Scientists Baffled Over Unprecedented Warming of Ocean Off Atlantic and Pacific Coasts
Oceanographers are puzzled by an accelerated burst of warming sea that threatens the fisheries of the American Atlantic coast.
Meanwhile, off the U.S. West coast, scientists report that they have been baffled by a mysterious “blob” of water up to 4°C warmer than the surrounding Pacific, linked to weird weather across the entire country.
Photo credit: Putneypics via Flickr
Jacob Forsyth and research colleagues from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) in Massachusetts report in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Oceans that the ocean off the US north-east continental shelf has been warming at unprecedented levels for 13 years.
Their findings came after analysis of data from sensors—called bathythermographs—dropped 14 times a year from the container ship Oleander, which for 37 years has travelled between New Jersey and Bermuda. Each detector takes the temperature of the water column as it sinks up to 700 meters.
What they were startled to discover was an unexplained, and unprecedented, rise in the water temperatures that may be linked with an equally mysterious sea level anomaly: sea levels are going up, but they are going up faster off the north-east coast of the U.S. than almost anywhere else.
“The warming rate since 2002 is 15 times faster than from the previous 100 years,” says Glen Gawarkiewicz, a WHOI senior scientist and one of the authors of the report.
“There’s just been this incredible acceleration to the warming, and we don’t know if it’s decadal variability or if this trend will continue.”
To make sure of their perspective, the authors compared their analysis with surface data from the Nantucket lightship and other such installations along the coast, from 1880 to 2004. The new study shows that the warming is not just confined to surface waters.
Although there must be some link with the steady rise in atmospheric temperatures because of global warming as a result of human-made carbon dioxide emissions, the oceanographers suspect there may also be another explanation, so far undiscovered.
Off the Pacific coast, meteorologists have been scratching their heads over the appearance in 2014 of a “remarkably” warm patch—1,500 kilometres across in every direction and 100 metres deep—that could be linked to “weird” weather across the continental US that has seen heat and drought in the west and blizzards and chills in the East.
High pressure ridge
Nicholas Bond, a research meteorologist at the University of Washington in Seattle, and colleagues report in Geophysical Research Letters that what they have called “the blob” was linked to a persistent high pressure ridge, linked in turn to a calmer ocean during the last two northern hemisphere winters.
The blob plays a sure role in the West Coast weather. Air sweeping across it picks up heat, and this results in warmer temperatures and lower snowpack in coastal mountains—which certainly stoke up the conditions for drought.
A second study in Geophysical Research Letters links the warm Pacific puzzle to the big freezein the eastern states in 2013 and 2014.
Once again, there doesn’t seem to be a direct connection with climate change, but it raises the specter of changes to come.
“This is a taste of what the ocean will be like in future decades,” Dr Bond says. “It wasn’t caused by global warming, but it’s producing conditions that we think are going to be more common with global warming.”
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By Aaron W Hunter
A chance discovery of a beautifully preserved fossil in the desert landscape of Morocco has solved one of the great mysteries of biology and paleontology: how starfish evolved their arms.
The Pompeii of palaeontology. Aaron Hunter, Author provided<h2></h2><p>Although starfish might appear very robust animals, they are typically made up of lots of hard parts attached by ligaments and soft tissue which, upon death, quickly degrade. This means we rely on places like the Fezouata formations to provide snapshots of their evolution.</p><p>The starfish fossil record is patchy, especially at the critical time when many of these animal groups first appeared. Sorting out how each of the various types of ancient starfish relate to each other is like putting a puzzle together when many of the parts are missing.</p><h2>The Oldest Starfish</h2><p><em><a href="https://www.biorxiv.org/content/10.1101/216101v1.full.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Cantabrigiaster</a></em> is the most primitive starfish-like animal to be discovered in the fossil record. It was discovered in 2003, but it has taken over 17 years to work out its true significance.</p><p>What makes <em>Cantabrigiaster</em> unique is that it lacks almost all the characteristics we find in brittle stars and starfish.</p><p>Starfish and brittle stars belong to the family Asterozoa. Their ancestors, the Somasteroids were especially fragile - before <em>Cantabrigiaster</em> we only had a handful of specimens. The celebrated Moroccan paleontologist Mohamed <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.palaeo.2016.06.041" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Ben Moula</a> and his local team was instrumental in discovering <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0031018216302334?via%3Dihub" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">these amazing fossils</a> near the town of Zagora, in Morocco.</p><h2>The Breakthrough</h2><p>Our breakthrough moment came when I compared the arms of <em>Cantabrigiaster</em> with those of modern sea lilles, filter feeders with long feathery arms that tend to be attached to the sea floor by a stem or stalk.</p><p>The striking similarity between these modern filter feeders and the ancient starfish led our team from the University of Cambridge and Harvard University to create a new analysis. We applied a biological model to the features of all the current early Asterozoa fossils in existence, along with a sample of their closest relatives.</p>
Cantabrigiaster is the most primitive starfish-like animal to be discovered in the fossil record. Aaron Hunter, Author provided<p>Our results demonstrate <em>Cantabrigiaster</em> is the most primitive of all the Asterozoa, and most likely evolved from ancient animals called crinoids that lived 250 million years before dinosaurs. The five arms of starfish are a relic left over from these ancestors. In the case of <em>Cantabrigiaster</em>, and its starfish descendants, it evolved by flipping upside-down so its arms are face down on the sediment to feed.</p><p>Although we sampled a relatively small numbers of those ancestors, one of the unexpected outcomes was it provided an idea of how they could be related to each other. Paleontologists studying echinoderms are often lost in detail as all the different groups are so radically different from each other, so it is hard to tell which evolved first.</p>
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