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.


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.


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.

Climate change: Oceans running out of oxygen as temperatures rise

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sharkImage copyrightIUCN

Climate change and nutrient pollution are driving the oxygen from our oceans, and threatening many species of fish.

That’s the conclusion of the biggest study of its kind, undertaken by conservation group IUCN.

While nutrient run-off has been known for decades, researchers say that climate change is making the lack of oxygen worse.

Around 700 ocean sites are now suffering from low oxygen, compared with 45 in the 1960s.

Researchers say the depletion is threatening species including tuna, marlin and sharks.

The threat to oceans from nutrient run-off of chemicals such as nitrogen and phosphorus from farms and industry has long been known to impact the levels of oxygen in the sea waters and still remains the primary factor, especially closer to coasts.

However, in recent years the threat from climate change has increased.

As more carbon dioxide is released enhancing the greenhouse effect, much of the heat is absorbed by the oceans. In turn, this warmer water can hold less oxygen. The scientists estimate that between 1960 and 2010, the amount of the gas dissolved in the oceans de

Media captionClimate change: How 1.5C could change the world

That may not seem like much as it is a global average, but in some tropical locations the loss can range up to 40%.

Even small changes can impact marine life in a significant way. So waters with less oxygen favour species such as jellyfish, but not so good for bigger, fast-swimming species like tuna.

OxygenImage copyrightIUCN

“We have known about de-oxygenation but we haven’t known the linkages to climate change and this is really worrying,” said Minna Epps from IUCN.

“Not only has the decline of oxygen quadrupled in the past 50 years but even in the best case emissions scenario, oxygen is still going to decline in the oceans.”

For species like tuna, marlin and some sharks that are particularly sensitive to lack of oxygen – this is bad news.

Bigger fish like these have greater energy needs. According to the authors, these animals are starting to move to the shallow surface layers of the seas where there is more of the gas dissolved. However, this make the species much more vulnerable to over-fishing.

If countries continue with a business-as-usual approach to emissions, the world’s oceans are expected to lose 3-4% of their oxygen by the year 2100.

This is likely to be worse in the tropical regions of the world. Much of the loss is expected in the top 1,000m of the water column, which is richest in biodiversity.

TunaImage copyrightIUCN
Image captionTuna are suffering from lack of oxygen, says IUCN

Low levels of oxygen are also bad for basic processes like the cycling of elements crucial for life on Earth, including nitrogen and phosphorous.

“If we run out of oxygen it will mean habitat loss and biodiversity loss and a slippery slope down to slime and more jellyfish,” said Minna Epps.

“It will also change the energy and the biochemical cycling in the oceans and we don’t know what these biological and chemical shifts in the oceans can actually do.”

Changing the outcomes for the oceans is down to the world’s political leaders which is why the report has been launched here at COP25.

“Ocean oxygen depletion is menacing marine ecosystems already under stress from ocean warming and acidification,” said Dan Laffoley, also from IUCN and the report’s co-editor.

“To stop the worrying expansion of oxygen-poor areas, we need to decisively curb greenhouse gas emissions as well as nutrient pollution from agriculture and other sources.”

Report: Climate Change Is Hurting Oceans — And Us — More Than Expected

The effects of climate change are bad, and they’re getting worse — especially when it comes to the world’s oceans.

But if unprecedented action is taken soon to reduce planet-warming emissions, it will greatly ease some of the worst impacts and make adaptation less painful.

That’s the underlying message in a landmark report by more than 100 scientists from 36 countries. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change on Tuesday approved the Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate, which was three years in the works.

Ehukai Beach clouds during winter 2018 ocean sea level rise.

Ehukai Beach clouds during winter 2018 ocean sea level rise.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

“The open sea, the Arctic, the Antarctic and the high mountains may seem far away to many people,” said Hoesung Lee, IPCC chair, in a statement Wednesday. “But we depend on them and are influenced by them directly and indirectly in many ways — for weather and climate, for food and water, for energy, trade, transport, recreation and tourism, for health and wellbeing, for culture and identity.”

If people prevent the planet from warming more than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels by 2100 — as world leaders agreed to in Paris in 2015 — the effects of climate change will still threaten livelihoods, alter ecosystems and disrupt weather patterns. But it won’t be nearly as bad as a warmer world.

The latest report says marine heatwaves, for instance, will be 20 times more frequent at 2 C. But it could be 50 times more frequent if greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase.

Marine heatwaves don’t just affect the oceans, though the warmer waters are also putting corals in peril and reducing the abundance of certain fish. They are also making it hotter on land.

Meteorologists blame heatwaves for the record heat Hawaii has experienced this summer, and they may exacerbate wildfires.

In July, firefighters on Maui were responding to their first big wildfire of the season — about 9,000 acres — when they realized the equipment they set out with to tackle the blaze wasn’t going to do the job as it had for similar fires in years past, according to University of Hawaii wildland fire researcher Clay Trauernicht.

That’s because it was so hot out that it had driven the humidity down to a point where the grasses were so crispy that the fire behaved differently, burning up the fuels faster and shifting directions less predictably, he said.

Marine heatwave

Trauernicht said his biggest takeaway from the IPCC report was the “ginormous” difference between cutting greenhouse gas emissions or continuing to burn fossil fuels when it comes to the severity of the impacts of climate change.

“Whatever extent we can reduce this, we’ve got to do it,” he said.

The report cites marine heatwaves as just one of the impacts of climate change. Scientists project stronger hurricanes, faster eroding coastlines, hotter summers, more flooding, increased sea level rise, more extreme weather and less productive fisheries.

The rate of sea level rise is increasing primarily because glaciers and ice sheets in polar and mountain areas are melting faster than expected. It’s also rising faster because the ocean is expanding as it gets warmer, the report says.

Sea levels rose globally about a half foot last century. Now they’re rising more than twice as fast and getting faster. Sea level could rise 1 to 2 feet by 2100 even if global warming is limited to well below 2 C, but it could rise 2 to 3.6 feet if greenhouse gas emissions continue to escalate.

That’s a big deal for Hawaii, where most of the state’s 1.4 million residents live close to the coast and it’s also where major infrastructure is located. The tourism industry that the overall economy depends on also depends on the coastal environment.

We are in a critical set of years for the entire history of humanity,” University of Hawaii climate researcher Chip Fletcher said. “But we can never give up. We can never stop. It’s always going to be a crisis until we decarbonize.”

Sea level rise will also increase the frequency of extreme events during high tides and intense storms, the report cautions. With any degree of additional warming, the report says events that happened once per century will happen every year by 2050, heightening the risk for low-lying coastal cities like Honolulu and small islands like those in the northwestern reaches of the Hawaiian Archipelago.

East Island, about 600 miles northwest of Oahu, almost entirely disappeared after an unprecedented hurricane passed over it last year. It was the primary nesting ground for the bulk of the threatened Hawaiian green sea turtle population and a sizable chunk of critically endangered Hawaiian monk seals.

Sea level rise, increasing faster due to climate change, has accelerated erosion in Hawaii, such as Sunset Beach on the north shore of Oahu.

Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat

The IPCC has a reputation for being conservative because it requires 100% agreement, Fletcher said. That tends to water down its reports, compared to peer-reviewed literature that offers the latest science.

But knowing this is the voice of the scientific community speaking is important, he said.

It’s a sentiment shared by Josh Stanbro, who heads Honolulu’s climate change office. He said the IPCC offers an important “rear view mirror approach” whereas the Honolulu  climate commission’s appointed members, which include Fletcher, are looking out the front window.

“If there’s anything heartening in this it’s that we have really smart sharp local climate change commissioners giving us good information, making projections and looking at cutting-edge research,” he said.

Still, Stanbro found some aspects of the report to be unnerving. He is concerned about how it leaves as an “x factor” the impact of methane gas that may be released when permafrost thaws. And he was taken aback by how the report underscores how small island nations are exposed to the impacts of climate change.

“We know that as island people,” he said. “But it’s a little unnerving to see that in plain sight where world leaders are saying we’re the canaries in the coal mine.”

Members of the working groups who developed the report said it arms communities and governments with the information they need to act.

It highlights the urgency of “timely, ambitious, coordinated and enduring action,” Ko Barrett, vice chair of the IPCC, told reporters.

Hawaii agencies are among those looking to it for guidance.

Scott Glenn, who heads the state Office of Environmental Quality Control, said he is interested in how it affects baseline assumptions that agencies are making, such as maps showing sea level rise exposure areas.

“With climate change, it’s affecting so many parameters at the same time that it becomes very hard,” he said. “How do you translate that into something like design or engineering if you know there’s this science coming out with these big uncertainty brackets around it?”

IPCC working group members said that reducing carbon emissions enough to matter will require a global effort across all sectors.

“We will only be able to keep global warming to well below 2 C above pre-industrial levels if we effect unprecedented transitions in all aspects of society, including energy, land and ecosystems, urban and infrastructure as well as industry,” Debra Roberts, an IPCC working group co-chair, said in a statement.

The report, which was unanimously approved, provides crucial information going into the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change Conference in December in Chile, known as COP25.

Read the full report below.

Fukushima: Japan will have to dump radioactive water into Pacific, minister says

More than a million tonnes of contaminated water lies in storage but power company says it will run out of space by 2022

Storage tanks for radioactive water at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.
 Storage tanks for radioactive water at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Photograph: Issei Kato/Reuters

The operator of the ruined Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant will have to dump huge quantities of contaminated water from the site directly into the Pacific Ocean, Japan’s environment minister has said – a move that would enrage local fishermen.

More than 1 million tonnes of contaminated water has accumulated at the plant since it was struck by a tsunami in March 2011, triggering a triple meltdown that forced the evacuation of tens of thousands of residents.

Tokyo Electric Power (Tepco) has struggled to deal with the buildup of groundwater, which becomes contaminated when it mixes with water used to prevent the three damaged reactor cores from melting.

Tepco has attempted to remove most radionuclides from the excess water, but the technology does not exist to rid the water of tritium, a radioactive isotope of hydrogen. Coastal nuclear plants commonly dump water that contains tritium into the ocean. It occurs in minute amounts in nature.

Tepco admitted last year that the water in its tanks still contained contaminants beside tritium.

Currently, more than 1m tonnes of contaminated water is held in almost 1,000 tanks at the Fukushima Daiichi site, but the utility has warned that it will run out of tank space by the summer of 2022.

“The only option will be to drain it into the sea and dilute it,” Yoshiaki Harada told a news briefing in Tokyo on Tuesday. “The whole of the government will discuss this, but I would like to offer my simple opinion.”

No decision on how to dispose of the water will be made until the government has received a report from a panel of experts. Other options include vaporising the liquid or storing it on land for an extended period.

Harada did not say how much water would need to be discharged into the ocean.

One recent study by Hiroshi Miyano, who heads a committee studying the decommissioning of Fukushima Daiichi at the Atomic Energy Society of Japan, said it could take 17 years to discharge the treated water after it has been diluted to reduce radioactive substances to levels that meet the plant’s safety standards.

Any decision to dispose of the waste water into the sea would anger local fishermen, who have spent the past eight years rebuilding their industry.

Nearby South Korea has also voiced concern over the impact it would have on the reputation of its own seafood.

Last month, Seoul summoned a senior Japanese embassy official to explain how Fukushima Daiichi’s waste water would be dealt with.

Ties between the north-east Asian nations are already at a low ebb following a compensation dispute over Koreans forced to work in Japanese factories during the second world war.

The government spent 34.5bn yen (£260m) to build a frozen underground wall to prevent groundwater reaching the three damaged reactor buildings. The wall, however, has succeeded only in reducing the flow of groundwater from about 500 tonnes a day to about 100 tonnes a day.

Japan has come under renewed pressure to address the contaminated water problem before Tokyo hosts the Olympics and Paralympics next summer.

Six years ago during the city’s bid for the games, the prime minister, Shinzo Abe, assured the international community that the situation was “under control”.

Seven tonnes of marine plastic pollution collected on remote Arnhem Land beach

Plastic waste strewn on Djulpan beach
 Plastic waste strewn on Djulpan beach in Arnhem Land, in Australia’s Northern Territory. Photograph: Rebecca Griffiths/Sea Shepherd

Further evidence that plastic does not discriminate as it spreads across the planet: the marine conservation organisation Sea Shepherd said it is washing up in large quantities on a remote Australian beach.

Sea Shepherd joined Indigenous rangers in picking up more than seven tonnes of marine plastic pollution on a two-kilometre stretch of Djulpan beach, in northeastern Arnhem Land.

Using the same analysis technique employed in a recent study that found a staggering amount of rubbish on the tiny Cocos (Keeling) Islands in the Indian Ocean, researchers have estimated there would have been 250m pieces of debris along the full stretch of the 14km beach.

The clean-up of Djulpan beach, about 2 1/2 hours drive from the township of Nhulunbuy on the western side of the Gulf of Carpentaria, was conducted over two weeks last October. There is no road to the beach. The rangers from Dhimurru Aboriginal Corporation cut a 4WD track through scrub to reach it.

A collection of the bottle tops
 A collection of the bottle tops removed from Djulpan beach during the clean-up. Photograph: Rebecca Griffiths/Sea Shepherd

Liza Dicks, from Sea Shepherd Australia, said it was the worst case of plastic rubbish the group had found in more than 600 clean-up exercises at mainland Australian beaches.

About two-thirds of the debris were consumer items: water bottles, cigarette lighters, ice block wrappers, shoes, thongs, toys and toothbrushes. The rest was 72 types of discarded fishing net, some of which contained turtle bones.

Jennifer Lavers, a marine biologist at the University of Tasmania who led the Cocos (Keeling) Islands study and helped Sea Shepherd analyse what it found at Djulpan beach, said much of the rubbish was single-use and disposable. Some of the plastic appeared to be decades old.

“It is likely this waste came from southeast Asia, but we know at the same time Australia’s waste is going over to somewhere else,” she said.

“It is incredibly commonplace, but for the average ordinary person it’s probably pretty shocking to learn that these remote pristine places have such a high density of plastic. This is not some untouchable thing. It is a thing we can do something about.”

Last month the prime minister, Scott Morrison, vowed to do more to stop Australian plastic ending up in oceans. He won in principle backing from state and territory leaders to boost the struggling local recycling industry and ban the export of recyclable material.

No timeframe has been set for the ban, which will be discussed at a meeting of environment ministers in November. Government data suggests just 12% of the plastic waste Australians put in kerbside bins is recycled.

Sharks and rays to be given new international protections

Guitarfish are one of the newly protected speciesImage copyrightGETTY IMAGES
Image captionGuitarfish are one of the newly protected species

Countries have agreed to strengthen protections for 18 threatened species of sharks and rays, including those hunted for their meat and fins.

The proposal was passed at the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) on Sunday.

The newly protected species include mako sharks, wedgefishes and guitarfishes.

A demand for shark fin soup is one of the driving factors in the depleting numbers of sharks in the ocean.

The proposal, which was tabled by Mexico and requires ratification this week, means that the species can no longer be traded unless it can be proven that their fishing will not impact the possibility of their survival.

The number of sharks killed each year in commercial fisheries is estimated at 100 million, with a range between 63 million and 273 million, according to The Pew Trust.

Makos, the fastest shark species, have almost disappeared completely from the Mediterranean and numbers are diminishing rapidly in the Atlantic, Northern Pacific and Indian oceans.

Although 102 countries voted in favour of the move, 40 – including China, Iceland, Japan, Malaysia and New Zealand – opposed it.

Some argued that there was not enough evidence to show that mako sharks were disappearing as a result of fishing.

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Sharks and rays: The facts on the “rhinos of the seas”

  • A group of 16 very unusual animals called wedgefish and guitarfish, together known as rhino rays
  • They are assessed as the most threatened family of marine fish – all bar one is critically endangered
  • Two of the wedgefish species may already have been driven to extinction by commercial fisheries
  • Wedgefish have two large dorsal fins and a large tail lobe, prized for use in soup.
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Ali Hood, director of conservation at Shark Trust, welcomed the move.

“Mako are highly valued for their meat and fins. Decades of unrestricted overfishing, particularly on the high seas, has led to significant population declines,” Ms Hood told the BBC.

The “listing would be critical for ensuring that international trade is held to sustainable levels, prompting urgently needed catch limits and improving traceability”, she added.

Media captionGreat white sharks filmed hunting in kelp forests for the first time