27 October 2011


Click for larger view. Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute.

This view of Saturn eclipsing the sun is a composite assembled from 165 images taken by the Cassini spacecraft while 2.2 million kilometers/1.3 million miles from Saturn on 15 September 2006. The mosaics were captured over the space of about 12 hours as the spacecraft drifted in the darkness of Saturn's shadow.

Seen far in the distance, at the 10-o'clock position just outside the bright rings, is a tiny pale blue dot—Earth.

For a whole lot more on how this image was created and what its details reveal, check out the JPL Cassini page. Click here for a bigger version.

25 October 2011


Portions of houses and an overturned boat afloat in the Pacific after the 11 Mar 2011 earthquake and tsunami off Japan. Credit: US Navy/ Specialist 3rd Class Alexander Tidd.

The International Pacific Research Center (IPRC) in Hawaii reports that somewhere between 5 and 20 million tons of tsunami debris from the March earthquake and tsunami in Japan is migrating quickly across the Pacific Ocean.

Crew from the Russian tall ship STS Pallada spotted furniture, appliances, and a fishing boat with the home port 'Fukushima' painted on it after passing the Midway islands—part of the Hawaiian Islands Archipelago—last month. That's 2,000 miles from the epicenter of the quake. 

This is the first confirmed sighting since shortly after the disaster, when the massive floating remnants of coastal Japanese towns—more than 200,000 buildings—simply disappeared from view.

The image above shows the likely path of tsunami debris as of 25 Oct 2011.

The IPRC research suggests this path based on 678,305 tracers released from the northeast coast of Japan beginning 11 March 2011—the same day as the quake. 

You can watch an animation of the full dispersal here. The fluid dynamics are beautiful.


This video shows the IPRC prediction of the long-term—5-year-plus—travels of the tsunami debris. The original animation for the statistical model is here.

As you can see from the video, the debris, after bouncing off the west coast of North America, is likely to get trapped in the North Pacific Gyre—along with all the other garbage collecting there. The plastics will last close to forever. 

As an interesting aside, monstrously huge rafts of tsunami debris may well be one of the mechanisms by which life originally dispersed to the Hawaiian Islands. 

Pallus' rosefinch, Carpodacus roseus, native to China, Japan, the Korean Peninsula, Kazakhstan, Mongolia, and Russia. Credit: M. Nishimura via Wikimedia Commons.

A new analysis of the genome of Hawaiian honeycreepers reveals they're not descended, as thought, from the honeycreepers of the Americas, but are instead a sister taxon to the Eurasian rosefinches of the genus Carpodacus.

Based on a genetic analysis, the precursors of Hawaiian honeycreepers probably arrived on Kauai and Niihau about 5.7 million years ago and continued to diverge into different species after Oahu emerged from the sea.

ʻIʻiwi, or scarlet Hawaiian honeycreeper, Vestiaria coccinea. Credit: Paul Banko, NPS.
It's possible that huge floating mats of tsunami debris—perhaps from Japan—brought the ancestors of Hawaii's present-day honeycreepers to the islands.

Those of you who've spent time at sea know how land birds get blown off course and will rest on any platform on the water—ship, boat, raft, the backs of sleeping whales—as they fight to stay alive.

Maybe the current tsunami debris will transport some newcomers to the Hawaiian Islands.

Townsend's warbler rests on a boat. Credit: Andrew Revkin via Flickr.

If so, would we recognize them as naturally-delivered refugees? 

Or would we try to exterminate them as human-introduced aliens?

The papers:

  • Nikolai Maximenko and Jan Hafner. Marine Debris. pdf.
  • Heather R.L. Lerner, Matthias Meyer, Helen F. James, Michael Hofreiter, and Robert C. Fleischer. Multilocus Resolution of Phylogeny and Timescale in the Extant Adaptive Radiation of Hawaiian Honeycreepers. DOI:10.1016/j.cub.2011.09.039.

20 October 2011


Stranded spinner dolphin. Credit: qnr via Flickr.
The latest NOAA report on unusual strandings of whales and dolphins in the northern Gulf of Mexico finds they're still dying at twice the normal rate 18 months after BP's Deepwater Horizon disaster.

Map of strandings in relation to Deepwater Horizon well. Click for larger version. Credit: NOAA.

As you can see in the map above, the most heavily oiled shoreline still corresponds with the most dead whales and dolphins.

Bottlenose dolphins are shown as circles and other species as squares. Premature, stillborn, or neonatal bottlenose dolphins (with actual or estimated lengths of less than 115 cm/45 inches) are shown as a circle with a black dot inside. 

Pink points mark the most recent week of data. Green points mark are all other cases since 1 January 2011.
All stranded cetaceans (dolphins and whales) from Franklin County, FL to the Texas/ Louisiana border. Credit: NOAA.

Here you can see how the numbers of strandings have not yet stabilized or even begun to decline. In some cases they're still growing. 

The magenta-colored bars mark strandings per month in the year 2010. The ivory-colored bars mark strandings per month so far this year.

Credit: NOAA.

This graph shows stranded premature, stillborn, or neonatal bottlenose dolphins.

In my Mother Jones article The BP Cover-Up last year, I wrote about the kind of long-term problems the Gulf might face not just from oil but from extreme quantities of oil in very deep water, as well as from chemical dispersant, including dispersant injected into very deep water.

Sadly, it seems that cetaceans—past, present, and future—may be bearing some of those burdens.

Beached sperm whale. Credit: Rachel Denny Clow, Corpus Christi Caller-Times/AP.

You might be interested in these other posts describing other scientific findings in the wake of last year's Gulf catastrophe:


I suppose we'll tire of motion-controlled time-lapse videos one of these days. But not yet. 

19 October 2011


Northern gannet. Credit: Alan D. Wilson via Wikimedia Commons.

A new paper in early view in Biology Letters—a journal of the Royal Society—finds that Canadian migrant seabirds suffered disproportionately the lethal effects of BP's oil catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico last year.

Northern gannets (Morus bassanus) suffered the highest oiling among beach-wrecked birds recovered last year.

These are the largest seabirds in the Atlantic, who migrate from their Canadian breeding colonies to overwinter in the Gulf of Mexico. Adults return to the breeding colonies by about March—earlier than immature birds.

Winter positions of northern gannets from 4 of 6 North American colonies, where adults and chicks were banded and adults and juveniles tracked. Mean winter (Jan–Feb) positions from adults carrying GLS (2004–2010) and final positions from 18 juveniles with PTTs (2008–2010). Deepwater Horizon site (star) and associated slicks (grey) indicated. Credit: William Montevecchi, et al. Biology Letters. DOI:

Due to these migration timetables, most of the northern gannets killed in the Gulf last year were likely immature birds.

Which means the real impact of their deaths will not show up until those birds would have reached sexual maturity—at about 5 or 6 years old—or betwen now and far beyond. Gannets can live at least 21 years.

From the paper:

Most adult gannets had returned to Canadian colonies by 20 April 2010, although more than 50,000 immature gannets were in the Gulf at the time and suffered oil-related mortality. Hence, two probable outcomes are (i) a lagged (likely difficult to detect) population decrease or (ii) mortality will be buffered by age-related life-history processes.  

A bonded pair of northern gannets. Credit: Al Wilson via Wikimedia Commons.

The authors found the story grew even more ominous when they compared numbers on how many gannets were overwintering in the Gulf of Mexico—numbers that differed hugely depending on the technology used:

  • Old-fashioned technology: recovery of banded birds
  • Modern technology: bird-borne global location sensors (GLS) and satellite tags (Platform Terminal Transmitters, PTTs)

The newer technologies revealed more than twice as many gannets overwintering in the Gulf. From the paper:

Extrapolation from band recoveries indicates that 13,318 adult gannets winter in the Gulf of Mexico, much less than the 66,124 estimate based on GLS data... PTT positions suggest an estimated population of 52,509 immature gannets in the Gulf compared with 41,587 extrapolated from banding recoveries. Extrapolating tracking data for all gannet age classes more than doubles the estimated number of birds using the Gulf, from 54,905 to 118,633 birds. 

Oiled gannet washed ashore on Cape Cod. Credit: Dennis Minsky at SeaNet.

Add to that the fact that dead or oiled birds found ashore represent only a fraction of the birds dead or dying at sea. From the paper:

Seabirds are among the most obvious and immediate indicators of wildlife and environmental damage during marine pollution events. In these circumstances, seabird mortality has been assessed by counting dead and dying animals along coasts. These assessments are biased towards animals that die near accessible well-populated coastlines, and as offshore winds and currents can reduce coastal-deposition of carcasses that sink after a few days, mortality is inevitably underestimated.

The authors note that gannets may be shifting their winter range to the Gulf in response to overfishing of menhaden—their primary winter prey—in Atlantic waters.

Northern gannet in flight. Credit: Andreas Trepte via Wikimedia Commons.

And the authors noted possible signs of oil fouling on birds returning to their Canadian breeding colonies:

In April 2011, at their southernmost colony, Cape St. Mary's Newfoundland, gannets on inaccessible cliff-sites were observed and photographed with dark soiled plumage that looked like oil, but this could not be verified by chemical analysis. Tracking, survival and physiological measurements at gannet colonies during 2011 are evaluating other potential repercussions and informing management about conservation concerns.

The paper:

  • William Montevecchi, David Fifield, Chantelle Burke, Stefan Garthe, April Hedd, Jean-François Rail, Gregory Robertson. Tracking long-distance migration to assess marine pollution impact. Biology Letters. 2011. DOI


Example of a penguin sweater knit by New Zealanders to keep sick, oiled penguins warm. Via the Bay of Plenty Times.

From the Bay of Plenty Times comes the news that knitters in New Zealand are making sweaters for little blue penguins (aka fairy penguins) oiled in the wreck of the cargo ship Rena

Nearly 1,300 birds are known dead from the spill already, most penguins. From the Bay of Plenty Times:

A Napier factory has sent a care package off to Tauranga—full of tiny woolly penguin pajamas. The PJ package came about after Napier's Design Spun general manager Brendan Jackson was contacted last week by a local woman whose daughter had been involved in the oil response unit. The recovery crews were coming across oil-smeared penguins who, trying to preen their feathers clean, became more ill.
The Massey University Wildlife Recovery team she was part of had cast their minds back to a similar spill in Tasmania some years ago, where locals knitted pure wool jumpers to be put on the little blue penguins during the recovery phase to prevent them getting at their feathers before they could be washed clean.
It worked, so the word went out to Design Spun, which has a "yarn club'' of devoted knitters. Within a week the four to five dozen bright little jumpers were all knitted and the last of them were sent to Tauranga yesterday.
Some even have messages including one, which has the words "Cut Down on Oil Use'' embroidered lovingly on the front.

Here's the pattern if—like mine—your needles are practically jumping up and down at the prospect.

Penguin sweater via.



Jump-off Joe was a 100-foot-/30-meter-tall sea stack near Nye Beach, Oregon—named because visitors had to jump off its steep side to get around it.

Before the 1880s it was still attached to the mainland. Around 1890 its connection fell away. From then until World War I it was a well-known tourist attraction.

These undated postcards show part of its lifecycle.

According to Historic Photo Archive:

The rock formation was subject to rapid erosion and returning visitors would make a point of checking out the changes since their last visit... The arch finally collapsed during a severe storm in late January, 1916.

Or not. The following photographs, courtesy of the USGS, suggest that Jump-off Joe survived as an arch at least until 1920, then in ever-diminishing incarnations until the 1990s. (H/T Irish Weather Online.)





As an interesting aside—near my home in northern California there are a few old uplifted sea stacks that now stand high and dry on coastal terrace.

Photo by tuolumne tradster via Flickr.

These ancient stacks bear areas of highly-polished mirrorlike rock, which have have been analyzed by archaeologists using scanning electron microscope and atomic force microscope, then compared with wave polish from cliffs below the terrace, with elephant rubs, and with just about every other form of rock polish. 

Their conclusion: woolly mammoths rubbed here. 

From the paper: 

In eastern and southern Africa, rubbing stones are relatively common in the savanna and grassland areas. They stand as monuments to ancient itches... Stack 1 in our study area is adjacent to a [freshwater] seep which has probably been active throughout the Pleistocene. The modern Asian elephants and African elephants especially like to rub on trees and rocks after wallowing in mud. Ectoparasites encased in the drying mud are removed by the rubbing action which benefits the animals. It is possible that the seep was an animal wallow which encouraged the use of the adjacent rocks, and caused their high polish over a matter of perhaps a hundred thousand years.

Mammoth rubbing rocks. Photo: © Julia Whitty.

The paper:

  • E Breck Parkman, et al. Extremely High Polish on the Rocks of Uplifted Sea Stacks along the North Coast of Sonoma County, California, USA (pdf).  

Woolly mammoth at the Royal British Columbia Museum. Photo: WolfmanSF via Wikimedia Commons.

18 October 2011


Another beautiful short film from Morphologic Studios, shot at an underwater nursery for staghorn coral. This critically endangered species has lost 80 to 98 percent of its population throughout the Caribbean in the past 30 years, much of that from climate-change-induced coral disease and coral bleaching.  

The nursery featured here highlights some intense human efforts to reverse that decline. From the Morphologic Blog:

One of the most innovative, practical, and functional coral nurseries on the planet can be found just a few miles off the shores of Key Largo. The nursery consists of thousands of neatly organized colonies of the critically important staghorn coral (Acropora cervicornis) grown by the Coral Restoration Foundation (CRF) for the purpose of transplantation back to the reef. Staghorn corals have been decimated by disease and extreme weather here in Florida over the past 30 years, resulting in a seriously degraded reef ecosystem. Fortunately the CRF has developed methods that maximize the growth potential of these corals in their nursery, demonstrating that coral aquaculture is a realistic and effective way to restore beleaguered wild populations.

From the Morphologic Blog.

12 October 2011



Takayuki Hori's unique work won first place in the 2010 Mitsubishi Chemical Junior Designer Competition. Using a process called Oritsunagumono—defined as 'things folded and connected'—he portrayed eight endangered Japanese species. The only color in Hori's pieces comes from the ubiquitous marine garbage swallowed by his wild origami birds and reptiles.

10 October 2011



MV Rena grounded on a reef (right) 13.5 nautical miles off Tauranga, New Zealand. Via: The Guardian.

TVNZ reports a full mayday call has gone out from the stricken tanker MV Rena, requesting an immediate helicopter rescue of all crew remaining aboard.

The ship—grounded on a reef off the coast of New Zealand since last Wednesday—is now believed to be breaking up in heavy weather. The Rena carries 1,700 cubic meters/450,000 gallons of heavy fuel oil (see my earlier post). From TVNZ:

The ship has spilled between 10 and 50 tonnes of oil so far and more has been seen leaking from the vessel and heading south-west. The barge which is being used to pump oil off the ship was damaged overnight and has returned to the port for repairs. It will sail again once it is fixed and the weather improves.

A little blue penguin found on the beach is washed at the Oiled Wildlife Response unit set up in a makeshift camp in Tauranga, New Zealand. Via: The Guardian.

Check out this The Guardian slideshow for more images of the worsening spill.