Archives for September 2013

Fighting Climate Change Also Battles Disease

climate healthChances are you won’t die from carbon dioxide. But cutting down on the greenhouse gas pollution responsible for climate change could extend your life and make it better.

(From Scientific American / by David Biello) – That’s because less reliance on things that produce a lot of CO2, like coal-fired power plants, also means lower levels of other kinds of pollution that shorten lives.

That’s according to new research in the journal Nature Climate Change. (Scientific American is part of Nature Publishing Group.)

Researchers looked at how CO2 reductions also meant less spewing into the air of fine soot and ozone, otherwise known as smog at ground level. Both soot and ozone have been linked to various respiratory and cardiovascular conditions, such as asthma and heart disease. In other words, soot and smog ain’t good for you.

Cutting back on the sources of all these types of pollution would mean avoiding more than a million premature deaths by 2050. And that’s a conservative estimate because it doesn’t include children or anyone under 30, or other factors like the spread of tropical diseases into new regions as the globe warms.

In other words, combating climate change ain’t just good for the planet, it’s good for your health.


Consortium for Ocean Leadership

The Naked Mole Rat’s Secret to a Long and Healthy Life

Naked mole rats live approximately 30 years, which doesn’t seem too big of a feat to humans, but compared to the rest of the animal kingdom, this is an exceptionally long time. What’s also impressive is that these mole rats pretty much stay healthy until the end of their lives. Reports even say that this species is cancer-proof. So what’s their secret? According to new research conducted by biologists at the University of Rochester, better-constructed proteins provide the key to this species’ longevity.
ENN: Top Stories

Underwater ‘Gliders’ Help Improve Hurricane Forecasts

U.S. Integrated Ocean Observing System's (IOOS®) fleet of underwater gliders are tracked using the National Underwater Glider Network Map. The gliders collect data on ocean conditions to help improve scientists’ understanding of hurricanes and pave the way for future improvements in hurricane intensity forecasts.

(Click to enlarge) U.S. Integrated Ocean Observing System’s (IOOS®) fleet of underwater gliders are tracked using the National Underwater Glider Network Map. The gliders collect data on ocean conditions to help improve scientists’ understanding of hurricanes and pave the way for future improvements in hurricane intensity forecasts.

A fleet of underwater robots is descending into Atlantic coastal waters from Nova Scotia to Georgia to collect data that may help improve storm intensity forecasts for future hurricane seasons.

(From the National Ocena Service) – Several regions of the NOAA-led U.S. Integrated Ocean Observing System (IOOS®) have partnered to deploy approximately 15 of the autonomous underwater vehicles, also called gliders, for up to eight weeks during the peak fall Atlantic storm season.

The gliders will collect data on ocean conditions to help improve scientists’ understanding of hurricanes and pave the way for future improvements in hurricane intensity forecasts. As the gliders travel underwater for hundreds of miles, they will dive repeatedly to collect three-dimensional ocean observations, such as temperature, salinity, and the speed and direction of ocean currents. On this mission, the gliders will also collect acoustic data about fish and marine mammal migrations.

Rutgers University is leading the glider mission, which involves the Northeast, Mid-Atlantic, and Southeast IOOS regions. In addition to glider data, the mission will collect satellite, moored buoy, and coastal radar data. The collected glider data will go through NOAA’s National Data Buoy Center to NOAA’s National Weather Service, the U.S. Navy, and other data users for modeling. Data from the glider missions is also available on the IOOS Glider Asset Map.

“When storms are moving along our coasts, lives depend on accurate forecasts,” says IOOS Program Director Zdenka Willis. “Unmanned gliders sample the ocean in places where it is impractical to send people, and at a fraction of the cost, allowing us to collect data even in the middle of a storm. This information ultimately helps improve forecast precision so that decision makers can keep people safe.”

IOOS is a federal, regional, and private-sector partnership working to increase understanding of our ocean and coasts so that decision makers can improve safety, enhance the economy, and protect the environment. In addition to NOAA funding provided through the IOOS regions, other funding sources include the Office of Naval Research, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, NASA, a private donor from the University of Delaware, and Canada’s Ocean Tracking Network.


Consortium for Ocean Leadership

Study Explores Complex Physical Oceanography in East China Sea

Typhoon Morakot, which struck in Aug. 2009, was one of the most destructive storms ever to hit Taiwan, causing widespread damage and killing several hundred people. It dropped up to 2 meters of rain in just 5 days in the mountains and drastically altered the flow of water along the nearby continental shelf. (Photo by Frank Bahr, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

(Click to enlarge) Typhoon Morakot, which struck in Aug. 2009, was one of the most destructive storms ever to hit Taiwan, causing widespread damage and killing several hundred people. It dropped up to 2 meters of rain in just 5 days in the mountains and drastically altered the flow of water along the nearby continental shelf. (Photo by Frank Bahr, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

Just days before a team of researchers from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) and National Taiwan University set out to conduct fieldwork in the East China Sea, Typhoon Morakot—one of the most destructive storms ever to hit Taiwan—made landfall on the island, causing widespread damage and drastically altering the flow of water along the nearby continental shelf.

(From WHOI) – The typhoon, which struck in Aug. 2009, caused catastrophic damage in Taiwan, killing several hundred people and dropping up to 2 meters of rain in just 5 days in the mountains.

In their work to understand the strong currents over the continental shelf and slope in the East China Sea, the researchers used four ships for intensive sampling of the continental shelf and slope, and deployed several moorings and conducted high-resolution hydrographic surveys. 

In their work to understand the strong currents over the continental shelf and slope in the East China Sea, the researchers used four ships for intensive sampling of the continental shelf and slope, and deployed several moorings and conducted high-resolution hydrographic surveys. In this figure, the red dots represent profiles of water sampled during the broad scale survey. MHC denotes Mien-Hua Canyon while NMHC denotes Northe Mien-Hua Canyon. (Figure by Jack Cook, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

(Click to enlarge) In their work to understand the strong currents over the continental shelf and slope in the East China Sea, the researchers used four ships for intensive sampling of the continental shelf and slope, and deployed several moorings and conducted high-resolution hydrographic surveys. In this figure, the red dots represent profiles of water sampled during the broad scale survey. MHC denotes Mien-Hua Canyon while NMHC denotes Northe Mien-Hua Canyon. (Figure by Jack Cook, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

But the timing of their research also enabled them to examine the impact of freshwater run-off from Typhoon Morakot on the continental shelf northeast of Taiwan, the upwelling and cooling that occurred over the continental shelf after the Typhoon, and the effect of Typhoon Morakot on the biogeochemistry and nutrient dynamics of the continental shelf.

The research has just appeared in a special issue of the Journal of Marine Research.

Although the East China Sea is home to some of the world’s most active fisheries and shipping lanes, the basic oceanography of the area is not yet well understood, says WHOI coastal oceanographer Glen Gawarkiewicz, one of the primary investigators for the program. “It’s a very difficult place to study—the currents in the region are extremely powerful, and are constantly shifting and changing, which makes it tough to predict how the ocean will behave there at any given time,” he notes. As a result, Gawarkiewicz says existing computer models of the area have a large degree of “uncertainty,” or margin of error.

Mooring deployment operations from aboard the R/V Ocean Researcher I in the East China Sea. The team deployed two sets of moorings that remained over the continental shelf for 6 weeks. (Photo by Frank Bahr, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

(Click to enlarge) Mooring deployment operations from aboard the R/V Ocean Researcher I in the East China Sea. The team deployed two sets of moorings that remained over the continental shelf for 6 weeks. (Photo by Frank Bahr, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

The joint program, called “Quantifying, Predicting, and Exploiting Uncertainty” (QPE), is using data collected in the field to understand how uncertainty in computer models of the ocean near Taiwan changes in time and space. In the process, Gawarkiewicz hopes the QPE team will not only be able to improve the current oceanographic understanding of the East China Sea, but improve methods used to model similar currents around the world. Funding for the program was provided by the U.S. Office of Naval Research.

The main goals of the QPE program are twofold, says Gawarkiewicz. First, it strives to understand how a feature caused by upwelling of cold water, dubbed the “Cold Dome,” forms along the continental slope, and attempts to predict when and how it might appear. This phenomenon may play a role in both the formation of new currents and the transport of nutrient-rich water up from the deep ocean, a process essential for the health of marine fisheries. The QPE researchers also set out to examine when and where the Kuroshio Current (a large regional current similar to the Gulf Stream) pushes onto the continental shelf, causing complex currents to appear.

Glen Gawarkiewicz was one of the primary investigators for the joint U.S.-Taiwan program called “Quantifying, Predicting, and Exploiting Uncertainty” (QPE).The program is using data collected in the field to understand how uncertainty in computer models of the ocean near Taiwan changes in time and space. The QPE team hopes it will be able to improve the current oceanographic understanding of the East China Sea, and improve methods used to model similar currents around the world. (Photo by Jayne Doucette, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

(Click to enlarge) Glen Gawarkiewicz was one of the primary investigators for the joint U.S.-Taiwan program called “Quantifying, Predicting, and Exploiting Uncertainty” (QPE).The program is using data collected in the field to understand how uncertainty in computer models of the ocean near Taiwan changes in time and space. The QPE team hopes it will be able to improve the current oceanographic understanding of the East China Sea, and improve methods used to model similar currents around the world. (Photo by Jayne Doucette, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

Gawarkiewicz says the shape of the ocean floor in the area may play a role in the complexity of those currents, and may contribute to the high uncertainty that appears in the computer models. As the Kuroshio moves along the continental slope, it passes over a series of three underwater canyons that alter its flow, creating new currents and eddies.

The QPE team conducted their fieldwork in the East China Sea during August and September 2009, using a satellite link to interact remotely with ocean modeler Pierre Lermusiaux at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Each day, Lermusiaux ran computer models of the region, looking for areas of high uncertainty, then directed the team to those spots to collect samples and measure currents. The team immediately sent this new data back to Lermusiaux, who fed it back into the model. In this way, the researchers were able to improve the model’s accuracy in real time.

“There’s a feedback between the observations and the modeling,” Gawarkiewicz notes. “Basically, if you can make good observations in areas of high uncertainty, you can reduce the uncertainty in the future for that area.”

Time series of temperature versus depth at an instrumented mooring over the continental shelf. The black dots show the thermometer depths. The color bar indicates the temperature in degrees celcius. The rapid downward and upward excursions of warm surface water indicate internal waves passing the mooring. (Figure courtesy of Tim Duda, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

(Click to enlarge) Time series of temperature versus depth at an instrumented mooring over the continental shelf. The black dots show the thermometer depths. The color bar indicates the temperature in degrees celcius. The rapid downward and upward excursions of warm surface water indicate internal waves passing the mooring. (Figure courtesy of Tim Duda, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

In addition to studying the currents of the East China Sea, the researchers also examined the formation of internal waves—long pulses of energy created either by tidal currents or by water moving past underwater physical barriers, like a ridge or canyon on the ocean floor. “It’s similar to wind flowing over a mountain range,” says Tim Duda, a WHOI physicist who collaborated on the study.  “As water flows over undersea ridges and valleys or is pushed over the continental slope, distinct waves begin to form.”

Although these waves form deep underwater, he says, it’s still possible to track their location by looking for surface disturbances. “You can actually see where an internal wave is going by looking at the surface of the ocean,” says Duda. “The currents of the internal waves push surface waves and ripples together, forming alternating stripes of smooth and rough water that you can pick up either visually or using shipborne radar.”

Duda also measured internal waves that passed beneath the ship by using sonar to track the movement of plankton, tiny plants and animals suspended in the water. Since these organisms can’t move quickly through the ocean on their own, a passing internal wave would cause them to sink and rise in unison, revealing the wave’s shape, size, and direction of travel.

Duda says that the internal waves he observed northeast of Taiwan are extremely powerful, including one wave that measured more than 50 meters (164 feet) tall. Some of these waves, he notes, can form a solitary pulse of energy that travels for miles in deep water before dissipating. Duda dubbed these “transbasin” waves, and thinks they may play a role in mixing layers of water in the ocean, pulling nutrients from the deep up into shallower regions. His paper describing internal wave formation in the East China Sea appears in the special journal issue.

While conducting fieldwork in the region, the QPE team was also given a rare opportunity to measure changes in ocean currents caused by Typhoon Morakot. After the powerful storm passed through the region, the researchers found a strong coastal current formed and began to pull freshwater runoff from Taiwan’s coastal region into the ocean hundreds of miles north of the island. “This runoff carried pieces of wood, broken tree trunks, and even farmed freshwater fishes hundreds of miles northeast of Taiwan,” says Sen Jan of National Taiwan University, a co-Principal Investigator for QPE. “Those observations are helping provide a new perspective on the disasters that take place after a typhoon.”  The storm also drove upwelling of deep, cold water onto the continental shelf, which increased the amount of nutrients and phytoplankton after the storm.

“Thanks to global climate change, we’re seeing bigger and more powerful storms all over the world,” adds Gawarkiewicz, “and understanding exactly how they affect our oceans in the future will be important for shipping, for food production, and for basic science.”

The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution is a private, non-profit organization on Cape Cod, Mass., dedicated to marine research, engineering, and higher education. Established in 1930 on a recommendation from the National Academy of Sciences, its primary mission is to understand the oceans and their interaction with the Earth as a whole, and to communicate a basic understanding of the oceans’ role in the changing global environment. For more information, please visit www.whoi.edu.


Consortium for Ocean Leadership

Tokyo Electric set to receive $5.9 billion financing: source

TOKYO (Reuters) – Creditors are set to provide $ 5.9 billion in financing to Tokyo Electric Power Co (Tepco), a person involved in the talks told Reuters on Monday, offering a lifeline to the embattled owner of the crippled Fukushima nuclear plant.


Reuters: Environment

Could payphones be converted to EV charging stations?

In an intriguing development across New York City there is speculation that the authorities may soon look at converting existing payphones into electric car charging stations. On the surface this may look like yet another crazy idea connected with the electric vehicle industry but if you take a step back, consider the options, it may just be feasible. In yet another sign that the electric vehicle industry is set to go mass-market, people are now actually looking at converting existing payphone units into electric vehicle charging stations. But what are the potential problems and drawbacks? Perhaps the major problem which the EV industry will encounter when converting existing payphones into electric vehicle charging stations is their location. The vast majority are located in situations which are not amenable to parking cars to recharge their batteries although there are some which could be transformed with very little fuss. It will be interesting to see how the authorities tackle this particular problem.
ENN: Top Stories

New UN climate change report

The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has been leading the effort in collecting scientific evidence of climate change and in looking to answer the most important question, is it caused by human activity? Some argue that it is caused mostly by natural variability, and non-human factors. The new IPCC report, released this week, provides more evidence that human activity is a major cause. The UN is calling for a global response to combat climate change, following new findings by the IPCC stating it is “extremely likely” that humans have been the dominant cause of unprecedented global warming since 1950. “The heat is on. Now we must act,” Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in a video message to the launch of the report of the UN-backed IPCC. “This new report will be essential for Governments as they work to finalize an ambitious, legal agreement on climate change in 2015,” Mr. Ban said. “The goal is to generate the political commitment to keep global temperature rise below the agreed 2-degree Celsius threshold.”
ENN: Top Stories

After Bloomberg, will the Big Apple stay green?

Ben Whitford takes a look at the candidates for the next Mayor of New York City and asks if any of them can fill the green shoes of Bloomberg……..
Environment news & analysis, climate change reports –
The Ecologist

Undersea Mountains Provide Crucial Piece in Climate Prediction Puzzle

AntarcticA mystery in the ocean near Antarctica has been solved by researchers who have long puzzled over how deep and mid-depth ocean waters are mixed.

(From TG Daily / by Thomas Anderson) — They found that sea water mixes dramatically as it rushes over undersea mountains in Drake Passage – the channel between the southern tip of South America and the Antarctic continent. Mixing of water layers in the oceans is crucial in regulating the Earth’s climate and ocean currents.

The research provides insight for climate models which until now have lacked the detailed information on ocean mixing needed to provide accurate long-term climate projections. The study was carried out by the University of Exeter, the University of East Anglia, the University of Southampton, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, the British Antarctic Survey and the Scottish Association for Marine Science and is published in the journal Nature.

Working in some of the wildest waters on the planet, researchers measured mixing in the Southern Ocean by releasing tiny quantities of an inert chemical tracer into the Southeast Pacific. They tracked the tracer for several years as it went through Drake Passage to observe how quickly the ocean mixed.

The tracer showed almost no vertical mixing in the Pacific but as the water passed over the mountainous ocean floor in the relatively narrow continental gap that forms the Drake Passage it began to mix dramatically.

Professor Andrew Watson from the University of Exeter (previously at the University of East Anglia) said: “A thorough understanding of the process of ocean mixing is crucial to our understanding of the overall climate system. Our study indicates that virtually all the mixing in the Southern Ocean occurs in Drake Passage and at a few other undersea mountain locations. Our study will provide climate scientists with the detailed information about the oceans that they currently lack.”

Ocean mixing transfers carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to the deep sea, and ultimately controls the rate at which the ocean takes up carbon dioxide. Over several hundred years this process will remove much of the carbon dioxide that we release into the atmosphere, storing it in the deep ocean. Ocean mixing also affects climate, for example an increase in the rate of deep sea mixing would enable the ocean to transfer more heat towards the poles.

Scientists believe that the lower concentrations of atmospheric carbon dioxide present during the ice ages may have been the result of slower ocean mixing between the surface and the deep sea. Although the reasons for this are not yet clear, this further emphasises the link between ocean mixing and climate.


Consortium for Ocean Leadership

The Giant Jellyfish Invasion Mystery

A diver gazes at a giant jellyfish, identified as stomolophus nomurai, more than a metre wide in diameter, drifting in the waters off Echizen in Fukui prefecture, in the central coast of Japan. The jellyfish can weigh as much as 150 kilograms.  (Credit: TETSUJI ASANO / ASSOCIATED PRESS file photo)

(Click to enlarge) A diver gazes at a giant jellyfish, identified as stomolophus nomurai, more than a metre wide in diameter, drifting in the waters off Echizen in Fukui prefecture, in the central coast of Japan. The jellyfish can weigh as much as 150 kilograms. (Credit: TETSUJI ASANO / ASSOCIATED PRESS file photo)

As jellyfish ‘blooms’ become common, scientists are divided about what’s happening. How it’s resolved will affect anyone with a stake in the marine world.

(From thestar.com / by Kate Allen) – The gelatinous masses on the deck of the Myoho-maru could charitably be described as the colour of weak tea. They quivered as the boat pitched in the choppy morning waves. The blobs had been pulled in from the sea along with an octopus, a clutch of squid and a thousand frantically flopping finfish, the day’s intended catch.

Yoshifumi Sakumoto, the fisherman who captains the Myoho-maru, accidentally stepped on the jelly mess and skidded before regaining his balance.

But underfoot, the blobs were not nearly as troublesome as underwater and intact. They were pieces of Nemopilema nomurai, the giant jellyfish that in recent years have swarmed Japan’s seas with alarming frequency, decimating fisheries and damaging the country’s marine economy.

In the last century, Nomura “blooms,” as dramatic jellyfish aggregations are called, were recorded just three times: in 1920, 1958 and 1995. Then, starting in 2002, blooms hit six times in eight years. In 2009, the last and worst bloom year, a Japanese fishing trawler capsized trying to pull a net full of Nomura, which can grow to the size of a Smart car.

Japan is not the only nation blighted by jellyfish. A storm of mauve stingers wiped out Ireland’s only organic salmon farm in 2007. In the Gulf of Oman, a species called Crambionella orsini clogged the intake pipes of coastal power plants. The Benguela current off the coast of Namibia was once a rich sardine and anchovy fishery; now, jellyfish exceeds fish biomass more than three to one.

Yet for all the apocalyptic headlines these events have generated, scientists are deeply divided about what is happening. Is there a global jellyfish boom underway? Or are we witnessing a natural cyclical uptick — a jellyfish El Niño, rather than a jellyfish global warming?

That question is a matter of intense debate, and how it is resolved will affect anyone with a stake in the marine world — culinary, economic or environmental.

‘Kingdom of fish’

Individual researchers’ responses to the debate are often coloured by the state of their local seas. So it is no surprise that Shin-ichi Uye, a biological oceanographer at Hiroshima University and Japan’s leading jellyfish scientist, fears the worst. Chatting over barley tea in the mess hall of the Toyoshio-maru, his research vessel, Uye framed his take as a parable.

Jellyfish ruled the ancient seas, he said. Then came the “fish kingdom.”

“And now human beings have removed the fish and destroyed the fish kingdom,” he said. “It’s a reverse of natural history. And who did this? Human beings.”

A day earlier, the Star had boarded the Toyoshio-maru with Uye and a handful of students and researchers. The annual research cruise is an opportunity for them to spend a week tallying up observations that could help solve the larger riddle of what is going on with the world’s jellies.

But, in many ways, our journey only deepened the mystery.

We failed to find any aggregations of Aurelia, the common moon jellyfish, which is the most widely distributed jellyfish in the world and one that has bloomed dramatically for more than a decade in the inland sea we visited.

We met fishermen who earned a comfortable living from harvesting the abundant, edible Rhopilema. We sampled their catch and visited a warehouse packed with jellyfish. Yet we never saw a live Rhopilema at sea.

We travelled to Tsushima to meet Sakumoto, with whom Uye has collaborated in the past, hoping to glimpse the notorious Nomura. All we saw were the ugly blobs on his boat’s deck — a piece of Nomura bell and a piece of its arms, but nothing more. It was the end of a confounding journey.

A day after disembarking, Uye sent an email. Sakumoto had discovered more than 100 Nomura in his nets that morning. His neighbours’ nets were also clogged.

It brought to mind another email Uye had sent.

“Although the jellyfish have no words to speak to humans, they are giving a sign to humans by aggregating themselves grotesquely,” he wrote. “We human beings have to learn the message from them.”

But what is their message?

Ancient creatures

The jelliness of jellyfish means they are terrible at leaving behind fossils. With no bones to fossilize, all we have are body impressions left in ancient sediment beds. As a result, much of the early history of jellyfish is — you guessed it — a mystery.

Based on the tiny handful of sites that do exist, scientists know that jellyfish have been around for at least 500 million years. That’s more than 75 million years before the appearance of land plants and more than 250 million years before the first dinosaurs. Humans began walking upright about six million years ago.

“I think it’s fair to say that something like the jellyfish that we have today probably have been around as long as any multicellular organism,” said Larry Madin, an expert in gelatinous zooplankton and director of research at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts.

Being jelly must be pretty advantageous if the trait is hundreds of millions of years older than, say, being furry. And jellies boast some extraordinary features that help explain why they have persisted for millennia and why they have the ability to form sudden blooms.

Their bodies are more than 95 per cent water. So growing rapidly doesn’t burden jellyfish with the same metabolic demands that it does for more complicated organisms. Observe any Homo sapiens teenager in its habitat, and you will probably find the specimen consuming an absurd number of frozen pizzas and growing at a clip of an inch or two a year. Nomura, meanwhile, can add 3 per cent of their body mass a day, tripling their size in less than two months. (If teenagers had arms that were several times the length of their bodies and capped with “mouthlets,” and if those teenagers spent their days drifting through a sea of tiny pizzas, they would probably triple their size in two months, too.)

Many types of jellyfish have double-pronged reproductive systems: they reproduce both sexually, combining genetic material from two individuals, and asexually, by duplicating a single individual.

A female Nomura, for example, after swimming through a cloud of sperm, can release up to a billion fertilized eggs. Those eggs, which have the advantage of genetic diversity, hatch into tiny swimming larvae, attach themselves to a hard surface and become anemone-like polyps.

If conditions are right, each jellyfish polyp can bud many mini-jellyfish — new individuals that are exact genetic copies of each other — in a matter of days. This secondary sexual process increases the number of offspring from a single individual with very little work.

But when conditions aren’t right, many of the species associated with troublesome blooms have another handy trick: the ability to go dormant until things improve. When the water is too cold, too hot, too salty, or otherwise undesirable, the polyps harden into cuticle-walled cysts. Nomura cysts, Uye discovered in his lab, can survive for at least six years, biding their time.

Jellyfish are often described as simple or primitive. That couldn’t be further from the truth.

Nomura, Uye said more than once, are “like aliens.”

The mystery deepens

Despite their ancient origins and evolutionary success, jellyfish were long ignored as a serious subject of scientific scrutiny. There are still only about 200 devoted scientists in the world, by Uye’s count.

“Jellyfish research is in the infant stage,” he said.

Scientists don’t always mean the same thing when they use the term “jellyfish.” Some use the word to refer to the adult members of a specific group called Scyphozoa, the “true jellyfish.” Nomura, Aurelia, Rhopilema and most other easily recognizable types of jellyfish are scyphozoans.

But other scientists use the term “jellyfish” to describe all gelatinous-bodied zooplankton, which lumps together groups such as scyphozoans, cubozoans (like the deadly Irukandji), hydrozoans (like the Portuguese man o’ war), ctenophores (a totally different phylum also known as comb jellyfish), and some pelagic tunicates (another totally different phylum that includes tiny squidgy things called salps).

Many jellyfish bloom studies subscribe to this wider definition — and this story does too, for the simple reason that gelatinous animals don’t have to belong to the same family to become a pest to humans.

From the terminology on outwards, questions proliferate. No one has ever seen a Nomura polyp in the wild (for his cyst experiment, Uye used polyps grown in a lab). No one has ever seen a Rhopilema polyp in the wild, either. Researchers know only generally where those two jellyfish seed, despite their economic importance, one for better and one for worse.

But the biggest problem hampering our understanding of blooms is the lack of long-term data on jellyfish numbers. Historically, jellyfish were too economically unimportant for fisheries scientists, and too big and weird for plankton scientists: they were a nuisance to all, and often literally cast out of marine studies.

“There are even old papers from the ’50s with instructions on how to study plankton, and step one is remove all the jellyfish,” said Lucas Brotz, a jellyfish researcher at the University of British Columbia.

Because so few scientists bothered to collect and count jellyfish, there is little information about what “normal” jellyfish populations looked like 100 years ago, or even 20 years ago. That makes it hard to say whether “normal” has changed.

Everyone agrees the state of the data is unsatisfactory. The schism is over what to do about it.

Brotz became the de facto spokesperson for one side of the debate thanks to a highly publicized paper he authored last year.

For some context, Brotz is a PhD student at the Sea Around Us Project, a laboratory devoted to figuring out how fisheries are modifying the sea and what to do about it. He told the Star about a recent visit to the Tsukiji market in Tokyo, the largest fish market in the world, where he saw stalls crammed with the ocean’s bounty.

“This happens every single day?” he remembered thinking. “If you take that much out of the ocean, it’s obviously going to change things. There’s no way it can’t.”

As a scientist, Brotz is careful not to let his knowledge of the pressing need for ocean conservation influence his research.

But his work is certainly fuelled by a sense of urgency. Faced with the paucity of long-term data on jellyfish, Brotz didn’t want to wait several decades for better research to emerge. So he designed a study that incorporated non-scientific or “anecdotal” data to provide a clearer picture of what is happening in 45 distinct ocean regions that cover the globe. The sources were rigorously scored based on reliability: a news story quoting a lifeguard would be given very low confidence, surveys of fishers were weighted more heavily, and long-term scientific data sets were scored highest.

The resulting signal was shaky, but unmistakable: Since 1950, Brotz and his co-authors found, jellyfish abundance had increased in 28 of the 45 marine ecosystems. The study was front-page news in Canada and generated headlines across the world.

Then, in January of this year, came a study with a very different conclusion.

Its lead author was Rob Condon, a marine scientist at the Dauphin Island Sea Lab in Alabama, and it was co-authored by a who’s who of jellyfish scientists, including Uye.

Condon is wary of anything but the hardest data. He is adamant that if we are going to funnel resources into the conclusions of science, the method must be rigorous — and beachgoers’ observations in newspapers aren’t that.

“You’ve got to let the science do the talking . . . the numbers, and what the data say,” he said. In science, opinion comes after the data analysis, not before it.

Condon’s group only used jellyfish counts that lasted longer than a decade. That left 37 data sets collected between 1874 and 2011.

Their analysis showed a slight rise in jellyfish abundance since 1970, but too weak of a trend to be called a global increase. The strongest trend was that jellyfish numbers cycled up and down over approximately 20-year periods — a natural oscillation, which was on an upward swing in the 1990s and 2000s.

This data also has shortcomings. Sampling methods varied. Eighty-seven per cent of data sets were collected in the Northern Hemisphere. Only nine began collection before 1960, though Condon maintains the longest-running data sets cover key areas.

Condon doesn’t rule out the idea that there could be an upward shift in the jellyfish baseline on top of the natural cycles, like how recent studies have suggested that global warming has triggered more El Niño years. We just can’t say yet for sure. “We really need about another 30 years’ worth of data to make any conclusive statement about jellyfish blooms.”

Brotz and Condon are both exceptionally polite with regard to each others’ work, and they tend to emphasize the many points on which they agree.

But Condon can’t accept Brotz’ unscientific sources, and Brotz can’t abide by Condon’s wait-and-see approach.

“It’s better to be safe and even say no comment about something than to give a quick and easy sound bite to a reporter. Scientists in general . . . fall into that trap,” said Condon. “There are social and economic consequences.”

Brotz said Condon’s group “would say we have to wait a few more decades. I would say, we don’t really have a few more decades to wait.”

Japan: Ground Zero

One place where the data paints a clear picture is the Sea of Japan: whatever is going on globally, nearly everyone agrees there is something remarkable happening here. While the last true Nomura bloom was in 2009, surveys from this year indicate that Nomura will still be a problematic presence. Aurelia aggregate often, particularly in the Seto Inland Sea and Tokyo Bay, and last year saw a bumper crop of Rhopilema.

Experts have many theories about how human interference might be triggering jellyfish blooms. But the easiest way to absorb the science is to chat with the fishermen who have spent their lives on Japan’s seas, and whose observations sync neatly with the scientific literature.

In Hakata Bay on Kyushu, Japan’s southernmost main island, Uye introduced the Star to Yoshikatsu Mori, who had spent 60 of his 75 years fishing the local waters. Mori told us that this past spring, Aurelia bloomed so heavily that some bottom-trawler fishing boats moving through the bay would find themselves at an abrupt standstill. Their underwater nets had encountered an aggregation so thick it stopped the boat like a wall. Some weeks, fishermen didn’t bother to leave their houses.

“In my younger days, there were many fish in Hakata Bay. Now, there are almost no fish here, but it is full of jellyfish,” Mori said as Uye translated.

In fact, fishery depletion is one of the primary reasons scientists think jellyfish blooms might be happening. Some fish eat jellyfish. Other fish compete with jellyfish for the same resources. Since one study estimated that stocks of large predatory fish are at 10 per cent of pre-industrial levels, it’s safe to assume that both jellyfish predators and competitors have dwindled.

Mori brought up another point. In the small port where he docks his boat, a beach had been paved over. Previously, Aurelia would strand themselves on the beach, dehydrate in the sun and die. Now, there was nowhere to do that.

Scientists don’t think a decline in beaches is one of the ways humans have helped jellyfish. But increased marine substrate is: as more docks, bridges and other built environments are added to the sea, there is a far vaster habitat for polyps.

From Hakata Bay, the Toyoshio-maru churned across the choppy ocean and into the Ariake Sea, a shallow interior sea further to the south and a Rhopilema hot spot. There, we met another wizened fisherman: Katsueda Aramaki, also 75.

Aramaki said that Rhopilema, the edible jellyfish, moved through clear cycles since he began fishing at age 20. In the late ’70s, there was two-year spike. Then the population declined, before starting to climb again 10 years ago. (Aramaki told us this as we snacked on Rhopilema he had processed in his shed, which his wife served with soy sauce, wasabi, grated ginger and mayonnaise. Jellyfish is crunchy, like cartilage, and not unpleasant tasting.

But on top of the natural oscillation there seemed to be a general increase, Aramaki said. The sea had changed: he began his career diving for razor clams and other bivalves. Now, he said, the only way to make money is jellyfish.

“The bivalve stock enormously declined. The fish catch, the shrimp catch, the crab catch decreased also. Only the jellyfish is increasing,” Uye translated.

Aramaki blamed the change on the Ariake Sea’s seaweed aquaculturists, saying they had pumped the water full of harmful nutrients. Again, scientists think that fertilizer and other nutrient runoff, which eventually strips a water body of oxygen, affects jellyfish less than other mammals. In the Gulf of Mexico, fertilizer runoff has created a widening “dead zone,” where jellyfish are common and fish have suffered. Diana Nyad, the 63-year-old who just completed the first unaided swim from Cuba to Florida, called off previous attempts because she was overwhelmed by jellyfish stings.

Sakumoto, the fisherman we visited on Tsushima, hit on the last important theory behind why jellyfish might be increasing: global warming. The Yellow Sea, where Nomura are thought to spawn, has warmed by 1.7 degrees Celsius since 1976. In experiments in Uye’s lab, Nomura asexual reproduction rose 20 per cent with similar temperature increases. Only seven species of jellyfish do not increase in abundance in response to warmer waters, according to one study.

Sakumoto had been the hardest-hit of any fishermen we spoke to. Tsushima is a ragged-shored island halfway between Japan and Korea and directly in the path of the Nomura that migrate north through the Sea of Japan over the course of the summer and fall. Sakumoto is a set-net fisherman: every morning he brings his boat to a permanent net to empty the catch. In 2009, the worst Nomura bloom year, he arrived to find his expensive set net gone. The weight of the jellyfish had destroyed it.

Yet Sakumoto also had the sunniest response of all the fishermen we met. He expressed hope for the future of the oceans. “We fishermen always anticipate a good catch, not a bad catch,” he said. “We tend to be optimistic.”

If jellyfish numbers are increasing as a result of a natural, temporary cycle — if jellyfish booms are like El Niño — Sakumoto’s optimism will be borne out, and the most cautious of the researchers will be vindicated, perhaps saving us from throwing money, effort and time after misleading science.

If jellyfish numbers are increasing globally and permanently as a result of human activities, the future could be scary indeed. Very much like global warming, by the time the data is irrefutable, the ocean may be too degraded to fix.

Just before Uye disembarked from the Toyoshio-maru, I asked him if he shared Sakumoto’s optimism. He told me no, with a sad smile.

But later, he sent me the email: he was ashamed of his pessimistic response and wanted to change it. He sent me the note about jellyfish’s message to humans.

“I admit that it is hard to change the current human behaviour to seek economic development (or money), which is the core factor to deteriorate the healthy . . . marine ecosystems to induce the growth of jellyfish populations.”

But, he continued, “The jellyfish act a messenger to us. I would be optimistic that we human beings are wise enough to listen to their voiceless voice.”


Consortium for Ocean Leadership