Tag Archives: Oceanography

Eulogy for a glacier: Scientists honor Iceland’s first glacier lost to climate change

Iceland’s first glacier lost to climate change will be remembered with a monument and a plaque soon to be unveiled at the site of the former glacier. The plaque’s message is a stern reminder that we know what is happening.

How will future generations look upon this monument? Words by Andri Snaer Magnason. Photo credit: Rice University.

“Ok is the first Icelandic glacier to lose its status as a glacier. In the next 200 years all our glaciers are expected to follow the same path. This monument is to acknowledge that we know what is happening and what needs to be done. Only you know if we did it,” it reads.

The state of affairs is pretty clear: the Earth’s climate is heating up due to greenhouse gas emissions produced by human activity. Sure, there is plenty of debate among politicians, particularly in circles who have a lot to gain by not taking action against it, but climate change denial has no scientific credibility. Simply put, we know it’s happening, and we know it’s because of us.

This is why researchers from Rice University in Houston teamed up with author Andri Snær Magnason and geologist Oddur Sigurðsson and the Icelandic Hiking Society to install a monument recognizing the place of the former Okjökull glacier in Borgarfjörður, Iceland.

Ok, as the glacier is called (“jökull” being merely a suffix which means “glacier”) is officially the first iceberg we’ve lost due to anthropogenic climate change. Now, a plaque will be unveiled at the site of the former monument, along with a letter for the future. Engraved on the plaque is also “415 ppm” — the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere reported in May.

“This will be the first monument to a glacier lost to climate change anywhere in the world,” Howe said. “By marking Ok’s passing, we hope to draw attention to what is being lost as Earth’s glaciers expire. These bodies of ice are the largest freshwater reserves on the planet and frozen within them are histories of the atmosphere. They are also often important cultural forms that are full of significance.”

 

Of course, melting glacier ice is but one of the major effects of climate change. Ok was the first, but it will certainly not be the last. As the climate warms, we will continue to lose more and more. Whether or not we take action to prevent catastrophic damage from being done remains to be seen.

Before the Industrial Revolution, carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere were stable at 280 ppm. Today’s rate of increase is more than 100 times faster than the increase that occurred when the last ice age ended, growing steadily and showing no signs of stopping.

Burning fossil fuels such as coal, petroleum, and natural gas is the leading cause of increased anthropogenic CO2, with deforestation being the second biggest cause.

Most detailed survey yet finds 200,000 species of viruses living in the oceans

The ocean is teeming with life — just probably not the kind of life you’d want around you.

The schooner Tara in the Arctic. Image credits: Tara Foundation.

If you’ve ever been to the beach, then you probably swallow a mouthful or two of seawater. Along with the water, you’ve chugged about 1 million viruses and 0,1 million bacteria. Not to worry you even further — but we aren’t really sure what those microorganisms are in the first place.

A 2015 study cataloged 5,476 distinct kinds of viruses in the ocean. In 2016, the same team updated its count to 15,222. Now, that number has been blown out of the water, with the latest effort identifying 195,728 distinct kinds of viruses.

“This new understanding of viruses from the northern pole to the southern pole and from the surface to 4,000 meters deep may help scientists better understand how the oceans will behave under the pressures of climate change,” said Ahmed Zayed, co-lead author of the study and microbiology doctoral student at The Ohio State University.

“This is a massively expanded ‘catalog’ of ocean viruses, which we used to draw the first global map of viral diversity,” Zayed added.

The data was gathered from 146 samples taken on several expeditions aboard the schooner Tara — a research expedition which collected samples from the surface to different depths and from pole to pole.

Researchers first analyzed genetic material in the samples to assess whether it was viral or not and then used bioinformatic tools to compare it to known viruses. Defining a viral species is controversial so instead, the team classified the viruses into “populations”, with a population having at least 5% unique DNA.

Examples of virus species from the new survey. Image credits: Jennifer Brum.

So what do you do with such a large dataset? Well, you study it, because many of these viruses are new to science, and their role in the community and ecosystem is not yet known. Viruses play a major role in global biogeochemical cycles, including the carbon cycle, and there are important knowledge gaps to be filled.

The genomes indicate adaptations to different types of marine environments, and already, the preliminary findings seem to clash with some existing scientific theories.

“There’s this paradigm that diversity is highest at the equator, and lessens as you move towards the poles,” Zayed said. However, the polar areas were also teeming with viral biodiversity, and we’re not really sure why. Some 40% of the new populations came from the arctic.

Also, the viruses might be useful in a different way: it could be mined for new genes, with this genetic information potentially paving the way for new antibiotics.

Lastly, researchers warn that this is far from exhaustive — in addition to any species that might have been missed by scientists, the study only looked for viruses that have DNA, which leaves out an entire class of RNA-only viruses. Largely speaking though, we can say that oceanic micro-biodiversity has been thoroughly mapped for the first time.

 

A new gravity model gives us the clearest picture of the world's seabed up to now.

Most detailed Map of the Seafloor yet exposes Thousands of New Mountains

The Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego has released a new map of the world’s seafloor – the first in nearly 20 years – which exposes new terrain, including thousands of mountains. The unprecedented detail was attained using radar satellites that captures gravity measurements of the ocean seafloor. Armed with this more precise understanding of what lies beneath the world’s oceans, scientists can now establish more sophisticated and accurate climate models, as well as gain new clues on how the continents as they stand today formed past the eons.

The map of a watery world

A new gravity model gives us the clearest picture of the world's seabed up to now.

A new gravity model gives us the clearest picture of the world’s seabed up to now.

Mapping the surface of our planet’s seabed is a very important job, but also a highly challenging one. Scientists can not perform this job using the same tools for mapping mountains, hills and other terrain above sea level, since seawater is opaque to these methods. A really accurate reading can be achieved by ships carrying echosounders which bounce off sounds from the watery depths below, but it would take too much time and money to do this for the whole world’s seabed. Many features are also hidden by sediments, which renders sonar ineffective in this case. Generally, researchers turn to this technique when they really want to have a fine grained picture of the ocean’s bottoms, for a given area for different purposes. On a planetary scale, radar satellites are much more effective, though.

[ALSO READ] 39 unbelievable underwater pictures that will blow your mind

Dietmar Müller from the University of Sydney said: “You may generally think that the great age of exploration is truly over; we’ve been to all the remotest corners of continents, and perhaps one might think also of the ocean basins. But sadly this is not true – we know much more about the topography of Mars than we know about the seafloor.”

Mapping gravity

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A new seafloor map reveals fracture zones which tell scientists about the movement of the continents.

Satellites fitted with radar altimeters can infer the surface of the ocean bottom from the surface of the water high above. Because water follows gravity, it is pulled into highs above the mass of tall seamounts, and slumps into depressions over deep trenches. Key insight such as this made the gross maps we now have at our disposal, but advances in satellite technology  have brought a two-fold improvement in the gravity model used to describe the ocean floor. This was possible thanks to data sets from the European Space Agency’s (ESA) CryoSat-2 satellite, which primarily captures polar ice data but also operates continuously over the oceans, and Jason-1, NASA’s satellite that was redirected to map the gravity field during the last year of its 12-year mission.

[RELATED] NASA releases global salinity map

Already, despite the work is far from finished, we can see an exponential growth in the detail available to us.

“In the previous radar dataset we could see everything taller than 2km, and there were 5,000 seamounts,” Prof Dave Sandwell, a Scripps Institution of Oceanography researcher.

“With our new dataset – and we haven’t fully done the work yet – I’m guessing we can see things that are 1.5km tall.

“That might not sound like a huge improvement but the number of seamounts goes up exponentially with decreasing size.

“So, we may be able to detect another 25,000 on top of the 5,000 already known,” he went on to explain.

The new map also gives geophysicists new tools to investigate ocean spreading centers and little-studied remote ocean basins.

“The kinds of things you can see very clearly now are abyssal hills, which are the most common land form on the planet,” said David Sandwell, lead scientist of the paper and a geophysics professor in the Cecil H. and Ida M. Green Institute of Geophysics and Planetary Physics (IGPP) at Scripps.

The newly released map now comes as a great tool for geophysicists looking to investigate remote ocean basins or ocean spreading centers. Abyssal hills – the most common land form on Earth – can now be more clearly discerned. These structures significantly influence oceans currents, and thus the climate. They’re also important to conservation efforts and fishery research since it’s around these kind of terrain that marine life tends to congregate.

The research also offers new insights into the tectonics of the deep oceans. For instance, the map has exposed a previously uncharted continental connection across South American and Africa – a different type of ridge feature that became separated roughly 85 million years ago .

What’s amazing is that one of the satellites used for the mapping, ESA’s Cryosat, was actually tasked with the primary mission of tracing the shape and thickness of polar ice fields – not the seabed. The technology onboard the satellite, however, proved to be invaluable for marine floor probing – something that became clear as soon as it took orbit.

“The team has developed and proved a powerful new tool for high-resolution exploration of regional seafloor structure and geophysical processes,” says Don Rice, program director in the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Division of Ocean Sciences. “This capability will allow us to revisit unsolved questions and to pinpoint where to focus future exploratory work.”

“The use of satellite altimeter data and Sandwell’s improved data processing technique provides improved estimates of marine gravity and bathymetry world-wide, including in remote areas,” said Joan Cleveland, Office of Naval Research (ONR) deputy director, Ocean Sensing and Systems Division. “Accurate bathymetry and identifying the location of seamounts are important to safe navigation for the U.S. Navy.”

The paper was reported in Science.

 

 

 

 

Global warming slows down Antarctica’s coldest currents, poses huge threat

Oceanographers believe that Antarctica‘s oceanic waters, which are turning from briny to fresh in recent decades, are causing the shutdown of the Southern Ocean’s coldest, deepest currents.

The cold currents, called the Antarctic Bottom Water, are basically cold, briny, underwater rivers flowing from the underwater edge of the Antarctic continent north toward the equator, very close to the seafloor. They carry oxygen, carbon, and many nutrients to the depths of the ocean, and play a huge role in the survival of creatures which live close to the seafloor. It has already been shown in the past years that the effects of this current are shrinking, but it was unclear if this is a man-caused, or if it is simply a natural process.

This new study concludes that Antarctica’s changing climate is to blame for the shrinking Antarctica Bottom Water. Here’s what happens, at a very basic level: we’re dealing with a global warming situation. The higher temperatures cause ice to melt, and they also cause increased precipitations (both rain and snow) in the Antarctic areas. The melting glaciers and precipitation bring a massive influx of sweet water which slowly replaces the briny, oceanic water in the area. Since the fresh and briny water have different densities and somewhat different chemical properties, this prevents the currents from taking their normal course.

“Deep ocean waters only mix directly to the surface in a few small regions of the global ocean, so this has effectively shut one of the main conduits for deep-ocean heat to escape,” said Casimir de Lavergne, an oceanographer at McGill University in Montreal.

The key part of the chain here are polynyas – natural holes surrounded by sea ice. These persistent regions of open water form when upwellings of warm ocean water keep water temperatures above freezing, acting pretty much like natural refrigerators – they absorb the cold temperatures, the water gets colder (higher density), and drops to the bottom, sending hotter water in its stead, creating a current.

But as Antarctica’s water freshened, fewer and fewer polynyas appeared – specifically because freshwater is less dense, and even if it gets colder, it doesn’t sink to the bottom. It acts like a lid, sealing off the current and shutting down oceanic circulation.

“What we suggest is, the change in salinity of the surface water makes them so light that even very strong cooling is not sufficient to make them dense enough to sink,” de Lavergne told ZME Science. “Mixing them gets harder and harder.”

De Lavergne cautioned that the heat-storage effect is localized to the Antarctica area, and it’s not connected to the so-called global warming “hiatus” – the observed slowing down of global warming, even with increased energies in the system.

“Our study is still a hypothesis,” he added. “We say that climate change is preventing convection from happening, but we do not know how frequent it was in the past, so that’s a big avenue for future research.”

However, even as just a hypothesis, this is a worrying conclusion; oceanic anoxia is not a laughing matter, and it’s just another evidence that this global warming we are causing has significant and sometimes unexpected effects all around the world.

NASA releases global salinity map

NASA has, for the first time, released a global map of ocean salinity. The first thing that popped up for me was the pulse of freshwater gushing from the Amazon, but other major features are worth noticing.

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An invisible seam divides the salty Arabian Sea from the fresher waters of the Bay of Bengal and a large patch of freshwater appears in the eastern tropical Pacific in the winter. These and others in ocean salinity levels were revealed by the first full year of surface salinity data captured by NASA’s Aquarius instrument.

“With a bit more than a year of data, we are seeing some surprising patterns, especially in the tropics,” said Aquarius Principal Investigator Gary Lagerloef, of Earth & Space Research in Seattle. “We see features evolve rapidly over time.”

Launched in 2011, aboard the Argentine spacecraft Aquarius/Satélite de Aplicaciones Científicas (SAC)-D, Aquarius is NASA’s first satellite instrument built with the specific purpose of studying the salinity of surface waters. Salinity variations are one of the main drivers of oceanic water circulation, closely connected with the cycling of freshwater, and studying them could provide valuable information (among others) on how the changing global climate is altering global rainfall patterns.

Initially, researchers want to analyze the major features. The Arabian Sea, nestled up against the dry Middle East, is much saltier than the neighboring Bay of Bengal which is showered by the Gange and other major rivers. Also, it’s no surprise that the Amazon pumps a huge quantity of sweet water. Also, another thing that is really nice to see is the large patch of highly saline water across the North Atlantic. This area, the saltiest anywhere in the open ocean is (with a bit of a stretch) the analogous of a desert on land – with little rainfall and lots of evaporation.

“My conclusion after five weeks out at sea and analyzing five weekly maps of salinity from Aquarius while we were there was that indeed, the patterns of salinity variation seen from Aquarius and by the ship were similar,” said Eric Lindstrom, NASA’s physical oceanography program scientist, of NASA Headquarters, Washington, and a participant of the SPURS research cruise.

But this is just the beginning – and as time passes on, researchers will want to look into more details regarding this.

“The Aquarius prime mission is scheduled to run for three years but there is no reason to think that the instrument could not be able to provide valuable data for much longer than that,” said Gene Carl Feldman, Aquarius project manager at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. “The instrument has been performing flawlessly and our colleagues in Argentina are doing a fantastic job running the spacecraft, providing us a nice, stable ride.”

The next immediate objective is to fine-tune the readings and retrieve data closer to the coasts and the poles. The sensors detect the microwave emissivity of the top 1 to 2 centimeters – a property that depends on temperature and salinity. The thing is, land and ice emit very bright microwave emissions that swamp the signal read by the satellite. This especially adds complications at the poles, where cold polar waters require very large changes in their salt concentration to modify their microwave signal. Still, the Aquarius team was surprised to see just how good the instrument is already able to collect and analyze measurements.

“The fact that we’re getting areas, particularly around islands in the Pacific, that are not obviously badly contaminated is pretty remarkable. It says that our ability to screen out land contamination seems to be working quite well,” Feldman said.

The ultimate goal of the project however is to mix the data with that from its European counterpart, the Soil Moisture and Ocean Salinity satellite (SMOS) to produce more accurate and finer maps of ocean salinity.

“The first year of the Aquarius mission has mostly been about understanding how the instruments and algorithms are performing,” Feldman said. “Now that we have overcome the major hurdles, we can really begin to focus on understanding what the data are telling us about how the ocean works, how it affects weather and climate, and what new insights we can gain by having these remarkable salinity measurements.”

Via NASA

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Wave-powered swimming robots completes epic 9,000 journey at sea

pacx-liquid-robotics-pacific-oceans

After it was first cast out to sea less than a year ago from San Francisco’s bay, the PacX Wave Glider, also known as Papa Mau, finally reached the end of its epic journey after it reached Queensland, Australia setting a new world record for the longest distance traveled by an autonomous vehicle. PacX swam over 9,000 miles.

Designed for data collection, Papa Mau surveyed areas of the Pacific providing high-resolution data that previously couldn’t be available over such vast distances and time frames. During its journey, the swimming robot that is powered exclusively by waves, had to fend off gale force storms, sharks, made dangerous maneuvers around the Great Barrier Reef and surfed across Australia’s  traitorous currents.

“This shows you how robust these things are, and it showed us how much data it could collect,” said Ed Lu, chief of innovative applications at Liquid Robotics, in an interview with VentureBeat. “These are very sophisticated, almost like small spacecraft.”

Papa Mau is designed to go for up to six months without a maintenance check and can prowl the ocean for as long as two years, thanks to its clever propulsion system that harness the power of the sea, and the solar panel that charge during the day to power data collection instruments and wireless networks that transmit data back to shore.

The fully autonomous swimming vehicle is comprised of two main parts –  the upper half of the Wage Glider is shaped like a stunted surfboard, while the bottom section is made up of a number of fins and a keel. Liquid Robotics, the company that made the Wave Glider, currently has three more robots surfing the Pacific on various routes destined from Japan and again Australia.

“To say we are excited and proud of Papa Mau reaching his final destination is an understatement,” Liquid Robotics CEO Bill Vass said. “We set off on the PacX journey to demonstrate that Wave Glider technology could not only survive the high seas and a journey of this length, but more importantly, collect and transmit ocean data in real-time from the most remote portions of the Pacific Ocean. We’ve demonstrated delivery of ocean data services through the most challenging ocean conditions. Mission accomplished.”

source: Liquid Robotics press release

New study estimates 1 million marine species – one third still unknown

The world’s oceans are teeming with life, a new census estimating almost 1 million species out there; but marine life is declining, with the main causes being overfishing, ocean acidification and coastal damage.

Avoiding a crisis

The new numbers are just estimates, but they are much lower than previous studies, which put the number of species at around 10 million; even still, the species-by-species count is extremely important, enabling researchers to better understand biodiversity and the complex relationships between species in the same ecosystem and even between different ecosystems – something crucial for biodiversity conservation.

“It’s the best job ever of tallying everything we know – and what we don’t know – about life in the oceans today,” Palumbi said. “It’s the first time anyone’s done this kind of dirty work that’s so important with the world’s oceans facing a biodiversity crisis.”

Some scientists believe this kind of crisis is imminent, others are more reserved, believing the damage is not irreparable, but all of then agree on one thing: mankind is making a bigger and bigger mark on oceanic wildlife. The first thing we must do in order to minimize our impact is to understand how it all works.

“You can only love something if you know it,” said Ward Appeltans, a marine biologist at the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission of UNESCO in Oostende, Belgium. “We will not save the world with this result, but we may start understanding it better.”

Unknown species

The good news is researchers are quite optimistic about our chances to identify all marine species.

“It may not be mission impossible to describe all the marine species in the ocean,” Appeltans said. “We are describing 2,000 new marine species every year. If we can keep that momentum, we can start knowing exactly what’s living on our planet.”

Quick math says that if there are 1.000.000 species in the ocean, and 333.000 are still undescovered, at a rate of 2.000 per year, it would take some 166 years – but that’s assuming the rate doesn’t go down, which is quite unlikely.

Previous estimates regarding the number of species in the ocean relied mostly on extrapolations based on rates of previous discoveries or numbers of unknown species in sample collections – a method which led to estimates ranging from 300.000 to 10 million. In order to get to something more accurate, Appeltans worked with 120 of the world’s leading experts on specific groups of marine environments. He relied on their taxonomic knowledge, and then asked them to make educated guesses about the numbers of unknown species in their fields. He then summed it up and ran the numbers through a statistical model which also took into consideration the changes in rates of discovery over time.

Overall, he analyzed some 400.000 known species, and using the technique described above, he calculated 482.000 to 741.000 species are yet to be discovered. Experts predicted that most of them would be crustaceans, mollusks, phytoplankton and other small organisms, but also 2-8 species of whales and dolphins, 10 species of sea snakes, and other reptiles.

“The question of how many species there are is such a fundamental one and it’s a huge embarrassment that we don’t have the answer,” said Stuart Pimm, a conservation biologist at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. “In a compelling way, this paper has come up with a fairly credible number for how much we know and don’t know.”

It’s not the exact number that’s important, but rather what it means. It could help us understand if we’re protecting the areas we should be, or if we’re ignoring some areas we really shouldn’t. Marine conservation and environmental protection are extremely serious issues which could benefit from this research.

“We know we’re losing biodiversity at a rate that is 1,000 times faster than we should be, and if we’re going to stop that hemorrhaging of species, we have to know what the species are and most important, where they are,” Pimm said. “This is a vital first step in making decisions about where to act.”

You can find the entire database on marinespecies.org

The research was published in “Current biology

Each Wave Glider will collect valuable data about the status of the Pacific Ocean's current health.

Unmanned robots embark on epic voyage across the Pacific Ocean

Each Wave Glider will collect valuable data about the status of the Pacific Ocean's current health.

Each Wave Glider will collect valuable data about the status of the Pacific Ocean's current health.

This weekend four unmanned robot vehicles set out to cross the Pacific Ocean, for the longest voyage of this kind so far attempted. During their 300 days trek,  the Wave Glider crafts will gather immense data regarding composition and quality of sea water, which will provide researchers with invaluable data regarding the current status of the ocean’s health.

The robots, designed by Liquid Robotics, were launched from the St Francis Yacht Club on the edge of San Francisco harbour on 17 November. Initially, the four crafts will travel together until they reach Hawaii, after which they’ll split into two pairs – one will cross the ocean towards Australia, while the other  head to Japan to support a dive on the Mariana Trench (deepest part of the ocean). In total, 3,000 nautical miles (66,000km) will be covered, while curious viewers can keep up to date with the robots’ live progress on Google Earth.

“Most of the ocean remains unexplored with less than 10 percent of it mapped out. This expedition creates an opportunity for students, marine researchers, and aspiring oceanographers to follow these brave Liquid Robotics ocean robots as they cross the Pacific virtually through the Ocean Showcase on the Google Earth website,” says Jenifer Austin Foulkes, Ocean in Google Earth manager.

Surprisingly, the construction of the robots seems quite fragile. Made out of two parts, the upper half of the Wage Glider is shaped like a stunted surfboard and it is attached by a cable to a lower part fitted with a series of fins and a keel. Around 2.25 million data points will be gathered during the voyage as the unmanned crafts will pass for never before surveyed waters via sensors. To power the sensors, a solar panel was installed on the upper part of the craft, in contact with the surface. For me, it’s quite remarkable how the Wave Glider will be able to withstand the torrents and vicious waves of the Pacific, but obviously the engineers who made them have to know what they’re doing.

“At Virgin Oceanic, our mission is taking the next step in human exploration to the last frontier – the very bottom of our seas. I will be piloting to the bottom of the Mariana Trench to explore the deepest point of the Pacific Ocean,” says Chris Welsh, Virgin Oceanic co-founder and pilot.

“Wave Gliders are one of the most promising solutions for major, low cost, long-range ocean exploration. I look forward to seeing the results as their Wave Gliders cross over the Mariana Trench, which is our first major dive location.”

The March award for awesome animal goes to THE MIMIC OCTOPUS

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The mimic octopus, Thaumoctopus mimicus is a species of octopus that grows up to 60 cm (2 feet) in length and is naturally colored with brown and white stripes and spots. So what’s so special about it? The mimic octopus can literally mimic the physical appearance and movement of fifteen different species, that we know of (including, but not limited to sea snakes, lionfish, flatfish, brittle stars, giant crabs, sea shells, stingrays, flounders, jellyfish, sea anemones).

This fascinating creatures wasn’t discovered until 11 years ago; after the first one was spotted, a relatively thorough research project was launched, and in the following two years, only 9 different such creatures were seen. The mimic octopus is extremely intelligent and despite the fact that mimicry is quite a common trait among the animal world, Thaumoctopus mimicus is the only observed animal that can mimic multiple species. In fact, it’s so smart that it actually knows what animal is best to mimic. If it’s being hunter, it knows exactly what animal the predator will fear and impersonates that one.

Amazingly long fish filmed

Mark Benfield from Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge was undertaking a survey when he spotted this amazing oarfish at about 10 meters long. The fish is one of the longest in the world, and it’s general aspect resembles that of a serpent, so it’s possible it lies at the basis of some sea serpent myths.

oarfish

Professor Benfield explains how they found the fish:

“We saw this bright vertical shiny thing, I said ‘are they lowering more riser?’ as it looked like they were lowering a huge pipe. We zoomed in a little bit and we said ‘that’s not a riser that’s a fish! What was interesting about the fish was its swimming behaviour,” said Professor Benfield.It moved by undulating its dorsal fin in waves that propelled it backwards at quite a good speed.”

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Oarfish are amazing deep sea creatures that can go up to 17 meters long. They are sometimes found washed up on beaches or dying in the upper part of the ocean, and this is the first time they’ve been filmed in the deep. Unfortunately, I can’t give you the footage here, but you can find it on BBC.

Just in case you didn’t know, there’s a garbage island twice as big as France in the Pacific Ocean

I was surprised to talk to a bunch of people today and find out they didn’t know about this, so I figured this is definitely something worth knowing. Here’s the deal.

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There’s a whole lot of garbage floating around; a whole lot ! Some are above the surface, some are below. What happens is they get sucked in by oceanic currents, and tangle up with other garbage (mostly plastic). But you shouldn’t think only about bottles and such; most of the times, the plastic particles are hard to see even from a boat, but that doesn’t make them any less dangerous – on the contrary. It’s been proved that albatross and other sea creatures ingest way more plastic this way. The total amount of ‘plastic soup’ is hard to quantify, varying from twice the size of Texas (or France) to twice the size of the USA. It’s also expanding – fast. Stretching from Hawaii to Japan the biggest such patch is estimated to weigh around 100 million tons, according to American oceanographer Charles Moore, who also explains:

“The original idea that people had was that it was an island of plastic garbage that you could almost walk on. It is not quite like that. It is almost like a plastic soup. It is endless for an area that is maybe twice the size as continental United States.”

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There’s also a missconception that it has well defined borders, like an island. There’s just a gradient of particle density, with most particles being as big as 1-3 mm. According to wikipedia, 80% is a result of terrestrial pollution, and the 20% left comes from ships. As you probably guessed, any effort towards cleaning the area is not going to happen any time soon, as it would require massive efforts and collaborations, and an estimated (very rough) cost of 10 billion dollars. No nation has made a step forward in taking responsability, and I can’t see anyone doing this in the near future.

“At this point, cleaning it up isn’t an option. It’s just going to get bigger as our reliance on plastics continues. … The long-term solution is to stop producing as much plastic products at home and change our consumption habits.”, said Chris Parry, public education program manager with the California Coastal Commission in San Francisco.

The effects are hard to estimate, varying from extremely harmful to catastrophic. Without even taking into consideration the long term effects and what will happen when it becomes even bigger (which quite frankly, won’t take that long if things continue to move the way they have), the short and medium term effects are devastating. Marine animals and birds ingest plastic which just doesn’t go away from their stomach. Eventually, it starts filling it up, and if it’s not toxic, and kills them, it fills their stomach and basically causes the animals to starve to death – a quite painful and tragic death. It can be harmful even for humans because we too eat the animals which ingest the plastic.

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In case you’re wondering, no, I don’t think there’s anything you can do to help clean the patch up (even if you wanted to). But you can limit it’s ever growing size, as well as the size of land garbage. Just do the basic stuff:

– Limit your use of plastic whenever possible. Take your canvas bags to the supermarket or just don’t take plastic bags whenever possible.

– Throw your garbage where it should belong; don’t leave it on the beach or on the street or whatever.

– Tell other people. Make it spread. Many people don’t care about this at all; but many do, and they just need a small push to act. Be that push !

Blue whales singing lower every year, baffled scientists say

Blue whales are not only the biggest living creatures in the world right now, but the biggest ever to have ‘walked’ the face of the earth; they’re also the loudest for that matter. After recovering from near extinction in the beginning of the 20th century, blue whales are finally getting a part of the respect they deserve.

However, researchers cannot understand what is causing these majestic creatures to ‘sing’ at lower frequencies year after year. No one is fully sure of all the uses of the blue whale songs, but it’s known they are used to communicate and as a mating ritual. However, ever since the 1960s, the frequencies which these giants use are getting lower and lower, without anybody being able to give an explanation.

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Of course, some theories have emerged, the two most likely being that it’s a direct result of the water pollution or a sign that an almost extinct population is recovering. Mark McDonald, president of Whale Acoustics, a company that specializes in recording the songs of blue whales (yeah, really) originally thought the cause could be noise pollution caused by intensified traffic; however, if this would be the case and they would want to make themselves heard louder, they would use higher, and not lower frequencies. This may be a bit weird because generally lower frequency transmissions are used for long distances, but mister McDonald explains:

Across the frequencies of blue whale song, the underwater transmission losses are nearly the same regardless of frequency. It is absorption which is the primary cause of frequency dependent transmission losses, rather than dispersion in this case, and the absorption loss only begins to become significant when ranges reach thousands of kilometers. Theory tells us the whales can produce higher amplitude songs at higher frequencies, based on given lung volume.

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Another possible reason could be a change in the mating rituals. Scientists have long known that only male blue whales sing, and larger (which are usually more mature) specimens sing at lower frequencies. The hypothesis is that the younger guys are trying to emulate the older ones in order to attract females (that seems familiar). Either way, there are many we have yet to understand about the way these marine mammals act. The only good thing is that the blue whale populations is nearing a normal limit; let’s set this as an example for other species too, instead of treating them with less care now that they’re not on the brink of extinction anymore.

Hundreds of icebergs drifting towards New Zealand

According to the Australian Antarctic Division, at least a hundred Antarctic icebergs are currently drifting towards New Zealand at a speed that alarmed local authorities as well as specialists from all over the world.

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A glaciologist from inside the organization said that they already passed the Auckland islands and are currently heading for the main South Island; these icebergs are in fact chunks from massive ice floe which split from the Antarctic area due to the ever rising temperatures brought by global warming.

“All of these have come from a larger one that was probably 30 square kilometers (11.6 square miles) in size when it left Antarctica,” Neal Young (glaciologist) told AFP. “It’s done a long circuit around Antarctica and now the bigger parts of it are breaking up and producing smaller ones.”

The hand of blood: man makes sure no ocean water remains pristine

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A new study has shown that not even a square meter of the world’s oceans has been left untouched by human activities. Oceansystems face probably the largest of threats from humans including overfishing, pollution, and rising ocean temperatures and ocean acidification caused by global warming.

The study has been led by an international team of scientists which analyzed data from 17 different types of these human impacts and fed them into a model that produced a map of the world’s oceans with each square kilometer assigned a value of the level of impact at that particular spot. The results were published in the Feb. 15 issue of the journal Science.

The above map shows that human activity has affected, to some extent, all parts of the oceans, with 41 percent being strongly impacted by several human-caused drivers.

“What is new today is that… we know how much of the oceans are in trouble and this figure is frighteningly high,” said co-author Fiorenza Micheli, a Stanford University marine ecologist, at a news conference in Boston.

The most damaged regions are those surrounding the most advanced countries and the most industrialized areas; these areas include nclude the eastern Caribbean, the North Sea, the eastern North American seaboard, the Mediterranean, and the waters around Japan.

“For the first time we can see where some of the most threatened marine ecosystems are and what might be degrading them,” said study co-author Elizabeth Selig of the University of North Carolina.
This information enables us to tailor strategies and set priorities for ecosystem management,” said Selig. “And it shows that while local efforts are important, we also need to be thinking about global solutions.”