lilly, one drugmaker that has shifted to synthetic tests for drugs like its migraine treatment Emgality, has said rFC is safe and that the extra validation requirements have been a hurdle to adoption by more companies.

Conservationists, including advocates for migratory birds that dine on horseshoe crab eggs on the US east coast, have also been pushing for rFC’s increased use to take pressure off crabs, some of which die after being returned to the Atlantic Ocean following bleeding.

Lonza did not immediately comment on USP’s move. Charles River also did not return a request for comment.

The New Jersey Audubon Society and Delaware-based Ecological Research & Development Group, a crab conservation group, did not respond to messages seeking comment.

Scientists Discover 400-Year-Old Greenland Shark Likely Born Around 1620

Greenland sharks are now the longest-living vertebrates known on Earth, according to scientists.

Scientists Discover 400-Year-Old Greenland Shark Likely Born Around 1620

Image credit: Dive Magazine

Researchers used radiocarbon dating of eye proteins to determine the ages of 28 Greenland sharks, and estimated that one female was about 400 years old. The former vertebrate record-holder was a bowhead whale estimated to be 211 years old.

As lead author Julius Nielsen, a marine biologist from the University of Copenhagen, put it: “We had our expectations that we were dealing with an unusual animal, but I think everyone doing this research was very surprised to learn the sharks were as old as they were.”

Greenland sharks swim through the cold waters of the Arctic and the North Atlantic at such a sluggish pace that has earned them the nickname “sleeper sharks.” Image credit: Julius Nielsen

Greenland sharks are huge and can grow up to 5m in length. Yet, they grow at just 1cm a year. They can be found, swimming slowly, throughout the cold, deep waters of the North Atlantic.

The team believes the animals only reach sexual maturity when they are 4m-long. And with this new, very lengthy age-range, it suggests this does not occur until the animals are about 150 years old.

A newly tagged Greenland shark returns to the deep and cold waters of the Uummannaq Fjord in western Greenland. Image credit: Julius Nielsen

The research was made possible, in part, by the atmospheric thermonuclear weapons tests conducted during the 1960s, which released massive amounts of radiocarbon that were then absorbed by organisms in ocean ecosystems. Sharks that showed evidence of elevated radiocarbon in the nucleus of their eye tissue were therefore born after the so-called “bomb pulse,” and were younger than 50 years old, while sharks with lower radiocarbon levels were born prior to that, and were at least 50 years old or older, the study authors wrote.

The scientists then calculated an age range for the older sharks based on their size, and on prior data about Greenland sharks’ size at birth and growth rates in fish.

A Greenland shark near the ocean surface after its release from research vessel Sanna in northern Greenland. Image credit: Julius Nielsen

According to the results of the analysis – which has a probability rate of about 95 percent – the sharks were at least 272 years old, and could be as much as 512 years old (!) with 390 years as the most likely average life span, according to Nielsen.

But why do Greenland sharks live so long? Their longevity is actually attributed to their very slow metabolism and the cold waters that they inhabit. They swim through the cold waters of the Arctic and the North Atlantic at such a sluggish pace that has earned them the nickname “sleeper sharks.” Seal parts have been found in their bellies, but the sharks move so slowly that experts have suggested that the seals must have been asleep or already dead when the sharks ate them.

Sources: 12

Discovery of Life Deep beneath Sea May Inspire Search on Mars

Bacteria live in tiny clay-filled cracks in solid rock millions of years old

Associate professor Yohey Suzuki at the University of Tokyo led the effort to develop a new way to prepare rock samples to search for life deep beneath the seafloor. This is an example of one of the thin slices of rock he prepared using special epoxy to ensure the rock held its shape while it was cut.
CAITLIN DEVOR, UNIVERSITY OF TOKYO, CC BY 4.0

Newly discovered single-celled creatures living deep beneath the seafloor have given researchers clues about how they might find life on Mars. These bacteria were discovered living in tiny cracks inside volcanic rocks after researchers persisted over a decade of trial and error to find a new way to examine the rocks.

Researchers estimate that the rock cracks are home to a community of bacteria as dense as that of the human gut, about 10 billion bacterial cells per cubic centimeter (0.06 cubic inch). In contrast, the average density of bacteria living in mud sediment on the seafloor is estimated to be 100 cells per cubic centimeter.

“I am now almost over-expecting that I can find life on Mars. If not, it must be that life relies on some other process that Mars does not have, like plate tectonics,” said associate professor Yohey Suzuki from the University of Tokyo, referring to the movement of land masses around Earth most notable for causing earthquakes. Suzuki is first author of the research paper announcing the discovery, published in Communications Biology.

Magic of clay minerals

“I thought it was a dream, seeing such rich microbial life in rocks,” said Suzuki, recalling the first time he saw bacteria inside the undersea rock samples.

Undersea volcanoes spew out lava at approximately 1,200 degrees Celsius (2,200 degrees Fahrenheit), which eventually cracks as it cools down and becomes rock. The cracks are narrow, often less than 1 millimeter (0.04 inch) across. Over millions of years, those cracks fill up with clay minerals, the same clay used to make pottery. Somehow, bacteria find their way into those cracks and multiply.

“These cracks are a very friendly place for life. Clay minerals are like a magic material on Earth; if you can find clay minerals, you can almost always find microbes living in them,” explained Suzuki.

The microbes identified in the cracks are aerobic bacteria, meaning they use a process similar to how human cells make energy, relying on oxygen and organic nutrients.

“Honestly, it was a very unexpected discovery. I was very lucky, because I almost gave up,” said Suzuki.

Cruise for deep ocean samples

Yohey Suzuki from the University of Tokyo and collaborators from around Japan are the first to find life surviving in solid rocks deep beneath the seafloor.
CAITLIN DEVOR, UNIVERSITY OF TOKYO, CC BY 4.0

Suzuki and his colleagues discovered the bacteria in rock samples that he helped collect in late 2010 during the Integrated Ocean Drilling Program (IODP). IODP Expedition 329 took a team of researchers from the tropical island of Tahiti in the middle of the Pacific Ocean to Auckland, New Zealand. The research ship anchored above three locations along the route across the South Pacific Gyre and used a metal tube 5.7 kilometers long to reach the ocean floor. Then, a drill cut down 125 meters below the seafloor and pulled out core samples, each about 6.2 centimeters across. The first 75 meters beneath the seafloor were mud sediment and then researchers collected another 40 meters of solid rock.

Depending on the location, the rock samples were estimated to be 13.5 million, 33.5 million and 104 million years old. The collection sites were not near any hydrothermal vents or sub-seafloor water channels, so researchers are confident the bacteria arrived in the cracks independently rather than being forced in by a current. The rock core samples were also sterilized to prevent surface contamination using an artificial seawater wash and a quick burn, a process Suzuki compares to making aburi (flame-seared) sushi.


Related Article: What Will a Lab on Mars Be Like?


At that time, the standard way to find bacteria in rock samples was to chip away the outer layer of the rock, then grind the center of the rock into a powder and count cells out of that crushed rock.

“I was making loud noises with my hammer and chisel, breaking open rocks while everyone else was working quietly with their mud,” he recalled.

How to slice a rock

Insert Image Here (remove this text once you’ve added an image)
Aerobic bacteria live densely packed into tunnels of clay minerals found in this sample of solid rock, collected from 122 meters beneath the seafloor. Image B is 1,000 times greater magnification than Image A. The left side photo in each image was taken using normal light and the right side photo was taken using fluorescent light. The solid basalt rock is gray, the clay minerals are orange, and the bacterial cells are green spheres.
SUZUKI ET AL. 2020, DOI: 10.1038/S42003-020-0860-1, CC BY 4.0

Over the years, continuing to hope that bacteria might be present but unable to find any, Suzuki decided he needed a new way to look specifically at the cracks running through the rocks. He found inspiration in the way pathologists prepare ultrathin slices of body tissue samples to diagnose disease. Suzuki decided to coat the rocks in a special epoxy to support their natural shape so that they wouldn’t crumble when he sliced off thin layers.

These thin sheets of solid rock were then washed with dye that stains DNA and placed under a microscope.

The bacteria appeared as glowing green spheres tightly packed into tunnels that glow orange, surrounded by black rock. That orange glow comes from clay mineral deposits, the “magic material” giving bacteria an attractive place to live.

Whole genome DNA analysis identified the different species of bacteria that lived in the cracks. Samples from different locations had similar, but not identical, species of bacteria. Rocks at different locations are different ages, which may affect what minerals have had time to accumulate and therefore what bacteria are most common in the cracks.

Suzuki and his colleagues speculate that the clay mineral-filled cracks concentrate the nutrients that the bacteria use as fuel. This might explain why the density of bacteria in the rock cracks is eight orders of magnitude greater than the density of bacteria living freely in mud sediment where seawater dilutes the nutrients.

From the ocean floor to Mars

The clay minerals filling cracks in deep ocean rocks are likely similar to the minerals that may be in rocks now on the surface of Mars.

“Minerals are like a fingerprint for what conditions were present when the clay formed. Neutral to slightly alkaline levels, low temperature, moderate salinity, iron-rich environment, basalt rock—all of these conditions are shared between the deep ocean and the surface of Mars,” said Suzuki.

Suzuki’s research team is beginning a collaboration with NASA’s Johnson Space Center to design a plan to examine rocks collected from the Martian surface by rovers. Ideas include keeping the samples locked in a titanium tube and using a CT (computed tomography) scanner, a type of 3D X-ray, to look for life inside clay mineral-filled cracks.

“This discovery of life where no one expected it in solid rock below the seafloor may be changing the game for the search for life in space,” said Suzuki.

– This press release was originally published on the University of Tokyo website

What’s tangling up the humpback whales? A food chain snarled by climate change

Humpback whale

A humpback whale breaches off the coast of Long Beach.
(Nick Ut / Associated Press)

Karin Forney still remembers when an unusual number of humpback whales started showing up in Monterey Bay a few winters ago. She could see them out her window — so close to the surf that kayakers could literally paddle up to them.

But with this delightful arrival came an alarming number of humpbacks getting entangled in fishing gear that cut into their flesh and often led to death. This sudden crisis confounded scientists, fishermen and animal rights groups.

“We went from virtually no humpback whale entanglements to one every other week — and then during peak, in the spring of 2016 … we were basically on call every single day,” said Forney, an applied marine ecologist at the NOAA Fisheries who scrambled to help the rescue efforts.

“The whales just kept coming.”

In a study published Monday, a team of scientists solved the mystery. They showed how one dramatic shift in the marine ecosystem, exacerbated by an ever-warming planet, could set off a domino effect across California.

An unprecedented heat wave in the Pacific Ocean, dubbed “the blob,” had pushed anchovies and other humpback food closer to shore — right where most Dungeness crab fishermen tend to set their gear. The crab season, in turn, had been unusually delayed by the blob, so fishing did not peak until the whales started coming into town.

“The timing of everything is so sensitive from an ecosystem perspective,” said Jarrod Santora, lead author of the study and an ecosystem oceanographer with NOAA Fisheries and UC Santa Cruz. “We could have prevented this perfect storm from happening in 2016 — if we had this ecosystem science and a communication system in place.”

Bay Area crab fishing

Crab fishermen load traps onto their boat at Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco.
(Justin Sullivan/ Getty Images)

The ocean is already a complicated place to live, and it’s not getting easier. Marine heat waves have doubled in frequency since 1982, and recent reports declared that global ocean temperatures in 2019 were the warmest on record — a trend that has continued for the last decade.

The chemistry of the water itself is acidifying at alarming rates — the cost of relying on our oceans to absorb so much of the world’s heat and carbon emissions.

Following the blob, which took hold in 2014 and overwhelmed marine life for three years, scientists documented the largest toxic algae bloom in the West Coast. Malnourished sea lions washed ashore, another study confirmed, and more than half a million seabirds starved to death — strewn across the coast from California to the Gulf of Alaska.

Monday’s study, published in the journal Nature Communications, brought together different scientists and data sources to piece together a bigger ecosystem picture in California.

Humpback whales eat both krill and anchovies, depending on what’s available. Krill tend to thrive in deeper and colder waters — and well up with the typical currents along the California coast.

But during the blob years, there was very little krill for the whales to eat, and what few anchovies were available were being squeezed into areas closer to shore in what scientists call a habitat compression. Humpbacks followed these clusters of anchovies to shallower and shallower waters, especially in Monterey, Point Reyes and Half Moon Bay.

Rescuers free entangled whale

A young humpback whale entangled in fishing gear is freed in Monterey Bay, days after it was first spotted by a fisherman.
(Marine Life Studies Whale Entanglement Team via Associated Press)

The entanglements with fishing gear soared starting in 2014 and 2015, but then in 2016, a domoic acid outbreak (also thanks to the blob) kept the crab fishery shut until the first week of April — instead of its usual start date in mid-November.

This amplified the co-occurrence, as Santora calls it, of the whales being forced to feed in smaller concentrations closer to shore — right where the prime crab fishing areas tend to be. By 2016, there were more than 50 recorded entanglements, he said, “and that is just astonishing.”

“Historically, we always said: ‘My, aren’t we lucky that the crab fishery operates mostly from November through February, maybe March, and the whales are here from only March to November,” said Forney, the NOAA researcher in Monterey Bay, who was also an author on the study.

But more and more fishermen, she said, are sticking with crab through June. Salmon fishing, which many used to switch to around February, has become less reliable in this changing world.

John Mellor, who fishes mostly for crab out of San Francisco, said he’s eager for more science and coordination to protect all the marine life that makes California special.

“I’ve been fishing for 40 years, and things changed so drastically starting about 2013, 2014 … it was profound,” he said. “Suddenly the water was 10 degrees hotter, the forage was disrupted and whale patterns were disrupted, and it caused this whole chain reaction.”

The industry — the most valuable fishery in California — has been taking this very seriously, he said. “People are using best practices, like not using a bunch of slack rope or extra buoys on the surface.”

Tension was high in light of a recent lawsuit by the Center for Biological Diversity, which threatened to restrict crab fishing. A conservation plan is now being developed to address these marine interconnections.

The crab fishermen are treading cautiously and decided to start this season a little later, Mellor said, because there were still whales popping up in San Francisco. If we entangled even one or two, it could’ve resulted in the season being closed all year.”

They lost the profitable Thanksgiving rush and the most productive time to fish for crabs — when they’re just coming out of their molt. But taking care of and minding the balance of the ocean, Mellor said, is in everyone’s best interest.

Humpback whale

Humpback whales, known for their energetic leaps out of water, are popular among whale watchers along the iconic California coast.
(National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)

Mellor is part of what he calls a dedicated “hotshot crew” of scientists, fishermen, environmentalists and wildlife officials who got together when the entanglements first increased. Santora and Forney’s study provided the scientific baseline needed for this working group, which has been developing tools to better anticipate and avoid entanglement.

Many say this group, which was urgently convened in 2015 by the state’s Ocean Protection Council and wildlife and fisheries officials, is the future of ocean management: Setting aside differences, sharing field notes, compiling all the different data streams and figuring out how these multiple issues overlap. Reported entanglements have since dropped off but still remain higher than before the spike.

The scientists are now developing a website that will use all this data to forecast the areas where whales are most likely to be feeding off the West Coast. Crab fishermen could then decide where — and where not — to set their traps. Regulators could make calls on when to open or close a fishery.

Using these new tools and thinking about the ecosystem as a whole — rather than the traditional approach of focusing on one type of fish or species at a time — will help everyone adjust to more rapid and frequent changes in the marine environment.

They’ve created a framework, said Paige Berube of the Ocean Protection Council, to assess and manage risk in a way that can protect both ecological and economic imperatives.

“We can protect biodiversity, protect whales and sea turtles,” she said, “and also ensure that we continue to have thriving commercial fisheries that are iconic to our coastal identity as Californians.”

Australia’s Marine Animals Are the Fires’ Unseen Victims

As wildfires ravage Australia’s land and forests, so far killing an estimated one billion terrestrial animals, researchers worry marine and freshwater species will become invisible victims.

More than 17.1 million hectares of land have burned across the country, with the worst fires currently raging in New South Wales and Victoria, states in the nation’s southeast, according to Australia’s Department of the Environment and Energy (DEE). Adrian Meder, a marine campaigner at the Australian Marine Conservation Society (AMCS), says these fires are leaving behind a huge number of charred plants and a massive amount of ash.

Though Australia is in the midst of a massive drought, when the rain inevitably returns—as it already has in some regions—this organic matter will rush into rivers and flow into coastal lakes, estuaries, and seagrass and seaweed beds.

The free-flowing silt will get into fish’s gills and block sunlight that seagrass and seaweed beds need for photosynthesis, efectively strangling them. “It’s essentially like putting a shade cloth all over the entire system,” says Leonardo Guida, a shark campaigner with AMCS.

The slurry of potassium, phosphorus, and nitrogen will se alga in the water to bloom. The algae will consume the oxygen in the water, suffocating species that rely on it.

The fires have also torched many forests near the coast, destroying plants that filter silt and excess nutrients. The ecosystems are adapted to the low nutrient flows from the land, Meder explains. But “these fires have effectively clear-felled areas on a scale that hasn’t been seen before.”

Many commercial aquatic species, such as flathead, snapper, prawns, and various shellfish, begin their lives in coastal lakes and seagrass and seaweed beds. These coastal habitats are also spawning areas for species, including seahorses, and their degradation could send ripples throughout the larger ecosystem, the researchers say.

Some of these effects are already being felt. In southern New South Wales and Victoria and on Kangaroo Island, the fires are causing problems for fisheries and aquaculture, according to DEE.

When the rain began in the Central Coast region of New South Wales, members of the Darkinjung, a local Aboriginal land council, set up barriers to keep the deluge of silt- and ash-filled water out of the region’s rivers, lakes, and estuaries. According to Kelvin Johnson, a senior land management officer with the Darkinjung, they have already seen some dead fish in nearby rivers.

The wildfires and their aftermath have caused and could continue to cause cultural damage as well, Johnson says.

Australia’s Indigenous peoples, Johnson says, use sacred songlines—a complex mix of celestial references, songs, oral history, and physical and cultural landmarks—to navigate terrestrial and aquatic routes. Though it’s too early to know the extent of the damage, Johnson says if the fires harm oysters, crustaceans, flathead, or mullet, that would mark a loss of these cultural touchstones.

Last week, Australia’s federal government announced an AU $50-million (US $35-million) recovery fund (part of its AU $2-billion bushfire fund) to restore and protect damaged ecosystems and wildlife. But there has been no funding dedicated to marine and aquatic areas, Guida says. DEE notes that some of those funds may go to emergency interventions, such as erosion control, to stem sediment flows into aquatic ecosystems.

The ocean and the coast need dedicated help, Guida says. Though the devastation on land is much more visible, the health of the ocean and the land are intrinsically tied together.

Ocean temperatures hit record high as rate of heating accelerates

 The heat in the world’s oceans reached a new record level in 2019, showing “irrefutable and accelerating” heating of the planet. Photograph: Modis/Terra/Nasa

Oceans are clearest measure of climate crisis as they absorb 90% of heat trapped by greenhouse gases

by  Environment editor

The heat in the world’s oceans reached a new record level in 2019, showing “irrefutable and accelerating” heating of the planet.

The world’s oceans are the clearest measure of the climate emergency because they absorb more than 90% of the heat trapped by the greenhouse gases emitted by fossil fuel burning, forest destruction and other human activities.

The new analysis shows the past five years are the top five warmest years recorded in the ocean and the past 10 years are also the top 10 years on record. The amount of heat being added to the oceans is equivalent to every person on the planet running 100 microwave ovens all day and all night.

Hotter oceans lead to more severe storms and disrupt the water cycle, meaning more floods, droughts and wildfires, as well as an inexorable rise in sea level. Higher temperatures are also harming life in the seas, with the number of marine heatwaves increasing sharply.

The most common measure of global heating is the average surface air temperature, as this is where people live. But natural climate phenomena such as El Niño events mean this can be quite variable from year to year.

“The oceans are really what tells you how fast the Earth is warming,” said Prof John Abraham at the University of St Thomas, in Minnesota, US, and one of the team behind the new analysis. “Using the oceans, we see a continued, uninterrupted and accelerating warming rate of planet Earth. This is dire news.”

“We found that 2019 was not only the warmest year on record, it displayed the largest single-year increase of the entire decade, a sobering reminder that human-caused heating of our planet continues unabated,” said Prof Michael Mann, at Penn State University, US, and another team member.

The analysis, published in the journal Advances In Atmospheric Sciences, uses ocean data from every available source. Most data is from the 3,800 free-drifting Argo floats dispersed across the oceans, but also from torpedo-like bathythermographs dropped from ships in the past.

The results show heat increasing at an accelerating rate as greenhouse gases accumulate in the atmosphere. The rate from 1987 to 2019 is four and a half times faster than that from 1955 to 1986. The vast majority of oceans regions are showing an increase in thermal energy.

This energy drives bigger storms and more extreme weather, said Abraham: “When the world and the oceans heat up, it changes the way rain falls and evaporates. There’s a general rule of thumb that drier areas are going to become drier and wetter areas are going to become wetter, and rainfall will happen in bigger downbursts.”

Bleached coral on the Great Barrier Reef, Australia.
 Bleached coral on the Great Barrier Reef, Australia. Photograph: Helmut Corneli/Alamy Stock Photo

Hotter oceans also expand and melt ice, causing sea levels to rise. The past 10 years also show the highest sea level measured in records dating back to 1900. Scientists expect about one metre of sea level rise by the end of the century, enough to displace 150 million people worldwide.

Dan Smale, at the Marine Biological Association in the UK, and not part of the analysis team, said the methods used are state of the art and the data is the best available. “For me, the take-home message is that the heat content of the upper layers of the global ocean, particularly to 300 metre depth, is rapidly increasing, and will continue to increase as the oceans suck up more heat from the atmosphere,” he said.

The new analysis assesses the heat in the top 2,000m of the ocean, as that is where most of the data is collected. It is also where the vast majority of the heat accumulates and where most marine life lives.

The analysis method was developed by researchers at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing and uses statistical methods to interpolate heat levels in the few places where there was no data, such as under the Arctic ice cap. An independent analysis of the same data by the US National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration shows that same increasing heat trend.

Reliable ocean heat measurements stretch back to the middle of the 20th century. But Abraham said: “Even before that, we know the oceans were not hotter.”

“The data we have is irrefutable, but we still have hope because humans can still take action,” he said. “We just haven’t taken meaningful action yet.”

Huge amounts of greenhouse gases lurk in the oceans, and could make warming far worse

Stores of methane and CO2 in the world’s seas are in a strange, icy state, and the waters are warming, creating a ticking carbon time bomb.

Scientists are finding hidden climate time bombs—vast reservoirs of carbon dioxide and methane—scattered under the seafloor across the planet.

And the fuses are burning.

Caps of frozen CO2 or methane, called hydrates, contain the potent greenhouse gases, keeping them from escaping into the ocean and atmosphere. But the ocean is warming as carbon emissions continue to rise, and scientists say the temperature of the seawater surrounding some hydrate caps is within a few degrees of dissolving them.

That could be very, very bad. Carbon dioxide is the most common greenhouse gas, responsible for about three-quarters of emissions. It can remain in the atmosphere for thousands of yearsMethane, the main component of natural gas, doesn’t stay in the atmosphere as long as CO2—about 12 years—but it is at least 84 times more potent over two decades.

The oceans absorb a third of humanity’s carbon dioxide emissions and 90 percent of the excess heat generated by increased greenhouse gas emissions; it’s the largest carbon sink on the planet. If warming seas melt hydrate caps, there’s a danger that the oceans will become big carbon emitters instead, with grave consequences for climate change and sea level rise.

“If that hydrate becomes unstable, in fact melts, that enormous volume of CO2 will be released to the ocean and eventually the atmosphere,” says Lowell Stott, a paleoceanographer at the University of Southern California.

The discovery of these deep ocean CO2 reservoirs, as well as methane seeps closer to shore, comes as leading scientists warned this month that the world is now surpassing a number of climate tipping points, with ocean temperatures at record highs.

The few CO2 reservoirs that have been found so far are located adjacent to hydrothermal vent fields in the deep ocean. But the global extent of such reservoirs remains unknown.

“It’s a harbinger, if you will, of an area of research that is really important for us to investigate, to find out how many of these kinds of reservoirs are out there, how big they are, and how susceptible they are to releasing CO2 to the ocean,” Stott says. “We have totally underestimated the world’s total carbon budget, which has profound implications.”

Jeffrey Seewald, a senior scientist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution who studies the geochemistry of hydrothermal systems, questioned the magnitude of hydrate-capped reservoirs.

“I don’t know how globally significant they are as most hydrothermal systems that we know of are not associated with large accumulations of carbon, though there’s still a lot to be explored,” he says. “So I would be a little careful about suggesting that there are significant accumulations of CO2 that are just waiting to be released.”

A threat closer to home

Other scientists are far more concerned about potential climate time bombs much closer to home—methane hydrates that form on the shallower seafloor at the margins of continents.

Hydrothermal vents like this one can have reservoirs of liquid CO2 nearby, kept in place by icy hydrate caps. If those caps melt, the carbon could seep into the ocean, and ultimately into the atmosphere.

PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY NOAA PMEL EOI PROGRAM

For one thing, there apparently are a lot of them. Between 2016 and 2018, for instance, researchers at Oregon State University and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) deployed a new sonar technique to discover 1,000 methane seeps off the Pacific Northwest coast of the United States.

In contrast, just 100 had been identified between 2015 and the late 1980s, when scientists first stumbled across methane deposits. There are likely many more to be located, given that as of 2018, researchers only had mapped 38 percent of the seafloor between Washington State and Northern California.

“Because a lot of methane is stored on the continental margins in relatively shallow water, the effects of ocean warming will get to it sooner and potentially destabilize the methane hydrates that are present in the sediment,” says Dave Butterfield, a senior research scientist and hydrothermal vent expert at NOAA’s Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory in Seattle.

He noted that these methane seeps likely constitute a far larger global reservoir of greenhouse gases than pools of carbon dioxide under the deep ocean floor.

“This idea is that if you destabilize the methane hydrates, that methane would be injected into the atmosphere and cause more extreme global warming,” says Butterfield, who in 2003 was part of an expedition that discovered a hydrate-capped reservoir of liquid CO2 at a hydrothermal system on the Mariana Arc in the Pacific.

Stott and colleagues earlier this year published a paper presenting evidence that the release of carbon dioxide from hydrothermal seafloor reservoirs in the eastern equatorial Pacific some 20,000 years ago helped trigger the end of the last glacial era. And in a new paper, Stott finds geological indications that during the end of Pleistocene glaciations, carbon dioxide was released from seafloor reservoirs near New Zealand.

The spike of atmospheric temperatures during previous periods when ice ages were ending mirrors today’s rapid rise as a result of greenhouse gas emissions. While the oceans have long been suspected as significant contributors to ancient global warming, the prevailing consensus was that the CO2 was released from a layer of water resting deep in the ocean. But research from Stott and other oceanographers over the past decade points to a geological culprit.

Like a needle in a haystack

Take the hydrate-capped liquid CO2 reservoir found by Butterfield and his colleagues on a volcano in the Pacific. They calculated that the rate that liquid CO2 bubbles were escaping the seafloor equaled 0.1 percent of the carbon dioxide emitted on the entire Mid-Ocean Ridge. That may seem like a small amount, but consider that the CO2 is escaping from a single, small site along a 40,390 mile-long system of submerged volcanoes that rings the planet.

“That’s an astonishing number,” says Stott.

Scientists believe such reservoirs can be formed when volcanic magma deep beneath the ocean floor interacts with seawater to produce superheated fluids rich in carbon or methane that rise toward the surface. When that plume collides with cooler water, an ice-like hydrate forms that traps the carbon or methane in subsurface sediments.

This newly discovered methane seep contained two different phases of methane: gas (bubbles) and solid form (hydrate, methane frozen in water). It is a rare occurrence to observe solid hydrates above the sediment like this. Typically these formations are buried under sediment layers.

PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY OCEAN EXPLORATION TRUST

The risk the reservoirs pose depends on their location and depth. For example, rising ocean temperatures could in coming years melt a hydrate capping a lake of liquid CO2 in the Okinawa Trough west of Japan, according to Stott. But the absence of upwelling currents there means a mass release of carbon dioxide at a depth of 4,600 feet would likely acidify the surrounding waters but not enter the atmosphere for an extremely long time.

Stott notes that finding CO2 and methane reservoirs in the deep ocean is a “needle and haystack situation.”

But in a paper published in August, scientists from Japan and Indonesia revealed that they had detected five large and previously unknown CO2 or methane gas reservoirs under the seafloor in the Okinawa Trough by analyzing seismic pressure waves generated by an acoustical device. Since those waves travel more slowly through gas than solids under the seafloor, the researchers were able to locate the reservoirs. The data indicates that hydrates are trapping the gas.

“Our survey area is not broad, so there could be more reservoirs outside of our survey area,” Takeshi Tsuji, a professor of exploration geophysics at Kyushu University in Japan and a co-author of the paper, says in an email.

We May Have Gravely Underestimated The Threat of ‘Dead Zones’ in The World’s Oceans

Scientists call them ‘dead zones‘: vast expanses of ocean water that contain little or no oxygen, making it almost impossible for many marine life-forms to survive within them.

The conventional view on dead zones (aka oxygen minimum zones [OMZs] and sometimes also called ‘shadow zones‘) is that their hypoxic conditions are produced when excess nutrient pollution from human activities flows into coastal waters, encouraging the growth of algae blooms, which in turn decompose into organic material that sinks to the seafloor.

As that organic material slowly plummets into the abyss, it attracts and consumes oxygen in a process that deprives marine life of the same vital resource.

This overall process is viewed as the primary cause of dead zones, but there could be another important factor behind the problem that we’ve overlooked until now, according to an international team of researchers led by biogeochemist Sabine Lengger from the University of Plymouth, UK.

“Our study shows that organic matter that sinks to the seafloor is not just coming from the sea surface, but includes a major contribution from bacteria that live in the dark ocean and can fix carbon as well,” Lengger says.

According to the researchers, who analysed sediment cores extracted from the floor of the Arabian Sea – the site of what is thought to be the largest dead zone in the world – anaerobic bacteria that dwell in deep waters could be responsible for producing almost one-fifth of the organic matter that exists on the seabed.

The implications, the team says, is that current models don’t take this factor, called ‘dark carbon fixation’, into account when they attempt to simulate and predict how dead zones may evolve in the future – meaning we’ve been missing a pretty big piece of the dead zone puzzle.

“Biogeochemical models that operate on the assumption that all sinking organic matter is photosynthetically derived, without new addition of carbon, could significantly underestimate the extent of remineralisation,” the authors write in their paper.

“Oxygen demand in oxygen minimum zones could thus be higher than projections suggest, leading to a more intense expansion of OMZs than expected.”

The findings come only days after the release of a stark scientific report published by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which concluded dead zones are spreading like an oceanic plague, numbering around 700 today, whereas less than 50 had been identified in the 1960s.

Hopefully these new findings give us a better way of identifying the true extent of this troubling phenomenon, so that we can do something about it before it’s too late.

The findings are reported in Global Biogeochemical Cycles.