This Week, Deep

I'm feeling the need for good news this week, so this week is going to be intentionally light on gloom and doom with the exception of one follow up from last week. 

I really like this description of how much better our knowledge of global climate change and climate models have gotten in the 25 years since the IPCC formed. The video at the bottom sums it up very well visually. While there is rarely good news in climate change, I love seeing effective communication about how scientists know what we know.

So ocean goodies from this week... 

1) The Shed Aquarium in Chicago held a celebration to mark 80 years of residence for one Australian Lungfish. They even made him a fish-friendly cake, the description of which is worth a read in itself! Check it outThanks to my dad for emailing me this story.

2) Government agencies in Costa Rica are attempting to regulate their tuna fishery by reining in international fishing. Read more here

3) An exciting fossil discovery (described here)  of the oldest known organism with a face (a 419 million year fish) offers new insights into how animal life may have evolved in the oceans by placing the appearance of jaws earlier than previously thought. Even more interestingly, this fossil shows, for the first time, one animal with skull features from a group of fish thought to have gone extinct along with other features from a lineage of fish that are still around today. This new knowledge may change how scientists reconstruct the history of fish evolution. You can't read the article without a subscription, but you can see a video showing a 3D reconstruction of the skull here.

4) A paper published in PNAS this week tells the story of a Blue Whales life through chemical analyses done to a 10 inch ear wax plug! This sentence from the abstract subs it up pretty well " These unprecedented lifetime profiles (i.e., birth to death) were reconstructed with a 6-mo resolution for a wide range of analytes including cortisol (stress hormone), testosterone (developmental hormone), organic contaminants (e.g., pesticides and flame retardants), and mercury." Read the actual paper here or a decent summary here.  This maybe isn't warm and fuzzy good news, but its pretty cool that researchers figured out how to do this, and it opens up a new line of research that can be done on deceased whales. They mention that this tool can be applied to ear plugs that were collected in the 1950s, which would provide context of how toxin exposure may have changed for these animals over time.

5) This one isn't explicitly marine, but I couldn't help sharing. It hopefully comes as no surprise that nature, and parks in particular, are good for us. But, this has been confirmed with science. Apparently a walk in the woods (or presumably by the ocean) has positive effects on emotional well being that can be measured by EEG in real time. You can learn more here. So, do your self a favor and get out into Nature some time soon.

like an oil spill... but sweeter

A thick brown substance spills into a harbor killing thousands of animals... nope its not oil, its not even toxic, this environmental disaster is brought to you by molasses - yes, molasses. 

Some reports are calling it the worst environmental disaster that Hawaii has seen. It is too early to tell for sure, but the roughly 230,000 gallons of molasses that recently spilled into Honolulu Harbor, just a few miles from Waikiki Beach, have already caused thousands of fish and other marine organisms to die. This is apparently the largest number of fish deaths ever recorded in this area. Unfortunately, this may just be the start of the problems.

Two of the most informative online reports I found were from nbcnews and abcnews. The molasses, which should have made its way safely to a ship in the harbor for transport across the pacific, apparently leaked through an old section of pipe that was supposed to be shut off. It is, however, unclear exactly why this happened. And, it seems that there is nothing to be done as far as clean up other than wait and let the ocean clean itself up.

As many of the reports point out, the molasses itself is not toxic, and will eventually dissolve and disappear. It is also unclear how long "eventually" is. It will depend on various factors including the temperature of the water and size/shape of the bay which controls how fast water from the outside ocean gets in and out. One thing we do know is that that much sugar is an all you can eat buffet for many types of bacteria. While most bacteria aren't harmful themselves, when they have that much food they tend to grow very rapidly and use up all the oxygen in the water suffocating all the animals in the area. This is the same basic thing that can happen when too much fertilizer from our lawns or even sewage runs off into rivers or lakes. The process is called eutrophication. Hawaiian officials were also warning surfers and swimmers to avoid the area as the massive fish kills could attract sharks.

So, what should we expect? Short answer - more animals will likely die as microbial populations bloom and use up precious oxygen in the water. The longer answer is that we really don't know. In much the same way that the bacterial response to the recent Deep Water Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico was unpredicted and surprising, we really have no good way of knowing exactly what the outcome will be. I'm guessing that no one has ever dumped tons of sugar into a harbor to see what would happen. We certainly have a marine microbial drama (not to mention an incredibly unfortunate environmental disaster) to keep our eyes on.

Hawaii News Now has a video clip which includes video taken by a diver of the molasses coated bottom and the death it is causing, here if you care to see what the brown muck and dead animals look like.