By Hannah Thomasy
On its own, a single sea cucumber may not be very impressive. But get enough of these floppy, faceless creatures together, and they—or, more specifically, their poop—can physically and biochemically reshape a coral reef habitat.
In a recently published study, an Australian research team used drone surveys, satellite imagery, and observations of individual sea cucumbers to estimate how much poop the sea cucumbers of Heron Island Reef produced per year. Heron Island Reef is part of the southern Great Barrier Reef system off the coast of Queensland, Australia.
Historically, one of the major problems scientists have faced when trying to assess the importance of sea cucumbers (and their excrement) in the reef ecosystem is the difficulty in assessing just how many sea cucumbers there are in a given area, said Jane Williamson, the study's lead author and head of the Marine Ecology Group at Macquarie University.
Previous research used footage from boats or information collected by divers to estimate sea cucumber numbers, said Williamson. But boats stir up the water, making it difficult to see the animals, and divers can collect information over only relatively small areas, resulting in a high degree of uncertainty when their observations were used to extrapolate the population of the entire reef.
So Williamson and her team, which included coral reef geomorphologist Stephanie Duce, remote sensing expert Karen Joyce, and marine ecologist Vincent Raoult, wanted to try a different method. Using images captured by drones, the team surveyed sea cucumbers over tens of thousands of square meters in two different geomorphic zones (the inner and the outer reef flats). Researchers then used satellite imagery to determine the area of each of these geomorphic zones to extrapolate the number of sea cucumbers present on the entire reef. These methods indicated that there were more than 3 million sea cucumbers on the reef flats surrounding Heron Island Reef.
The team also collected dozens of individual sea cucumbers to observe their bioturbation rates—that is, how much each sea cucumber pooped in a given day. On average, each sea cucumber produced about 38 grams of poop in 24 hours. Using this information, along with their estimates of the reef's sea cucumber population, researchers determined that on a single reef, sea cucumbers produced more than 64,000 metric tons of poop per year—more than the weight of five Eiffel Towers.
By measuring how much individual sea cucumbers pooped per day and estimating the number of sea cucumbers on the reef using drones and satellite images, researchers determined how much poop sea cucumbers contributed to the Heron Island Reef. Credit: Associate Professor Jane Williamson et al., 2021, Macquarie University; Dr. Stephanie Duce, James Cook University; Dr. Karen Joyce, James Cook University; and Dr. Vincent Raoult, University of Newcastle. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00338-021-02057-2
The Importance of Excrement
Scientists think that all of that poop plays an important role in ecosystem health as well as in the biogeochemical cycles of the reef.
"Sea cucumbers can be considered like a long sausage, almost," said Williamson. "Sediment goes in and sediment comes out.… By eating the sediment and then pooping it out again, they're actually aerating the sediment, which makes the sediment a healthier place for other animals to live, like small crabs or polychaetes, which are worms, or small mollusks that live inside the sediment in the surface layer."
Sea cucumbers are also involved in the nitrogen cycles of the reef ecosystem. As sea cucumbers eat and excrete sediment, "they're releasing nitrogen that's trapped in between the sediments," said Williamson. "So this is really important because nitrogen in particular is a limiting nutrient on coral reefs.… The corals need nitrogen, and the algae need nitrogen, everything sort of locks it up really quickly when it's available, so the sea cucumbers are doing them a big favor in terms of the growth rate of these organisms."
Sea cucumbers could even help protect coral reefs against one of the harmful side effects of climate change: ocean acidification. "The oceans are becoming more acidic, which means that the calcium carbonate which makes the skeletons of the corals and things is less available and in some cases is actually dissolving off the corals." In addition to releasing nitrogen, sea cucumbers also increase the availability of calcium carbonate as they eat their way through the sediment, said Williamson. "So for the sea cucumbers to release more calcium carbonate that's been trapped in the sediments into the environment that the corals and other animals can use is super important."
"These little sausages are playing a really key role that people just don't think about," said Williamson.
Steven Purcell, a marine scientist at Southern Cross University in Lismore, Australia, who was not associated with the study, said that more than 70 countries harvest sea cucumbers. Because these animals are of great ecological value, it's important to keep tabs on their numbers to make sure they're not being overharvested. He noted that drone surveillance techniques like the one used in this paper could also be used to assess populations of other exploited shallow-water reef species, like giant clams.
This story originally appeared in Eos and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.
As the climate warms, sea levels are rising, tropical storms are intensifying, and ocean waters are growing more acidic.
These changes to the oceans have major impacts for people on land, from flooded coastal communities to losses for the fishing industry.
David Helvarg is executive director of Blue Frontier, an ocean and coastal conservation nonprofit.
"Hundreds of millions of people and tens of billions of dollars are at risk if we don't start to address what we're seeing in terms of the impacts of fossil-fuel-driven climate change on our coasts and oceans," he says.
But Helvarg says the ocean is often overlooked in climate policy discussions.
So his group is lobbying for what some refer to as a Blue New Deal – a comprehensive set of policies and programs to protect ocean health and help coastal communities adapt to climate change.
For example, they want to see policies that reform the National Flood Insurance Program and protect critical fish habitat. They also advocate for restoring coastal ecosystems that can naturally buffer storm waves.
Helvarg says prioritizing oceans and coastlines can save lives, strengthen the economy and "restore a healthy and vital ocean that so many of us grew up with."
Reposted with permission from Yale Climate Connections.
Each product featured here has been independently selected by the writer. If you make a purchase using the links included, we may earn commission.
The bright patterns and recognizable designs of Waterlust's activewear aren't just for show. In fact, they're meant to promote the conversation around sustainability and give back to the ocean science and conservation community.
Each design is paired with a research lab, nonprofit, or education organization that has high intellectual merit and the potential to move the needle in its respective field. For each product sold, Waterlust donates 10% of profits to these conservation partners.
Eye-Catching Designs Made from Recycled Plastic Bottles
waterlust.com / @abamabam
The company sells a range of eco-friendly items like leggings, rash guards, and board shorts that are made using recycled post-consumer plastic bottles. There are currently 16 causes represented by distinct marine-life patterns, from whale shark research and invasive lionfish removal to sockeye salmon monitoring and abalone restoration.
One such organization is Get Inspired, a nonprofit that specializes in ocean restoration and environmental education. Get Inspired founder, marine biologist Nancy Caruso, says supporting on-the-ground efforts is one thing that sets Waterlust apart, like their apparel line that supports Get Inspired abalone restoration programs.
"All of us [conservation partners] are doing something," Caruso said. "We're not putting up exhibits and talking about it — although that is important — we're in the field."
Waterlust not only helps its conservation partners financially so they can continue their important work. It also helps them get the word out about what they're doing, whether that's through social media spotlights, photo and video projects, or the informative note card that comes with each piece of apparel.
"They're doing their part for sure, pushing the information out across all of their channels, and I think that's what makes them so interesting," Caruso said.
And then there are the clothes, which speak for themselves.
Advocate Apparel to Start Conversations About Conservation
waterlust.com / @oceanraysphotography
Waterlust's concept of "advocate apparel" encourages people to see getting dressed every day as an opportunity to not only express their individuality and style, but also to advance the conversation around marine science. By infusing science into clothing, people can visually represent species and ecosystems in need of advocacy — something that, more often than not, leads to a teaching moment.
"When people wear Waterlust gear, it's just a matter of time before somebody asks them about the bright, funky designs," said Waterlust's CEO, Patrick Rynne. "That moment is incredibly special, because it creates an intimate opportunity for the wearer to share what they've learned with another."
The idea for the company came to Rynne when he was a Ph.D. student in marine science.
"I was surrounded by incredible people that were discovering fascinating things but noticed that often their work wasn't reaching the general public in creative and engaging ways," he said. "That seemed like a missed opportunity with big implications."
Waterlust initially focused on conventional media, like film and photography, to promote ocean science, but the team quickly realized engagement on social media didn't translate to action or even knowledge sharing offscreen.
Rynne also saw the "in one ear, out the other" issue in the classroom — if students didn't repeatedly engage with the topics they learned, they'd quickly forget them.
"We decided that if we truly wanted to achieve our goal of bringing science into people's lives and have it stick, it would need to be through a process that is frequently repeated, fun, and functional," Rynne said. "That's when we thought about clothing."
Support Marine Research and Sustainability in Style
To date, Waterlust has sold tens of thousands of pieces of apparel in over 100 countries, and the interactions its products have sparked have had clear implications for furthering science communication.
For Caruso alone, it's led to opportunities to share her abalone restoration methods with communities far and wide.
"It moves my small little world of what I'm doing here in Orange County, California, across the entire globe," she said. "That's one of the beautiful things about our partnership."
Check out all of the different eco-conscious apparel options available from Waterlust to help promote ocean conservation.
Melissa Smith is an avid writer, scuba diver, backpacker, and all-around outdoor enthusiast. She graduated from the University of Florida with degrees in journalism and sustainable studies. Before joining EcoWatch, Melissa worked as the managing editor of Scuba Diving magazine and the communications manager of The Ocean Agency, a non-profit that's featured in the Emmy award-winning documentary Chasing Coral.
The 93-year-old conservationist spoke out in an interview with Sky News Thursday in conjunction with a new report that warns of the potentially devastating consequences of extracting metals and minerals from the deep places of the ocean. The practice could harm biodiversity, limit the ocean's ability to support life and even disrupt its ability to store carbon, worsening the climate crisis.
"We should not go in and trash an area of the globe about which we know hardly anything until we've done the proper research - in short we want a moratorium against action of industrialising the deep-sea," Attenborough told Sky.
Please join our call – alongside Sir David Attenborough – for governments to declare a moratorium on #DeepSeaMining… https://t.co/tMmLLIess6— Fauna & Flora Int. (@Fauna & Flora Int.)1583993198.0
The report Attenborough backed was published by Flora and Fauna International (FFI) Thursday, a conservation group of which Attenborough serves as vice president. It comes as there is growing interest in deep-sea mining, defined by FFI as mining below 200 meters (approximately 656 feet), as deposits of minerals used in batteries and mobile phones are discovered, The Guardian reported. The international rules governing the new practice will be decided at a meeting of the UN International Seabed Authority in July.
While the impact of mining above 200 meters is well understood, science has yet to learn much about the deep ocean, making it difficult to assess mining's impacts there. The FFI report is the first to seriously consider the risks of the practice, and it drew some troubling conclusions.
Deep-sea mining could:
- Disturb pristine ecosystems
- Create far-reaching plumes of sediment that could kill marine life far from the mining site
- Kill microbes in sediments and hydrothermal vents that reduce methane and carbon
- Disrupt the ocean's "Biological Pump" that distributes nutrients and sucks carbon out of the atmosphere
- Expose deep-sea life to toxic metals
- Worsen ocean acidification through the mining of sulphide deposits on the seafloor
📢📰Today's report from @FaunaFloraInt warns of the impacts of #DeepSeaMining on the health of the ocean, our planet'… https://t.co/mtTdyTNpZj— Marine CoLABoration (@Marine CoLABoration)1584009735.0
The risk of such impacts in a little-understood ecosystem is why Attenborough is joining FFI in calling for a ban on the practice.
"Whatever you do please do the science before you go in and destroy - because that's what it is - mining is a polite word, mining also means destruction. Destruction of an ecosystem of which we know pathetically little," he told Sky.
FFI acknowledged that deep-sea mining is sometimes portrayed as part of the solution to the climate crisis, because it is a potential source of many metals needed for lithium-ion batteries. However, Director Pippa Howard wrote that the risks associated with the practice made it necessary to search for other solutions, such as developing less-metal dependent technologies like hydrogen fuel cells or batteries from materials extracted from sea water.
"We need to shatter the myth that deep-seabed mining is the solution to the climate crisis!" Howard wrote. "It is nonsense that this form of mining is a 'light' alternative to terrestrial mining and that all the cobalt, nickel, copper and manganese lying 'for the taking' on the bottom of the oceans are some kind of silver bullet."
- Attenborough: 'If We Wreck the Natural World, We Wreck Ourselves ... ›
- David Attenborough Gives Stark Warning in New BBC Climate ... ›
- David Attenborough: 'Population Growth Must Come to an End ... ›
- Race to Mine Deep Seabeds, With Unknown Ecological Impacts ›
- Climate Champion David Attenborough Breaks Jennifer Anniston's Instagram Record - EcoWatch ›
- Major Companies Join Call for Deep-Sea Mining Moratorium ›
As the Pacific Ocean becomes more acidic, Dungeness crabs, which live in coastal areas, are seeing their shells eaten away, according to a new study commissioned by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
The study authors looked at ocean acidification levels from 2016. They found that the lowered pH is dissolving the shells of young Dungeness crabs in Oregon, Washington and British Columbia. Without strong shells, the young crabs suffer damage to their sensory organs, as CNN reported.
The findings contribute to growing concerns about the viability of the Dungeness crab as atmospheric carbon dioxide, which continues to rise, is absorbed by the Pacific Ocean and increases acidification, as The Seattle Times reported.
"If the crabs are affected already, we really need to make sure we pay much more attention to various components of the food chain before it is too late," said study lead author Nina Bednarsek, a senior scientist with the Southern California Coastal Water Research Project, as CNN reported.
The study was published last week in the journal Science of the Total Environment.
Dungeness crabs are vital to the West Coast fishing industry — netting around $200 million annually. They are also important to tribal and recreational crabbers. The crabs have thrived in coastal waters that have recently become hotspots for ocean acidification, according to The Seattle Times.
Ocean acidification happens when the pH of ocean water drops. The primary cause is an increase in absorption of atmospheric CO2 over a long period. When CO2 is absorbed by seawater, a chain of chemical reactions is set in motion. That causes the sea water to increase its acidity as an increase in hydrogen ions tamps down carbonate ions, which would balance out the water's pH level, as NOAA explained in a statement.
Crustaceans and corals need carbonate ions to help them build strong shells. In their absence, it becomes difficult for crabs, oysters and clams to build shells. It also stops corals from building strong skeletons and it weakens plankton, as CNN reported.
"Decreases in carbonate ions can make building and maintaining shells and other calcium carbonate structures difficult for calcifying organisms," explains NOAA.
Previous research had shown that ocean acidification was causing harm to West Coast pteropods, small free-swimming snails that are food for Dungeness crab, according to The Seattle Times. Direct damage to Dungeness crabs was not expected for many years to come, so the findings have alarmed NOAA scientists.
"We found dissolution impacts to the crab larvae that were not expected to occur until much later in this century," Richard Feely, study co-author and NOAA senior scientist, said as CNN reported.
The research boat that took samples in 2016 did not just find damage to the crab's shell, but also to tiny hair-like structures crabs use to navigate their environments, which is something scientists had never seen before. Crabs without these tiny mechanoreceptors could move slowly and have trouble swimming and finding food, according to CNN.
As for shell damage, the shells showed signs of scarring and abnormal ridging, which may impair a crab's ability to swim, stay buoyant and escape from predators. The damaged crabs were also smaller, which suggests developmental delays, as the Sustainability Times reported.
"We were really surprised to see this level of dissolution happening," Bednarsek said, as The Seattle Times reported.
The authors say their findings mean more research is needed to make new predictions about the future of the Dungeness crab as the Pacific coastal waters continue to absorb more carbon dioxide, according to The Seattle Times.
- Ocean Acidification Causing Coral Reefs to Be Less Resilient to ... ›
- Study: Plastic Pollution Increases Ocean Acidification - EcoWatch ›
Ocean waters off the coast of California are acidifying twice as fast as the rest of the world's oceans, new research shows.
A study published Monday in the journal Nature Geoscience led by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration used fossil analysis of planktonic organisms to create a 100-year acidification records for California's ocean waters.
Increased acidity in ocean waters is harmful to marine life, especially shellfish, and California's fisheries provide more than 10 percent of the nation's seafood production. "While the ocean has served a very important role in mitigating climate change by absorbing CO2 from the atmosphere, there's a capacity at which the ocean can't absorb anymore," NOAA's Emily Osborne, one of the lead authors on the study, told the LA Times. "From this study, and so many other published studies, there's no question that the answer is to curb our carbon emissions."
For a deeper dive:
- 'Oceans Are Sending Us so Many Warning Signals': New UN ... ›
- How We're Fighting to Eliminate Plastic in California - EcoWatch ›
- Thousands of 'Penis Fish' Appear on California Beach - EcoWatch ›
By Adrienne Alvord
This week Oregon stands on the cusp of approving historic cap-and-invest legislation, HB 2020, that experts have said will help grow the Oregon economy. After three years of legislative consideration, numerous studies, hearings, public meetings and debate, the Oregon House approved the legislation decisively (36-22) on June 18th, and the bill moved to the Senate Floor, where a vote was expected on June 20th.
But outnumbered bill opponents, who in the House had tried to throw up every possible procedural roadblock to forestall a vote, resorted in the Senate to a highly unusual tactic – they didn't come to work. That's right: Oregon's elected Senate representatives who oppose climate action didn't show up on the Senate floor this morning, thus depriving the body of a quorum and making a vote procedurally impossible. There are press reports that several have scurried out of state to make it harder to compel them to return to do their jobs.
What on Earth Are These Senators Thinking?
The opponents of HB 2020 believe the bill will result in economic hardship for their constituents, but the performance of existing carbon pricing programs just doesn't support that conclusion. The bill's opponents know that neighboring California, with a much larger and more complex economy, enacted a similar program over a decade ago and the state's still-booming economy has grown from the 8th to the 5th largest on the planet. Canadian provinces that have put a price on carbon are also thriving.
Climate Change Is Already Costing Oregon Plenty
The great irony is that while HB 2020 won't cause economic hardship, climate change already is. Oregon is already experiencing costly impacts that are only getting worse the longer governments shirk their responsibility and don't take action. Scientists in support of this legislation warn that Oregon oyster nurseries and fisheries are facing serious risks from ocean acidification while rural and urban communities are already portending with increasing heat, droughts, floods and wildfires. These impacts will continue to put economies and lives at risk.
Much of the debate in the Oregon House centered on the problems of rural Oregon. But climate change is impartial and nonpartisan: every corner of the state will be impacted. In particular, rural areas will be hard hit by the vulnerability of natural systems like forests and waterways to climate impacts.
Rather than watching their representatives duck out of their responsibilities in a move of calculated political theater, rural Oregonians need actual help for farms and forests to prepare for and manage climate change. If enacted, Oregon's climate bill would create funds to directly help these communities adapt.
Don't Run Away, Do What Is Right
Climate change is impervious to partisan politics, belief systems, rhetoric and spin. No one can or will escape climate impacts. Foes say that Oregon's emissions reductions will not make a difference because the state is too small, but size hasn't prevented over a hundred countries with economies smaller than Oregon's, including Portugal, Greece and New Zealand, from pledging to reduce their emissions under the Paris agreement. Why did they do this? Because it's the right thing to do for a globally shared problem.
Yet these state Senators — at best misguided, at worst abetting a fossil fuel industry hanging on to every misdirection it can muster — are fleeing their constitutionally-mandated work. They need to stop running and start looking at the facts.
Oregon has an awful lot at stake. The entire nation — and the world — is watching. This small group of state Senators who choose not to do the jobs they were elected to do are betraying Oregon's workers, families and children.
Adrienne Alvord is the Union of Concerned Scientists' California and western states director.
Scientific organizations from Commonwealth nations around the world have come together for the first time to urge governments to act on climate change.
The "Consensus Statement on Climate Change"—issued Monday ahead of next month's Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in the United Kingdom—is an unprecedented plea signed by the heads of 22 national academies and scientific societies that represent tens of thousands of scientists in Australia, India, Canada, New Zealand, Bangladesh, South Africa, the UK, Pakistan and more.
"The world's climate is changing, and the impacts are already being observed. Changing agricultural conditions, ocean warming and acidification, rising sea levels, and increased frequency and intensity of many extreme weather events are impacting infrastructure, environmental assets and human health," the statement reads.
"Avoiding the worst impacts of climate change will require concerted global action to reduce atmospheric carbon."
#ICYMI Today 22 national academies and societies of science across the Commonwealth have released a consensus state… https://t.co/hFbnUUON75— Australian Academy of Science (@Australian Academy of Science)1520841600.0
The scientists call on governments to limit warming to below 2°C above pre-industrial levels, a target established by the landmark Paris climate agreement.
"Meeting this target will require achieving net-zero global greenhouse gas emissions in the second half of the century followed by active decarbonization of the atmosphere," the letter states.
Failure to meet this target could result in global catastrophe, the experts warn.
"Even if all countries meet their current commitments to greenhouse gas emission reductions, a global temperature rise of more than 3°C above pre-industrial levels is projected by 2100 according to current data," they write. "This would lead to profound impacts affecting billions of people throughout the world."
"This challenge needs to be addressed now, and the efforts required will bring enduring social, environmental and economic benefits and opportunities."
The academies of the Commonwealth says it is prepared to provide active support and sound scientific advice to governments on issues relating to climate change.
Oxford geoscientist Alex Halliday, the vice president of The Royal Society of London, talks about the joint statement in the video below:
The recent documentary, Sea of Life, exposes key threats to the oceans, and calls for action.
Sea of Life follows filmmaker Julia Barnes on a three year adventure, spanning seven countries, to save coral reefs.
Although they cover less than 1 percent of the sea floor coral reefs support up to 30 percent of all species in the ocean at some stage in their life cycles. Often referred to as the rainforests of the ocean, coral reefs are one of the most biologically diverse ecosystems on the planet. They're also an indicator for the future of the oceans and all life on Earth.
To date, we've lost more than 50 percent of the world's coral reefs. The main threats to corals are bleaching (caused by ocean warming) and ocean acidification. Most of the carbon dioxide we release into the atmosphere doesn't stay in the atmosphere, it gets absorbed by the oceans, making the oceans more acidic. And in a more acidic environment any animal that builds a shell or a skeleton can't form. This means by 2070 coral reefs will literally start dissolving. But they will likely die out much earlier than that, due to ocean warming. Scientists are now predicting that less than 10 percent of the world's coral reefs will survive past 2050, as bleaching events become more frequent. Mass bleaching has already claimed large chunks of the Great Barrier Reef.
Corals are a sort of canary in the coal mine, signaling trouble ahead for all life on Earth. There have been five mass extinction in the history of the planet and at least four of them have been attributed to ocean acidification. Now, we're causing the oceans to go acidic faster than at any other time in the history of the planet.
When coral reefs go down they signal the start of a mass extinction in the oceans, and that is something that will affect all of us.
Tiny organisms in the ocean called phytoplankton are responsible for creating most of the oxygen in the air that we breathe. Two out of every three breaths we take come from plankton. Photosynthesizing on a massive scale, plankton are the reason the oceans are considered the blue lungs of the planet. Forty percent of the world's plankton populations are already gone. "We may be losing up to 1% a year because of ocean acidification ... It's like—why would do anything to disrupt the oxygen supply for the planet," asks Louie Psihoyos in Sea of Life.
What most people don't know about ocean acidification is that there's a lag time between the time it takes the carbon dioxide we release into the atmosphere to get absorbed into the ocean. So even if we stopped producing carbon dioxide today the oceans would have decades where they continue to become more acidic—20, or even 30 years. This means if we're going to solve ocean acidification we not only have to stop carbon emissions, we also have to pull carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.
The filmmakers for Sea of Life visited a marine protected area in Mexico called Cabo Pulmo. The area had once been heavily overfished, to the point where there was almost nothing left. Clearly this couldn't continue, so the citizens decided to create a marine reserve, giving the ocean a break and allowing life to recover. Within the next 10 years they saw a 450 percent increase in biomass in the ocean. The fish came back, and now the waters off Cabo Pulmo are a thriving natural community.
Given the chance, nature will come back. Today, we know that 90 percent of the fish are gone and that 75 percent of the forests have been wiped out. If we let this life come back, we could sequester an enormous amount of carbon, creating a world where all species can thrive.
Sea of Life follows the environmental movement through large rallies in New York and at COP21 in Paris, where instead of celebrating the Paris agreement, long-time environmental activist Emily Hunter asserts that the agreement isn't enough. "We've done over 20 years of campaigning, more than 20 years of negotiations, and if this is the deal that we finally get then we've failed."
The entire environmental movement could be considered a failure. Despite years of campaigning, almost every environmental problem has gotten worse, not better. As Rob Stewart explains in Sea of Life, "Our greatest ambitions on climate change would buy us 1% more time on a hugely degraded planet where we're still fighting each other over what remains. We need to imagine a world that's beautiful enough for us to fight for."
Sea of Life asks audiences to imagine a world worth fighting for. What could this world look like if we got things right? What if we made this planet beautiful for us and all species?
The film features inspiring young activists who are making a difference, including Felix Finkbeiner, whose organization has planted 14 billion trees, and Madison Stewart who makes films to change people's perspective about sharks. The 21-year-old filmmaker behind Sea of Life began working on the movie when she was 16. She believes young people have an opportunity to become heroes for the planet, living lives that are full of meaning and adventure and having an amazing time doing it.
Julia Barnes is motivated by the scale of the problem. The worse things get, the greater the imperative to take action. And now, with all of life on Earth at stake, she believes action is no longer an option.
As ocean waters warm and acidify, corals across the globe are disappearing. Desperate to prevent the demise of these vital ecosystems, researchers have developed ways to "garden" corals, buying the oceans some much-needed time. University of Miami Rosenstiel School marine biologist Diego Lirman sat down with Josh Chamot of Nexus Media to describe the process and explain what's at stake. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What is killing coral?
I wish we had an easy, straightforward answer for what's killing corals. We know there are many, many different factors influencing coral abundance, diversity, distribution and health these days, but I think the specific answer varies based on where you are.
Temperatures play a major role at global scales, and then you have all of these other, more local factors like disease, physical impacts of storms, or ship groundings.
Researcher Stephanie Schopmeyer prepares to out-plant Staghorn coral onto a Miami reef. Rescue-A-Reef, UM Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science
We had the dredging of the Port of Miami channel a couple of years ago and that caused a lot of localized mortality due to sediment burial and sediment stress. You also have land-based sources of pollution that can damage by location and nutrient influence that causes algal overgrowth of corals.
Local factors are superimposed on regional factors directly related to global climate change. Changes in temperature, more temperature extremes, acidification of the water, changes in storm frequency and sea level rise— all are at different scales — but they all combine to cause coral mortality.
Factors vary both spatially and temporally, but the outcomes are all the same. Regardless of where you are, we've lost a tremendous amount of coral.
Nursery-raised Staghorn coral out-planted onto a reef by a citizen scientist.
In the face of all those threats, can restoration work?
Historically, restoration was developed and used for acute disturbances. A ship runs aground, and so then there's a recovery, and funds are allocated to recovering the reef structure at a given location, and then corals are planted on top of that. But as global conditions decline for coral reefs, there's now a need to scale up. So, we're not just dealing with the localized impact—we're looking at species declining throughout their range.
We need other tools at larger scales, and that's where coral reef gardening has come into play, because it works at larger scales compared to just dumping cement and rebuilding reef structures, costly endeavors that recover just a very small footprint. We're growing and planting these organisms.
Do you worry about planted coral dominating the reefs?
Initially, these techniques were developed for fast-growing corals. The genus that we're focusing on, Acropora, is threatened, so these are very important reef-building species.
When abundant, they monopolize shallow environments. They form thickets, extensive areas of high-density colonies. That's the way they used to grow, until about three to four decades ago when they got wiped out by disease and other factors. The branching corals that we're working with grow between 10 and 15 cm per branch per year, so that's very fast growth.
Through recent advances in coral aquaculture, we're now also able to grow massive species, the ones that grow very slowly. Mote Marine Lab has developed microfragmentation techniques where they can cut coral colonies very, very small and make them grow very, very fast. Although we focused on branching corals initially, now most of the programs, especially here in Florida, are expanding onto other threatened species.
Citizen scientists plant coral. Rescue-A-Reef, UM Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science
Can these efforts solve the problem, or are they a placeholder until climate stabilizes?
You hit the nail on the head. One of the early criticisms of reef restoration was the scale issue and spending a lot of resources working on a very small footprint.
We've dealt with that now, over the past 10 years we've expanded to the point where we're growing thousands and thousands of corals—we're planting thousands and thousands of corals—so that issue of scale is no longer a valid criticism.
The other major criticism is that, even though we're planting a lot of corals, we're planting them onto environments where the same stressors that caused their initial mortality are in place. Now there is ocean acidification and increased temperatures, so things have gotten, in some cases, progressively worse.
Staghorn corals create a sustainable source of corals for use in restoration. Rescue-A-Reef, UM Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science
That is a valid concern if we were just planting corals, but we're not just doing that. We're still concentrating on all of the other aspects of reef restoration, setting up marine protected areas to protect fish stocks and coral impacts, working to curb land-based sources of pollution, and setting up sedimentation and nutrient controls. And then, on a much larger scale, we're all trying to curb carbon emissions, trying to limit the greenhouse impacts and acidification impacts. All these tools just help us buy time.
We're also doing a lot of genomics work to see how corals can increase their resilience. A colleague of mine here at the Rosenstiel School at University of Miami, Andrew Baker, is stress-hardening corals. He works on coral symbiosis, and he found that by applying a little bit of non-lethal stress, he can make corals shuffle their Zooxanthellae, which are the endosymbiotic microalgae that provide energy to the corals. In that process, they're able to uptake Zooxanthellae that are more thermally tolerant. So, through the forced shuffling of symbionts, you may be able to buy these corals one or two degrees of tolerance, so that they become more tolerant to bleaching in future years. That is cutting-edge science.
We're trying to actually find out what makes corals survive, and trying to beef up their defenses and their resilience over time. And that's because we have access to all these coral genotypes through the active propagation from coral gardening.
Reposted with permission from our media associate Nexus Media.
By Tim Radford
Geoengineering, the deliberate alteration of the planet to undo its inadvertent alteration by humans over the past 200 years, is back on the scientific agenda, with a climate compromise suggested as a possible solution.
One group wants to turn down the global thermostat and reverse the global warming trend set in train by greenhouse gases released by fossil fuel combustion, by thinning the almost invisible cirrus clouds that trap radiation and keep the planet warm.
Another group proposes to inject sulphur particles into the stratosphere, and keep on doing so for 160 years, to block enough sunlight and lower the planetary temperature.
And a third group wants to see a cocktail of both approaches: thin the high cirrus clouds that stop heat from escaping, and at the same pump particles into the stratosphere to scatter the incoming sunlight and limit the disadvantages of each approach by mixing them.
The verb "wants" in all three studies is neither fair nor appropriate: all three groups concede that the healthy answer is for humans to fulfill the pledge made in 2015, and start to reduce fossil fuel emissions so drastically that global average temperatures stay well below the 2°C maximum rise agreed by 197 nations at the Paris climate conference.
But while most nations have yet to deliver on the plans they have made, and some nations have yet to even devise a plan, and one nation—the U.S.—has announced its withdrawal from the agreement, scientists have been looking for ways to reverse the potentially catastrophic warming and climate change that is now inevitable if the world continues with its "business as usual scenario."
And so, tentatively, and with unpromising conclusions, researchers have looked at ways to alter the planet to protect it from rising temperatures.
They have looked at the northern icepack and wondered if making it whiter would increase solar reflection and slow global warming.
They have repeatedly investigated ways of reducing the incoming sunlight, usually by pumping sulphate aerosols into the atmosphere, and they have even investigated the possibility of making the ocean more thirsty for carbon dioxide, the most problematic greenhouse gas, by pumping iron into the sea to nourish the photosynthesising algae.
And other groups—and sometimes the same groups—have stressed the hazards: while darker skies might reduce hurricane ferocity, such approaches could drastically interfere with rainfall patterns, make life worse for some of the poorest people on Earth and anyway, in the long run, make things hotter.
All in all, the technofix has been pronounced a bad answer to a good question.
But by the end of the century, as sea levels rise by a meter and global average temperatures by 4°C or more, even a bad answer could be the only one on offer. So Ulrike Lohmann and Blaz Gasparini, two scientists from the Swiss Technical Institute known as ETH Zurich, write in the journal Science that the answer might lie in the clouds.
Cirrus clouds in particular don't reflect much sunlight back into space, but because of the altitude and the temperature they do emit less long-wave radiation: they behave, in effect, rather like greenhouse gases.
So if cirrus clouds were carefully created by artificial means at lower altitudes, then perhaps they would trap less heat.
Such an experiment, the scientists concede, could go badly wrong, would not solve problems linked to rainfall patterns and might even make the world warmer. For the moment, they say: "cirrus cloud thinning should be viewed as a thought experiment."
And in the same journal two scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Meteorology in Hamburg, Germany, and the U.S. National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, look once again at the stratosphere solution: what sulphur particles could do to cool the planet.
This is an idea already tested naturally. Volcanic eruptions have been linked to planetary cooling, and other groups have even warned that a modest nuclear war could darken the skies and lower global temperatures to potentially lethal levels.
So Ulrike Niemeier and her colleague Simone Tilmes consider what would be necessary if humans wait until 2040 to reduce fossil fuel use and look for effective ways to suck impossible volumes of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.
To limit the temperature increase to 2°C above pre-industrial levels, humans would have to pump sulphur into the stratosphere at a cost of $20 billion a year for 160 years, to darken the skies and reduce incoming sunlight.
Such a step, which could slow the water cycle and suppress the Asian monsoons, would not reduce the acidification of the oceans, and could trigger other unwelcome side effects that could lead to global conflicts. So, the scientists say, any such plan would need international agreement and supervision.
And, in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, Chinese, Indian and U.S. researchers arrive at the compromise solution. The dark skies approach could reduce rain too much, thinner cirrus could reduce rain too little.
But computer models suggest that if both methods were deployed carefully and in concert, geoengineers could cool the world but keep the rainfall steady overall.
"The same amount of rain fell around the globe in our models, but it fell in different places, which could create a big mismatch between what our economic infrastructure expects and what it will get," said Ken Caldeira of the Carnegie Institution for Science in the U.S., and one of the authors.
"More complicated geoengineering solutions would likely do a bit better, but the best solution is simply to stop adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere."
Reposted with permission from our media associate Climate News Network.
By Marlene Cimons
They strengthen the corals' foundation by growing over and between gaps in coral reefs, essentially gluing sections of coral together. They provide a surface for baby corals to settle, and serve as food for marine life, including sea urchins, parrot fish and mollusks.
"They promote biodiversity and coastal protection," said Chiara Lombardi, a scientist with the Italian National Agency for New Technologies, Energy and Sustainable Economic Development (ENEA). "Also, they play an active role in the carbon cycle."
"They become more fragile, and they bleach, and they aren't able to create a healthy habitat for biodiversity," Lombardi said. "Thus, their survival and, as a cascading effect, the survival of the associated species, is at risk."
Lombardi and her colleagues, including Federica Ragazzola, a marine biologist at the University of Portsmouth in the UK, initiated an unusual experiment recently to try to protect these algae—scientific name Ellisolandia elongata—from increasing harm.
Last month, they installed the first of several artificial coralline algae reefs—made of highly elastic rubber material—near real coralline algae reefs in the Gulf of La Spezia, in northwest Italy. The goal is that these plastic mimics—as the artificial reefs are known—which look and move like the real thing, will shelter and host the tiny creatures who typically live on the algae, and also will become scaffolds for real coralline algae to grow.
Artificial corallineGiancarlo Raiteri, Marine Environment Research Centre ENEA, La Spezia, Italy
The 60 synthetic mini reefs, each with 20 fronds, are just 10 centimeters (approx. 3.9 inches) in diameter, making them easy to place in a natural reef. Snorkelers attached the artificial reefs using epoxy resin. Hampered by bad weather, they had to make three separate runs to finish the job. "The resin needs 24 hours to become hard, so if waves occur during this period, the risk of detachment is very high," Lombardi said.
The material's properties are similar to that of the algae and non-toxic to the marine ecology. The mimics won't ultimately become plastic ocean litter. "After one year of exposure, they will be removed and brought to the laboratory" for further experiments, Lombardi said.
Researches installed artificial reefs to test their ability to attract marine micro-fauna. Giancarlo Raiteri, Marine Environment Research Centre ENEA, La Spezia, Italy
The research will "clarify the function of the coralline algae reef as a buffer for diversity, abundance, reproductive, ecological and structural characteristics of the associated fauna," Lombardi said. The results "will be important for the planning of future protection and management strategies."
This is not the first time artificial "substrates" have been used experimentally, but they have never before been made to mimic the properties of natural algae. "The majority of the studies simulating reef are mainly focused on corals," Lombardi said. She stressed the importance of preserving algae.
"They provide services that will benefit human lives," Lombardi said. "They are a resource, not only for marine life. We tend to consider protection of nature very far from human beings—but we are all connected, and it is important to understand this connection. Protecting the natural ecosystem will benefit the lives of all future generations."
Reposted with permission from our media associate Nexus Media.
Norwegian businessman Kjell Inge Røkke is not someone usually admired for environmental stewardship. Described by Forbes as a "ruthless corporate raider," Røkke made his billions as the majority stakeholder in shipping and offshore drilling conglomerate, Aker.
The twist to this story? Røkke has decided to give "the lion's share" of his estimated $2.7 billion fortune towards building a 596-foot marine research vessel, the Research Expedition Vessel (REV), that's also designed to scoop up a major oceanic threat—plastic pollution.
"I want to give back to society the bulk of what I've earned," Røkke told the publication. "This ship is a part of that."
According to Business Insider, the mega-yacht—which will be the world's largest once built—can carry 60 scientists and 40 crew. The REV will be equipped with modern laboratories, an auditorium, two helipads, a hangar for a remote operated vehicle, an autonomous underwater vehicle as a multifunctional cargo deck aft of the ship, and high-tech equipment for monitoring and surveying marine areas. It is also available for private charters for up to 36 guests and 54 crew, which will help generate extra funding for research.
Røkke, a former fisherman, said the oceans "have provided significant value for society" and directly to him and his family.
"However," he noted, "the oceans are also under greater pressure than ever before from overfishing, coastal pollution, habitat destruction, climate change and ocean acidification, and one of the most pressing challenges of all, plasticization of the ocean. The need for knowledge and solutions is pressing."
While onboard, the researchers will attempt to answer some of the most pressing questions facing our seas:
• What impact does CO2 emissions have on the oceans and ocean acidification, and what can we do to reduce the effects?
• How can we overcome plastic pollution, which is causing extensive damage throughout the marine food chain?
• What can we do to save endangered species?
• How can we reduce bycatch and make harvesting of marine resources more sustainable?
• Are there untapped resources in the oceans, which through sustainable harvest could provide new sources of food or energy for future generations?
"The REV will be a platform for gathering knowledge," Røkke told Business Insider. "I would like to welcome researchers, environmental groups, and other institutions on board, to acquire new skills to evolve innovative solutions to address challenges and opportunities connected to the seas."
Yachts, especially one of this size, of course have some environmental drawbacks but here are some of the ship's green credentials:
• Diesel electric with additional 3MW lithium ion battery pack for peak shaving ensuring optimum efficiency, with silent running under batteries alone for limited periods of time at biomass sampling speeds 2 kts during research missions.
• Medium speed generators compiling with the latest Marpol Tier III regulation with additional DPF (Diesel Particulate Filters)
• High efficiency frequency controlled research winch package with energy recovery system, so that power can be harvested on winch release and re-directed into battery pack
• Heat recovery on all main generators and incinerator for feeding back into hot water circuits and HVAC, reducing power demands from generators. Heat recovery system used for generating free fresh water through evaporator plant 30 m3/24 hrs
• "Free cool" system for air conditioning system in sea water temperature below 10 degrees, reducing power consumption.
• Hi-tech incinerator system allowing all materials including plastics but not metal or glass to be incinerated in an environmental way without producing any noxious gases and limited char, meaning the ship does not have to off load plastic waste to shoreside facilities in countries with limited ability to then dispose of plastics. Every 1 kg of waste burnt puts 110kgs thermal power back into ships systems
• Latest LED lighting systems throughout vessel to reduce power consumption
• VARD SeaQ "Green Pilot" system for monitoring COx, SOx and NOx emissions plus other environmental parameters to allow crew to run the ship in the most environmental way keeping the carbon footprint to a minimum.
• Latest ballast water treatment system to prevent species cross contamination across ocean zones
• Vessel built under DNV-GL SILENT-R notation for maximum prevention of underwater noise pollution
• Hull construction built to ICE PC6 for navigation in ice infested water, medium first year ice with old inclusions, machinery specified to ICE 1C
• Decks covered in either synthetic deck covers or WWF FSC certified woods
The ship is expected to be operational by summer 2020. Not only will it be the largest in the world once built, the REV will be the world's heaviest, at 16,000GT.