27 January 2011


Above, a timelapse of sea ice forming off Estonia.

Ice Breaking aboard the Akademik Shokalskiy from Finn O'Hara on Vimeo.

Above, icebreaking off Greenland, with a jaunty soundtrack and fogbows.

All photos courtesy NASA:
  1. Sea ice under the combined influences of wind and ocean currents forms a frosty filigree along Kamchatka's volcano-dominated coastline, Russia.
  2. Icebergs along Princess Ragnhild Coast, Antarctica.
  3. Icebergs calving from East Antarctica's Matusevich Glacier.
  4. Barnes Ice Cap, Baffin Island, Canada. 
  5. Parry Channel, Canada. 
  6. Neumayer Glacier, South Georgia Island.
  7. Greenland coast.
  8. Yukon River Delta, Alaska.
  9. Guano-stained ice, the mark of emperor penguin colonies, visible below the bergs frozen into the ice in the center of this image of Antarctica’s Luitpold Coast.

    25 January 2011


    An interesting analysis in Environmental Research Letters of the accuracy of media reporting of climate-related sea level rise.

    The premise: That the mass media associates sea level rise with climate change and reports on it frequently, yet the scientific community remains dubious of the media's accuracy.

    So how good or bad is the situation really? The authors examined the accuracy of reporting between 1989 and 2009 by seven prominent US and UK newspapers:
    • New York Times
    • Washington Post
    • Los Angeles Times
    • Financial Times
    • The Times (London)
    • The Guardian
    • The Telegraph

    (Credit: NASA)

    Their findings—a surprise to me and I suspect to the authors too—that journalists have done an excellent job portraying scientific research on sea level rise projections to 2100.

    So why the unease? 

    Well it turns out that while coverage of the issue of sea level rise has risen in the past 20 years, it's done so in fits and starts pegged to major news cycles—the release of an IPCC report, the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, the 2009 COP-15.

    (Credit: Environmental Research Letters DOI:10.1088/1748-9326/6/1/014004)

    There's been little to no coverage of direct research, the completion of specific projections, or the publication of incremental but important papers. For those milestones, the mass media is largely silent.

    Obviously this speaks to the different tool sets of media and science—media being the microphone, science the microscope. If we can ever get them working together, we'll get real traction against the flood.

    (Credit: Wikimedia Commons.)

    The authors conclude:

    Mass media presentations of climate change remain key influences that bound discourses and shape the spectrum of possibility for climate mitigation and adaptation actions. Amid much recent criticism of climate science and the media on the high-stakes, high profile and highly politicized issue, accurate reporting on projections for sea level rise by 2100 demonstrates a bright spot at the interface of climate science and mass media. These findings can contribute to more measured considerations of climate impacts and policy action in the public sphere.

    The paper:

    Rick, U., Boykoff, M., & Pielke Jr, R. (2011). Effective media reporting of sea level rise projections: 1989–2009 Environmental Research Letters, 6 (1) DOI: 10.1088/1748-9326/6/1/014004

    I ♥ open access.

    23 January 2011


    (Destiny. 1900. John William Waterhouse.)

    I tell you that I see her still
    At the dark entrance of the hall.
    One gas lamp burning near her shoulder   
    Shone also from her other side   
    Where hung the long inaccurate glass   
    Whose pictures were as troubled water.   
    An immense shadow had its hand   
    Between us on the floor, and seemed   
    To hump the knuckles nervously,   
    A giant crab readying to walk,   
    Or a blanket moving in its sleep.

    You will remember, with a smile   
    Instructed by movies to reminisce,   
    How strict her corsets must have been,   
    How the huge arrangements of her hair   
    Would certainly betray the least   
    Impassionate displacement there.   
    It was no rig for dallying,
    And maybe only marriage could   
    Derange that queenly scaffolding—
    As when a great ship, coming home,   
    Coasts in the harbor, dropping sail
    And loosing all the tackle that had laced
    Her in the long lanes ....
                                           I know
    We need not draw this figure out.
    But all that whalebone came from whales.   
    And all the whales lived in the sea,   
    In calm beneath the troubled glass,   
    Until the needle drew their blood.

    I see her standing in the hall,
    Where the mirror’s lashed to blood and foam,   
    And the black flukes of agony
    Beat at the air till the light blows out.

    20 January 2011


    Credits/links for images above, from top to bottom:

    1) Image: Argonne National Laboratory at Flickr 
    2) Image: Kenneth M. Bart (many more of his gorgeous microscopy images)
    3) Image: via 
    4) Image: via
    5) Image: Stinging Eyes at Flickr 
    6) Image: via  
    7) Image: via
    8) Image: via 
    9) Image: via  
    10) Image: Piotr Rotkiewicz (more of his outrageous beauties)
    11) Image: via

    Image: via.
    Diatom /ˈdaɪətɑːm/ 

    From Greek diatomos = cut in two. Named because they typically appear to be cut in half.
    Diatoms are microscopic algae composed of separate halves, with delicate siliceous cell walls. They're usually single-celled organisms, though some live colonially. They inhabit fresh and salt waters and are among the most abundant of all phytoplankton.

    Below are a few examples of diatom art—practiced since Victorian times—of arranging diatoms pleasingly. Thanks, freaky Victorians! Thanks, microscopes!

    Credits/links for images above, from top to bottom

    i) Image: Klaus D. Kemp
    ii) Image: via
    iii) Image: Wipeter, courtesy Wikipedia Commons
    iv) Image: via
    v) Image: Montana Diatoms

    18 January 2011


    (Photo from here.)

    A 13-year-old western Pacific gray whale (Eschrichtius robustus) is shining some light on the travels of his kind.

    Flex—as he's called by researchers—was tagged on 4 October on his summer feeding grounds in the Okhotsk Sea off Sakhalin Island, Russia. 

    (Sakhalin Island. Image courtesy NASA's Earth Observatory.)

    Western Pacific gray whales are among the most endangered whales on Earth, with a population of only 113 to 130 individuals. In contrast, the gray whales who migrate along the western coast of North America—known as the eastern Pacific gray whales—comprise a population estimated at between 15,000 and 22,000 individuals.

    The good news is that as recently as 1972 Flex and the western grays were believed extinct. 

    Still, the margins are thin. The IUCN Red List categorizes the western grays as critically endangered—the last stage before extinction: 

    [B]ased on an extinction probability exceeding 50% within three generations, or a projected continuing decline of the subpopulation in combination with a mature population size less than 250. In addition, the small absolute subpopulation size, and the estimate of at most 35 reproductive females means that the subpopulation would easily qualify as Endangered.

    (Gray whale. Photo by Jim Borrowman, Straitwatch, courtesy NOAA.) 

    Until now, no one has known where Flex and his kin go after leaving the Okhotsk Sea. At this time of year the eastern grays have migrated south to the breeding lagoons along Mexico's Baja Peninsula.

    But the western whales—or at least Flex—show no signs of heading for warmer water.

    (Image courtesy the Marine Mammal Institute at Oregon State University.*)

    You can see in the inset map Flex's journey for the first 101 days after tagging. In the last two weeks he's swum halfway across the Bering Sea.

    As of 13 January 2011, Flex's transmitter had  sent 1,427 messages along a journey of 4,840 kilometers/3,007 miles. That's 47 kilometers /28 miles a day. But the story is actually way more interesting than that. From the Marine Mammal Institute site: 

    "Flex" departed the Kamchatka coast on 3 January and took one week to cross most of the Bering Sea before arriving at the slope edge of the eastern Bering Sea shelf on 9 January. Since 3 January, he has covered 1,689 kilometers/1.049 miles in 238 hours for an average of 7.09 kilometers/4.4 miles an hour. Since attaining the slope edge, he has trended to the south, toward the Pribilof islands. During the last several days we have obtained individual transmissions during several orbits, so we know the tag is still attached and functioning, but not enough transmissions to obtain reliable locations. Some of this may be due to regional bad weather.

    (Photo courtesy NOAA.)

    But based on the disturbing Nature paper this week revealing the unacceptably high cost of tagging penguins—both in terms of mortality for penguins and skewed data for researchers—the question arises: Is there any harm to a whale weighing many tons from a tracking device the size of a small cigar? Might this tiny tag be skewing Flex's behavior in any way? From the abstract of the king penguin study:

    Over the course of a 10-year longitudinal study, banded birds produced 39% fewer chicks and had a survival rate 16% lower than non-banded birds, demonstrating a massive long-term impact of banding and thus refuting the assumption that birds will ultimately adapt to being banded. Indeed, banded birds still arrived later for breeding at the study site and had longer foraging trips even after 10years. One of our major findings is that responses of flipper-banded penguins to climate variability (that is, changes in sea surface temperature and in the Southern Oscillation index) differ from those of non-banded birds. We show that only long-term investigations may allow an evaluation of the impact of flipper bands and that every major life-history trait can be affected, calling into question the banding schemes still going on. In addition, our understanding of the effects of climate change on marine ecosystems based on flipper-band data should be reconsidered.

    (Photo by SeanMack, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.) 

    UPDATE: Bruce Mate, Director of the Marine Mammal Institute, fills me in on the gray whale tagging program:

    The tagging of western gray whales was preceded by an efficacy study on the much more common eastern gray whales in 2005 and 2009. The latter was on the "resident" summer gray whales feeding here in the Pacific NW, with lots of follow-up photographs to look at "wound healing". These photos have been reviewed by a group of three marine mammal specialist veterinarians, who felt there were no major impacts and that what they saw caused them "no concern, These results were reviewed by whale specialists at the IWC and IUCN, who approved the results before we tagged western gray whales.

    Meanwhile, stressors on western gray whales are growing. The Anchorage Daily News reports that in the past four years five females have died entangled in fishing gear.

    And just yesterday the World Wildlife Fund announce that Sakhalin Energy Investment Company—partly owned by Shell—has announced plans to build a major oil platform near crucial feeding habitat of the western grays in waters  already besieged by multiple oil and gas exploration and development projects. The company will conduct a controversial seismic survey this summer. WWF states their concerns:

    "We still do not know how badly the whales were affected by major seismic activity last summer—and will not know until the whales return to their feeding grounds again this year and scientists can determine if any are malnourished. It is totally inappropriate for Sakhalin Energy to plan another seismic survey in 2011 before we have the opportunity to examine the health of the animals," said Doug Norlen, Policy Director at Pacific Environment. 

    (Photo from here.)

    Other concerns regarding another offshore platform:
    • Potentially disrupting the whales' feeding behaviours 
    • Increasing the chance of fatal ship strikes
    • Increasing the risk of an environmentally catastrophic oil spill on the whales' feeding grounds
    You can follow Flex's travels here. The site is updated weekly.

    The paper:

    Saraux, C., Le Bohec, C., Durant, J., Viblanc, V., Gauthier-Clerc, M., Beaune, D., Park, Y., Yoccoz, N., Stenseth, N., & Le Maho, Y. (2011). Reliability of flipper-banded penguins as indicators of climate change Nature, 469 (7329), 203-206 DOI: 10.1038/nature09630

    *This research was conducted by A.N. Severtsov Institute of Ecology and Evolution of the Russian Academy of Sciences (IEE RAS) and Oregon State University Marine Mammal Institute; in collaboration with the University of Washington, Sakhalin Research Institute of Fisheries and Oceanography, and Kronotsky State Nature Biosphere Reserve. The research was contracted through the International Whaling Commission (IWC) and International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) with funding from Exxon Neftegas Ltd. and Sakhalin Energy Investment Company Ltd.

    14 January 2011


    Inspired by a new science paper, I attempt to distill its haiku.
    Thermometers rise—
    plowing crooked furrows straight
    societies fall

    Based on the paper, "2500 Years of European Climate Variability and Human Susceptibility" in Science. The abstract:

    Climate variations have influenced the agricultural productivity, health risk, and conflict level of preindustrial societies. Discrimination between environmental and anthropogenic impacts on past civilizations, however, remains difficult because of the paucity of high-resolution palaeoclimatic evidence. Here, we present tree ring–based reconstructions of Central European summer precipitation and temperature variability over the past 2500 years. Recent warming is unprecedented, but modern hydroclimatic variations may have at times been exceeded in magnitude and duration. Wet and warm summers occurred during periods of Roman and medieval prosperity. Increased climate variability from ~AD 250 to 600 coincided with the demise of the Western Roman Empire and the turmoil of the Migration Period. Historical circumstances may challenge recent political and fiscal reluctance to mitigate projected climate change.

    The painting is Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, 1558, by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. You can just make out the crashed Icarus in the water near the boat. No one seems to notice.

    The paper:
        Buntgen, U., Tegel, W., Nicolussi, K., McCormick, M., Frank, D., Trouet, V., Kaplan, J., Herzig, F., Heussner, K., Wanner, H., Luterbacher, J., & Esper, J. (2011). 2500 Years of European Climate Variability and Human Susceptibility Science DOI: 10.1126/science.1197175

          13 January 2011


          (Lemon damselfish. Photo by David C. Cook, courtesy FishBase.)

          In PLoS ONE, a wonderfully intimate study of just how it is baby fish learn to tell friend from foe. 

          Most coral reef fishes spend their larval lives afloat in the deep blue home far from the reef. At the end of their larval stages, they recruit—that is, settle—onto the reef, where the cast of characters is significantly different from those they knew floating around in the open. 

          (Lemon damsels hanging out near an Acropora coral, a good place to dive into and hide from predators. Photo from here.)

          So how do these little guys learn to avoid the new predators fast? A team of researchers from Australia, the US, and Canada, conducted revealing experiments on lemon damselfish, Pomacentrus moluccensis:

          Here we tested the ability of a juvenile marine fish to simultaneously learn the identity of multiple previously unknown predators. Individuals were conditioned with a 'cocktail' of novel odours (from two predators and two non-predators) paired with either a conspecific [from its own kind] alarm cue or a [meaningless] saltwater control and then tested for recognition of the four odours individually and two novel odours (one predator and one non-predator) the following day.

          (Photos top and bottom by John E. Randall, courtesy FishBase. Center photo by Richard Field, courtesy FishBase.)

          The three damselfish predators whose scent was used in the research were, from top to bottom:

          1. Pseudochromis fuscus, brown dottyback
          2. Synodus dermatogenys, clearfin lizardfish
          3. Coris batuensis, batu coris

          The experiments revealed that the fish conditioned with the cocktail odors plus an alarm cue made by their own species responded to the scent of a predator by reducing their foraging rate—an indicator of increasing vigilance.* Those fish conditioned to the saltwater controls didn't.

          These results demonstrate that individuals acquire recognition of novel odours and that the responses were not due to innate recognition of predators or due to a generalised response to novel odours.

          (Lemon damselfish hiding in coral. Photo by Boogies with Fish at Flickr.

          On the real reef, obviously, some baby fish won't learn fast enough and will get eaten. Others will learn false associations.

          Studies on associative learning have demonstrated that any unknown stimulus can be recognised as a predation risk through associative learning. In natural environments, fishes are constantly exposed to multiple chemical odours. This study highlights the potential for ecologically irrelevant odours to be learned by association when present during a predation event. Responding to irrelevant cues will negatively impact an individual's fitness.

          The lucky ones will live long enough to unlearn the false associations.

          It may pay at first to be overly cautious and learn all odours associated with an alarm cue as a predation risk when entering a new environment and then slowly learn which of those actually do not represent a threat.

          (Photo from here.)

          Sounds like growing up.

          The paper:

          ♥ Mitchell MD, McCormick MI, Ferrari MCO, Chivers DP. Coral Reef Fish Rapidly Learn to Identify Multiple Unknown Predators upon Recruitment to the Reef. PLoS ONE. 2011. DOI:10.1371/journal.pone.0015764

          (I ♥ open-access papers.)

          *CORRECTION:Thanks to lead author Mat Mitchell who corrected me here in writing that the fish did not jump into their terracotta pots but instead reduced their foraging time in response to the alarm cues and novel odors.