Fewer Footprints

When we were out on the Pacific Coast in California a couple of weeks ago, two things in particular caught my attention:

One was the lack of shorebirds, the skittering types that chase waves and scurry in tight huddles. Maybe it was just the wrong season. There were signs posted indicating that snowy plovers were nesting in the dunes, although we didn’t see any from the waterline where we walked. The estuary between Limantour Beach and Drakes Beach holds a diverse population of wild birds, so maybe we were just unlucky or unobservant.

Photo: PKR

Photo: PKR

While there were seagulls, great egrets and turkey vultures–we even saw a red-tailed hawk diving for fish and carrying off a squirming catch–we saw a sum total of five sandpipers.

Researchers only really started noticing a general decline in shorebirds around twenty years ago, when counting got underway in earnest. It’s hard to know just how much the populations have declined – but I can say that compared to when I visited my favorite beaches thirty years ago, the number of birds has dropped dramatically. There were far fewer footprints in the sand from birds than I remember from my youth.

Photo: PKR

Photo: PKR

There are a number of reasons for the decline in shorebird and migratory bird populations. Loss of migratory habitat has to be the most relevant. There’s just so much more land development and reclamation along coastlines and wetland areas, the very places the great internationalist shorebirds stop to rest, to eat, to breed.

Another aspect, though, is the amount of plastic in our seas.

Birds eat plastic, presumably because it looks like food, and can end up starving to death with a belly full of plastic. Between 60-90% of birds in shoreline regions have been found to have plastic in their bellies. At this point, it’s probably more surprising to find a bird without plastic in its stomach.

Which brings me to the other thing that caught our attention on our numerous beach walks:

An estuary tree blooms with great herons. Photo: PKR

An estuary tree blooms with great herons.
Photo: PKR

Back in the 1980s, when there were more birds, I also used to notice large pieces of junk on the beach. Wrecked picnic coolers, plastic containers, styrofoam appliance packing, plastic bottles galore. This time, there were very few pieces of large plastic. This might be a positive side of the recycling movement.

Microplastics. Photo: Puget Sound We Love You

Photo: Puget Sound We Love You

What I did notice, however, were countless pieces of plastic flakes that looked almost like shell flotsam, the kind that’s always there in a receding tide. Except the flakes were all the wrong colors. Blue, bright green, pink. And such an edible size for smaller animals.

Today is World Oceans Day. The focus of this year’s awareness is plastic in oceans.

The next time you take another plastic bag for produce, or buy a plastic box of cut vegetables instead of cutting them yourself, or throw away plastic in general, think of where it might end up. Even if you live far from the sea, chances are, at least some of that plastic will end up in a waterway, and at some point, in an ocean.



Cloud Spelunking

Back when global exploration meant finding a place, discovery was fairly straightforward. A given group of people could send some intrepid souls in a direction where none of them had ever been before, be it a valley, a sea, an island or a continent, and then that new place was ‘discovered’. There were gaps between the discovered places, but after a while, most of the gaps were closed and we now have a pretty good idea of where most places are on the surface of our planet.

Exploration has gotten a bit more slippery since then, and filling the gaps can be an elusive undertaking.

Alps in morning cloud, New Year's Day 2014 Photo: PK Read

Alps in morning cloud, New Year’s Day 2014
Photo: PK Read

In the investigation of ongoing climate change, unexplored territory remains. At the American Geophysical Union (AGU) annual fall meeting in December, three scientists who contributed to the most recent International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Working Group I report (released in September 2013) outlined three areas that need more intrepid spelunking if the climate change process and its impacts are to be understood.

One misty area is the full functionality of the carbon cycle, or how carbon makes its way between the soils, the plants, water bodies and the air.

Another is how the oceans themselves work at deeper levels. Specifically, how they absorb the increasing heat of the atmosphere.

But, as a card-carrying member of the Cloud Appreciation Society, I am particularly keen to follow the research on the role played by clouds when it comes to climate change. How do airborne particles affect clouds? Also, apparently low level cloud cover is migrating to the north and south. What overall effect this will have is currently a foggy area on the map of knowledge.

Mont Blanc, New Year's Day 2014. Photo: PK REad

Mont Blanc, New Year’s Day 2014.
The Jet d’Eau in Lake Geneva is visible in the lower right corner.
Photo: PK Read

In my corner of the planet, ephemeral clouds and solid mountains share the skyline. Just because the clouds obscure parts of the jagged outline on some days doesn’t mean the mountain has moved or shifted shape. And, contrary to what climate change deniers might insist, just because we can’t see all the gears and workings of climate change yet doesn’t mean we never will.

It’s commendable that these scientists are exposing gaps in knowledge so that we can send forth more explorers, and reveal the general location of the obscured territories in our understanding of climate change.


Inside and Out

Green sea urchins
Photo: R. Wollocombe

Ocean acidification has been studied in relation to marine animals with calcium carbonate shells. Oysters, sea butterflies, shrimp – all are affected by acidification when their outer shells don’t develop properly.

According to this article, ocean acidification has increased by 25-30% since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.

A new study published in Nature Climate Change looks at a different key species in kelp forests in temperate and subpolar oceans, green sea urchins. But it’s not their shells that are at risk.

In a first demonstration that ocean CO2 levels can affect the digestion of a marine creature, German and Swedish researchers showed that the larval stage of green sea urchins (Strongylocentrotus droebachiensis) have difficulty digesting in water with higher levels of acidity.

Green sea urchin Source: OhDeer

Green sea urchin
Source: OhDeer

The sea urchins compensate by eating 11-33% more, but if additional food is unavailable, their growth, fertility and survival can be compromised.

So while some studies have shown that ocean acidification varying levels of impact on different marine life.

Unlike the effects on oysters and sea butterflies, increased acidity (up to a given threshold) has less of an effect on certain marine animals with substantial shell coverings – like the temperate sea urchin.

Unfortunately, being protected by a thick shell may not be all that’s necessary to survive in an acidified ocean.

Green sea urchin endoskeleton Photo: galewhale/Project Noah

Green sea urchin endoskeleton
Photo: galewhale/Project Noah

Glass Fragile

Glass Beach, Fort Bragg, California Source: CoastalCare.org

Sea glass, broken bits of all the glass that’s been lost at sea, is worn by waves and tossed up on shore. It seems to accumulate more at some than at others. This California beach protected in its current, colorful state, even if – technically – it could be considered a by-product of all the glass humans have discarded into the ocean over decades. In the grand scheme of things, it’s not really the worst we’ve ever done to the oceans.

Stating the importance of the oceans is like making a comment on how breathing is an integral part of life.

In honor of World Oceans Day, which is June 8, I’d like to contrast a couple of illustrations.

Decline in biomass of popular fish 1900-2000 Source: Information is Beautiful/The Guardian

Decline in biomass of popular fish 1900-2000
Source: Information is Beautiful/The Guardian

The one above is an illustration of the effects of overfishing over the course of a hundred years.

From The Guardian article: “(E)arly accounts and data on the past abundance of fish help reveal the magnitude of today’s fish stock declines which are otherwise abstract or invisible…Our fishing policies and environmental activism is geared to restoring the oceans to the state we remember they were. That’s considered the environmental baseline.

The problem is, the sea was already heavily exploited when we were young.

So this is a kind of collective social amnesia that allows over-exploitation to creep up and increase decade-by-decade without anyone truly questioning it.”

The good news is, if we can stop overfishing as an activity, managed fishing seems to lead to a rebound of fish stocks.

Against the rapidly depleting fish stocks and life in the oceans, I’d like to place this study in longevity:

Source: NOAA

The good news is, recycling is becoming habitual in many places, as are biodegradable packaging alternatives. Now we just need some great business and technological solutions to cleaning up what’s already there.

World Oceans Day was officially recognized by the United Nations in 2008, but has been organized for years by the World Oceans Network. I posted this a day early so you can see if there are any events in your area to attend.

The theme this year for World Oceans Day is Oceans & People: Together we have the power to protect the ocean.

I would go one step further and say: It is only by working together that we have the power to protect the oceans.

One of my favorite ocean songs:


The Guardian article – Interactive illustration of fish stocks

World Oceans Day United Nations web site

Ocean Project / World Oceans Day organization web site

Coastal Hazard Wheel

Coastal Hazard WheelSource: UNEP

Coastal Hazard Wheel
Source: UNEP Risoe Centre

This crossed my virtual desk yesterday. I do so like wheel graphics, and this seems like good tool for basic assessment of potential hazards to coastlines, as well. Using a number of different elements such as geological layout (coastal plain, sloping hard rock, coral island, etc.), tidal range, sediment balance and so on, the user can find the configuration of a given coastline, then trace upwards to what the main points of vulnerability might be. It’s a low-tech tool, and seems to me like a good means for those involved with coastline protection to determine what measures might be taken for their kind of exposure to prevent as much damage as possible. I suppose the next step will be a smartphone app. The accompanying article link is included below and makes for interesting reading.

For me, this wheel fulfills the basic ‘form and function’ criteria of a good tool: It’s pleasing to the eye, and it looks both easy and efficient to use.

From the announcement:

This is to announce the publication of a new tool for coastal hazard assessment, termed the Coastal Hazard Wheel.

The tool will allow coastal planners and developers to easily assess the hazard profile of a given coastal stretch under changing climatic conditions. It is applicable at local, regional and national scale and provides a simple screening system to support public and private management decisions in coastal areas.

The tool is developed to cover all coastal environments worldwide through a specially designed coastal classification system, building on key bio-geophysical parameters. It provides information on the degree to which key climate change hazards are inherent in a particular coastal environment, and covers the hazards of ecosystem disruption, gradual inundation, salt water intrusion, erosion and flooding.

The Coastal Hazard Wheel is especially targeted decision-makers in developing countries, where data may be unavailable or difficult to obtain. It can therefore be applied in areas lacking geophysical data collection systems. In areas where data are readily available, it can provide a useful tool for hazard screening and a starting point for deciding on more extensive hazard evaluations.

The tool is available as a one-page handout of the Coastal Hazard Wheel and a background paper giving detailed information on the assessment procedure. The handout is included in this mail and the background paper can be downloaded with open access at http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11852-012-0218-z

Thanks to Lars Rosendahl Appelquist for permission to reprint his wheel here!