Category Archives: Climate change

Virus connected to sea star wasting syndrome, but questions remain

I’ll never forget my visit this past summer to the Lofall dock and nearby beach on Hood Canal in North Kitsap. It was a scene of devastation, in which starfish of all sizes were losing their limbs and decomposing into gooey masses.

Barb Erickson and Linda Martin examine young sea stars for signs of wasting disease at Lofall pier last summer.
Barb Erickson and Linda Martin examine young sea stars for wasting disease at Lofall pier last summer.
Kitsap Sun photo by Meegan M. Reid.

My guides on the excursion were three women who had been watching for changes in sea stars as part of a volunteer monitoring program being conducted up and down the West Coast. The three were shocked at what they saw on the trip, as I described in a story for the Kitsap Sun as well as in a blog post in Water Ways.

Now, researchers are reporting that a virus, known as densovirus, appears to be playing a central role in the devastation of millions of sea stars from Alaska to Mexico. Their findings were reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PDF 1.1 mb).

Many questions remain about the mysterious affliction known as “sea star wasting syndrome.” For one, why were the sea stars affected over such a wide area, all at about the same time?

As described in the report, the researchers went to museums with sea stars preserved in alcohol and found that the virus was present in specimens collected as long ago as 1942 at various West Coast sites. Minor outbreaks of the wasting syndrome have been reported through the years, but obviously something much bigger is taking place now.

Sea star near Lofall
Sea star near Lofall

A change in the environment, such as ocean acidification, has been suggested as one possibility. A change in the virus, such as we see for the flu virus in humans, is another idea. It could also be related to an over-population among the sea stars themselves.

Jeff Adams of Washington Sea Grant, who is leading the local monitoring program in Kitsap County, said it is good that researchers have found something to go on, but other causative factors are yet to be discovered.

“Why and where; those are two of the things still on the table,” Jeff told me. “What are the environmental factors that drove this much larger die-off? Was it something that made the virus more prevalent or something that made the sea stars weaker?”

Jeff noted that the cause of death may not be the virus itself but rather opportunistic pathogens that attack the sea stars after their immune systems are weakened by the virus.

“Density may have played a factor,” he said. “Sea star populations have been thick and strong over the past 12 years. When you get a lot of individuals in close proximity, you can get sudden changes. Marine populations fluctuate quite a bit naturally.”

Jeff hopes to maintain the volunteer monitoring program for years to come, not just to track the disease but to understand more about the cycles of marine life. Of course, he would like to be able to report on an ongoing recovery of sea star populations from their current state of devastation. Will the recovery occur in patches or uniformly at all monitored sites?

“Ideally, this will run its course, and we will start seeing juveniles showing up over the course of the summer,” he said. “How many of them will disappear?

“Ideally, we will be able to maintain some sites for much longer. For me, as a naturalist, there are lots of questions about natural historical cycles that have not been addressed. A lot of critters are facing challenges (to their survival).”

In Puget Sound, these challenges range from loss of habitat to pollution to climate change, and the predator-prey balance will determine whether any population —and ultimately entire species — can survive.

Linda Martin, one of the volunteers who gave me a tour of the Lofall beach, said she was glad that researchers have identified a viral cause of the sea-star devastation, but it remains unclear how that is going to help the population recover.

Because of the timing of low tide, the three women have not been to Lofall since early October, when the population was “completely depleted,” according to Linda. But they are planning to go back next weekend.

“We are anxious to go out and see if there is anything there,” she said. “We have not seen any juveniles for a long time. Originally, when we started out, we were seeing uncountable numbers of juveniles.”

As for the new findings, I thought it was interesting how the researchers removed tissues from diseased sea stars then filtered out everything down to the size of viruses. After that, they exposed one group of healthy sea stars to a raw sample of the fluid and another group to a heat-treated sample. The raw sample caused disease, but the heat-treated sample did not.

They then used DNA techniques to identify the virus, which was found in larger and larger concentrations as the disease progressed. Check out the research report in the Proceedings of the NAS (PDF 1.1 mb).

Jeff Barnard of the Associated Press interviewed researchers involved in the study and others familiar with the problem.

Computer model shows colorful swirls as winds blow carbon dioxide

An ultra-high-resolution computer model ties weather into greenhouse gas emissions, and the resulting animation shows whirling and shifting plumes of carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide.

Ultimately, the greenhouse gases disperse into the atmosphere, increasing concentrations across the globe and contributing to global warming. It’s almost too complex to comprehend, but it is a fascinating process.

As you can see from the video, carbon dioxide levels are more significant in the Northern Hemisphere, where the emissions are out of phase with the Southern Hemisphere. That’s because the seasons are opposite, with the maximum growth of vegetation taking place at different times.

The reds and purples are the highest concentrations of carbon dioxide. The dark grays denote the highest levels of carbon monoxide, caused mainly by large forest fires.

Bill Putman, of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, said it a prepared statement:

“While the presence of carbon dioxide has dramatic global consequences, it’s fascinating to see how local emission sources and weather systems produce gradients of its concentration on a very regional scale. Simulations like this, combined with data from observations, will help improve our understanding of both human emissions of carbon dioxide and natural fluxes across the globe.”

The animation was produced with data from measurements of atmospheric conditions plus the emission of greenhouse gases, both natural and man-made. The simulation, called “Nature Run,” covers a period May 2005 to June 2007. Engineers can use the model, called GEOS-5, to test satellite observations.

In July, NASA launched the Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 (OCO-2) satellite to make global, space-based carbon observations. The additional data will add to Earth-based measurements. See also OCO-2 Mission Overview.

According to studies, last spring was the first time in modern history that carbon dioxide levels reached 400 parts per million across most of the Northern Hemisphere. Concentrations are continuing to rise, mainly from the burning of fossil fuels. Levels were about 270 ppm before the Industrial Revolution.

The GEOS-5 computer model is being used in tests known as Observing System Simulation Experiments (OSSE), which can help satellite observations tie into weather and climate forecasts.

Said Putnam:

“While researchers working on OSSEs have had to rely on regional models to provide such high-resolution Nature Run simulations in the past, this global simulation now provides a new source of experimentation in a comprehensive global context. This will provide critical value for the design of Earth-orbiting satellite instruments.”

For more detailed views involving various parts of the world, see “A Closer Look at Carbon Dioxide” on NASA’s website for “Orbiting Carbon Observatory 2.” For information about modeling, visit the website of the Global Modeling and Assimilation Office.

Amusing Monday: ‘If we cared about the environment …’

“I can’t believe we lost the glaciers!”

It’s one of the many sardonic lines in a new BuzzFeed video called “If we cared about the environment the way we care about sports,” which you can view below.

BuzzFeed is an off-the-wall website that has somehow morphed into serious journalism while holding onto its humorous and satiric side.

On YouTube, BuzzFeed Central is where you will find at least four channels of odd and humorous videos. I’m not sure how to sort through all these weird videos, but I found several amusing clips that are related to our water theme:

Can we escape water fights in Puget Sound?

“Whiskey is for drinking; water is for fighting over.”

This quote kept running through my mind as I completed the eighth part of our series “Taking the Pulse of Puget Sound.” The latest installment, published in Sunday’s Kitsap Sun, is about water resources.

Craig Greshman of Gresham Well Drilling drills a new well on Virginia Point in Poulsbo. Kitsap Sun photo by Larry Steagall
Craig Greshman of Gresham Well Drilling drills a new well on Virginia Point in Poulsbo.
Kitsap Sun photo by Larry Steagall

It seems from my interviews that we should have enough water in the Puget Sound region to serve the needs of people while maintaining streamflows for fish and other aquatic organisms. It’s all about managing the resource, as I describe in the story.

What isn’t so clear to me is what we need to do about water rights, and this is where the real hangup can come in. People, governments and developers are allowed to reserve vast amounts of water for various uses, then they simply need to “use it or lose it.” That does not encourage conservation.

Water rights are considered a property right. Even if the Legislature had a plan for clearing up all the conflicts, it would not be easy. So far, the courts have been fairly strong in upholding individual water rights, even when the needs of society call for a new direction.

We’ve all encountered belligerent people who speak out loudly about their property rights. They’ll say, “This is my property, and I’ll be damned if I will have the government telling me what I can and cannot do with my property.”

Well, I’m sorry. But that battle is over. Zoning laws have been upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court. Reasonable restrictions can be imposed on the use of property to protect the rights of the neighbors and the entire community.

But water rights are fairly entrenched and inflexible. It may be in the best interest of a community if a farmer could find ways to grow his crops with less water and share the surplus with a growing population. But is it fair to expect the farmer to give away his water rights for free, or should he be paid a sizable amount of money to set free the water he is holding hostage? Maybe he will need that water in the future, given the uncertainties of climate change.

And then there is the groundwater-permit exemptions for single family homes, allowing withdrawal of up to 5,000 gallons per day of water from a well — even though most families use only a few hundred gallons a day. In addition, the courts have ruled that farmers may use an unlimited amount of groundwater for watering livestock. All these water rights are recorded on the books, competing with other water rights — including instream flows to protect water in the streams for fish and other aquatic creatures.

Such water rights can be issued until there is no water left to appropriate or until there is a real water shortage and people generally agree that an adjudication is necessary. That’s when the courts begin to sort out who is using what water and for how long, trying to resolve the tangled claims and conflicts. While it may seem like the most reasonable solution, the adjudication process involves historical evidence and legal rulings that never seem to end. Such an adjudication has been underway in the Yakima basin for 40 years, according to the Department of Ecology website.

While water supplies in the Puget Sound region seem to be generally adequate for years to come, it is unlikely that people and governments will find a way to share this precious resource, setting the stage for ongoing legal battles.

“Whiskey is for drinking; water is for fighting over.”

While this quote is commonly attributed to Mark Twain, there is no evidence he ever said it. See the blog entry by Michael Doyle of McClatchy Newspapers. Trying to prove that Twain never said it, however, is virtually impossible. It reminds me of the effort it may take to prove that one of our ancestors put his water rights to “beneficial use,” thus guaranteeing a quantity of water for all time.

Click on image to download the complete graphic
Click on image to download the complete graphic (PDF 2.8 mb).

Watching the devastating decline of starfish

I went to the beach last week to see some starfish with three trained volunteers. What we found was a scene of devastation on the pier and along the beach at Lofall, located on Hood Canal in North Kitsap.

Barb Erickson photographs a sea star afflicted with sea star wasting syndrome. Photo by Meegan M. Reid
Barb Erickson photographs a sea star afflicted with sea star wasting syndrome. Another infected star dangles by one arm.
Photo by Meegan M. Reid

What had been a large population of sea stars, as scientists call them, were now generally missing. Those that remained were mostly dead or dying. Healthy ones were in a minority.

Sea star wasting syndrome is now clearly present on our local beaches, just as it has affected hundreds of locations from Alaska to Mexico.

On Friday, I was fortunate to be in the company of three women who knew quite a bit about sea stars. They were careful in their observations and precise in their measurements, able to provide data to a network of observers measuring the progress of this disease along the West Coast.

But these three women — Barb Erickson, Linda Martin and Peg Tillery — also expressed their feelings of loss for the sea stars, a creature considered a key part of a healthy marine ecosystem.

As I reported in my story, published Sunday in the Kitsap Sun (subscription), Barb was the first to assess the situation as we arrived at the beach, comparing her observations to just two weeks before.

“‘Oh my!’ shouted Erickson as she reached the base of the pier and took a look at the pilings. ‘I can see right now that there are hardly any (sea stars) here. These corners were just covered the last time. Now these guys are just about wiped out.’”

“’Look at the baby,’ lamented Tillery, pointing to a tiny sea star. ‘He has only four arms, and he’s doing that curling-up thing … We had so much hope for the babies.’”

Melissa Miner, who is part of a coastwide monitoring program, told me that researchers are working hard to find a cause of the advancing affliction. But so far no consistent pattern has emerged to explain every outbreak.

starfish2

A leading hypothesis is that something is causing the sea stars to be stressed, weakening their defenses against the bacteria that eventually kill them. The stressor could be temperature, she said, or possibly other factors such as increased acidity or low-oxygen conditions. Perhaps another organism attacks the immune system, leaving the sea stars vulnerable to an opportunistic bacteria.

Researchers may find multiple pathways to the same conclusion: a dramatic decline in the sea star population, both at the local level and throughout their range along West Coast.

When I hear about a population crash, I think about the basic tenets of population dynamics. Is it possible that the sea star population has reached an unsustainable level, given the available food supply and other factors, and that widespread disease is a natural outcome? Will the decline of sea stars be followed by an overpopulation of mussels or other prey, leading to a decline in ecosystem diversity? How long will it take for the sea stars to recover? These are issues worthy of study in the coming years.

But I’m haunted by another prospect. Having seen our familiar starfish attacked by strange bacteria and turned to mush, what lies in store for other marine organisms? Could ecological stress and other mysterious pathogens lead to the devastating loss of other marine species? Who will be next?

Peg Tillery, Linda Martin and Barb Erickson take notes on the sea stars they see clinging to the Lofall pier. Photo by Meegan M. Reid
Peg Tillery, Linda Martin and Barb Erickson take notes on sea stars clinging to the Lofall pier.
Photo by Meegan M. Reid

Amusing Monday: To laugh about climate change

I just realized the other day that I’ve never offered any jokes about climate change in my weekly “Amusing Monday” feature — although I did present a video clip from Stephen Colbert’s “The Colbert Report” a little more than a year ago. See Amusing Monday, Feb. 4, 2013.

Please don’t tell me it is inappropriate to laugh about tragedy. I mean, don’t even suggest that we can’t find humor in something that does not exist.

So I’ll raise the stakes this week by offering TWO Stephen Colbert videos plus a smattering of jokes from across the comedic landscape — which, by the way, is growing warmer by the year.

David Letterman: “Experts say this global warming is serious, and they are predicting now that by the year 2050, we will be out of party ice.”

Jay Leno: “They say if the warming trend continues, by 2015 Hillary Clinton might actually thaw out.”

Jimmy Fallon: “The White House released this massive report on the effects of climate change called the ‘National Climate Assessment,’ which beats the original title, ‘It’s Getting Hot in Here. (Fallon)

Jimmy Kimmel: “President Bush has a plan. He says that if we need to, we can lower the temperature dramatically just by switching from Fahrenheit to Celsius.”

Conan O’Brien:
“Yesterday, a group of scientists warned that because of global warming, sea levels will rise so much that parts of New Jersey will be under water. The bad news? Parts of New Jersey won’t be under water.”

The jokes above, except for Jimmy Fallon’s, were from “Late night jokes about global warming.”

Do you like cartoons? Take a look at this “Cartoon Gallery” from various artists compiled by Daniel Kurtzman. I’ve linked to the first; click the right arrow to see the full series.

Here are more jokes from lesser-known comedians:

“John Boehner says he’s not qualified to debate the science of climate change. And don’t even get him started on that wacky evolution thing.” — Warren Holstein

“Pat Sajak is correct when he says global warming alarmists are racists. They never talk about the plight of brown or black bears.” — Adam Wolf

“Al Gore has warned that cigarette smoking is a, ‘significant contributor to global warming.’ Making even more of an impact was the hot-air released by this comment.” — Chris Mata

“’I’m not paying to heat the outdoors.’ — some old guy who’s never heard of global warming” — Dan Dodge

“What if global warming IS a hoax and we make this world a better place … for nothing.” — Cold Lord Quietus

Earth Hour arrives this Saturday night

I admit it seems kind of quaint, but I look forward to turning out all the lights in my house once a year and sitting in the dark. It’s a time to contemplate all our marvels of technology while considering the needs of many people around the world.

Earth Hour is coming up on Saturday beginning at 8:30 p.m. The question of the hour: What can we each do to make things better?

If you get the chance, bring your family and/or friends together. You can go out to dinner or do other things before or after the designated hour, but for 60 minutes let your thoughts wander to other places in the world.

For me, that kind of reflection is enough for the moment, but the Earth Hour website talks about inspiring people to join environmental projects across the globe. By reviewing the website, Earth Hour can become a time of learning about worthwhile causes. Listen to Jason Priestly and others in the video player on this page.

If you want to make a difference, check out the five-step program for creating an Earth Hour event. Maybe think about doing something over the next year and sharing it on the Earth Hour website in 2015.

What I like about Earth Hour is that it unites people from around the world, if only for an hour. For those who wish to take a leadership role, Earth Hour is one place to start. As founder Andy Ridley says in a news release:

“What makes Earth Hour different is that it empowers people to take charge and use their power to make a difference. The movement inspires a mixture of collective and individual action, so anyone can do their part.”

Earth Hour begins each year in New Zealand, the first place the clock strikes 8:30 on the designated Saturday night.

Famous landmarks involved in the lights-out event include the Empire State Building, New York; Tower Bridge, London; Edinburgh Castle, Scotland; Brandenburg Gate, Berlin; the Eiffel Tower, Paris; the Kremlin, Moscow; and the Bosphorus Bridge connecting Europe to Asia.

See some photo highlights from previous years

Student project could lead to official state oyster

Nobody was really talking about designating an official “Washington state oyster” until 14-year-old Claire Thompson came along. Now the state Senate has approved a bill, on a 47-1 vote, to list the Olympia oyster as the state’s official oyster.

Claire is an eighth grader at Olympia’s Nova School, which requires a yearlong project involving something that students care deeply about and can make a difference. Claire, who hopes to become a marine biologist or oceanographer, developed a sense of history for the once-prominent Olympia oyster, as we learned from her testimony before the Senate Governmental Operations Committee.

The full testimony on SB 6145 falls between 40:00 and 51:00 in the video on this page.

“Pollution near historic beds caused many closures of the fishery and rallied the oyster farmers to fight for the earliest pollution control regulations for clean water and cleanup,” Claire told the committee.

Ostrea lurida, the scientific name for the Olympia oyster, is the only native oyster to the region. The Pacific oyster, imported from Japan in the 1920s, makes up most of the production today, but the tiny Olympia is making a comeback as a unique delicacy with natural ties to the region.

Claire talked about ocean acidification, caused by excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and its ongoing threat to the ecological health of Puget Sound, Hood Canal and other bays and estuaries.

“Ostrea lurida,” she said, “stands as a living symbol of Washington’s history, from the earliest Native Americans through the pioneers down through statehood to the present day, deserving protection as our native oyster. Please join me in fighting to protect not only our native oyster but our waters as well.”

Claire is the daughter of Rowland Thompson, lobbyist for Allied Daily Newspapers of Washington, who encouraged her to develop her project and speak before the Legislature.

Jim Jesernig of Pacific Coast Shellfish Growers Association said he supports the bill, even though it came as a surprise to his group.

“We have been very pleased working with Claire,” Jesernig said. “It’s very interesting. From the industry, we did not see this. We were working on derelict vessels and a whole bunch of things going on. Claire has worked with folks in Willapa Harbor and the South Sound. We would like to support this in any way.”

If next approved by the house, the Olympia oyster will become the official state oyster, joining:

  • The orca, the official marine mammal;
  • The Olympic marmot, the official endemic mammal;
  • The willow goldfinch, the official bird;
  • The steelhead trout, the official fish; and
  • The common green darner dragonfly, the official insect.

By the way, Puget Sound Restoration Fund, a nonprofit group, has been working for years to restore the Olympia oyster to Puget Sound. I first wrote about this issue in 1999 in a piece called “Native oyster making a comeback — with help.” A companion piece about the taste of the little oyster was titled “Olympia Oyster Gains Respect.” I also presented the tribal perspective in “Tribal Officials Welcome Oyster Restoration.”

Since then, Puget Sound Restoration Fund has helped rebuild native oyster populations in many bays, with one of the greatest successes in Liberty Bay near Poulsbo. Betsy Peabody, executive director, told me this morning that her group has great hopes for success in Dyes Inlet near Silverdale and in Port Gamble Bay in North Kitsap. A new oyster hatchery in Manchester is expected to be in operation later this year.

Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife has developed a long-term restoration plan for the Olympia oyster with 19 areas listed for habitat restoration:

Drayton Harbor
Bellingham Bay (South) Shoreline, Portage Island, and Chuckanut Bay
Samish Bay
Padilla Bay
Fidalgo Bay
Similk Bay
Sequim Bay
Discovery Bay
Kilisut Harbor
Port Gamble Bay
Quilcene Bay
Union River/Big and Little Mission Creek(s) deltas
Liberty Bay and sub-inlets
Dyes Inlet and sub-inlets
Sinclair Inlet
Point Jefferson-Orchard Point complex of passages and inlets
Budd Inlet
Henderson Inlet
Harstine/Squaxin Islands complex of passages and inlets

Congress throwing away the keys to problem-solving

I have been waiting for a prominent person to step forward and compare the politics surrounding climate change to what Congress just went through with the government shutdown and debt limit. Just in time, out of the woodwork, comes former Vice President Al Gore with his droll approach to the subject.

“Congress is pathetic right now, Gore said during an interview on “Take Part Live.” He continued:

“There are some awful good people in Congress trapped in a bad system. The truth is our democracy has been hacked; big money now calls the shots. That may sound like a radical statement, but less and less to people who have been paying attention to what’s been going on there.

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Amusing Monday: A clock for all things

You gotta love this clock. It’s style is reminiscent of the industrial age, but it reveals lots and lots of statistics about the modern world.

The opening page begins with an ongoing count of the world population, along with a tally of births and deaths. Click on any of these elements to reveal a breakdown in the population by age and location and causes of death. Find alternate population estimates. You can also reset the births and deaths tally from the beginning of the year, month, week, day or moment you push the button. (Flash is required to view the clock. See help.)


World Clock by Poodwaddle.com

Be sure to explore the other areas, listed in the left column, including environment, energy, food, economy, crime and smile. Under environment, you’ll find a prediction of global warming and sea-level rise. Click on the top element for a further explanation of the data.


World Clock by Poodwaddle.com

I want to thank Art Schick for calling my attention to this amazing clock. The clock was created by Poodwaddle. I can’t find much about the creators of the clock, but we know that Poodwaddle has been around about six years. To view other widgets of various types, go to Poodwaddle-All.