Archive for the ‘Oceans’ Category

The World Meteorological Organization Would Like Just a Moment of Your Time

Stormy SkyYou don’t have to read the whole report which isn’t long, but is full of “facts” and “numbers” and “science” and things of that sort. Just look over the WMO’s press release about its latest greenhouse gas bulletin – the chill you feel may compensate for the heat we’re generating. The report has thorny sentences like this: “This conclusion is consistent with GAW measurements of the spatial distribution of CO2 at the Earth’s surface and its rate of increase, a decrease in the abundance of atmospheric oxygen (O2), and a decrease in carbon isotope ratio, 13C/12C, in atmospheric CO2.”

The Organization’s press release is blunter and more to the point: “The amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere reached a new record high in 2013, propelled by a surge in levels of carbon dioxide.” While the WMO has traditionally focused on atmospheric concentrations of CO2, this year’s report states that the current rate of ocean acidification appears unprecedented at least over the last 300 million years. We don’t live in the oceans so we tend to take them for granted but, as the press release points out, the oceans are the primary driver of the planet’s climate and attenuator of climate change. As Wendy Watson-Wright, Executive Secretary of the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission of UNESCO says in the release, “If global warming is not a strong enough reason to cut CO2 emissions, ocean acidification should be, since its effects are already being felt and will increase for many decades to come – we ARE running out of time.”

While you contemplate the WMO report, consider as well that warming oceans are beginning to belch unprecedented amounts of methane, a global warming gas even more potent than CO2.


Bobby Jindal Presents “The Creature From the Oil-Black Lagoon”

via Wikipedia

via Wikipedia

There’s a lot of swampland on the Gulf Coast. A lot of that swampland has been polluted with oil. And a lot of that oil has oozed into the swamps of the legal system which is brimming over with lawsuits brought against the extraction industry. BP’s Deepwater disaster is only the most high profile case. It certainly brought a lot of public attention to the parlous state of the Gulf of Mexico and its hundreds of miles of vulnerable coastline – attention BP and its energy cohorts don’t want.

Things haven’t been going well for BP in the litigation that flowed up out of its underwater well along with all that oil. It has found it rough going even in the famously conservative and business-friendly Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals which has consistently swatted down the company’s attempts to wriggle off the liability hook. But the oil industry is nothing if not industrious. A business that hunts for oil thousands of feet below the surface of the sea will work just as hard to find a political solution to its legal problems. Now, thanks to Louisiana  governor Bobby Jindal, the oil business has what it hopes is a magic cloak to ward of further lawsuits.

Last week Jindal signed legislation designed to kill a lawsuit against almost 100 oil and gas companies.

The lawsuit was filed by the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority in an attempt to get oil and gas companies to pony up billions of dollars for damage caused by exploration and production in the vulnerable wetlands around New Orleans – wetlands that play a vital role in protecting the city from what the suit describes as the mortal threat of hurricane storm surges. The stakes for New Orleans could not be higher. The Authority filed suit to avert the dire consequences of the environmental degradation of the region’s coastline. The suit demanded that energy companies “honor their obligations to safeguard and restore the coastal treasures entrusted to them and from which they have so richly profited.” The Flood Protection Authority described the measures it demanded in its suit as essential to preserving the future of the state and its biggest city. The coastal barriers it sought to preserve have been brought to the brink of destruction over the course of a single human lifetime. Without immediate action to reverse the loss of wetlands and restore the region’s natural defenses, many of Louisiana’s coastal communities will vanish into the sea. Meanwhile, the Authority says, inland cities and towns that once were well insulated from the sea will be left to face the ever-rising tide at their doorsteps.”

Jindal’s signature has now thrown the future of that suit, and other similar actions, into doubt. The new law is specifically intended to stop the lawsuit in its tracks. It would limit enforcement of the state’s coastal zone program to the state Department of Natural Resources, a parish, a parish district attorney or the state attorney general.  The law previously allowed any government agency to file claims. The oil and gas industry lobbied strenuously to get the new law passed. Apparently the industry’s efforts were more persuasive than the state’s own attorney general who urged the governor to veto the bill, arguing that the language was both so vague and so sweeping that it would prohibit local governments from filing lawsuits against energy companies for past or future actions. A passel of legal scholars also weighed in warning that the bill would nullify lawsuits already filed against BP for damages from the oil spill by dozens of governmental entities. Environmentalists and urban planners are aghast.  The industry, on the other hand, was crowing about its bill, describing it as “a huge victory for the oil and gas industry as well as the economy for the state of Louisiana.”

The bill demonstrates how far and how deep the energy industry’s tentacles reach into the machinery of Louisiana politics. The Deepwater catastrophe brought a lot of unwelcome attention to the long-intertwined relationship between the oil and gas industry and Louisiana’s politicians. The new law is designed to restore that relationship to its historical centrality in the state’s political ecology. Whether it survives the inevitable appeals (it almost certainly won’t) is irrelevant. As a piece of of intimidating muscle flexing it’s in a class of its own: Let there be no doubt of who calls the shots in the state.

Jindal defended the bill by saying it creates “a more fair and predictable legal environment.” The good people of New Orleans can sleep easier now, secure in the knowledge that at least the legal landscape is predictable. The levees be damned.

Note: The Times-Picayune is, as always, doing yeoman’s work covering this story.

The Secret World of Cobia

Photo by Some rights reserved.

Photo by Some rights reserved.

We’ve talked a little bit about aquaculture and fish farming before on the GM and how the industry has changed and evolved over time. One of the biggest criticisms against raising fish in captivity is that the fish are not healthy and therefore not as delicious when they hit our dinner tables (other, less selfish concerns with the industry are that it is wasteful, due to the amount of processed food it takes to feed these fish, and that the possibility of fish escaping their pens and contaminating the gene pools of ocean-raised fish). Brian O’Hanlon, through his company Open Blue, aims to change that.

Founded in Panama in 2009, Open Blue is an aquaculture business that does all of its fish-raising in, you guessed it, the open blue waters of the Caribbean. Open Blue has set up giant pods that float in the open water, designed to hold 35,000 fish. Then pens are weighed down and anchored to the sea floor, and monitored by boat with cameras and sensors to detect and discrepancies. On top of all that, divers make daily expeditions down to examine the cages and check the health of the fish.

O’Hanlon and his company set up shop in Panama because the government there was more receptive to his work. In the U.S., the necessary permit would only extend a few years and the operation would no doubt be scrutinized both by environmental groups and local residents. “What we’re trying to do takes a lot of capital and commitment,” says O’Hanlon in a profile by National Geographic.

But there’s more to Open Blue than just there methods – they are also making investments in the fish of the future. It’s an inevitability at this point that our favorite fish to consume (salmon, trout, bass) take a lot of energy (and resources) to produce. As the state of the oceans change and resources grow more scant, we will have to look to more efficient fish to feed our families. That’s where cobia come into the picture. Growing to full size in one third the time it takes salmon and diverse enough to be used in a number of cuisines, cobia seem like a solid bet for the kind of fish that will end up taking the place of our current favorites, and its cobia that Open Blue has chosen to focus on. Their operation is still young and the reality is that cobia still has a ways to go before it topples salmon as the people’s fishy champion, but the math is encouraging. Open Blue ships nearly 250 tons of fish out across the world every month, and last year, their demand outpaced their supply for the first time.

Fukushima Washes Ashore

via Wikipedia

via Wikipedia

This month the Government Accountability Office released a report on measures taken by countries around the world in response to the Fukushima disaster. Fukushima has been a slow-motion calamity. Public awareness of its continuing effects ebbs and flows like the water that courses intermittently through damaged reactor vessels.

Governments around the world are not oblivious to the implications of the Japanese experience for their own nuclear programs. The GAO examined what steps sixteen countries have taken in response to Fukushima. The GAO notes that Germany, for instance, accelerated the shutdown of its nuclear power reactors, and Jordan reassessed plans to establish a civilian nuclear power program. A number of countries are addressing their failure to plan for more than a single incident, and are now planning for more imaginative accident scenarios, such as those that could involve multiple reactors at a single power plant. A half a dozen countries are instituting automated systems for monitoring and transmitting critical data to regulators and technicians responding to potential accidents. The report details how international nuclear organizations like the International Atomic Energy Agency, the World Association of Nuclear Operators, and the European Union are trying to coordinate efforts to strengthen nuclear regulatory bodies to help them identify key elements of the Fukushima incident, and promote nuclear safety worldwide. Unfortunately, the report also concludes that, so far at least, no international organization is able really track the impact and effectiveness of the renewed safety and regulatory efforts.

The report’s release coincided with the arrival of the first radioactive water from Fukushima on North American shores. In late February, researches announced that radioactive cesium isotopes from the crippled power plant had reached the waters off the Canadian coast near Vancouver, British Columbia. The plume of radioactive water is expected to reach the U.S. coast later this year. Before you decide to move from Seattle to Missoula, bear in mind that the trace amounts of radiation in the water are not expected to reach levels unsafe for human consumption. According to a report in The New Republic, scientists predict the West Coast will see its cesium levels rise by between one and 30 becquerels per cubic meter. To put that number in perspective, the Environmental Protection Agency caps the quantity of cesium-137 in safe drinking water at 7,400 becquerels per cubic meter. In fact, the radiation recently measured in a single tuna—a fish that travels near Fukushima on its migratory route—is equivalent to the natural radiation in nine bananas. Whatever the dangers posed by the minute quantities of radiation which are drifting here might be, the fact that it is arriving at all is causing all sorts of people to make political hay. As The New Republic details, the boogeyman of radiation is uniting both the left and right wings of American politics to practically glow in the dark with suspicion and alarm. Perhaps they can buy up all the copies of the new GAO report. And use them to sop up the cesium.

Getting Ready for Salmon Season

Photo by AER Wilmington DE. Some rights reserved.

Photo by AER Wilmington DE. Some rights reserved.

Here in the northwest, we put a very high premium on our salmon. It’s one of our most important, most publicized, and most delicious exports. In fact, we’re getting close to a very important time of year for salmon connoisseurs: Copper River season. Typically falling in the mid-May to mid-June time frame,  these especially tasty fish come down fresh from the eponymous river in Alaska to markets across the city of Seattle, to much rejoicing, every year. It’s a great way to celebrate the coming summer months, by grilling up (it really is the best way) a few hulking fillets of what many would consider the best salmon that money can buy.

In that spirit, it’s perhaps a good time to take a closer look at recent changes in the salmon farming business at large. We’ve looked a bit at the various arguments for and against genetically-modified salmon in the past. This week, National Geographic released a nice primer on the current state of aquaculture (re: fish farming) and how the industry is attempting to reform itself to appeal to green-minded customers while keeping up with demand.

The standard line on farmed fish as recently as five years ago seemed to be that it was a wasteful and somewhat dangerous industry because of the amount of processed food (mostly made from other fish species) it was taking to feed the farmed fish, which typically have a much higher fat content, was way too high to be environmentally friendly. Add to that the possibility that these farmed fish could escape their pens and possibly contaminate gene pools in an ocean climate where salmon are already struggling against overfishing and other global warming-related issues. Thus, the line from enviro-carnivores has seemingly always been “buy wild fish”. But as NatGeo points out, that line of thinking is changing. There’s a lot happening behind the scenes in the industry attempting to correct some of these issues, and most interestingly, the drive to do so seems to be not necessarily purely profit-driven, but driven more by a moral responsibility to maintain the fragile ecosystem of our oceans.

Some of the changes are happening in laboratories – for instance, the article highlights the Delaware-based company Verlasso, which has been developing fish feed based around a transgenic yeast that makes omega-3s (an essential component of their diet found in non-salmon fish, which is why salmon food will usually be made up of smaller fish). Using this yeast (which is combined with other nutrients and plants to make food pellets) has created a highly-desirable 1-to-1 sustainability ratio for amount of fish used as feed to amount of salmon produced. That’s a nearly impossible figure to reach with traditional methods of farm salmon feeding. The article also goes into some of the efforts going on to promote genetically engineered fish, though that is all still pending FDA approval.

What’s clear in any case is that consumption of salmon isn’t going down. In fact, it’s up 20% over the last 10 years, and in 2013 the U.S. consumed 353,000 of the delicious pink stuff. So it makes sense that the industry would want to set itself up for the long game, and now it’s just a matter of getting everyone, consumers and manufacturers, on the same page (the Aquaculture Stewardship Council set standards in 2010 for the industry which have been very influential, and of course there’s the ever-vigilant Seafood Watch website, which will help tell you what the best sustainable choices for salmon are at any given time).

My Hobby Horse

via Wikimedia Commons

via Wikimedia Commons

The average human being lives 79 years in the United States. So, you’ve probably got plenty of time to contemplate this cool new interactive map from National Geographic.

It shows what the coasts of the world’s continents will look like once all the ice at the poles and sitting atop Greenland has melted. Nat Geo tells us that once all the ice has turned to water, the sea levels will have risen 216 feet. The map shows us just what that would mean. At first blush, things don’t look so different. But then you realize that the distinctive handle on the lower east corner of the United States which we now call Florida is gone. Under water entirely, and the Gulf of Mexico flows directly into the Atlantic – and up through Louisiana into Arkansas. New York? Gone. Boston? Submerged. The tidal flats in Washington D.C. are now part of the open seas, along with the White House, the Capital, and the Lincoln monument.

What looks like the San Francisco Bay is actually California’s Central Valley. Telegraph Hill in San Francisco is a pleasant island from which to view the new and immense inland sea. You could vacation on Baja California – but it would be a mighty narrow strip of land, not to mention hot.

Our offices in Seattle would be history: waves would lap far above our current roof. In fact, the Pacific Northwest, with it’s steep-glacier carved hills and high coastal mountains seems to weather the melting better than much of the rest of the country.

Other continents show similarly disconsonant coastlines. Looking for London? Look away. It’s not there, long since subsumed into the Thames/English Channel. Don’t look to Denmark for cheese. You’ll find its watery taste not to your liking. And don’t try to quaff it down with a nice Bordeaux. Venice, which is hanging on by its fingernails even now, is long gone. It’s floated off to the Caspian Sea which has merged with the Black Sea and joined the Mediterranean.

Southeast Asia, just walloped by a supertyphoon, is underwater to a remarkable degree. As is much of the Indian coastline. Bangladesh? History.

But you get the idea. Melt the ice, and the seas take over lots of our favorite real estate.

The good news is that this won’t happen in our lifetime. Nor our grandchildren’s. It is starting now, but the full effect is expected to take a few thousand years. You can still book that holiday in Holland. It’ll be there.

Which leads to the question of whether all that cold water might not counteract the warming of the oceans which is occurring now, also compliments of global climate change. Might all that fresh water cool things down in the briny deep? Won’t all that clear fresh water be a tonic for the sea creatures trying to cope with the heat and the carbon dioxide?

The Seattle Times is continuing with its laudable investigation of the effects of global warming on the world’s oceans. The latest installment chronicles the remarkable, and entirely unpredictable, ability of some species to thrive in changing waters while others give up the ghost.

“Which plants and animals can accommodate these more corrosive seas — and for how long — will depend on many factors, from where they live to their population sizes to the depth of stress they face from other forces, such as warming temperatures and pollution. Survival will vary species by species. Not everything will make it.”

The article focuses on the lowly sea urchin, which is proving surprisingly adept at weathering the changes underway in the oceans. While the urchin may adapt, it’s an open question which other flora and fauna will follow on their proverbial heels. “Evolution is not a gentle sport,” says Stephen Palumbi, a researcher quoted by the Times. “When evolution happens, it’s because the unfit are dying. It’s pretty brutal.” Another researcher quoted by the Times says simply, “When you start knocking out the very bottom of the food chain, it’s incredibly terrifying.”

So, who knows? Maybe a kind of crazy equilibrium will establish itself as we warm our air and oceans, while melting the poles. We’re an adaptable species in our own right. We might well live long enough to come to a collective understanding of how the whole thing plays out.

An Ocean of Troubles

via Wikimedia Commone

via Wikimedia Commons

Last month I noted the dangers global warming poses to the world’s oceans. Not for 55 million years has there been oceanic disruption of comparable severity to the calamity that lies just a hundred years ahead as a result of the climatic stresses we are placing on the oceans. But there are more prosaic threats than rising temperatures and increasing acidity facing the ocean’s. Rampant over-fishing and a rising tide of garbage are taking their toll as well.

How can that be? The oceans are enormous – some 70 percent of the globe is covered with water. The Pacific Ocean has the volume of the moon. But as big as they are, we are plucking the Seven Seas bare and replacing the fish with trash.

Two decades ago, Charles Moore discovered what came to be known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Sailing across the the Pacific, Moore was stunned to look out over the ocean from the deck of his racing yacht to see, not the pristine waters he had come to know and love, but rather plastic debris stretching as far as the eye could see. “It seemed unbelievable,” he wrote, “ but I never found a clear spot. In the week it took to cross the subtropical high, no matter what time of day I looked, plastic debris was floating everywhere: bottles, bottle caps, wrappers, fragments.”

Garbage patches now occupy immense areas of the Pacific, Atlantic, and Indian Oceans. More than merely an eyesore for sailors, the plastic garbage plays havoc with the entire marine food chain. Larger chunks are eaten by birds, seals, dolphins and fish, leading to fatal intestinal blockages. As the plastic degrades into smaller pieces (it never decays, it only breaks into ever smaller bits) it displaces food for animals which eat algae and plankton. Beside being toxic in their own right, the smallest pieces of plastic debris serve as vectors for viruses and bacteria to roam the ocean. And the debris isn’t just floating handily and visibly on the surface. The entire upper strata of the oceans can contain syringes, plastic bags, soft drink bottles, and disposable diapers moving like wraiths in the currents.

While sailors and fishermen who are intimately familiar with the oceans may be alarmed by the open leagues of rubbish, they haven’t made much impression on the public imagination: the Bounding Main is a bottomless pit capable of absorbing anything thrown into it.

Not only do we think we can throw anything into the oceans, we are doing our level best to take every living thing out of them. Indeed, we may be approaching “the end of fish.” We now have the technology to haul every fish in the seas to the surface. The fishing-industrial complex is hauling in so much seafood, that many of the world’s leading fisheries are on the verge of collapse. According to a report by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, all the current fish and seafood species on which we have historically depended may collapse by the middle of this century. Says the lead author of the study, “Species have been disappearing from ocean ecosystems and this trend has recently been accelerating. Now we begin to see some of the consequences. For example, if the long-term trend continues, all fish and seafood species are projected to collapse within my lifetime — by 2048.”  The implications, he reminds us, extend far beyond the oceans themselves. “The oceans define our planet, and their fate may to a large extent determine our fate, now and in the future.”

Some twenty years after Moore’s shocking discovery of the Great Garbage Patch, another yachtsman made his way across the Pacific from Australia to San Francisco via Japan. On that voyage, over waters he had decades of familiarity with, Ivan Macfadyen saw firsthand the dire toll the combination of over-fishing and junk-filled waters had taken on the Pacific. In the whole of the voyage from Melbourne to Osaka he encountered not a single fish or bird. He found himself surrounded by silence and desolation. One thing he did encounter was an immense trawler, one of the countless ships which crisscross the seas hauling up fish on an industrial scale. It was no wonder Mcfadyen caught nothing. There was nothing left to catch. “After we left Japan, it felt as if the ocean itself was dead,” Macfadyen said. “I’ve done a lot of miles on the ocean in my life and I’m used to seeing turtles, dolphins, sharks and big flurries of feeding birds. But this time, for 3000 nautical miles there was nothing alive to be seen.” Instead of fish, there were endless miles of garbage. The oceans, he says, are broken.

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