Pacific salmon may be dying from leukemia-type virus

April 19, 2011 by  
Filed under Global Warming


In Canada’s Fraser River, a mysterious illness has killed millions of Pacific salmon, and scientists have a new hypothesis about why: The wild salmon are suffering from viral infections similar to those linked to some forms of leukemia and lymphoma.

For 60 years before the early 1990s, an average of nearly 8 million wild salmon returned from the Pacific Ocean to the Fraser River each year to spawn.

Now the salmon industry is in a state of collapse, with mortality rates ranging from 40 percent to 95 percent.

The salmon run has been highly variable: The worst year came in 2009, with 1.5 million salmon, followed by the best year in 2010, with 30 million salmon. But the overall trend is downward.

Losses were particularly high in elevated river temperatures; warmer water makes it more difficult to deliver oxygen to the tissues of salmon.

Seven of the last 10 summers have been the hottest on record for the Fraser River. But experts say it’s too soon to pin the blame on global warming.

“Clearly, a warming climate is going to produce some new stresses for Pacific salmon,” said Daniel Schindler, a professor of aquatic and fishery sciences at the University of Washington in Seattle. “Some of those stresses will certainly be expressed through increased susceptibility to disease, including something like this.”

But he added: “The reality is we have very poor understanding of how climate and disease dynamics interact with each other in salmon. We know they’re going to be important, but we can’t say a lot in detail.”

Two years ago, Canada’s prime minister ordered a judicial inquiry – known as the Cohen Commission – to investigate the salmon deaths, with a final report due by June 2012.

Scott Hinch, an investigator at the University of British Columbia’s Pacific salmon ecology and conservation lab and a co-author of a study on the salmon that was published in the journal Science, testified before the panel last month. He told it that the virus could be the biggest factor that’s driving the collapse.

The study raises “a big red flag,” providing scientists with a possible new explanation, said Brian Riddle, the president and chief executive officer of the Pacific Salmon Foundation in Vancouver, British Columbia.

“The critical thing is that for years, people have wondered about the rate of decline and how it can be pretty consistent across most populations in the Fraser,” he said. “This provides a viable reason now. We’re discovering something new. There’s still a lot unknown. We don’t understand the origin of the virus. We don’t understand how it functions.”

He said much more study was needed.

“If this really is a virus and it’s something we don’t understand, then we don’t know how to treat it or control for it,” Riddle said. “So this is something that could linger with us for a long time, and possibly until the animal learns how to deal with it. That will only happen through natural selection-type processes.”

As part of Hinch’s study, salmon were caught, tagged and implanted with radio transmitters and their blood, gill, muscle and fin tissues were biopsied. Scientists then tracked them and discovered that many were stressed and sick before they reached their spawning grounds.

According to the study, ocean-tagged salmon that had the gene signature associated with the viral infection were 13.5 times more likely to die before spawning.

Hinch said the scientists thought that the salmon became infected at sea, before making their runs upriver. He likened it to “dead fish swimming.”

If researchers can confirm the findings that a virus related to leukemia is responsible, “it would be quite novel,” said Hinch.

While there’s no similar research taking place in the United States, Schindler of the University of Washington said there was no reason not to assume that salmon in the nearby Columbia River in Washington state would be suffering, as well.

Glen Spain, the Northwest regional director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, said other issues were at play and that “a cascade of interrelated factors,” not just a virus, could be causing the salmon deaths.

“There are fundamental habitat issues that weaken the salmon when they have too little water in the river or when the water is poor quality, when the population is truncated because of dams and there’s less biological diversity,” he said. “All of those are risk factors for any number of diseases. … It’s sort of like the blind man and the elephant. Everybody thinks that what they’ve got in front of them is the elephant. The reality is that it’s a whole ecosystem.”

He added: “If this is a virus, it’s an endemic virus and it’s been out there for thousands of years. The question is, if it’s attacking fish now, why now?”

Analysis: After BP spill, U.S. drill permits slow to a trickle

April 19, 2011 by  
Filed under Toxic Spills


HOUSTON |
Mon Apr 18, 2011 5:55pm IST

HOUSTON (Reuters) – Nearly a year after BP Plc’s Gulf of Mexico oil spill spurred a shutdown of new U.S. deepwater oil and gas drilling, offshore regulators have begun to approve a trickle of new permits.

But the 10 new wells that have received permits from the newly created U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management so far this year pale in comparison to the rate of permitting in prior years, according to a Reuters analysis of permits.

The pace of government-issued permits so far in 2011 is about a third the rate for the same period in each of the previous five years, 40 versus an average of 119 in 2006 through 2010.

Oil company executives are more hopeful they can get back to work after months of regulatory and legal delays after the worst offshore oil spill in U.S. history prompted President Barack Obama to ban deepwater drilling from May 27 to October 12 last year. The Gulf of Mexico provides 30 percent of U.S. oil production and 11 percent of natural gas output.

With crude oil prices soaring to over $100 a barrel — and gasoline flirting with $4 a gallon — lawmakers have been pressuring the administration to remove impediments to domestic U.S. energy production.

The permitting halt blocked enough new drilling that in 2011 and 2012, Gulf oil production will fall by 190,000 barrels per day, or about 12.7 percent of its current level, according to data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the statistical arm of the Energy Department.

“You need new wells, new production coming online to offset the natural decline,” said Doug Morris, an EIA analyst.

Most new production comes from deepwater projects like BP’s Macondo, which blew out on April 20, 2010, killing 11 workers, sinking the Deepwater Horizon rig and spewing more than 4 million barrels of oil into the ocean.

Industry officials complained that lack of clarity over new rules spurred a “de-facto” moratorium on Gulf drilling that stretched months longer. With new regulations in hand, Gulf of Mexico drillers are getting back to work.

“We could comply with whatever they wanted. We just needed them to say what they wanted,” said John Hollowell, executive vice president of the deepwater Gulf for Shell Oil Company. “I think the fog has lifted in that regard.”

Stringent new requirements called for the industry to prove it had rapid-response systems that could control a Macondo-like spill. Exxon Mobil Corp and Helix Energy Solutions Group organized consortiums to provide such systems.

With that, permit approvals have begun and “continue at a steady pace,” said Melissa Schwartz, spokeswoman for the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management.

NOT A SPIGOT

The pace of deepwater permitting probably will be slow in coming months as the government recruits more scientists and engineers to apply more stringent rules, said analyst Kevin Book of Washington-based ClearView Energy Partners.

“It’s not a spigot. It’s going to be a drip valve. They’re going to trickle them out,” Book said.

Reducing Ocean Mysteries will be the Legacy of the BP Oil Spill

April 19, 2011 by  
Filed under Secrets of the Ocean

Newswise — It has been one year since a massive explosion on board BP’s Deepwater Horizon rig spilled millions of gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico. The disaster claimed 11 lives and became the largest oil spill in U.S. history. Damage was catastrophic along the Gulf Coast states. Oil and tar balls washed ashore, fouling beaches and estuaries. Marine organisms, seen and unseen below the surface, were sickened and killed in droves.

But on this infamous anniversary, some positive news can still be reported. The oil spill caused BP to provide millions of dollars to fund scientific research to gather basic information and determine the long-term impact of the spill. In doing so, scientists throughout Florida are unlocking the mysteries of the deep. Advancing oceanographic research will ultimately be the positive legacy of the spill among the negative ones.

BP provided a $10 million block grant to the Florida Institute of Oceanography (FIO) to fund researchers across the state to conduct projects that analyze the spill’s impact and address baseline parameters relating to the spill. All told, 27 projects were chosen. These projects ranged from measuring the chemical composition and breakdown of oil hydrocarbons and dispersants, to the behavior of the fish, plankton, and various deepwater invertebrates possibly exposed to oil.

Nova Southeastern University researchers are using BP money to collaborate with their colleagues at Florida International University and Florida Atlantic University to study sponge species near the spill site to examine possible clues about how marine invertebrates and microbes cope with chemical pollutants. Sponges are an ancient ancestor of most living animals, having fossils that are over 500 million years old. Modern molecular genetics methods are being applied to reveal the hidden biology of marine sponges and develop them as potential sentinels (bio-indicators) to detect massive or subtle environmental changes. This study will apply sophisticated DNA sequencing and microbial analyses to better understand these marine organisms’ biology.

A better understanding of marine processes and resilience to events like oil spills will be gained through unbiased scientific research. Other benefits will be developing safer ways to drill and develop natural resources, new protocols to study and protect the biological diversity of marine life living near the top and bottom of the ocean, and a greater realization for what we still do not know about the vast oceans. Moreover, there may be a greater appreciation for the bountiful products, nutrition and employment that the oceans provide society in general. All of these are positive results from the Deepwater Horizon tragedy.

The FIO research projects should be seen as one way to decrease marine mysteries, illuminating the depths of our ignorance by gaining knowledge of dark marine habitats and shy marine organisms that live in our oceans. More research into the planet’s largest natural habitat, the ocean, is needed. Unfortunately, funding limitations and a deep economic recession have adversely affected NOAA’s (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) ability to fund researchers and academic institutions like NSU that conduct oceanographic research.

As tragic as the oil spill was, it did present us more funding opportunities from private enterprise. Private funding can fill in for decreased public support. The BP oil spill caused monumental environmental damage, but indirectly helped advance marine research. The more knowledge we gain about the oceans, the more we can help to protect them for future generations to enjoy.

Jose Lopez, Ph.D., is an associate professor at NSU’s Oceanographic Center, who is using a BP block grant to measure the oil spill’s impact on marine sponge and symbiotic microbial communities.

American Teens’ Knowledge on Climate Change

April 19, 2011 by  
Filed under Global Warming

Today the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication released a new report entitled “American Teens’ Knowledge of Climate Change” based on a national study of what teens aged 13-17 understand about how the climate system works, and the causes, impacts, and potential solutions to global warming. This research provides an assessment of how much American teens have learned about climate change in and out of school. For comparison, they also report how teens’ knowledge compares with that of American adults. The report is available online here.

Overall, they found that 54 percent of American teens believe that global warming is happening, but many do not understand why. In this assessment, only 6 percent of teens have knowledge equivalent to an A or B, 41 percent would receive a C or D, and 54 percent would get an F. Overall, teens know about the same or less about climate change than adults. The study also found important gaps in knowledge and common misconceptions about climate change and the earth system. These misconceptions lead some teens to doubt that global warming is happening or that human activities are a major contributor, to misunderstand the causes and therefore the solutions, and to be unaware of the risks. Thus many teens lack some of the knowledge they need to make informed decisions about climate change both now and in the future as students, workers, consumers, homeowners, and citizens. For example, only:

  • 54% of teens say that global warming is happening, compared to 63% of adults;
  • 35% of teens understand that most scientists think global warming is happening, compared to 39% of adults;
  • 46% of teens understand that emissions from cars and trucks substantially contribute to global warming, compared to 49% of adults;
  • 17-18% have heard of coral bleaching or ocean acidification, compared to 25% of adults.

However, American teens have a better understanding than adults on a few important measures. For example:

  • 57% of teens understand that global warming is caused mostly by human activities, compared to 50% of adults;
  • 77% of teens understand that the greenhouse effect refers to gases in the atmosphere that trap heat, compared to 66% of adults;
  • 52% of teens understand that carbon dioxide traps heat from the Earth’s surface, compared to 45% of adults;
  • 71% of teens understand that carbon dioxide is produced by the burning of fossil fuels, compared to 67% of adults.

Meanwhile, like adults, large majorities of teens incorrectly think that the hole in the ozone layer and aerosol spray cans contribute to global warming, leading many to incorrectly conclude that banning aerosol spray cans or stopping rockets from punching holes in the ozone layer are viable solutions. However, many teens, like adults, do understand that switching from fossil fuels to renewable energy is an important way to reduce global warming.

Only 29 percent of teens say they have thought “a lot” or “some” about global warming, compared to 52 percent of adults. Likewise, only 19 percent of teens say that global warming is extremely or very important to them personally, compared to 27 percent of adults.

American teens also recognize their limited understanding of the issue. Fewer than 1 in 5 say they are “very well informed” about how the climate system works or the different causes, consequences, or potential solutions to global warming, and only 27 percent say they have learned “a lot” about the issue in school.

Importantly, 70 percent of teens say they would like to know more about global warming. Likewise, 75 percent say that schools should teach our children about climate change. Finally, teens are much more likely than adults to visit zoos, aquariums, natural history, science or technology museums than adults, suggesting that informal education venues are important places for teens (and adults) to learn about complex issues like climate change.

U.S. oil spill containment firms may work together: BP

April 19, 2011 by  
Filed under Toxic Spills


WASHINGTON |
Mon Apr 18, 2011 8:17pm EDT

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Two competing oil spill response systems developed for the Gulf of Mexico in the aftermath of the massive BP oil spill may eventually join forces, a BP executive said on Monday.

Exxon Mobil and other oil majors formed the non-profit Marine Well Containment Company (MWCC) to develop a system to rapidly respond to major spills after BP’s oil spill exposed the lack of equipment available to contain a deepwater spill.

Helix Energy Solutions Group Inc also developed a separate response and containment system for Gulf producers after the BP drilling disaster.

At the first meeting of a new government advisory panel on offshore drilling issues, the Ocean Energy Safety Advisory Committee panel questioned whether having two separate safety systems was practical when there was limited design expertise in that area.

The 15-member panel made up of industry, government and academic experts was set up by the U.S. Interior Department to provide guidance on offshore drilling research and practices after last year’s explosion on the Deepwater Horizon rig killed 11 workers and unleashed nearly 5 million barrels of oil from the Macondo well.

“I think at some point and time in the future…these things will hopefully come together,” James Dupree, Gulf of Mexico regional president for BP, told the panel.

BP joined MWCC after it capped its ruptured Macondo well last year.

At the advisory committee meeting, held two days before the one-year anniversary of the Gulf spill, Dupree discussed some of the lessons BP learned after being involved in the largest offshore oil spill in U.S. history.

Dupree said the two containment systems were designed to address different needs, with Helix an option for smaller firms who may not want to make a large commitment up front.

“One of the goals potentially of the MWCC group is to see how we can work together with the Helix group to try to accommodate solutions for all of the Gulf of Mexico,” Dupree said.

The MWCC system includes a huge “capping stack” of valves and pipes, controlled by underwater robots, that can be placed atop a spewing well in 8,000 feet of water to stop the oil flow.

The Helix system involves placing a subsea shut-off device, valves and pipes atop a blowout preventer or well production equipment at the seabed. It would contain and channel oil and gas to production and storage vessels at the surface.

“They both bring something to the table at this point,” said Lars Herbst, of Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management.

(Editing by Sofina Mirza-Reid)