08 April 2011


(Phytoplankton bloom in the Gulf of California. Via Visible Earth. Credit: Jacques Descloitres, MODIS Rapid Response Team, NASA/GSF.)

I'm headed offshore—and off the grid—into the Gulf of California, aka the Sea of Cortez, through late April, helping out with some field research and working on a new Mother Jones piece.

Please browse the archives until I return with new images and stories. 

And please email me links to any interesting ocean news/developments, so I can catch up when I get back: julia.whitty@gmail.com.

Here's where I'll be after meandering a while by boat. Some of you recognize the landmarks and seamarks for tiny Isla Rasa.


Seahorse Nebula. Via APOD. Credit: NASA, ESA, and M. Livio (STScI).

Lagoon Nebula. Via APOD. Credit & Copyright: Russell Croman.

Breaking waves in the Lagoon Nebula. Via the Hubbard Space Telescope. Credit: NASA, ESA.

Seagull Nebula. Via WISE (Wide-Field Infrared Survey Explorer). Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA.

Crab Nebula. Via the Hubbard Space Telescope. Credit: NASA and The Hubble Heritage Team.

Prawn Nebula. Via APOD. Credit & Copyright: Martin Pugh.

Jellyfish Nebula. Via APOD. Credit & Copyright: Bob Franke.

Phytoplankton bloom in the North Atlantic. Via the Earth Observatory. Credit: NASA, Jeff Schmaltz, MODIS Rapid Response Team.

05 April 2011


(Credit NASA Earth Observatory.)

It's spring in Japan's ocean waters, the time of highest primary productivity, when lengthening days reawaken the hibernating marine foodweb.

The satellite image above is from the area about 160 kilometers/100 miles north of the Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant. It was shot on 21 May 2009 and shows where Japan's two mighty ocean currents—the Kuroshio and the Oyashio—collide.

The convergence zone is awesomely rich. The Oyashio flows down form the Arctic, the Kuroshio up from the subtropics. Where they meet you get all kinds of fascinating expressions of fluid dynamics—highlighted in the image above by eddies colored aquamarine by the presence of intensely blooming phytoplankton.

(Japan's ocean currents: 1. Kuroshio, 7. Oyashio. Credit: Tosaka, via Wikimedia Commons.)

Fluid dynamics drive biological dynamics too, and the phytoplankton are busting their tiny chlorophyll guts, so to speak, feasting in the collision zone—where nutrients are getting churned up from the seafloor to deliver nature's own signature blend of Miracle-Gro.

According to the engineering specs for Earth, without phytoplankton making life from nonlife, there would be little life in the ocean, perhaps none in Japan or just about anywhere else.

But this year the phytoplankton that feed everything else in the sea, one or four trophic levels removed, are likely to be sporting a couple of far-out new ingredients: iodine-131 and cesium-137.

(The coccolithophore Gephyrocapsa oceanica, a type of phytoplankton. Credit: ja:User:NEON / commons:User:NEON_ja, via Wikimedia Commons.)

So what might hefty doses of ionizing radiation mean for phytoplankton, Japanese waters, and the world ocean?

Well, the French group SIROCCO is using its 3D SIROCCO ocean circulation model to investigate the seawater dispersion of Fukushima's radionuclides. You can read about their modeling system here. Basically, they're looking at:

  • Bathymetry (undersea topography) around Japan
  • Large-scale forcing (e.g., daily sea surface heights, temperatures, salinities, and currents)
  • Tides (for this, they've developed a specific regional tidal model)
  • Atmospheric forcing (e.g., the radioactive fallout from air to sea via winds and rain)

(A single frame from an animation suggesting possible pathways for radionuclides in Japanese water. Full animation here. Credit: SIROCCO.)

The SIROCCO group stress their disclaimers and I will too: These models are based on mathematical equations too simple to capture the dynamism and complexity of the physical and biological systems at play in the real world.

Still, the models are a great starting point and are sure to get better fast.

So far they suggest that the radionuclides falling from air to sea have spread ~600 kilometers/372 north-south miles along the shore, and ~150 kilometers/93 miles offshore. Dilution goes hand-in-hand with dispersion, though, and these air-to-sea-deposited radionuclides are 20 to 100 times less concentrated in ocean water the farther you move from the Fukushima plant.

However the radionuclides being released directly into the ocean—from TEPCO's purposeful release of 10,000 tons of water, and from as-yet unknown leaking pathways—are acting differently.

(A single frame from an animation showing ocean currents off Japan. Full animation here. Credit: SIROCCO.)

The model suggests these ocean-released radionuclides are being naturally sequestered within 50 kilometers/31 miles of the plant. But they're also more intense—1000 times more so around Fukushima than in the air-to-sea deposits further out.

The good news is that the powerhouse of the Kuroshio Current—a humongous western boundary current like the Gulf Stream—appears to be forming a kind of firewall keeping the contamination away from Tokyo's coast and funneling it east.

You can see that dynamic in the image above. Again, animations here.

(A single frame from an animation suggesting possible vertical dispersion  for radionuclides in Japanese waters. Full animation here. Credit: SIROCCO.)

The SIROCCO model is also forecasting  vertical dispersal in the ocean—an important consideration since at least some radionuclides will get incorporated into seafloor sediments and from there remobilized by living things that chomp on the seafloor. See my earlier post with a graphic showing how this works.

The image above forecasts possible vertical dispersion in the waters closest to the Fukushima plant for those radionuclides released directly into the sea. Animation here.

(Diatoms, types of phytoplankton, as seen through the microscope. Credit: Prof. Gordon T. Taylor, Stony Brook University, via Wikimedia Commons.)

Whatever pathways the Fukushima poisons take, they will certainly alter the springtime blossoming of Japan's ocean, starting with the phytoplankton and working up the foodweb.

As for the effects on the rest of the world ocean, it's a matter of how much, how far, and for how long Fukushima's newborn radionuclides go sailing.

03 April 2011


[A fragment]
by Kenneth Slessor

Flowers turned to stone! Not all the botany   
Of Joseph Banks, hung pensive in a porthole,   
Could find the Latin for this loveliness,   
Could put the Barrier Reef in a glass box   
Tagged by the horrid Gorgon squint
Of horticulture. Stone turned to flowers   
It seemed—you’d snap a crystal twig,   
One petal even of the water-garden,
And have it dying like a cherry-bough.
They’d sailed all day outside a coral hedge,   
And half the night. Cook sailed at night,   
Let there be reefs a fathom from the keel   
And empty charts. The sailors didn’t ask,
Nor Joseph Banks. Who cared? It was the spell   
Of Cook that lulled them, bade them turn below,   
Kick off their sea-boots, puff themselves to sleep,   
Though there were more shoals outside
Than teeth in a shark’s head. Cook snored loudest himself.

(You can read this amazing poem in its entirety at the Poetry Foundation website.)

The illustration of a coral above is by Eugenius Johann Christoph Esper from his c.1798 book Die Pflanzenthiere in Abbildungen nach der Natur mit Farben erleuchtet nebst Beschreibunge.

That translates roughly to: "Images from nature of animal-plants, illuminated with color and descriptions." For more scans of Esper's work, see the digital gallery of Germany's Humboldt University.

HMS Endeavour. 1768. Thomas Luny.

Joseph Banks was the botanist/naturalist who sailed aboard HMS Endeavour on James Cook's first voyage voyage of exploration between 1768 and 1771. 

Among their many shared adventures was a near-sinking after weeks of entrapment (occasionally escaping, only to get sucked back in by winds or currents) in the maze of Australia's Great Barrier Reef. 

Eventually Endeavour was holed on a reef and Cook's men were forced to lay her ashore for seven weeks of repairs. Cook wrote with unusual feeling about his adventures in the coral shallows:

It is but a few days ago that I rejoiced at having got without the Reef, but that joy was nothing when Compared to what I now felt at being safe at Anchor within it, such is the Visissitudes attending this kind of Service & must always attend an unknown Navigation where one steers wholy in the dark without any manner of Guide whatever.

(Les Gibson. Photo by Julia Whitty.)
The site of Endeavour's repairs is today known as Cooktown—home then and now to the Guugu Yimithirr people, who taught Cook's men the word ganguru (kangaroo) and who kept them alive with gifts of food and natural history lessons in an unfamiliar landscape/seascape.

I wrote at some length about the Guugu Yimithirr and Cook's legacy in my Mother Jones article Listen to the Lionfish: What Invasive Species Are Trying to Tell Us

In the photo above, Les Gibson, a Guugu Yimithirr, is showing me how to "hunt" (fish) near the place where Endeavour limped ashore 232 years earlier.


James Cook. c. 1775. Nathaniel Dance.

After his sojourn with the Guugu Yimithirr, after enjoying the bounty of their vibrant world, Cook concluded:

In reality they are far more happier than we Europeans; being wholy unacquainted not only with the superfluous but the necessary conveniencies so much sought after in Europe.

01 April 2011


(Photo via Think Geek.)

From Think Geek, the exciting news today that the sea monkeys living in Mono Lake, California, are eating the arsenic-fueled bacteria recently discovered by NASA scientists.

Better yet, you can now grow these dream pets from Instant Live Eggs in your very own own Sea Monkey® habitat. And you can WATCH THEM NOSH ARSENIC—The King of Poisons!—in your spare time.

Because of this cryptobiosis and the fact that Sea Monkeys breed at an alarming rate, we have tons of eggs which we can now offer to all of you. That's right, you can get your very own Arsenic-Based Sea Monkeys today!

Straight from Mono Lake (just like GFAJ-1), these Arsenic-Based Sea Monkeys are 100% pure science and 100% fun, which means 200% awesome for you!

The paper: