Friday, August 28, 2009

Attack of the Killer Green Algae

Algae clean-up in France

Toxic green algae, decaying into a black sludge that releases a noxious gas, recently claimed the life of a horse in France and knocked out the horse's rider:
Decaying ulva algae threatens other beaches around France and the world, from the United States to China, experts say. Last year, the Chinese government brought in the army to remove the slimy growths so the Olympic sailing competition could be held.

In Brittany's Cote d'Armor region, conditions are perfect for its spread — sunlight, shallow waters and flat beaches. Chemical and natural fertilizers like pig excrement, loaded with nitrates and phosphorous, have saturated the land, spilling into rivers and the ocean, feeding the algae that then proliferate.

Harmless while in water, the algae form dangerous gases — notably hydrogen sulfide, with its characteristic rotten-egg smell — when they wash up on land and decay. A white crust forms and traps the gases, which are released when stepped on or otherwise disturbed. Over time, putrefied algae turns sand into a black silt muck, sometimes containing pockets of poison gas.

Apparently, the algae has been around for a while. "A man was found dead on the same beach two decades ago, his arm sticking out from a pile of algae." [LAT] Though the recent levels of algae washing up on the shores of Brittany appear to be unprecedented. Environmentalists are pointing to runoffs from pig and poultry farming.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Giant Jellyfish Returning to Japan to Lay Waste to Everything

"Giant jellyfish descend on the Sea of Japan, causing untold devastation to coastal villages and leaving a trail of destruction and human misery behind." CNN. This is the reporting from Japan, where real-life mutants are coming from the sea to wreak havok. (Godzilla once battled a giant mutant jellyfish, but it looked a little different.)

As we reported a while back, changes in ocean currents have been bringing massive, 450-pound jellyfish to the waters off of Japan.
The massive sea creatures, called Nomura's jellyfish, can grow 6 feet (1.83 meters) in diameter and weigh more than 450 pounds (204 kilos). Scientists think they originate in the Yellow Sea and in Chinese waters. For the third year since 2005, ocean currents are transporting them into the Sea of Japan.

As noted in the earlier post, besides being freakishly large and scary, these giant jellyfish cause real damage by clogging up and tearing through the complex set of underwater nets set by fishermen off the coast. Which raises the disturbing (and admittedly ridiculous) possibility that these giant jellyfish have, in some way, been "sent" by the ocean to strike back at humans and our unsustainable use of the oceans. Now, if only the giant jellyfish could clog up the propellers on modern-day whaling ships....

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Mystery Blob Off Alaska

A great, oily, oozing blog blob off the coast of Alaska, originally thought to be an oil spill, has been identified as a massive algal bloom:
"We responded as if it were an oil product," says Coast Guard Petty Officer Terry Hasenauer. "It was described to us as an oil-like substance, thick and lingering below the surface of the water. Those characteristics can indicate heavy, degraded oil, maybe crude oil, or possibly an intermediate fuel oil." Meanwhile, the story spread over the internet like an oil-spill, giving lots of people a queasy feeling.

Test results released Thursday showed the blob wasn't oil, but a plant — a massive bloom of algae. While that may seem less dangerous, a lot of people are still uneasy. It's something the mostly Inupiat Eskimo residents along Alaska's northern coast say they could never remember seeing before.

Algal blooms are a common and often menacing event along many U.S. coastlines. Some strains are toxic and can close beaches and poison seafood, posing a hazard to consumers. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration maintains a forecasting system for the Gulf of Mexico to warn of harmful Florida blooms. . . .

While Alaskans may find the algal blob unusual if not frightening, scientists say that algal blooms are nothing new in Arctic Ocean waters, though the blob itself might be a little weird. Brenda Konar, a marine biology professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, said algal outbreaks can and do occur even in icy Arctic waters. It just takes the right combination of nutrients, light and water temperature, she said. "Algae blooms," she says. "It's sort of like a swimming pool that hasn't been cleaned in a while." The blob, Konar said, is a microalgae made up of "billions and billions of individuals." "We've observed large blooms in the past off Barrow although none of them at all like this," Barry Sherr, an Oregon State University professor of oceanography, said in an e-mail. "The fact that the locals say they've never seen anything like it suggests that it might represent some exotic species which has drifted into the region, perhaps as a result of global change. For the moment that's just a guess."

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Critters and Climate

Watch out, jellyfish. It turns out that global warming won't benefit just you: apparently, climate change will also be a boon to starfish:
“Mollusks, bivalves, clams and mussels respond negatively to increased carbon dioxide,” says Rebecca Gooding, a doctoral student in zoology at the University of British Columbia and lead author of the paper. On the other hand, she says, compared to their invertebrate cousins, “starfish are growing faster, getting bigger faster, and they’re eating more.”

So the earth will be inherited by jellyfish -- and starfish. The two will make good company: like jellyfish, starfish don't have true centralized brains; instead they have a network of interlacing nerves called a nerve plexus -- similar to the "nerve nets" of the jellyfish.

Evolution is not always progress, as we might conceive of it.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

The Doomsday Vault

A tour inside the "Doomsday" Global Seed Vault in Svalbard, Norway, which I mentioned here about a year ago.

The seedbank is constructed 120 metres (390 ft) inside a sandstone mountain at Svalbard on Spitsbergen Island.[4] The bank employs a number of robust security systems. Seeds are packaged in special four-ply packets and heat sealed to exclude moisture. The facility is managed by the Nordic Genetic Resource Center, though there are no permanent staff on-site.

Spitsbergen was considered ideal due to its lack of tectonic activity and its permafrost, which will aid preservation. The location 130 metres (430 ft) above sea level will ensure that the site remains dry even if the icecaps melt.[4] Locally mined coal provides power for refrigeration units that further cool the seeds to the internationally-recommended standard −18 °C (−0 °F).[5] Even if the equipment fails, at least several weeks will elapse before the temperature rises to the −3 °C (30 °F) of the surrounding sandstone bedrock.[1]

Prior to construction, a feasibility study determined that the vault could preserve seeds from most major food crops for hundreds of years. Some seeds, including those of important grains, could survive far longer, possibly thousands of years.

It's terrifying to imagine a day when we will need to resort to vaults such as the one Svalbard, but it's somewhat reassuring to know that people are taking the steps to insure that we have somewhere to turn if climate change brings on global crop failures and crop extinction.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Shrinking Tibetan Glaciers Threaten Water Shortages for 2 Billion in Asia

As the earth continues to warm, Tibetan glaciers holding vast reserves of fresh water are melting away into the sea, threatening water shortages for roughly two billion in Asia:
Roughly 2 billion Asians will experience water shortages in the coming decades as global warming diminishes glaciers on the Tibetan Plateau, scientists warned on Friday.

The plateau has more than 45,000 glaciers that accumulate during the region’s snowy season, before they drain into Asia’s main rivers, which include the Yellow, Yangtze, Brahmanputra and Mekong. Some scientists refer to the plateau as the "Third Pole" due to its massive glacial ice sheets.

However, temperatures on the plateau are rising at twice the rate of other parts of the world, according Lonnie Thompson, an Ohio State University glaciologist who for decades has gathered ice cores from glaciers around the world.

As these higher temperatures cause the glaciers to melt at faster rates, Asians have developed a false sense of security about the area’s water supplies, he said.

Should the melting continue at current levels, two-thirds of the plateau's glaciers will likely disappear by 2050, he said during a meeting on climate change at the Asia Society in Manhattan.

However, those who depend on the water will begin to see dwindling supplies long before then, he said.

"The scary thing is that a lot of structures, cities and lifestyles that have been developed in the region over the last 100 years were based on an abundance of water," Thompson said.

Nearly 2 billion people in India, China, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Bhutan would experience water shortages as the rivers slow, said Geoff Dabelko, director of the environment and security program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, during an interview with Reuters.
Red Orbit.

Argentina Facing Record Drought Conditions

Argentina's current plight -- drought conditions potentially causing a 40% reduction in crop output -- may present a prophetic image of the ramifications of unchecked climate change:
Argentina's President Cristina Fernandez on Monday declared an agricultural emergency in areas affected by the worst drought to hit the country in four decades.
The state of emergency will allow farmers in affected areas to defer some tax payments for one year, Fernandez said.

Argentina, a leading world producer of soy, corn, wheat and beef, is suffering from dry conditions in much of its agricultural belt. Crop estimates are being cut as cattle die of thirst.

"In the face of this hard, painful reality, the government is extending its hand to these farmers," Cabinet Chief Sergio Massa told reporters after Fernandez announced the state of emergency.

Farmers, locked in political battle with the government over what they call high export taxes, say they want better long-term emergency planning rather than the subsidies and other short-term benefits offered by Fernandez.

The corn planting season is just ending, but output in the current crop cycle could fall up to 40 percent from the last harvest, the Buenos Aires Grains Exchange has forecast.

Our Big Screen TVs Mean More Big Dead Zones

Increased global warming is projected to create larger "dead zones" in the world's oceans -- "low-oxygen areas in the ocean where sea life including fish, crabs and clams cannot survive." LAT.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Resistance Is Futile: the Jellyfish Are Winning

"In the Gulf of Mexico's densest jellyfish swarms there are more jellyfish than there is water -- 100 jellyfish can occupy each cubic meter of water."

We people, with our "financial meltdowns," our "ethnic conflicts," our "plans for the future" -- we're just minding the store for a while before the jellyfish completely take over everything. I was trying to pretend for a while that this blog was about stuff other than just jellyfish, but why pretend anymore? The jellyfish swarms will inevitably conquer all -- including this blog.
Jellyfish swarms have damaged fisheries, fish farms, seabed mining operations, desalination plants and large ships, and they have disabled nuclear power plants by clogging intake pipes.

In the Gulf of Mexico's densest jellyfish swarms there are more jellyfish than there is water - 100 jellyfish can occupy each cubic meter of water.

"I'm often asked whether a single, overarching condition is triggering jellyfish swarms in diverse locations," says Monty Graham of Alabama's Dauphin Island Sea Lab on a barrier island in the Gulf of Mexico. Graham says the abnormally large, dense or frequent jellyfish swarms are "a symptom of an ecosystem that has been tipped off balance by environmental stresses."

"The exact nature of such balance-tipping environmental stresses may vary from place to place and usually involve unique interactions with local ecology," Graham explains. "But such stresses are often caused by people."

So, just as a weakened person is vulnerable to opportunistic diseases, stressed ecosystems are vulnerable to infestations of jellyfish.

"There is clear, clean evidence that certain types of human-caused environmental stresses are triggering jellyfish swarms in some locations," William Hamner of the University of California at Los Angeles says in the report.

These stresses include the introduction of jellyfish species into non-native habitats by ships; the formation of ultra-polluted areas, known as Dead Zones, where jellyfish face few predators and competitors; and increases in water temperatures, which accelerate the growth and reproduction of many jellyfish species.
Environment News Service.

Please also refer to this recent report from the National Science Foundation: "Jellyfish Gone Wild!: Environmental Change and Jellyfish Swarms".

Hey, National Science Foundation: the jellyfish have no sense of humor to appreciate your wacky report because they have no brains. The earth shall be inherited by swarms of gelatinous, brainless organic matter operating on rudimentary "nerve nets". That's just how Mother Nature rolls.