Environmental officials and members of the U.S. Coast Guard are racing to clean up a mysterious oil spill that has spread to 11 miles of Delaware coastline.
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The excess carbon dioxide emitted by human activity since the start of the industrial revolution has already raised the Earth's temperature by more than one degree Celsius, increased the risk of extreme hurricanes and wildfires and killed off more than half of the corals in the Great Barrier Reef. But geologic history shows that the impacts of greenhouse gases could be much worse.
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By Robert J. Orth, Jonathan Lefcheck and Karen McGlathery
A century ago Virginia's coastal lagoons were a natural paradise. Fishing boats bobbed on the waves as geese flocked overhead. Beneath the surface, miles of seagrass gently swayed in the surf, making the seabed look like a vast underwater prairie.
Why Didn’t Seagrasses Recover Naturally?<p>Development, nutrient runoff and other human impacts have damaged marshes, mangroves, coral reefs and seagrasses in many bays and estuaries worldwide. Loss or shrinkage of these key habitats has reduced commercial fisheries, increased erosion, made coastlines more vulnerable to floods and storms and harmed many types of aquatic life. Rapid climate change has compounded these effects through <a href="https://theconversation.com/ocean-warming-has-fisheries-on-the-move-helping-some-but-hurting-more-116248" target="_blank">rising global temperatures</a>, more <a href="https://theconversation.com/more-frequent-and-intense-tropical-storms-mean-less-recovery-time-for-the-worlds-coastlines-123335" target="_blank">frequent and severe storms</a> and <a href="https://theconversation.com/as-climate-change-alters-the-oceans-what-will-happen-to-dungeness-crabs-61501" target="_blank">ocean acidification</a>.</p><p>In the late 1990s, local residents told two of us who are longtime students of seagrasses (Robert "JJ" Orth and Karen McGlathery) that they had spotted small patches of eelgrass in shallow waters off Virginia's eastern shore. For years the conventional view had been that seagrasses in this area had not recovered from the events of the 1930s because human activities had <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.aquabot.2005.07.007" target="_blank">made the area inhospitable for them</a>.</p><p>But studies showed that water quality in these coastal bays was <a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/BF02782971" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">comparatively good</a>. This led us to explore a different explanation: Seeds from healthy seagrass populations elsewhere along the Atlantic coast simply weren't reaching these isolated bays. Seagrasses are underwater flowering plants, so seeds are among the main ways they reproduce and spread to new environments.</p>
Eelgrass beds were restored in four bays at the southern tip of Virginia's eastern shore on the Atlantic coast. David J. Wilcox/VIMS, CC BY-ND
Sowing a New Crop<p>From our <a href="https://doi.org/10.2307/1941597" target="_blank">earlier research</a>, we knew that when eelgrass seeds fall from the parent plant, they sink to the sea bottom quickly and don't move far from where they land. We also knew that these seeds don't germinate until late fall or early winter. This meant that if we collected the seeds in spring, when eelgrass flowers, we could hold them until the fall, helping them survive over the months in between.</p><p>We decided to try reseeding eelgrass in the areas where they were missing. Starting in 1999, we collected seeds by hand from underwater meadows in nearby Chesapeake Bay – plucking the long reproductive shoots, bringing them back to our laboratory and holding them in large outdoor seawater tanks until they released their seeds naturally. After about 10 years we started gathering the grasses using a custom-built underwater "lawn mower" to collect many more of the reproductive shoots than we could by hand.</p><p>In 2001 we sowed our first round by simply tossing seeds from a boat. Our first test plots covered 28 acres of mud flats in waters 2 to 3 feet deep. Returning the following year, we saw new seedlings sprouting up.</p><p>Each year since then, the <a href="https://www.vims.edu/" target="_blank">Virginia Institute of Marine Science</a> and the <a href="https://www.nature.org/en-us/about-us/where-we-work/united-states/virginia/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Nature Conservancy's Virginia Coast Reserve</a>, along with staff and students from the <a href="https://www.vcrlter.virginia.edu/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">University of Virginia</a>, have led a team of scientists and citizens to collect and seed a combined 536 acres of bare bottom in several coastal bays.</p><p>These initial plots took off and rapidly expanded. By 2020 they covered 9,600 acres across four bays. Several factors helped them flourish. These bays are naturally flushed with cool, clean water from the Atlantic Ocean. And they lie off the tip of Virginia's eastern shore, where there is little coastal development.</p>
<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="a482c2146febd6782c99960c2b55feb8"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/K9NyfPLINtk?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
Sheltering Marine Life and Storing Carbon<p>Since eelgrass disappeared from these bays in the 1930s, human understanding of seagrass ecosystems has evolved. Today people don't pack their walls full of seagrass insulation but instead value different services they provide, such as habitat for fish and shellfish – including many <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/conl.12645" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">commercially and recreationally important species</a>.</p><p>Scientists and government agencies also have recognized the importance of coastal systems in capturing and storing so-called "<a href="https://oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/bluecarbon.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">blue carbon</a>." In fact, we now know that seagrasses constitute a globally significant <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/ngeo1477" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">carbon sink</a>. They are a key tool for reducing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-020-64094-1" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">slowing climate change</a></p><p>We are working to understand the valuable services that our restored seagrass beds provide. To our surprise, fish and invertebrates returned within only a few years as the meadows expanded. These organisms have established extensive food webs that include species ranging from tiny seahorses to 6-foot-long sandbar sharks.<br></p><p>Other benefits were equally dramatic. Water in the bays become clearer as the seagrass canopy trapped floating particles and deposited them onto the bottom, burying significant stocks of carbon and nitrogen in sediments bound by the grasses' roots. Our research is the first to verify the overall net carbon captured by seagrass, and is now being used to issue carbon offset credits that in turn <a href="https://vaseagrant.org/eelgrass-carbon-credits/" target="_blank">create more funds for restoration</a>.</p><p>One big question was whether restoring seagrasses could make it possible to bring back bay scallops, which once generated millions of dollars for the local economy. Since bay scallops no longer existed in Virginia, we obtained broodstock from North Carolina, which we have <a href="https://chesapeakebaymagazine.com/return-of-the-bay-scallop/" target="_blank">reared and released annually</a> since 2013. Regular surveys now reveal a growing population of bay scallops in the restored eelgrass, although there is still some way to go before they reach levels seen in the 1930s.</p>
Restored seagrass beds (dark areas) along Virginia's Atlantic coast, with sunlight reflecting from a small island. Jonathan Lefcheck, CC BY-ND
A Model for Coastal Restoration<p>Repairing damaged ecosystems is such an urgent mission worldwide that the United Nations has designated 2021-2030 as the <a href="https://www.decadeonrestoration.org/" target="_blank">U.N. Decade on Ecosystem Restoration</a>. We see the success we have achieved with eelgrass restoration as a prime model for similar efforts in coastal areas around the world.</p><p>Our project focused not only on reviving this essential habitat, but also on charting how restoring seagrasses affected the ecosystem and on the co-restoration of bay scallops. It provides a road map for involving scholars, nonprofits organizations, citizens and government agencies in an ecological mission where they can see the results of their work.</p><p>Recent assessments show that the restored zone only covers about 30% of the total habitable bottom in our project area. With continued support, eelgrass – and the many benefits it provides – may continue to thrive and expand well into the 21st century.</p>
By Jessica Corbett
Leaders of climate and conservation groups on Tuesday welcomed House Democrats' introduction of landmark legislation that aims to address the ocean impacts of human-caused global heating and reform federal ocean management—recognizing that, as Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva put it, "a healthy ocean is key to fighting the climate crisis."
<div id="a858f" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="99d487bc34e6e570edd2a3089e616347"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1318606309256798208" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">🎥 We're live! @NRDems, @RepRaulGrijalva, and @USRepKCastor are unveiling #OceanClimateAction legislation. W… https://t.co/pPdylA6cKQ</div> — Select Committee on the Climate Crisis (@Select Committee on the Climate Crisis)<a href="https://twitter.com/ClimateCrisis/statuses/1318606309256798208">1603215217.0</a></blockquote></div>
<div id="17f05" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="28d7040a5dd41c4d26fed8e93a225655"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1318614724842524674" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">.@RepRaulGrijalva’s climate bill will ignite #OceanClimateAction to help fight inequality by prioritizing funding f… https://t.co/oeH1W214em</div> — NRDC 🌎🏡 (@NRDC 🌎🏡)<a href="https://twitter.com/NRDC/statuses/1318614724842524674">1603217223.0</a></blockquote></div>
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By Brian Bienkowski
Fish exposed to endocrine-disrupting compounds pass on health problems to future generations, including deformities, reduced survival, and reproductive problems, according to a new study.
Low Levels Lead to Generational Impacts<p>Researchers exposed inland silverside fish to bifenthrin, levonorgestrel, ethinylestradiol, and trenbolone to levels currently found in waterways.</p><p>"Our concentrations were actually on the low end" of what is found in the wild, DeCourten said, adding that it was low amounts of chemicals in parts per trillion.</p><p>Bifenthrin is a pesticide; levonorgestrel and ethinylestradiol are synthetic hormones used in birth controls; and trenbolone is a synthetic steroid often given to cattle to bulk them up.</p><p>Such endocrine-disruptors have already been linked to a variety of health problems in directly exposed fish including altered growth, reduced survival, lowered egg production, skewed sex ratios, and negative impacts to immune systems. But what remains less clear is how the exposure may impact future generations.</p><p>For their study, DeCourten and colleagues started the exposure when the fish were embryos and continued it for 21 days.</p><p>They then tracked effects on the exposed fish, and the next two generations.</p>
Inherited Problems<p>DeCourten said the altered DNA methylation is one of the plausible ways that future generations would experience health impacts from previous generations' exposure. Hormone-disrupting compounds have been shown to impact DNA methylation, which is an important marker of how an organism will develop.</p><p>"Methyl groups are added to specific sites on the genome, [the exposure] is not changing the genome itself, but rather how the genome is expressed," she said. "And that can be inherited throughout generations."</p><p>In addition, Brander said there are essentially different "tags" that exist on DNA molecules, which tell genes how to turn on and off. She said the exposure to different compounds may be "influencing which methyl tags get taken on or off as you proceed through generations."</p><p>The researchers said the study should prompt future toxics testing to consider impacts on future generations.</p><p>"The results … throw a wrench in the current approach to regulating chemicals, where it's often short-term testing looking at simple things like growth, survival, and maybe gene expression," Brander said.</p><p>"These findings are telling us we really at least need to consider" the next two generations, she added.</p>
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New York is finally bagging plastic bags.
The statewide ban on the highly polluting items actually went into effect March 1. But enforcement, which was supposed to start a month later, was delayed by the one-two punch of a lawsuit and the coronavirus pandemic, NY1 reported. Now, more than six months later, enforcement is set to begin Monday.
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North Carolina's Outer Banks are dotted with vacation beaches and historic communities. But the sweeping water views do not only draw tourists. They give locals a front row seat to sea-level rise.
Glitter may add sparkle to the holiday season, but its afterlife is decidedly less shiny.
By Tara Lohan
A blue whale can weigh as much as 200 tons and consume 12,000 pounds of krill in a single day. But even the largest animal on Earth doesn't stand a chance against a fast-moving cargo ship.
1. Acoustic monitoring instruments identify whale vocalizations. 2. Observers record whale sightings with a mobile app. 3. Oceanographic data is used to predict where blue whales are likely to be. 4. The data streams are compiled and validated. 5. Whale information is disseminated to industry, managers and the public. Nicolle R. Fuller, Sayo Studio<p><span style="background-color: initial;">There are three main components.</span><br></p><p>One is an acoustic listening station. Out in the Santa Barbara channel, our collaborators at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and Texas A&M University at Galveston deployed an acoustic buoy that has an underwater microphone near the seafloor. There's a small computer that processes any audio that the microphone picks up.</p><p>It is able to automatically detect the calls of blue, humpback and fin whales. Then there's a surface buoy with a satellite transmitter that sends that information back to shore. It's then validated by a scientist on shore before it's added to the database.</p><p>Then the second piece is a blue whale habitat model. We use oceanographic data like sea-surface temperature and current to predict where blue whales are likely to be on any given day. That was developed by our collaborators at U.C. Santa Cruz, the University of Washington and NOAA Southwest Fishery Science Center.</p><p>It's a dynamic model that's running every day in an automated fashion and producing maps that show us blue whale hotspots.</p><p>The third piece is data gathered by community scientists who are out on whale-watching and tourism boats nearly every day. They use mobile apps such as <a href="http://www.whalealert.org/" target="_blank">WhaleAlert</a> and <a href="http://whaleaware.org/index.php?page=download-spotter" target="_blank">Spotter Pro</a> to record whale sightings that are also added to the database.</p>
Deploying the acoustic detection system in the Santa Barbara Channel near the shipping lanes in 2019. Benioff Ocean Initiative<p>There are quite a few challenges, both on the technological side and just the bureaucratic side, of actually getting the data delivered that way. It's their main safety and navigation tool, so you don't want it to be crowded with too much data and information. That would need to be done really thoughtfully. But that's a communication pathway that could really help get this data more easily adopted.</p><p><strong></strong><strong>Right now there are voluntary slow-speed zones, but some ships aren't abiding by those recommendations. How likely do you think they'd be to adopt technology like Whale Safe?</strong></p><p>A few years ago there was actually a NOAA-led working group that brought together many stakeholders to try to develop solutions. One of the recommendations that came out of that process was actually a call for new technology and more real-time data on whale activity. And that was supported by many members of the shipping industry that were part of that working group.</p><p>That helped to inform the approach that we decided to take. Some of these companies expressed that time is money, and if they're going to slow down, they want to make sure that they're slowing down because there are actually whales in the area.</p><p>Our hope is that this data can really help to reinforce those slow-speed zones, especially when there's high whale activity in the channel.</p>
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The largest Arctic research expedition in history returned to Germany Monday after 13 months in the Arctic, including several months with its ship deliberately trapped by sea ice, according to The New York Times.
Pilot whales, sperm whales, beaked whales and deep-sea dolphins are the marine mammals most commonly involved in mass strandings. Baleen whales, on the other hand, a group to which all big whales except the sperm whale belong, strand very rarely.
How Do Whales and Dolphins Navigate?<p>Like <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/the-science-of-migratory-birds/a-47812308" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">migratory birds,</a> some whale species travel great distances every year. In winter, whales migrate from the cold northern seas to warmer waters in the south, and whales from southern waters move to the north in the same season. Months later, they then begin to travel back home.</p><p>The smaller toothed whales, such as dolphins, have a powerful underwater sonar. They orient themselves on their journeys by emitting sound waves in the form of clicking noises. When these sound waves collide with an object, they are reflected back as echoes to the animals' ears, which in the case of whales are shielded from the skull in foam-filled chambers inside the body to enable spatial hearing. The faster the sound returns, the closer the prey, an obstacle or the coast.</p><p>However, in the case of the large baleen whales, which have horn plates (baleen) instead of teeth in their upper jaws for filtering krill, animal plankton and small fish from the water, this underwater sonar is not very highly developed.</p><p>This echolocation works very well as a rule. However, sound reflection does not function reliably in certain circumstances, particularly when there are shallow or semicircular bays, sandy underwater embankments or silt banks. These types of coasts and obstacles do not produce an unambiguous echo from any particular direction, so the warning system fails.</p>
What Influence Does the Earth's Magnetic Field Have?<p>Whales such as the pilot whale do not use just underwater sonar to orient themselves, but — again, like migratory birds — seem to rely on the lines of the earth's magnetic field, as their migration routes often run parallel to those lines. The slight fluctuations of the earth's magnetic field appear to function like a kind of map.</p><p>Magnetite crystals have been found in the skulls of these animals. The whales could be confused by disturbances of the geomagnetic field near the coast. Magnetic fields running perpendicular to the mainland are also thought to play a role in mass strandings of whales in certain coastal regions.</p><p>Every few years, solar storms and sunspots that occur amid heightened activity on the sun's surface also cause fairly large changes in the Earth's magnetic field. It is at such times that sperm whales, for example, which also use geomagnetism as a natural navigation system, get lost and become stranded in the North Sea.</p>
Why Do Whales and Dolphins Become Stranded?<p>Navigational errors are thus believed to be the main cause of whale strandings, but all the reasons have not yet been conclusively investigated.</p><p>One of them is certainly the social behavior of many whale species, which travel in groups, so-called pods, and are guided by a leader. For example, in the case of sperm whales, a male leads the way from the Arctic Ocean back into warmer waters. By contrast, when orcas are on their travels, a mother or grandmother leads the group.</p><p>If leaders lose their orientation, perhaps because they are confused or because parasites have attacked their ears, rendering them incapable of hearing the echoes of the clicking sounds that have been sent, the accompanying animals will follow them in the wrong direction. If a leader is stuck in shallow waters, the rest of the group stays with it, even if this means their certain doom.</p><p>Sometimes, as has been observed, for example, with orcas on the South African coast, this group cohesion can go so far that whales who have already been saved after a mass stranding return to the beach if another stranded whale calls for help.</p><p>But strandings can also have other natural causes. Sometimes, smaller dolphins become beached because they have taken refuge from orcas and other predators in shallower waters or because they have ventured too far into shallow areas when hunting shoals of fish.</p><p>Occasionally, individual animals are also washed ashore dead after being previously injured by collisions with ships, fishing nets or shark attacks or becoming ill from infections or parasite infestation. </p>
Which Human Influences Exacerbate the Situation?<p>In addition to natural factors, man-made underwater noise from ships, icebreakers, drilling platforms or military sonar equipment can also massively impair the orientation and communication of marine mammals. They flee the strong sound waves in a state of confusion. And since the density of water is much higher than that of air, sound propagates underwater about five times faster than in the air.</p><p>Military sonar operations employing very loud sounds have particularly drastic effects. After NATO maneuvers, for example, beaked whales have washed up dead on the coasts of Cyprus, the Canary Islands and the Bahamas. The sonars, which are louder than 200 decibels, triggered the formation of gas bubbles in the blood vessels and organs of marine mammals (as happens with diving sickness), obstructing the blood supply and leading to their death. </p>
How Can You Help Stranded Whales and Dolphins?<p>When a whale stranding is discovered, there is usually not much time left. Teams of helpers can do little more than try to cool the stranded animals, keep them moist and combine forces to get the heavy animals back into the sea as quickly and gently as possible.</p><p>In some countries, hotlines have been set up so that as many helpers as possible can be mobilized quickly. For many exhausted animals, however, even these immediate measures often come too late. </p>
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