Deep sea expedition reveals Mediterranean secrets

August 30, 2012 by  
Filed under Secrets of the Ocean

During most of August, Ballard’s research team on board the EV Nautilus have concentrated on the unique geological makeup of the Eratosthenes Seamount, one of the largest features on the eastern Mediterranean seafloor.

Ballard shot to fame after ‘discovering’ the Titanic in 1985

“We have found a lot of fascinating things,” Ballard told DW, on board the Nautilus. “You have to realize that when you go where no one has gone before on planet earth, you are not really sure what you’re going to find.”

“We’ve been making some real biological discoveries, and we’ve also been mapping two Ottoman war galleys which sank about 3,000 feet beneath where we are right now.”

The remains of the Ottoman war galley were found along with a flintlock pistol and what appeared to be black rum bottles littering the sea floor.

Surprisingly, the metal pistol seemed to be remarkably well-preserved, but most of the wood from the ship has deteriorated having been eaten away by marine organisms.

Uncharted waters

Ballard found global fame in 1985 after discovering the Titanic some three miles below the surface of the Atlantic. This discovery gave the world its first glance at the ghostly ship that sank in April 1912 after hitting an iceberg.

His sensational discovery launched a whole new Titanic movement – spawning books, films and documentaries. It also gave Ballard the opportunity to be able to indulge in his passion of going “where no man has gone before.”

Ballard and his team have found a range of artefacts

His crew for the Cyprus expedition includes researchers, geologists and the renowned NASA astronaut, Cady Coleman, who is working as their navigator. She says that the earth’s oceans, much like deep space, remain a largely unexplored frontier.

“There are a lot of similarities in a general sense, but sometimes things happen really quickly – we suddenly see something underwater, we want to record its position immediately … And it’s up to me to coordinate those things and that’s kind of similar to being up in space.”

Rare discoveries

For those onshore, the expedition brought a once-in-a-lifetime adventure, as cameras beamed live, high definition pictures from the bottom of the Mediterranean sea to the internet.

Katy Croff Bell, chief scientist of the Nautilus Exploration Programme, says that many viewers to the web stream were able to delve into the oceans’ secrets. Viewers witnessed a huge shark crossing the ship’s path with other highlights – including live pictures of mating squid and fossilized whale bones.

“The most unexpected discovery,” says Bell “was the fossilized rib cage of a large mammal, possibly a whale. We immediately contacted marine mammal specialists who are following up on the discovery to determine what and how old it is. We have also observed mating squid possibly for the first time ever for this species, and increased the known depth range of a particular species of fish.”

Biological discoveries have been made as well – above we see what’s believed to be fossilized whale bones

Technology applied

Bell says one of the most important results of their exploration was the use of a so-called tele-presence, which means experts were on-call day-and-night to assist the team onboard when discoveries were made.

“In every case, we were able to contact specialists who provided their expertise on how to proceed with studying the amazing discoveries that we have made in Cypriot waters,” she says.

For Robert Ballard, the most fascinating aspect of the expedition was the in-depth probe of the Eratosthenes Seamount, which measures 120 km long and 80 km wide. Its peak lies at the depth of 690 meters and it rises 2000 meters above the surrounding seafloor.

“It’s large, and it’s situated between Cyprus and Egypt, so we’re in an area traversed by a lot of ancient mariners. And during our time here we’ve been able to document a whole range of artifacts that have fallen to the ocean floor.”

How Isaac could affect wildlife and marine life already hurt from oil spill

August 28, 2012 by  
Filed under Toxic Spills

By: Laurie Wiegler

As Isaac develops into a hurricane today, many are thinking not only of themselves but of their pets and of the wildlife and marine life that grace the Gulf of Mexico region.

In anticipation of the hurricane, Examiner tapped an expert to talk about these matters, Peter Tuttle, a Contaminants Specialist with the Fish and Wildlife Service’s Deepwater Horizon NRDA (Natural Resource Damage Assessment) Office in Daphne, Ala.

Following is the transcript of that e-mail conversation from today:

Examiner: Isaac could hit areas greatly impacted by the 2010 BP oil spill. What do you know about wildlife and marine life still in these areas, and which would be hardest hit?

The Gulf Coast supports a rich diversity of fish and wildlife and a variety of species occur in areas potentially impacted by the storm. On a positive note, bird nesting season is largely complete and many of the bird species that winter on the Gulf Coast have not yet arrived in the area. On the negative side, loggerhead sea turtle nesting season is in full swing, and many nests are at risk of flooding.

Examiner: Do animals and fish naturally have a sense to swim away from hurricanes? Can they get away fast enough?

Hurricanes are naturally-occurring events on the Gulf Coast. The plant and animal species that occur on the Gulf Coast have adapted to these periodic disturbances. As strong storm systems move in, there are shifts in water levels, temperature, and air pressure. Animals are sensitive to these quick shifts in conditions. Animals respond and seek refuge, whether it be thicker cover, higher ground, or deeper water.

Examiner: As horrific as a hurricane is for man, is there an upside at all when we think of the Gulf of Mexico? Could Isaac actually flush out some of the oil and contaminants (Corexit) still left in gulf? Is this just too simplistic?

The fate of much of the oil released in the Deepwater Horizon oil spill remains uncertain. Oil remains in some coastal marshes and submerged oil mats remain in some offshore areas. As such, hurricanes and tropical storms pose a risk of remobilizing this oil and causing recontamination in coastal areas.

Examiner: Are you seeing any improvement in the numbers of fish and wildlife in the Gulf? How, for example, is the brown pelican population doing? Are babies born to oil-spill-affected mothers surviving? What about egrets? Other birds and fish?

State and Federal Natural Resource Trustees are continuing to collect and evaluate information on the effects of the oil spill to fish and wildlife in the Gulf. In some cases, affected species appear to be recovering, while in other cases there is cause for continuing concern. The full impact of the spill on the survival and reproduction of fish and wildlife resources may not be understood for some time.

To read about the Louisiana Dept. of Wildlife and Fisheries closures due to Isaac, please click here.

Read more about Laurie Wiegler here:

New NRDC Report Shows Arctic Oil Development Needs to be Put on Hold

August 23, 2012 by  
Filed under Toxic Spills

With the Department of the Interior considering whether to grant Shell permits to drill in America’s Arctic Ocean, and Shell scrambling to get started amid a flurry of problems, a new NRDC report details the huge risks that come with the rush toward oil and gas development off of Alaska’s North Slope.

The findings are eye-opening for anybody who has listened to Big Oil’s laissez-faire approach to drilling in one of the world’s last truly pristine and wild places.

The author of the report is Jeff Goodyear, Ph.D., an accomplished oceanographer and marine ecologist with over twenty-five years of experience contributing to new scientific discoveries, who has led field research projects in the Alaskan and Canadian Arctic. This report combines his expertise with interviews of local residents, scientists and officials. To read the full report, click here. Some highlights:

  • Alaska’s North Slope lacks the infrastructure to support any significant spill cleanup. Essentially, there are no roads, few airports, no deep-water ports and the nearest Coast Guard base is 1,000 miles away.
  • The likelihood of spills in the Arctic is high – too high. In fact, the report shows, on average there has been a spill of oil or associated chemicals once a day since oil and gas development began on the North Slope.
  • Shell’s claims about its capabilities to clean up an oil spill in icy water are overblown. Traditional means of recovery and clean up—booms and skimmers, in-situ burning, and chemical dispersants—have each been shown to be dramatically less effective in conditions typical of the Arctic than in calmer, warmer waters such as those in the Gulf of Mexico. Given these factors, effectively responding to an oil spill would be nearly impossible.

The release of this report could not be more timely—the final drill permits have not yet been issued and last week Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar announced he would “hold [Shell’s] feet to the fire in terms of making sure that we are doing everything we can to abide by the standards and regulations that we have set and make sure the environment in the Arctic seas are protected.”

Peter E. Slaiby, Shell’s vice president in charge of Alaskan operations, responded, “We absolutely expect to drill this year.” Shell is chomping at the bit to begin drilling in the final weeks of the already short window of relief from ocean ice. However, the Arctic Challenger, a major component of Shell’s oil spill response plan, is undergoing a major retrofit in a shipyard near Seattle and is not yet certified by the Coast Guard. Raising additional concerns over Shell’s preparedness to safely and responsibly operate in the harsh, unpredictable conditions of the Arctic Ocean is the incident last month when the Noble Discoverer (a 1960’s log ship converted into a drill ship in the 1970’s) slipped anchor while in harbor.

Shell is acting as if drilling this summer is a done deal, as if final approval has been granted. It has not. And Shell is not ready to begin drilling in Arctic waters. The administration must absolutely hold Shell to its commitments. Secretary Salazar must stand by his words, “It’s a necessity for Shell to be able to demonstrate that they have met regulatory requirements…if they are not met, there won’t be Shell exploration efforts that will occur this year.”

America’s Arctic Ocean is too precious to wager on hasty oil and gas development. The risks involved, as the report shows, warrant postponing offshore drilling in the Arctic until comprehensive research can be completed and a proven and thoroughly effective system for responding to spills is in place.

The administration needs to hold Shell’s feet to the fire.

Clint Kincaid aided Chuck Clusen with this post.

Recent heavy rain takes toll on water quality

August 23, 2012 by  
Filed under Water Quality

Heavy late-summer rains and storm water runoff are being blamed for high bacteria levels at local waterfront parks.

The Okaloosa County Health Department reported Thursday that water quality is poor at 10 of the 13 sites it regularly monitors for enterococci, bacteria found in the intestinal tract of humans and animals.

“You’re going to see spikes in the summer,” said John Hofstad, [the Okaloosa county] public works director. “When you get significant rainfall after extended dry periods, you get that sheet flow of storm water across roads and across lawns … picking up animal waste and various pollutants.”

That polluted water flows into local bays and the Gulf of Mexico, he added.

Signs warn visitors of high bacteria levels and state that swimming is not recommended.

The Health Department uses the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s standard to measure local enterococci levels.

Water quality is rated good, moderate or poor, based on the number of enterococci per 100 milliliters of water. Typically, when levels are high — 105 or more per 100 milliliters — people who get in the water may experience symptoms ranging from gastrointestinal illnesses and mild diarrhea to rashes and skin infections.

“You always swim at your own risk in a natural body of water,” Health Department Director Dr. Karen Chapman said. “The greatest risk is for very young children, the elderly and people who have compromised immune systems.”

Healthy people who swim in the polluted water likely will see minimal or no symptoms. But open cuts or sores could result in minor inflammation and infection, she added.

Hofstad, who has studied local water pollution issues since the early 1990s, said improving storm water protections help but will not solve the problem.

“Every time you install a storm water separator, you’re making some attempt to reduce pollutants, and it will have an impact … but you’re still going to have those points on our coastline where storm water will flow into the bay.”

Editor’s note: While this article is region-specific, I’ve included it because of the sheer number of similar articles I have sifted through across not only the country, but the world. E.coli levels at beaches due to runoff and in many instances sewage being pumped directly into the sea is at epidemic proportions and deserves to be brought to awareness and looked at closely by the general public.

Fund water-quality tests at NJ shore, lawmakers urge Congress

August 23, 2012 by  
Filed under Water Quality

Two of New Jersey’s federal lawmakers are urging Congress to approve funding for water-quality programs along the shore.

President Barack Obama’s budget proposal does not include any money for a 12-year-old program that gives grants to states to test water quality.

U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg wants $10 million to be authorized so beach-goers can know if the ocean water is safe.

“A day at the beach should never turn in to a visit to the doctor afterward,” he said. “We’ve got to do what we can to protect every mile of our beautiful coastline, to protect it from waste and pollution.”

Congressman Frank Pallone joined Lautenberg on the Asbury Park boardwalk Thursday to push for faster testing.

Pallone said there is new technology that makes it possible to get results in six hours instead of the current 24-hour wait to determine if beaches should be closed to swimmers.

The two Democrats are urging that federal grants be approved for towns to detect sources of pollution so they can be cleaned up.

With the surf crashing in the background, Lautenberg and Pallone also hammered away at Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney’s proposal for a new national energy strategy.

The cornerstone of Romney’s plan is opening up more areas for offshore oil drilling, including in the mid-Atlantic, where it is currently banned.

Lautenberg opposes the idea as much too risky to the environment.

“We don’t want our beaches filled with oil. We don’t want our waters filled with oil,” he said. “We don’t want the result that you could easily get from drilling off our coast.’

Romney says ramping up offshore drilling could create 3 million jobs and more than $1 trillion in revenue. He also wants to give states more control over energy production on federal land.

Editor’s note: Just the fact that a trip to the beach could be “followed by a trip to the doctor,” is enough to raise a red flag in anyone’s sensibilities, right? Think about this – if you cannot safely enjoy your local beach without researching the toxicity levels first or if you are at risk for illness at anytime, there is a problem, and not one that will be solved on its own. Speak up for to your politicians and advocate for funding for water safety. Also, urge lawmakers to vote against any legislation that endangers our waters, because cleaning that up is not simple, never quick, and causes years of in many cases irreparable damage. Do you really want to never enjoy your beaches and waterways again?

Feds approve license for wave-energy park

August 21, 2012 by  
Filed under Ocean Energy

Comments Off on Feds approve license for wave-energy park

REEDSPORT — A wave energy company that plans to build a 30-acre ocean energy power station off Reedsport has received a green light from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

Last week, FERC granted Ocean Power Technologies the first license for a wave power station in the United States. If completed, OPT’s 10-buoy park will be the first commercial wave energy operation in the country, according to OPT.

Receiving the 35-year FERC permit marks a big step forward, but it does not guarantee the wave energy park will be built. The company first must test its technology at the park’s proposed site, about 2.5 miles off Reedsport.

‘Right now, we’re moving forward with Phase 1,” said Gregory Lennon, OPT’s senior director for business development.

Test starts in October

In October, OPT plans to launch a test buoy. It will check whether enough power can be generated to support a wave park. According to the FERC permit, the company has two years to test its first buoy. If the test succeeds, OPT must deploy the remaining nine buoys within five years.

However, all that is contingent on the company’s receiving additional permits to connect the power station to the electrical grid in Douglas County.

OPT also needs funds to build the park.

So far, half of the $9 million project has been funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Energy. Most of that money has gone for research and building prototypes, Lennon said.

Private project

The company hopes the actual park will be financed and, eventually, owned by a utility company or some kind of private equity fund. But OPT first must prove its technology is profitable.

‘They want to see performance history,” Lennon said.

‘Ideally, they want to see some certainty of production capability.”

The proposed ocean station should generate 1.5 megawatts of power, enough electricity for 1,000 homes.

OPT has tested a similar buoy off the coast of Scotland, Lennon said. It has been developing the Reedsport project for about five years. In that time it negotiated a settlement with 11 federal and state agencies and three non-governmental organizations outlining an adaptive management plan for the power station.

Crabbers’ doubts

The agreement was important because Oregon had no procedure for considering ocean power technology. The state is developing those guidelines to include in its territorial sea plan.

Still, the project is met with skepticism from local fishermen, as the proposed energy park will be located in prime crab habitat, said Nick Furman, director of the Oregon Dungeness Crab Commission.

‘It is an area with a soft sandy bottom,” Furman said. ‘That is crab habitat and important real estate.”

Furman said local fishermen have come to terms with the proposed park’s location, and view the project as a test site.

‘Until we get some buoys in, all opinion is sort of conjecture,” Furman said.

‘But anything over 10 buoys is going to be met with a significant negative reaction from the crab fleet.”

Reporter Jessie Higgins can be reached at 541-269-1222, ext. 240, or

Improving water quality can help save coral reefs

August 20, 2012 by  
Filed under Water Quality

Corals are made up of many polyps that jointly form a layer of living tissue covering the calcareous skeletons. They depend on single-celled algae called , which live within the coral polyps.

The coral animal and the associated zooxanthellae depend on each other for survival in a , where the coral supplies the algae with nutrients and a place to live. In turn, the algae offer the coral some products of their , providing them with an important energy source.

High can block photosynthetic reactions in the causing a build-up of toxic , which threaten the coral and can result in a loss of the zooxanthellae.

a nutrient-stressed staghorn coral

Light and temperature trigger the loss of symbiotic algae (bleaching) in a nutrient-stressed staghorn coral. Credit: University of Southampton

Without the algae, corals appear white, a state which is often referred to as ‘bleached’. Bleaching often leads to coral death and mass coral bleaching has had already devastating effects on coral reef ecosystems.

The study of University of Southampton, published in the latest issue of the journal Nature Climate Change, has found that of the water can increase the probability of corals to suffer from heat-induced bleaching.

Within the coral, the growth of zooxanthellae is restricted by the limited supply of nutrients. This allows the algae to transfer a substantial amount of their photosynthetically fixed carbon to the coral, which is crucial for the symbiotic relationship.

Algal growth becomes unbalanced when the availability of a specific nutrient decreases compared to the cellular demand, a condition called nutrient starvation.

Researchers from the University of Southampton based at the Coral Reef Laboratory in the National Oceanography Centre, Southampton, found that an increased supply of dissolved nitrogen compounds in combination with a restricted availability of phosphate results in phosphate starvation of the algae. This condition is associated with a reduction in photosynthetic efficiency and increases the susceptibility of corals to temperature and light-induced bleaching.

Dr Jörg Wiedenmann, Senior Lecturer of Biological Oceanography at the University of Southampton and Head of the Coral Reef Laboratory, who led the study, says: “Our findings suggest that the most severe impact on coral health might actually not arise from the over-enrichment with one group of nutrients, for example, nitrogen, but from the resulting relative depletion of other types such as phosphate that is caused by the increased demand of the growing zooxanthellae populations.”

Dr Wiedenmann adds: “Our results have strong implications for coastal management. The findings suggest that a balanced reduction of the nutrient input in coastal waters could help to mitigate the effects of increasing seawater temperatures on . However, such measures will be effective only for a short period of time, so it is important to stop the warming of the oceans, which will otherwise destroy most of the reefs in their present form in the near future.

“Finally, our results should help the design of functioning marine reserves.”

Journal reference:

Nature Climate Change
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University of Southampton
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Water quality devices track dead zones off Grand Strand

August 15, 2012 by  
Filed under Water Quality

by Joel Allen

Dead zones, those areas of low oxygen levels in the ocean that can cause various environmental problems, seem to be showing up more often off the coast of the Grand Strand.

Researchers from Coastal Carolina University have placed water quality monitors on several local piers with the hope that the measurements they gather will help scientists get a better idea of what causes dead zones and perhaps what to do about them.

Scientists from CCU’s Environmental Quality Laboratory showed off their newest sensor equipment to reporters Wednesday.

While fishermen at the Cherry Grove Pier work on landing a big one, the CCU lab’s sensors in the water beneath their feet quietly gather information about things like ocean temperature, dissolved oxygen and barometric pressure.

That information is sent to a public website, where the CCU scientists can use it to get a better idea of what’s going on beneath the ocean surface.

Fishermen can use it, too.

“Different people have different theories about what’s the best time to go fishing and fishing for different fish, and so they can form their own opinions, go on there (to the website) and get the data for themselves and plan their day,” said Dr. Michael Trapp, the director of CCU’s Environmental Quality Lab.

But perhaps the major goal of the monitoring is to find out more about those regions of hypoxia, or low oxygen levels in the ocean, which can lead to fish kills, algae growth and a foul smell.

Researchers think storm water runoff from cities might have something to do with the formation of dead zones along the Grand Strand, but the scientists aren’t sure, which is why Trapp says they need long-term monitoring.

“We don’t know what it was like before there was people, we don’t know what it was like a hundred years ago. We only know what it’s like now and so it’s important to understand what’s going on.”

The city of Myrtle Beach contributed $110,000 toward buying the water monitoring equipment, plus $40,000 per year to help maintain it.

City officials say if it helps the ocean, it’s worth it.

“It is our biggest natural resource. We want to know all that we can about it to make sure that it is here forever for our visitors and our residents, so more data is good, so we’re happy to be a part of this,” said Myrtle Beach spokesman Mark Kruea.

The monitor at Cherry Grove pier is the newest, but others are in place at Apache Pier and 2nd Avenue Pier in Myrtle Beach.