Category Archives: Climate change

Plan to drill for oil is one step closer for Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

A 40-year tug of war between oil wells and caribou in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge could soon end with active drilling in one of the most fragile ecosystems in the world.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, argues that the focus should be on climate change, not more oil.
Photo: Congressional video

The Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources endorsed legislation yesterday that would require the federal government to sell leases for at least 800,000 acres of land over the next decade. The measure, which divided Republicans and Democrats in the committee, could pass the full Senate with a 50-percent vote as part of a budget bill.

The committee discussion, shown in the video on this page, was quite revealing, as Democrats offered amendments to the Republican legislation. The hearing begins 24:05 minutes into the video.

The committee chairwoman, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, a Republican from Alaska, said developing oil wells in the northern part of ANWR was always the intent of the 1980 law that expanded the wildlife refuge. The drilling could generate more than $1 billion in federal revenues over the first 10 years, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

Murkowski said oil development will create thousands of good jobs, keep energy affordable, reduce foreign oil imports and ensure national security. Drilling is supported by Alaskans of all political persuasions, including most public officials, she said.

Murkowski insisted again and again that the environment would be protected during any future oil production. No environmental laws would be waived, she said, and new oil-drilling technology will allow a much smaller footprint of development than in previous drilling projects in Alaska.

Democrats, led by Washington Sen. Maria Cantwell, the ranking Democrat on the committee, voiced indignation over the language in the legislation as well as the idea of drilling in a wildlife refuge.

Even though the legislation leaves the door open for environmental reviews — including an assessment of harm to endangered species — it clearly mandates drilling, regardless of the damage to any species or their habitats, the Democrats maintained. Attorneys for the committee concurred in that assessment.

In fact, the new legislation would the alter the original law that created the wildlife refuge by adding a new purpose: oil production in the 1.5-million-acre northern region, known as the 1002 Area. Leased areas would essentially become a petroleum preserve, governed by the National Petroleum Reserve Act.

“The purpose of the refuge was to protect the wildlife that live there,” Cantwell said. “You are taking a wildlife refuge and turning it on its ear.”

If approved, the legislation would remove lands to be developed from the jurisdiction of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and put them under the Bureau of Land Management.

Cantwell mentioned a letter signed by 37 scientists familiar with ANWR who objected to oil exploration and development in the refuge. They raised concerns for the wildlife that occupy the coastal plain where drilling is proposed.

“Decades of biological study and scientific research within the Arctic Refuge have confirmed that the coastal plain specifically is vital to the biological diversity of the entire refuge,” the letter says. “In fact, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Arctic Refuge coastal plain contains the greatest wildlife diversity of any protected area above the Arctic Circle.”

Included in that diversity, the letter says, are “polar bears, grizzly bears, wolves, wolverines, caribou, muskoxen, Dolly Varden char, Arctic grayling, and many species of migratory birds.”

Cantwell also discussed a letter written by primate expert Jane Goodall that was sent to every U.S senator. The letter begs the senators to “demonstrate your commitment to the natural world and to future generations and stand with me to protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.”

Other Democratic and Independent senators on the committee also spoke out forcefully against the measure.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, raised the issue of climate change and the hundreds of billions of dollars that the U.S. must spend because of more intense storms and hurricanes. In that context, the $1 billion to be raised from ANWR is insignificant, he said.

“I think that our children and our grandchildren are going to look back on meetings and markups like this, and they are really going to be shaking their heads and asking, ‘What world was the United States Senate living in when … responsible people were talking about more exploration for fossil fuels and not addressing the planetary crisis of climate change?’

“What this committee should be doing, working with people all over the world, is saying, ‘How do we transform our energy system away from fossil fuels, away from coal, oil and gas to sustainable energy?’” he added.

Sanders’ comments come at 2:02:38 in the video.

“This isn’t BLM land,” said Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-New Mexico, offering an amendment to protect wildlife. “This is a national wildlife refuge. … Does wildlife come first? You would think so from the name. But if we don’t make this change to the legislation, what we are saying is that oil and gas development comes first. That is a very, very dangerous precedent to make.”

Heinrich’s comments come at 2:17:30 in the video.

Information about the legislation can be found on the website of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.

Puget Sound freshens up with a little help from winter snowpack

In the latest “Eyes Over Puget Sound” report, one little note caught my attention: “Puget Sound is fresher than it’s ever been the past 17 years.”

Jellyfish are largely missing this fall from Puget Sound. Some patches of red-brown algae, such as this one in Sinclair Inlet, have been observed.
Photo: Washington Department of Ecology

At least temporarily, something has changed in the waters of Puget Sound over the past few months. It may not last, but it appears to be a good thing.

The monthly EOPS report, compiled by a team of state environmental experts, lays out recent water-quality data for the Department of Ecology. The report also includes personal observations, aerial photographs and scientific interpretations that keep readers abreast of recent conditions while putting things in historical context.

The “fresh” conditions called out in the report refers to the salinity of Puget Sound, which is driven largely by the freshwater streams flowing into the waterway. The reference to 17 years is a recognition that the overall salinity hasn’t been this low since the current program started 17 years ago.

Dissolved oxygen, essential to animals throughout the food web, was higher this fall than we’ve seen in some time. Hood Canal, which I’ve watched closely for years, didn’t come close to the conditions that have led to massive fish kills in the past. The only problem areas for low oxygen were in South Puget Sound.

Water temperatures in the Sound, which had been warmer than normal through 2015 and 2016, returned to more average conditions in 2017. Those temperatures were related, in part, to the warm ocean conditions off the coast, often referred to as “the blob.” In South Puget Sound, waters remained warm into October.

Why is the water fresher this fall than it has been in a long time? The reason can be attributed to the massive snowpack accumulated last winter, according to oceanographer Christopher Krembs, who leads the EOPS analysis. That snowpack provided freshwater this past spring, although rivers slowed significantly during the dry summer and continued into September.

“We had a really good snowpack with much more freshwater flowing in,” Christopher told me, adding that the Fraser River in southern British Columbia was well above average in July before the flows dropped off rapidly. The Fraser River feeds a lot of freshwater into northern Puget Sound.

Freshwater, which is less dense than seawater, creates a surface layer as it comes into Puget Sound and floats on top of the older, saltier water. The freshwater input fuels the circulation by generally pushing out toward the ocean, while the heavier saltwater generally moves farther into Puget Sound.

“The big gorilla is the upwelling system,” Christopher noted, referring to the rate at which deep, nutrient-rich and low-oxygen waters are churned up along the coast and distributed into the Puget Sound via the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Lately, that system has been turned down to low as a result of larger forces in the ocean.

In an advisory issued today (PDF 803 kb), NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center says a weak La Niña is likely to continue through the winter. For the northern states across the country, that usually means below-average temperatures and above-average precipitation. (It’s just the opposite for the southern states.)

With a favorable snowpack already accumulating in the mountains, experts can’t help but wonder if we might repeat this year’s conditions in Puget Sound over the next year.

Christopher told me that during aerial flights this fall, he has observed fewer jellyfish and blooms of Noctiluca (a plankton known to turn the waters orange) than during the past two years. Most people think this is a good thing, since these organisms prevail in poor conditions. Such species also have a reputation as a “dead end” in the food web, since they are eaten by very few animals.

Christopher said he noticed a lot of “bait balls,” which are large schools of small fish that can feed salmon, birds and a variety of creatures. “I assume most of them are anchovies,” he said of the schooling fish.

I would trade a jellyfish to get an anchovy on any day of the year.

Amusing Monday: Climate change is scary enough for Halloween

Samantha Bee’s Halloween show last week is making a big splash on the Internet. The underlying theme was climate change, and the program cleverly makes a connection with this particular time of year, when many people relish the experience of getting scared.

In one segment of the show, which is called “Full Frontal,” singer-songwriter Ingrid Michaelson wears a picture of the Earth while singing an altered version of her big hit “Be OK” (original version). The revised song, called “Not OK,” addresses the horrors of climate change.

As Michaelson sweetly sings about the dangers of an altered climate, members of the “Full Frontal” cast dance around the stage, representing hurricanes, storms, floods, burning trees and finally an angry sun, as you can see in the first video.

Michaelson sings, “I am clearly not OK, not OK, not OK. Earth is clearly not OK today. I’m getting warmer every day, every day, every day. Climate change is Fu__ing me, oy vey!”

It’s tough to combine humor with a serious message, but Michaelson’s new words on a tragic theme are made palatable by the upbeat tune and the silly dancers.

One viewer commented on Michaelson’s Facebook page that she had ruined a perfectly good song, but the vast majority of her fans were delighted that she had found an amusing way to weigh in on an important topic.

I guess something similar could be said for the entire show, which I decided to go ahead and share on this blog post. Except for the Michaelson segment, the videos are posted in the order they appeared on the show. If you’re not familiar with this show, you should be warned that the language can be coarse at times.

In another segment, more edgy than funny, Samantha Bee goes after Scott Pruitt, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, who has begun to reverse direction on President Obama’s plans to move the United States away from coal and toward renewable energy. She points out that before Pruitt became the head of the EPA, he was one of the agency’s biggest enemies. As Oklahoma attorney general, he sued the EPA 14 times, largely on behalf of the oil and gas industry. While she can’t stop Pruitt’s anti-regulatory approach, she thinks she can poke him in the eye by demanding a public hearing.

In Act 3, called “(Hot as) Hell House,” Bee takes climate deniers through a Halloween-style haunted house to see if she can scare them into caring about climate change. The setting is 50 years from now, when the Earth is ruined, cockroaches are the only food supply and people cannot escape the droning recitation of Al Gore’s Ted Talk by a creepy John Hodgman. One climate skeptic said the experience had changed her mind, but her reasoning — revealed at the end — was quite amusing.

The haunted house scenes were filmed within the abandoned Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, the site of Terror Behind the Walls. It is said to be America’s largest haunted house, listed as number 1 in the country by Forbes magazine.

It was a wet water year; it was a dry water year

Water Year 2017 was a crazy year for rainfall, with a precipitation pattern unlikely to repeat anytime soon, although forecasters say the coming year is somewhat likely to be wetter than normal.

Hansville (click to enlarge)
Chart: Kitsap Public Utility District

If you recall, Water Year 2017 (which began last October) started off soggy with well above average rainfall until December. Last year’s rainfall, represented by the orange lines in the accompanying charts, was not only above average in October and November, but it exceeded the rainfall observed during the wettest year recorded since 1982.

If you follow the chart for Hansville, you can see that last year’s total precipitation stayed above the record year until late January. From there, last year’s total rainfall tracked with the record year until this past May, when the rains practically stopped.

Talk about a dry summer. We got practically no rain until September, with minimal precipitation through the end of the water year on Sept. 30, as shown in these charts provided by the Kitsap Public Utility District.

Silverdale (click to enlarge)
Chart: Kitsap Public Utility District

Hansville’s annual rainfall last year totaled 39.5 inches, about 4 inches off the record of 43.8 inches in 1999. The record would have been broken if the rainfall this past spring and summer would have been normal. The year before — Water Year 2016 — was also a wet one with precipitation totaling 42.5 inches in Hansville.

In Silverdale, which gets a good deal more rainfall than Hansville, the pattern was similar except that last year’s total stayed ahead of the record until early December. The pattern was similar for Holly, one of the wettest areas of the county.

Silverdale’s total for Water Year 2017 was 61.8 inches, well off the record of 76.9 inches set in 1999. Still, the record books show only two wetter years: 1996 with 67.7 inches and 1997 with 64.8 inches.

Holly (click to enlarge)
Chart: Kitsap Public Utility District

Holly’s total for Water Year 2017 was 112.7 inches, second only to 1999, when Holly received 127.5 inches of precipitation. Other wet years were 1995 with 101.1 inches and 1997 with 100.1 inches.

The new water year, starting with the beginning of this month, showed little precipitation at first, then the rains came in mid-October, putting most areas near average, as shown by the blue line in the charts.

Overall, October so far has been a fairly wet month, up to twice the average rainfall in the Puget Sound region. For the nation as a whole, October has been mixed. We’ve seen extremely dry conditions in the Southwest, while up to four times the normal precipitation has been recorded for a swath from the Great Lakes down to the Central states, including the Oklahoma and Texas panhandles. Check out the map from the PRISM Climate Group at Oregon State University.

The outlook for the next three months from NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center shows the likelihood for wetter-than-normal conditions across the northern part of the U.S., although Western Washington should be about normal. Meanwhile, the southern tier states are likely to have drier conditions.

A La Niña watch remains in effect. If conditions in the Pacific Ocean continue to develop, we could see cooler- and wetter-then-normal conditions early next year. So far, there is no indication what the annual precipitation for our area might be. But after last year’s turn of events we should not be surprised by any weather pattern.

Waterfront property owners face options in response to sea-level rise

Rising sea levels and isolated floods will be an increasing challenge for waterfront property owners, according to experts I interviewed for a story published this week in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.

The Vechey home and bulkhead before the big move. // Photo: John Vechey

Changing conditions call for property owners to consider their options with regard to their shoreline — not just for today but for the long run. What I learned while researching this story is that every waterfront site will respond differently as the highest tides go higher and higher.

Before I started my inquiry, I thought the obvious answer would be for people to build taller and stronger bulkheads — despite well-known environmental damage. And that may be the only answer for some. But for others, that approach could be a waste of money, as bigger walls degrade the owners’ enjoyment of the beach as well disrupting natural systems. Alternatives include moving or raising a house or even replacing a bulkhead with “soft shore” protections.

After the home was moved back from shore and the bulkhead removed. // Photo: John Vechey

Sea levels in Puget Sound are rising slowly at this time, with the actual rate dependent on location. We live in a tectonically active area, with major movements along continental plates. As a result, the ground is sinking in most areas around Puget Sound, adding to the relative rise in sea level.

In Seattle, the sea level has risen about 9 inches since 1900 and is expected to rise an additional 4 to 56 inches (4.75 feet) by 2100. The uncertainty reflected in that range relates to whether greenhouse gases continue to increase, thus accelerating the rate of melting of land-based ice in the polar regions.

Some changes can be expected regardless of the human response over the next 80 years. For example, one analysis looking at Whidbey Island suggests that there is a 99 percent chance that by 2040 — just 13 23 years from now — sea level will be at least 2.4 inches higher than today with a 50 percent chance that it will be 7.2 inches higher. After 2040, the tides will keep rising even faster. Take a look at the related story “Average high tides are creeping higher in Puget Sound.”

John Vechey of Orcas Island, who I featured in my story, took sea level into account when deciding whether to remove his bulkhead while seeking to improve the beach for family activities and for the environment. His solution was to move his house and give the beach more room to function naturally.

Moving a house will not be the answer for everyone, but I can safely say that everyone should consider their long-term picture before making any investments that will last a lifetime — and that includes changes to the shoreline.

I believe it is generally possible, certainly with professional help, to calculate elevations for the house and any low spots on the property, add one to four feet above the current high-tide mark, and then consider tidal surge, which is the wave height caused by weather conditions. In some counties, professional help is available if you are considering whether to remove a bulkhead. Check out the “Shore Friendly” website and “Resources in Your Area.”

At this time, future sea levels do not enter into regulatory considerations about where a person can build a house. One problem is the uncertainty surrounding the amount that sea levels will actually rise. But some environmental advocates say it is time to require additional setbacks, not only to protect the environment as tides push back the natural beach but also to protect homeowners from future losses.

For some people, sea-level rise is a distant worry, but for others the threat is just around the corner. I was reading this morning about how high tides are already affecting Naval Station Norfolk. Check out “Rising Seas Are Flooding Virginia’s Naval Base, and There’s No Plan to Fix It” by Nicholas Kusnetz of Inside Climate News.

A new Government Accountability Office report, released yesterday, cites estimates of future property damage totaling between $4 billion and $6 billion per year in the U.S. as a result of sea-level rise and more frequent and intense storms. The report outlines the need for a coordinated federal response.

Sen. Maria Cantwell discusses the new GAO report and calls for better planning in the video below.

Amusing Monday: Calling all citizen scientists to help with online research

Just about anyone with a computer can become part of a scientific research project through Zooniverse, which focuses the intelligence of thousands of people on tasks that are not well suited for computers.

The research projects are real, and prospective citizen scientists can choose from dozens of topics in various fields, including climate, biology, medicine, history, language, literature and the arts. More than 100 published papers have come from the work.

They key is observation, and participants make judgments about images they are given, such as photographs, drawings, hand-written pages and other visuals. Together, the large number of observations help professional researchers find things that they could not easily find alone. In most cases, computers don’t have the observational capabilities of humans, although some of the projects are trying to teach computers to do a better job.

Participants become part of an exclusive research community, as each Zooniverse project includes chat forums for discussion. Citizen scientists can talk among themselves or pose questions to the researchers in charge. I’ve tried out a few of the projects, and I can see how this could become an interesting, amusing and ongoing pastime for some people.

One of the projects that I find interesting is called “Old Weather,” which involves perusing ships’ logs from the 1800s and early 1900s to see what the weather was like on particular dates in various parts of the world. The focus at the moment is on 24 whaling voyages as well as expeditions to the Arctic by the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard. The information is going into a database to help reveal how climate is changing.

The online work involves identifying what the log books have to say about weather, ice and sea conditions. One task involves reading through the books and marking such observations along with time and place. Another task is to transcribe the observations and link them together. Of particular interest is locating sea ice, a primary indicator of climate change.

Other projects:

The Plastic Tide involves looking at photographs of beaches taken from a drone to identify pieces of plastic in the sand and gravel. Researchers in England are using the observations to develop a computer program that can recognize bits of plastic and estimate the amount of plastic on a beach. If successful, global estimates of plastic distribution can be created with the use of unmanned aircraft. Volunteer observations are being used to “train” the computer to identify plastics.

Snapshots At Sea uses pictures of sea creatures taken by professional and amateur photographers to extract information about whales and other marine mammals. Citizen scientists are asked questions about each photograph to classify the images and determine whether a whale expert should take a look. So far, citizen scientists were able to locate an extremely rare killer whale, known as Type D. Meanwhile, they have also helped to locate and identify known and unknown humpback whales and plot their movements with unprecedented resolution off the California coast. By the way, Cascadia Research Collective in Olympia is one of the collaborators on the project.

Notes from Nature digs into the records of natural history museums throughout the world, where handwritten observations are tagged onto all sorts of plant and animal specimens. Volunteers transcribe the notes from photographs of the specimens to help to fill in gaps about biodiversity and the natural heritage of a given region. At the first level, museum staff and others are photographing what are estimated to be 10 billion specimens, including birds, bugs, butterflies and microscopic fossils. At higher levels, researchers are compiling the data to tell a story of ecological change.

Wildwatch Kenya, which started this past summer, asks volunteers to review photos taken with trail cameras placed in two nature preserves in Kenya. Information about wildlife seen in the photos is used to track animal movements, determine what they are doing and help with their conservation. In the first three months, more than 5,000 volunteers were able to retire a backlog of more than 160,000 photographs — about two years’ worth of images. For information, see the news release from the San Diego Zoo, which manages the project.

Steller sea lion ~ 100 is the “sea lion of the month” for October. // Photo: Steller Watch

Steller Watch, like Wildwatch Kenya, uses remote cameras to capture hundreds of pictures of Steller sea lions — an endangered species whose population has declined by 94 percent in the Aleutian Islands. Volunteers help classify — but not identify — animals seen in the photos so that experts can complete the identifications and track the movements of the animals. One feature is the Sea Lion of the Month, who this month is ~100, a sea lion with a somewhat unusual story.

Cyclone Center includes 300,000 images taken from infrared sensors on weather satellites. The colored images reveal temperatures, which are closely related to whether the clouds produce wind, rain and thunderstorms. Volunteers are given a pair of clouds and asked to determine which one is stronger based on the colors. The human eye is better at this job than a computer, experts say. The information is compiled with other data to form a record of storms and to help predict future events.

Shells from Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society of London, 1866

Science Gossip relies on millions of pages of printed text produced in scientific journals, notebooks and other publications from the 1400s to today. Researchers and artists, both professional and amateur, produced the documents during their investigations of science. Cataloging and describing old drawings are helping historians understand who was studying what down through the years. In my first leap into this project, I was presented with the drawing of a scale from an extinct fish. I found myself reading the associated article to learn about a dispute over how to classify the animal, and then I went to other sources to learn about the notable scientist and his work. After that, I completed the questions about the drawing. (I guess this was beyond the call of duty, but I just wanted to know more.)

The Milky Way Project endeavors to locate celestial objects of interest to astronomers by searching through tens of thousands of images from the Spitzer Space Telescope and the WISE satellite observatory. Training is provided to identify bubble nebulae, bow shocks and other notable features.

Solar Stormwatch II involves working with images of solar flares from NASA’s STEREO spacecraft. Volunteers help to classify and describe the intensity of flares by defining their outer edges with the use of a computer mouse. The original project, Solar Stormwatch, contributed to seven scientific publications. The new project will examine images from 2010 to 2016, during which time the sun went through a period of peak activity.

Amusing Monday: Umbrellas for James Bond, Bozo the Clown

They say it’s going to start raining steadily any day now and that we could be headed for rainy La Niña conditions this winter. So I thought it might be fun to pay tribute to the common — and especially the uncommon — umbrella.

The polite umbrella: Pull a string on the handle to squeeze through tight spaces or walk through crowds without poking someone.

I never knew people could be so creative with umbrellas, whose basic design goes back at least 2000 years when these devices were used by Chinese royalty. It remains unclear whether the first of these folding canopies was used to protect against sun or rain, according to a documented entry on Wikipedia.

Because umbrellas date back to antiquity, I guess I can’t search out the original patent, although it is said that the U.S. Patent Office has submissions with more than 3,000 plans to improve on the umbrella’s basic design. See the entry in Mental Floss.

As for etymology, the word “parasol” comes from the combination of “para,” meaning stop, and “sol,” meaning sun. However, if you want to stop the rain, then the French word “parapluie” comes into play. “Pluie” is a French word for rain, coming from the Latin “pluvial.” So, from now on, you can grab your parapluie when you go out into the rain if you would rather not carry an umbrella.

Raindrops pounding on a special conductive material in the umbrella fabric sets off LEDs to light the way. // Source: Yanko Design

Oddly enough, the word “umbrella” seems to come from the Latin “umbra,” which means shading or shadow, making “umbrella” synonymous with “parasol.” The Latin word for umbrella is “umbella.”

Contrary to common belief, the word “bumbershoot” does not come from Great Britain, and the British do not commonly use this word. Rather bumbershoot was American vernacular, first showing up in a dictionary in 1896, according to an article in World Wide Words.

Getting back to amusing umbrellas, you can go far afield in a search for a stylish, elaborate or finely decorated umbrella. You can seek out whimsy or prankishness in the design, such as in the umbrella with a squirt gun in the handle. You can also find items that meld the ancient with modern technology, such as a blue tooth device to answer the smart phone in your pocket or the miniature video projector for watching movies in the top of your umbrella.

A squirt gun in the handle of an umbrella can break up the monotony of the rain, which refills the pistol.

I’m not sure why I have never written about umbrellas, given the dozens of webpages and advertising sites devoted to the subject. I’ve selected five of the best websites for you to check out:

One video producer gathered up pictures of unusual umbrellas, including some not shown in the websites above. Complete with music, the video can be found on YouTube.

The video below is a demonstration of a specialized umbrella by a one-legged man named Josh Sundquist, who has the greatest attitude about life and problem solving. If you want to know why Josh doesn’t just wear rain gear, listen to what he has to say at 2:23 into the video. And check out Josh’s other videos, including a stand-up routine (no pun intended) about amputees on airplanes.

By the way, I have never owned an umbrella in my entire life, preferring to wear a rain jacket with a hood on most occasions, although rain pants sometimes come in handy. After looking at hundreds of cool umbrellas on the Internet, I think I will choose the perfect one for me. Then again, naaaaah!

Facing the possibility of extinction for the killer whales of Puget Sound

Southern Resident killer whales, cherished by many Puget Sound residents, are on a course headed for extinction, and they could enter a death spiral in the not-so-distant future.

It is time that people face this harsh reality, Ken Balcomb told me, as we discussed the latest death among the three pods of orcas. A 2-year-old male orca designated J-52 and known as Sonic died tragically about two weeks ago.

Two-year-old J-52, known as Sonic, swims with his mother J-36, or Alki, on Sept. 15. This may have been the last day Sonic was seen alive.
Photo: Ken Balcomb, Center for Whale Research

The young orca was last seen in emaciated condition, barely surfacing and hanging onto life near the entrance to the Strait of Juan de Fuca on Sept. 15. Ken, director of the Center for Whale Research, said the young whale was attended to by his mother Alki, or J-36, along with a male orca, L-85, known as Mystery — who may have been Sonic’s father, but more about that later.

Extinction, Ken told me, is “very real” — not some ploy to obtain research dollars. The population of endangered Southern Residents has now dropped to 76 — the lowest level since 1984. Most experts agree that a shortage of chinook salmon — the primary prey of the orcas — is the greatest problem facing the whales.

Last week, the Leadership Council — the governing body of the Puget Sound Partnership — discussed what role the partnership should play to “accelerate and amplify efforts” to restore chinook salmon runs and save the orcas. Chinook themselves are listed as a threatened species.

Graph: Center for Biological Diversity

Puget Sound Partnership is charged by the Legislature with coordinating the restoration of Puget Sound, including the recovery of fish and wildlife populations.

The Leadership Council delayed action on a formal resolution (PDF 149 kb) in order to allow its staff time to identify specific actions that could be taken. Although the resolution contains the right language, it is not enough for the council to merely show support for an idea, said Council Chairman Jay Manning.

Sonic was one of the whales born during the much-acclaimed “baby boom” from late 2014 through 2015. With his death, three of the six whales born in J pod during that period have now died. No new calves have been born in any of the Southern Resident pods in nearly a year.

Meanwhile, two orca moms — 23-year-old Polaris (J-28) and 42-year-old Samish (J-14) — died near the end of 2016. Those deaths were followed by the loss of Granny (J-2), the J-pod matriarch said to have lived more than a century. Another death was that of Doublestuf, an 18-year-old male who died last December.

Three orcas were born in L pod during the baby boom, and none of those whales has been reported missing so far.

Ken believes he witnessed the final hours of life for young Sonic, who was lethargic and barely surfacing as the sun set on the evening of Sept. 15. Two adults — Sonic’s mother and Mystery — were the only orcas present, while the rest of J pod foraged about five miles away.

Sonic seen with his mother in June.
Photo: Ken Balcomb, Center for Whale Research

That was the last time anyone saw Sonic, although his mother Alki as well as Mystery were back with J pod during the next observation four days later. Ken reported that Alki seemed distressed, as often happens when a mother loses an offspring.

Ken admits that he is speculating when he says that Mystery may have been Sonic’s father. It makes for a good story, but there could be other reasons why the older male stayed with the mother and calf. Still, researchers are engaged in studies that point to the idea that mature killer whales may actually choose a mate rather than engaging in random encounters. I’m looking forward to the upcoming report.

I must admit that this issue of extinction has been creeping up on me, and it’s not something that anyone wants to face. Food is the big issue, and chinook salmon have been in short supply of late. It will be worth watching as the whales forage on chum salmon, as they are known to do in the fall months.

“This population cannot survive without food year-round,” Ken wrote in a news release. “Individuals metabolize their toxic blubber and body fats when they do not get enough to eat to sustain their bodies and their babies. Your diet doctor can advise you about that.

“All indications (population number, foraging spread, days of occurrence in the Salish Sea, body condition, and live birth rate/neonate survival) are pointing toward a predator population that is prey-limited and nonviable,” he added.

The Center for Biological Diversity, which was involved in the initial lawsuit that led to the endangered listing for the whales, is calling upon the NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service to move quickly to protect orca habitat along the coasts of Washington, Oregon and California. Currently designated critical habitat is limited to Puget Sound, even though the whales are known to roam widely along the coast.

“The death of another killer whale puts this iconic population on a dangerous path toward extinction,” Catherine Kilduff of CBD said in a news release. “If these whales are going to survive, we need to move quickly. Five years from now, it may be too late.”

How fast the whales will go extinct is hard to determine, experts say, but the current population is headed downward at an alarming rate, no matter how one analyzes the problem.

“I would say we are already in a very dangerous situation,” said Lance Barrett-Lennard, senior marine mammal researcher at the Vancouver Aquarium. “If this trajectory continues and we lose two or three more from deaths or unsuccessful birth, we will be in a real spiral,” he told reporter Richard Watts of the Times Colonist in Victoria, B.C.

A five-year status review (PDF 4.3 mb), completed last December by NMFS, takes into account the number of reproductive males and females among the Southern Residents, the reproductive rates, and the ratio of female to male births (more males are being born). As the population declines, the risk of inbreeding — and even more reproductive problems — can result.

Eric Ward of NOAA, who helped write the status report, said the agency often estimates an extinction risk for endangered populations, but the actual number of Southern Residents is too small to produce a reliable number. Too many things can happen to speed up the race toward extinction, but it is clear that the population will continue to decline unless something changes.

As Ken describes it in simple terms, Southern Resident females should be capable of producing an offspring every three years. With 27 reproductive females, we should be seeing nine new babies each year. In reality, the average female produces one offspring every nine years, which is just three per year for all three pods. That is not enough to keep up with the death rate in recent years. To make things worse, reproductive females have been dying long before their time — and before they can help boost the population.

Experts talk about “quasi-extinction,” a future time when the number of Southern Residents reaches perhaps 30 animals, at which point the population is too small to recover no matter what happens. Some say the population is now on the edge of a death spiral, which may require heroic actions to push the population back onto a recovery course.

As described in the five-year status review, prey shortage is not the only problem confronting the Southern Residents. The animals are known to contain high levels of toxic chemicals, which can affect their immune systems and overall health as well as their reproductive rates. Vessel noise can make it harder for them to find fish to eat. On top of those problems is the constant threat of a major oil spill, which could kill enough orcas to take the population down to a nonviable number.

The graph shows the probability that the Southern Resident population will fall below a given number (N) after 100 years. Falling below 30 animals is considered quasi-extinction. The blue line shows recent conditions. Lines to the left show low chinook abundance, and lines to the right show higher abundance.
Graphic: Lacy report, Raincoast Conservation Foundation

Despite the uncertainties, Robert Lacey of Chicago Zoological Society and his associates calculated in 2015 that under recent conditions the Southern Resident population faces a 9 percent chance of falling to the quasi-extinction level within 100 years. Worsening conditions could send that rate into a tailspin. See report for Raincoast Conservation Foundation.

What I found most informative was how the probability of extinction changes dramatically with food supply. (See the second graph on this page.) A 10 percent decline in chinook salmon raises the quasi-extinction risk from 9 percent to 73 percent, and a 20 percent decline raises the risk to more than 99 percent.

On the other hand, if chinook numbers can be increased by 20 percent, the whales would increase their population at a rate that would ensure the population’s survival, all other things being equal. Two additional lines on the graph represent a gradual decline of chinook as a result of climate change over the next 100 years — a condition that also poses dangerous risks to the orca population.

The close links between food supply and reproductive success are explored in a story I wrote last year for the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.

At last Wednesday’s Puget Sound Leadership Council meeting, members discussed a letter from the Strait (of Juan de Fuca) Ecosystem Recovery Network (PDF 146 kb) that called on the Puget Sound Partnership to become engaged in salmon recovery efforts outside of Puget Sound — namely the Klamath, Fraser and Columbia/Snake river basins.

“Such collaborative efforts must be done for the benefit of both the SRKW and chinook fish populations, without losing sight of the continuing need to maintain and improve the genetic diversity of these fish populations …” states the letter.

A separate letter from the Puget Sound Salmon Recovery Council (PDF 395 kb) also asks the Puget Sound Partnership to become more engaged in orca recovery. The group is calling on the partnership to support salmon recovery statewide, “relying on each region to identify strategies to restore robust salmon runs.”

Rein Attemann of Washington Environmental Council said salmon on the Columbia and Snake rivers, as well as he Fraser River in British Columbia, are “vitally important” to the recovery of the Southern Resident killer whales, and Puget Sound efforts should be coordinated with other programs.

Jim Waddell, a retired civil engineer with the Army Corps of Engineers, spoke forcefully about the need to save chinook salmon and the Southern Residents, starting by tearing down dams on the Snake River.

“We are out of time,” Waddell said. “The Corps of Engineers have it within their power to begin breaching the dams within months…. The orcas cannot survive without those chinook.”

An environmental impact statement on chinook recovery includes the option of breaching the dams, something that could be pushed forward quickly, he said.

“Breaching the Snake River dams is the only possibility of recovery,” Waddell said. “There is nothing left.”

Stephanie Solien, a member of the Leadership Council, said speaking up for orcas in the fashion proposed is not something the council has done before, but “we do have a responsibility to these amazing animals and to the chinook and to the tribes.”

The council should work out a strategy of action before moving forward, she added, but “we better get to moving on it.”

Amusing Monday: Odd-looking pyrosomes more familiar in the tropics

“I have just watched the moon set in all her glory, and looked at those lesser moons, the beautiful Pyrosoma, shining like white-hot cylinders in the water.”English biologist Thomas H. Huxley, 1849

Warmer-than-normal waters off the coast of Oregon, Washington and British Columbia may be responsible for an invasion of all sorts of creatures normally found to the south in more tropical waters. None of these animals has attracted more attention than the bright bioluminescent pyrosomes, which showed up last spring as the waters of the Pacific Ocean were returning to normal temperatures.

Pyrosomes — which comes from the Greek word “pyro,” meaning fire, and “soma,” meaning body —are large colonies of small tunicates. These are invertebrates that feed by filtering sea water. The individual tunicates, called zooids, hook together to form tubes. The intake siphon of each zooid is aligned to the outside of the tube, while each discharge siphon is aligned to the inside.

The pyrosomes seen in Northwest waters so far are relatively small, thus fitting their nickname “sea pickles.” Nevertheless, they have impressed scientists who have observed them. The first video, above, was made in late July during the 2017 Nautilus Expedition along the West Coast (Water Ways, Sept. 4).

Hilarie Sorensen, a University of Oregon graduate student, participated in a research cruise in May, traveling from San Francisco to Newport in search of jellyfish that had invaded Northwest waters over the previous two years. She didn’t find the jellies she hoped to see, but she was blown away by the pyrosomes, some more than two feet long, and she wondered what they were up to.

“I am interested in how short- and long-term physical changes in the ocean impact biology,” Hilary was quoted as saying in a UO news release. “With all of these pyrosomes this year, I would like to further explore the relationship between their distribution, size and abundance with local environmental conditions.”

Reporter Craig Welch wrote about the recent findings for National Geographic. He quoted Laurie Weitkamp, a biologist with NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center: “For something that’s never really been here before, the densities are just mind-boggling,” she said. “We’re just scratching our heads.”

Even more impressive are the giant pyrosomes that have not shown up in Northwest waters, at least so far. They are rare even in tropical locales. Check out the second video, which shows a pyrosome found in the Canary Islands in North Africa and estimated to be about 12 feet long.

The third video was filmed in Tasmania south of Australia by Michael Baron of Eaglehawk Dive Centre. It shows both a giant pyrosome and a salp, another colonial creature formed of larger individuals. For the full story on the pyrosome, go to the BBC Two program, “Unidentified glowing object: nature’s weirdest events.”

Another good video on YouTube shows a giant pyrosome in the Maldive Islands off southern India.

Oddly enough, pyrosomes seem to light up in response to light, according to information posted on an invertebrate zoology blog at the University of California at Davis. The colonies may also light up in response to electrical stimulation or physical prodding.

When an individual zooid has activated its luminescence, it will trigger a chain reaction throughout the colony with nearby zooids lighting up in turn.

“When many pyrosomes are present in the same general area it’s possible to observe a vivid array of bright, pale lights produced by the many animals,” said Ian Streiter in the blog post.

“It was just this sort of observation that led the great Thomas Huxley (‘Darwin’s Bulldog’) to remark in 1849: ‘I have just watched the moon set in all her glory, and looked at those lesser moons, the beautiful Pyrosoma, shining like white-hot cylinders in the water.’

Ian concluded, “For those lucky enough to be at sea when they’re around, I imagine there are few sights as pleasant as that of the ‘moonlight’ produced by the fire bodies.”

Other information:

Finally, there is this audio report, “Millions of tropical sea creatures invade waters off B.C. coast,” with commentary from Washington state fisherman Dobie Lyons and zooplankton taxonomist Moira Galbraith of the Institute of Ocean Sciences in Sidney, B.C. They appeared on All Points West, CBC Radio, with Jason D’Souza of Victoria.

Amusing Monday: A quiz for you based on the ‘Puget Sound Fact Book’

Two years ago, I worked with a group of Puget Sound researchers and environmental writers to produce the “Puget Sound Fact Book” (PDF 27.6 mb) for the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound and Puget Sound Institute. The project was funded by the Environmental Protection Agency to provide a quick reference for anyone interested in the Puget Sound ecosystem.

I have pulled out some of the facts (with excerpts from the fact book) to create a 15-question quiz for this “Amusing Monday” feature. The answers and quotes from the book can be found below the quiz.

1. Puget Sound averages 205 feet deep. What is its greatest depth?

A. 300 feet
B. 600 feet
C. 900 feet
D. 1,200 feet

2. It is said that Puget Sound was carved out by a series of glaciers. What was the name of the last ice glaciation some 15,000 years ago?

A. Vashon
B. Cascade
C. Blake
D. Olympia

3. One river is responsible for at least one-third of all the freshwater flowing into Puget Sound. What river is it?

A. Snohomish
B. Skagit
C. Skokomish
D. Puyallup

4. How much water is contained in the main basin of Puget Sound, which includes all of the inlets south of Whidbey Island?

A. 5 cubic miles
B. 10 cubic miles
C. 40 cubic miles
D. 80 cubic miles

5. How many Washington counties have shorelines that front on Puget Sound, including the Strait of Juan de Fuca and waters around the San Juan Island? (That’s the definition of Puget Sound used by the Puget Sound Partnership.)

A. Six
B. Eight
C. Ten
D. Twelve

6. What percentage of the total Washington state population lives in counties with shorelines on Puget Sound?

A. 58 percent
B. 68 percent
C. 78 percent
D. 88 percent

7. Puget Sound is part of the Salish Sea, which extends into Canada. How many marine mammals are considered by researchers to be “highly dependent” on habitats in the Salish Sea?

A. 10
B. 20
C. 30
D. 40

8. Three types of killer whales spend their lives in and around the Salish Sea. “Residents” specialize in eating chinook salmon, and “transients” specialize in eating marine mammals. What do the so-called “offshore” killer whales specialize in eating?

A. Sharks
B. Squid
C. Plankton
D. Birds

9. Rockfish are a long-lived species that live in rocky areas of Puget Sound. How many species of rockfish can found in the waterway?

A. Four
B. 12
C. 21
D. 28

10. What is the length of shoreline in the main basin of Puget Sound, which includes all inlets south of Whidbey Island?

A. 246 miles
B. 522 miles
C. 890 miles
D. 1,332 miles

11. Bulkheads and other shoreline armoring disrupt the ecological functions of natural shorelines. What percentage of the Puget Sound shoreline is armored with man-made structures?

A. 7 percent
B. 17 percent
C. 27 percent
D. 37 percent

12. How many dams could be counted in 2006 in the greater Puget Sound region, including the Elwha dams on the Olympic Peninsula?

A. 136
B. 236
C. 336
D. 436

13. Puget Sound Partnership tracks the attitudes and values of Puget Sound residents. What percentage of the population believes that cleaning up the waters of Puget Sound is an “urgent” priority?

A. 40 percent
B. 50 percent
C. 60 percent
D. 70 percent

14. Climate change can be expected to result in significant changes in the Puget Sound region. Which of the following is something we are likely to see over the next 40 years?

A. Higher 24-hour rainfall totals
B. Higher peak flows in streams with more flooding
C. Α small change in annual rainfall totals
D. All of the above

15. Climate change also affects sea life through ocean acidification. Few species in seawater are expected to avoid impacts. Some of the greatest concerns are being expressed for which animals?

A. Shellfish
B. Sharks
C. Salmon
D. Sea lions

Answers:

1. Puget Sound averages 205 feet deep. What is its greatest depth? Answer: C, 900 feet

“Puget Sound averages 205 feet deep, with the deepest spot near Point Jefferson in Kitsap County at more than 900 feet.”

2. It is said that Puget Sound was carved out by a series of glaciers. What was the name of the last ice glaciation some 15,000 years ago? Answer: A, Vashon

“Puget Sound, as we know it today, owes much of its size and shape to massive ice sheets that periodically advanced from the north, gouging out deep grooves in the landscape. The most recent glacier advance, about 15,000 years ago, reached its fingers beyond Olympia. The ice sheet, known as the Vashon glacier, was more than a half-mile thick in Central Puget Sound and nearly a mile thick at the Canadian border.”

3. One river is responsible for at least one-third of all the freshwater flowing into Puget Sound. What river is it? Answer: B, Skagit

“The annual average river flow into the Sound is about 1,174 cubic meters per second, and a third to a half of this comes from the Skagit River flowing into Whidbey Basin. It would take about 5 years for all the rivers flowing into the Sound to fill up its volume … “

4. How much water is contained in the main basin of Puget Sound, which includes all of the inlets south of Whidbey Island? Answer: C, 40 cubic miles

“Chesapeake Bay, which filled the immense valley of an ancient Susquehanna River, covers about 4,480 square miles — more than four times the area of Puget Sound (not including waters north of Whidbey Island). But Chesapeake Bay is shallow — averaging just 21 feet deep. In comparison, Puget Sound averages 205 feet deep… Consequently, Puget Sound can hold a more massive volume of water — some 40 cubic miles, well beyond Chesapeake Bay’s volume of 18 cubic miles.”

5. How many Washington counties have shorelines that front on Puget Sound, including the Strait of Juan de Fuca and waters around the San Juan Island? (That’s the definition of Puget Sound used by the Puget Sound Partnership.) Answer: D, twelve

“The Puget Sound coastal shoreline lies within 12 of Washington state’s 39 counties: Clallam, Island, Jefferson, King, Kitsap, Mason, Pierce, San Juan, Skagit, Snohomish, Thurston and Whatcom. An additional two counties (Lewis County and Grays Harbor County) are also within the watershed basin, although they do not have Puget Sound coastal shorelines….”

6. What percentage of the total Washington state population lives in counties with shorelines on Puget Sound? Answer: B, 68 percent

“As of 2014, the 12 Puget Sound coastal shoreline counties accounted for 68 percent of the Washington State population — 4,779,172 out of 7,061,530, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.”

7. Puget Sound is part of the Salish Sea, which extends into Canada. How many marine mammals are considered by researchers to be “highly dependent” on habitats in the Salish Sea? Answer: C, 30 marine mammals

“Thirty-eight species of mammals depend on the Salish Sea. Of the 38 species of mammals that have been documented using the Salish Sea marine ecosystem, 30 are highly dependent, 4 are moderately dependent, and 4 have a low dependence on the marine or intertidal habitat and marine derived food when present.”

8. Three types of killer whales spend their lives in and around the Salish Sea. “Residents” specialize in eating chinook salmon, and “transients” specialize in eating marine mammals. What do the so-called “offshore” killer whales specialize in eating? Answer: A, sharks

“Three ecotypes of killer whales (Orcinus orca) can be found in the Salish Sea. These distinct population segments or designatable units are classified as fish-eating Residents (both the Northern and Southern Resident populations), marine-mammal-eating transients (West Coast Transients), and fish eaters that specialize in sharks called Offshore Killer Whales.”

9. Rockfish are a long-lived species that live in rocky areas of Puget Sound. How many species of rockfish can found in the waterway? Answer: D, 28 species

“The Puget Sound has 28 species of rockfish. Rockfish are known to be some of the longest lived fish of Puget Sound. Maximum ages for several species are greater than 50 years. The rougheye rockfish can live up to 205 years.”

10. What is the length of shoreline in the main basin of Puget Sound, which includes all inlets south of Whidbey Island? Answer: D, 1,332 miles

“The coastline around Puget Sound is 2,143 km (1,332 miles) long. It would take about 18 unceasing days and nights to walk the entire shoreline if it were passable — or legal — everywhere. Note: this distance refers to Puget Sound proper and does not include the San Juan Islands or the Strait of Juan de Fuca.”

11. Bulkheads and other shoreline armoring disrupt the ecological functions of natural shorelines. What percentage of the Puget Sound shoreline is armored with man-made structures? Answer: C, 27 percent armored

“The amount of artificial shoreline has increased by 3,443 percent since the mid- to late-1800s. For example, shoreline armoring — such as bulkheads and riprap — has been constructed on an average 27 percent of the Puget Sound shoreline, but as high as 63 percent of the central Puget Sound shoreline.”

12. How many dams could be counted in 2006 in the greater Puget Sound region, including the Elwha dams on the Olympic Peninsula? Answer: D, 436 dams

“As of 2006, there were 436 dams in the Puget Sound watershed. Dams alter the water flow of rivers and trap sediment, which affect deltas and embayments at the mouths of these rivers and streams. For example, there was nearly 19 million cubic meters of sediment trapped behind the Elwha and Glines Canyon Dams on the Elwha River ¬ enough sediment to fill a football field to the height of the Space Needle more than 19 times.”

13. Puget Sound Partnership tracks the attitudes and values of Puget Sound residents. What percentage of the population believes that cleaning up the waters of Puget Sound is an “urgent” priority? Answer: C, 60 percent

“A related, ongoing survey has been gauging the attitudes and values of individual Puget Sound residents, beginning with the first survey in 2008. Since the survey’s inception, more than 60 percent of the population has held to the belief that cleaning up the waters of Puget Sound is an ‘urgent’ priority.”

14. Climate change can be expected to result in significant changes in the Puget Sound region. Which of the following is something we are likely to see over the next 40 years? Answer: D, all of the above

“Projected changes in total annual precipitation are small (relative to variability) and show increases or decreases depending on models, which project a change of −2 % to +13 % for the 2050s (relative to 1970-1999) ….

“More rain in autumn will mean more severe storms and flooding. Annual peak 24-hour rainfall is projected to rise 4 to 30 percent (depending on greenhouse emissions levels) by the late 21st century. Hundred-year peak stream flows will rise 15 to 90 percent at 17 selected sites around Puget Sound. In the flood-prone Skagit Valley, the volume of the 100-year flood of the 2080s will surpass today’s by a quarter, and flooding and sea-level rise together will inundate 75 percent more area than flooding alone used to.

“At the other extreme, water will become scarcer in the spring and summer…. By the 2080s, average spring snowpack in the Puget Sound watershed is projected to decline 56 to 74 percent from levels 100 years earlier. The decline will reach 80 percent by the 2040s in the headwaters of the four rivers (the Tolt, Cedar, Green, and Sultan) serving the cities of Seattle, Tacoma, and Everett — reflecting the fact that their snowpacks are already very low, hence vulnerable. By the 2080s, April snowpack will largely disappear from all four watersheds, leaving Puget Sound’s major rivers low and dry in summer.”

15. Climate change also affects sea life through ocean acidification. Few species in seawater are expected to avoid impacts. Some of the greatest concerns are being expressed for which animals? Answer: A, shellfish

“Another factor has also made the Northwest a frontline for acidification: the importance of its shellfish industry, together with the special vulnerability of one key component, larval oysters. University of Washington researchers recently identified worrisome effects on other species with vital commercial or ecological importance. Acidification affects the ability of mussels to produce byssus, the tough adhesive threads that anchor them to their rocks against waves and surf — a life-and-death matter for a mussel. The native bay mussel (Mytilus trossulus) also loses byssal strength when water temperatures surpass 20 degrees C., whereas Mediterranean mussels (M. galloprovincialis) grow more byssus as the waters warm. This suggests a potential species succession, from native to introduced mussels, as Puget Sound becomes warmer and more acidic.

“Potentially more ecologically devastating are acidification’s effects on copepods and krill, small swimming crustaceans at the base of the marine food web….. Krill also inhabit deeper, more acidic waters than copepods, compounding their exposure. Their loss would be grievous for the fishes, seabirds and whales that depend on them.”