Dr. Stephen Palumbi checks transplanted corals during climate change studies. Credit: oceansciencenow.com/wp/photos/
I’m accustomed to getting bad news about the state of the world’s coral reefs, but this week there’s some good news for a change.
Scientists have just released findings from their research in American Samoa on especially tough species of corals that are adapting to warming waters and may be resisting climate change.
In a new paper published by Ocean Conservancy board member Dr. Stephen Palumbi and other scientists in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, the scientists found that some reef-building corals are resistant to the stress of warmer waters that cause coral bleaching.
While studying corals in American Samoa, researchers found heat-resistant corals can survive damaging temperature increases by switching on a set of 60 genes before the stress has occurred. Heat-sensitive corals switch these genes on after stress has already occurred. This means that some corals have the ability to withstand future increase in ocean temperature.
DNA sequencing can offer broad insights into the differences that may allow some organisms to persist longer amid future changes to global climate.
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Credit: Mario Chow
Corals are in trouble, but they could soon receive the help they need.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency (NOAA) proposed listing 66 species of reef-building corals under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), which is a step in the right direction for coral conservation. Being added to the Endangered Species list is more than a title upgrade (or downgrade, really). Listing species as endangered would prohibit harming, wounding or killing the species. It also prohibits the extraction of listed species, which includes importing or exporting the corals.
What has made these corals candidates for the list? A number of things: pollution, warming waters, overfishing and ocean acidification threaten the survival of corals. These threats can make corals more susceptible to disease and mortality. Protections like endangered species listing are vital to preserving coral from threats and helping them cope with changing environmental conditions.
Corals are tremendously important economically and environmentally. Corals provide habitat to support fisheries that feed millions of people; create jobs and income for coastal economies through tourism, recreation and fisheries; and protect coastlines from storm damage. One independent study found that coral reefs provided about $483 million in annual net benefit to the U.S. economic from recreation and tourism activities. Marine life, such as fish, crustaceans and sea turtles rely on corals for food, shelter and nursery grounds. Over 25% of fish in the ocean and up to two million marine species use coral reefs as their home. Because of their significance, supporting NOAA’s proposed ESA listing for 66 coral species is incredibly important to their survival and our local economies.
The leatherback sea turtle has spent over 100 million years living beneath the ocean’s waves. It is the longest surviving and one of the largest reptiles on earth. With a heritage that goes back to the dinosaur era, the leatherback sea turtle’s impressive list of accomplishments is virtually unmatched.
Leatherback sea turtles:
- Weigh in between 500 and 2,000 pounds
- Can reach lengths from 4 to 8 feet long
- Live up to 100 years
- Dive to extreme depths, often deeper than 4,000 feet
- Swim great distances, such as traveling over 7,000 miles
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The graph above shows Arctic sea ice extent as of September 17, 2012, along with daily ice extent data for 2007 and 2005, the previous record low years. 2012 is shown in blue and 2007 in green. The gray area around the average line shows the two standard deviation range of the data. Credit: National Snow and Ice Dara Center, Boulder CO
The National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) recently made a preliminary announcement that Arctic sea ice on September 16 had melted to about 1.32 million square miles, or just 24 percent of the surface of the Arctic Ocean. This is the lowest seasonal ice coverage since satellite measurements began in 1979. Although ice should start building back up now as the Arctic heads into winter, any newly formed sea ice will be relatively thin and more prone to melting in the coming summer. The Arctic is our planet’s air conditioner, and it plays a key role in regulating global climate. Its cold air and water help drive atmospheric and ocean currents that regulate temperatures worldwide.
NSIDC scientist Julienne Stroeve said, “Recent climate models suggest that ice-free conditions may happen before 2050, though the observed rate of decline remains faster than many of the models are able to capture.” This means the actual melting of sea ice is happening faster than what recent climate models predict and an ice-free Arctic could happen even sooner.
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This visualization shows the extent of Arctic sea ice on Aug. 26, 2012, the day the sea ice dipped to its smallest extent ever recorded in more than three decades of satellite measurements. The line on the image shows the average minimum extent from the period covering 1979-2010, as measured by satellites. Every summer the Arctic ice cap melts down to what scientists call its “minimum” before colder weather builds the ice cover back up. The size of this minimum remains in a long-term decline. Credit: NASA
The National Snow and Ice Data Center has just announced critical ice in the Arctic Ocean melted to record low levels this summer. The Washington Post reports:
“As of Sunday, the Arctic sea ice cover had shrunk to 1.58 million square miles, the smallest area since satellite measurement began in 1979. With the melting season not yet over, the ice will almost certainly contract further in the coming weeks before it begins to re-form.”
Arctic sea ice plays an important role in moderating the global climate. The bright surface of sea ice reflects sunlight back into space. Each year, portions of it melt in the summer, exposing the ocean surface. While the sea ice can reflect about 50 to 70 percent of the sunlight back into space, the dark ocean absorbs approximately 90 percent of the sunlight, heating the water and causing Arctic temperatures to rise even further. This process creates a feedback loop as warmer temperatures cause further sea ice melt. The reduction in Arctic sea ice has far reaching impacts on global atmospheric patterns and ocean circulation. Learn more about the important role sea ice plays in regulating the global climate here.
Here at Ocean Conservancy, we have been urging the government to stop Shell’s Arctic drilling plans and protect this fragile and vitally important region. A green light for Arctic drilling would mean placing an already stressed environment in greater jeopardy, which isn’t worth the risk. The decrease in seasonal sea ice has created the potential for a dramatic expansion of oil and gas exploration in Arctic waters. Currently, there is no adequate technology, technique or infrastructure to respond effectively to an oil spill in icy Arctic waters, and darkness, hazardous weather, or sea conditions could delay spill response for weeks.
Even without a major accident, day-to-day oil and gas operations create significant environmental disturbances. Seismic testing, exploratory drilling, and increased vessel and air traffic associated with oil and gas operations generate noise and air and water pollution, with the potential to affect whales and other marine animals and, in turn, the people who depend on them for subsistence.
Underwater statues are fun to look at, but can they really function as an artificial reef? Credit: Jim Bahn flickr stream
Two of my favorite pastimes are visiting art museums and exploring new underwater habitats. But combining the two can be environmentally risky. That’s why there are a couple of things that concern me about Jason deCaires Taylor’s project in Cancun, Mexico, that has placed 500 statues as an underwater tourist attraction. Here are a couple questions I asked myself after hearing about the site.
1. How does it help ocean health?
The artist, Jason deCaires Taylor, mentions that his statutes at Museo Subacuático de Arte (MUSA) are being covered with coral and algae, but this does not necessarily mean his statutes are helping the ocean. When implementing artificial reefs, the placement of human-made structures onto the seafloor, you need to have biological goals in place. This ensures that your artificial reef, or 500 statues in this case, contains organisms that can co-exist in a way that mimics the natural food web over time instead of throwing it out of balance.
2. Are the statues secure? Continue reading »
Though your first instinct may be to try and free a marine mammal or sea turtle, entanglement experts strongly urge you to resist this understandably natural impulse. Credit: Fort Meyers Beach Government
This is a follow-up to my original post about helping entangled animals. Readers requested more information about why you shouldn’t try to disentangle marine mammals, as well as more information about helping crustaceans and other smaller animals.
Why shouldn’t I try to help an entangled mammal or sea turtle?
Though your first instinct may be to try and free a marine mammal or sea turtle, entanglement experts strongly urge you to resist this understandably natural impulse because a person without training can seriously hurt both himself and the animal. For example, approaching an entangled seal might scare it back into the water, where it might end up drowning. Also, even if you successfully remove debris from, say, a dolphin, it could have an infection resulting from wounds and may require professional medical attention. In this case, prematurely releasing the animal back into the ocean will endanger its life. Also, many of these animals are strong, heavy, and unpredictable, which is why calling a stranding center nearest you is the best way you can help an animal.
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