It’s an interesting time for researchers to begin writing a blog
about ocean conditions off Oregon and Washington, an area
undergoing some fascinating changes in oceanography and
Scientists from NOAA Fisheries and Oregon State University
launched their new website,
“Newporter Blog,” last week. It’s named after the Newport Line,
an area of study off the Oregon Coast where researchers have
monitored changes for the past 20 years.
“This year, the ocean has been very different,” wrote blogger
Jennifer Fisher in the blog’s first post on June 23. “Anomalously
warm surface water dubbed the ‘warm blog’ moved onto the
continental shelf off Newport in September 2014. A very large
harmful algal bloom (HAB) spanning from British Columbia to
California is occurring off the coast right now. El Niño conditions
are occurring at the equator, and NOAA is forecasting a 90-percent
chance that an El Niño will persist through the Fall.”
The next blog post last Thursday was by researcher Cheryl Morgan
from the Canadian fishing vessel FV Frosti “somewhere off the coast
of the Pacific Northwest,” where researchers are looking to see how
juvenile salmon are doing. They were taking note of anything picked
up in their nets in the upper 60 feet of water.
“Watching the trawl come in is like the anticipation of opening
a Christmas gift,” Cheryl wrote. “What could be in there? How many?
How big? Have we ever caught any of them in the net?
“We always hope for some juvenile salmon, since that is the main
point of the survey, but we also like to see something different,
strange, or unusual to spice things up,” she continued.
The next post on Monday revealed that fish being caught were of
a kind seen in Northwest waters only when the temperatures rise.
They included pompano and jack mackerel. The researchers were
especially surprised to find bottom-dwelling flatfish in their net
some several hundred feet off the bottom.
“What is a fish that lives on the bottom, one side down, doing
in the water column?” she asked. “Perhaps they are lost, could not
find the bottom or they are chasing some dinner. Most strange,
however, was the catch of nearly 3,330 Pacific sanddabs … in ONE
trawl. That was a first for even the fishing crew.”
The team also brought up a juvenile red octopus, a species
normally found among rocks on the bottom — “another creature that
is a long way from home.”
The research fishing will continue from Newport to the upper
corner of Washington state. The scientists are taking note of any
birds preying on fish before they begin their daily trawl. Plankton
also are scooped up to see what the fish might be eating and to
provide new data about the harmful algal bloom.
The work is being funded by NOAA and Bonneville Power
The researchers/bloggers said they would share their findings as
they go along. I, for one, look forward to learning about ocean
conditions and how the warm water is affecting all sorts of sealife
along the West Coast.
A census of the killer whales that frequent Puget Sound is due
today, and it appears that the total population of the three
Southern Resident pods is 82, up from 79 last year at this
But that’s not the end of the story, because two small groups of
orcas have not been seen recently — so a final count must wait,
according to Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research, which
conducts the annual census.
The three Southern Resident pods, well defined years ago, are no
longer the same, Ken told me. The tendency the past few years is
for the whales to split up into smaller groups of one or more
families, known as matrilines. Immediate families tend to stay
together, but larger groupings such as pods and subpods are
becoming less certain.
“They’ve decided to mix it up,” Ken said. “This is definitely
different. If we were trying to determine pod structures right now,
we couldn’t do it. It’s all mix and match.”
The Center for Whale Research records the annual census on July
1 each year and reports it to the federal government by
Four orca births can be reported since the last census was
J-50 a female calf born to J-16, named Slick, last
J-51 a male*
calf born to J-41, named Eclipse, in February
L-121 a male*
calf born to L-94, named Calypso, in February
J-52 a female
male calf born to J-36, named Alki, in March
*Update: Sexes not confirmed by Center for Whale
Research, and J-51 likely a male. (See comments.) I’ll update
These were the first births among Southern Residents to be
reported since August of 2012. Some people see these newborns as a
hopeful sign for the future of the population, which is listed as
endangered under the Endangered Species Act.
So far, one death has been confirmed over the past year. That
was J-32, an 18-year-old female named Rhapsody, who was found dead
on Dec. 4 floating near Courtenay, B.C. The young whale was
pregnant, and experts believe that the death of the fetus inside
her body could have led to her death as well. For more details ,
see Water Ways from
Dec. 7 and from
While there is no reason to believe that any other deaths have
occurred over the past year, nobody can be sure, at least not until
the last two groups of whales can be observed. If any animals are
truly missing after their family groups are carefully observed, we
could see one or more whales added to the death list.
In all, nine whales have not been seen this spring or summer
since returning to the San Juan Islands. One of the two groups of
whales was spotted off the Washington Coast in February, when all
the whales were present. One of the uncertain groups was reported
yesterday near San Juan Island, but I have not heard whether any
“missing” whales were identified.
Since the census report is not due until October, there is time
to see whether any more whales have died this past year. If any
more deaths are identified, the researchers will need to make a
judgment about whether the death occurred before or after the July
1 census cutoff. We can certainly hope that all the whales will be
Ken suspects that the pod groupings are becoming less distinct
because of the changing pattern of available prey, primarily
chinook salmon. When large schools of wild chinook head back to the
rivers, killer whales can work together to herd the fish and gain
Ken says hatchery chinook may not school together as much as
wild chinook, so the advantage goes to smaller groups of orcas if
the majority of salmon are from hatcheries.
“The prey field has changed for them,” he said. “Back when we
named the pods, the bulk of the fish were wild, and they were
coming through in pulses. All these fish were related and from the
same river system. Now with the hatchery program, there are less
pulses and the fish are more spread out.”
The chinook also are much smaller than they used to be, he said,
so it takes more effort to get the same nutritional benefit.
The Center for Whale
Research, now in its 40th year, conducts its census work in
Puget Sound under a grant from the National Marine Fisheries
Service. The grant is fairly limited, so the center began offering
memberships a few years ago to raise money for additional
This year’s membership drive is nearly halfway toward its goal
of 750 members, with 329 members signed on as of yesterday. An
individual membership costs $30 a year. For details and special
member benefits, go to “Supporting the
Center for Whale Research.”
In a related development, Ken recently took a trip into Snake
River country in Eastern Washington, the source of upstream habitat
for many of the salmon that come down the Columbia River. His
experience and what he has learned about the Snake River dams has
placed him among advocates for dam removal in this hotly contested
“Until recently, dam removal was against my conservative
“In truth, already well known to others but not to me, these
four Snake River dams are obsolete for their intended purposes and
are being maintained at huge taxpayer expense for the benefit of a
very few users. Plus, they are salmon-killers in a former river
(now a series of lakes) that historically provided spawning and
rearing habitat for millions of chinook salmon…”
“The technological fixes for the dams have not improved wild
salmon runs, and there is nothing left to try. As a nation, we are
dangerously close to managing the beloved Southern Resident killer
whale population to quasi-extinction (less than 30 breeding
animals) as a result of diminishing populations of chinook salmon
upon which they depend…
“Returning the Snake River to natural condition will help salmon
and whales, and save money. Please do not wait until all are gone.
Call or write your representatives today!”
The beautiful and powerful brown bears have arrived at Brooks
Falls in Katmai National Park and Preserve in Alaska, and everyone
in the world can enjoy the convenience of watching these giant
bears and other amazing wildlife live from the comfort and safety
of their home.
Lots of people have been going out to falls this year to watch
the bears from nearby viewing platforms, but I get the feeling that
far more people have been watching them from home via the
live webcams. I say that because of the number of
comments generated on the website. More than a few commenters
seem to know the area well and even call the bears by their
nicknames. (Park biologists use a numbering system, identifying
each bear by coat and claw colors, scars, body size and shape, ear
size and shape, sex, facial features and disposition.)
Brooks Falls is one of the first streams in the region where the
bears have easy access to bright salmon soon after they leave the
saltwater and before spawning. The falls provide a partial barrier
to their travels, making fishing easier for the bears. By sometime
in August, the fish runs will dwindle and the bears will be
Operators of the multiple live webcams do a good job of zooming
in when something interesting happens. Occasionally, so much is
going on that they don’t know what to show. Other times, we wait
and watch the beautiful scenery, which is especially dramatic at
sunrise and sunset.
When the bears are actively fishing for salmon, I find it hard
to break away and get back to daily life. One video trick I’ve
learned: If you don’t see anything interesting in the live view,
you can use your cursor to scan across the timeline to see what has
happened for the past few hours and watch that instead.
Park officials have identified the various fishing methods used
by the bears in an interesting
Q&A section on the national park’s website.
Birds and marine mammal cams
Besides watching bears, it’s a good time of year to watch other
wildlife as well via live webcam. Birds are typically active on
their nests, raising their young.
Chesapeake Conservancy is featuring the osprey couple,
Tom and Audrey, who perennially nest on Kent Island in
Maryland. Audrey has taken up with a new “Tom” this year and
produced three babies. They also received two foster chicks from
nearby Poplar Island, according to information on the website.
Another good osprey cam was installed this year in Belwood Lake
Conservation Area near the Great Lakes in Ontario, Canada. Three
eggs reportedly hatched, but I see only two chicks in the nest.
Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife also has an osprey
cam that updates still photos every 12 seconds.
cam at Seal Island National Wildlife Refuge in Maine shows a
fuzzy chick tucked into a burrow where its mother comes and goes to
feed her baby. Other views shows puffins on a ledge where they
often hang out. Wildlife biologists are trying to establish a new
colony at this location after hunters wiped out the puffins in the
If you would like to see a colony
of walruses, (also in video player below) check out the live
camera installed on Round Island, Alaska. Sometimes only a few of
the large mammals can be seen. Other times, like this morning,
large numbers were pushing and shoving each other for space. The
comments are often entertaining.
Unique clouds at the edge of space appear to be showing up in
spring and summer more often than ever before, according to NASA
scientists, who speculate that climate change could be playing a
role in cloud formation.
I like the term “noctilucent clouds” for these night-shining
clouds glowing with a tint of blue — although NASA researchers
formally call them “polar mesospheric clouds.” That’s because they
show up at the poles in the mesosphere at about 50 miles up — the
outer edge of Earth’s atmosphere. If you are a scientist with a
perspective from satellites, you don’t really think about day or
The clouds are actually ice crystals about the size of particles
in cigarette smoke, according to an interesting article by NASA’s
Tony Phillips, who interviewed cloud-researcher and astronaut
Don Pettit in 2003. Because the clouds are so high up, they are
seen shortly after the sky turns dark at sunset, a time when
sunlight can still bounce off the crystals. Years ago, they were
seen only in the far-north latitudes in our part of the world, but
more recently they have been seen as far south as Colorado and
The temperature in the mesosphere is about -125 degrees Celsius,
or nearly 200 degrees below zero Fahrenheit. Conditions up there
are extremely dry — far dryer than any place on Earth.
Like common clouds in the lower atmosphere, noctilucent clouds
need water vapor and a “nucleus” upon which the water can attach.
In the lower atmosphere, called the troposphere, ordinary dust and
many other particles are common enough as a result of winds. Cirrus
clouds can form in the highest layers of the troposphere, about 12
miles up. But until data came back from the AIM project, nobody was
sure what was happening at 50 miles up. Now, researchers believe
the nuclei are mostly space dust pulled in by Earth’s gravity.
The first reports of noctilucent clouds came in 1885 after the
eruption of the volcano Krakatoa. Researchers aren’t sure if
volcanic dust made it high enough into the atmosphere to form the
clouds, but that potential source disappeared long ago.
Noctilucent clouds are observed in late spring and summer when
upwelling winds carry water vapor up into the atmosphere. The
increasing frequency of cloud formation may be the result of
climate change. It turns out that when greenhouse gases warm the
Earth’s surface, the upper atmosphere actually gets colder as heat
escapes, helping the tiny crystals to form.
Another factor in climate change could be the increasing amount
of methane gas in the atmosphere. A complex series of reactions can
oxidize the methane to form water vapor, which can then form ice
One of the unexpected results of the AIM mission has been
unusual “teleconnections” between the north and south poles via the
mesosphere. It turns out that a slowing of stratospheric winds over
the Arctic affects circulation in the mesosphere, causing a ripple
effect around the globe. The southern mesosphere becomes warmer and
drier, leading to fewer noctilucent clouds.
These high-level connections were not even suspected when the
AIM spacecraft was launched, but they are revealing how weather on
one part of the globe may be connected to relatively rapid changes
in other far-flung regions. (Check out last year’s video below.)
Further studies of the upper atmosphere can be expected to bring
This week’s announcement that the coastal population of canary
rockfish had dramatically rebounded got me to wondering what new
information might be coming from research on the threatened and
endangered rockfish of Puget Sound.
Dayv Lowry, research scientist at the Washington Department of
Fish and Wildlife, shared some intriguing new information about
Puget Sound rockfish that could link into the coastal population.
In fact, if limited genetic findings hold up, a delisting of one
type of Puget Sound rockfish could be in order.
On Monday, the Pacific
Fishery Management Council reported that West Coast populations
of two groundfish species — canary rockfish and petrale sole — have
been “rebuilt” some 42 years earlier than expected. Canary rockfish
were declared “overfished” in 2000, and a rebuilding plan was put
in place a year later. Strict fishing restrictions were imposed,
and experts expected the stock to rebound successfully by 2057.
“This is a big deal,” former council chairman Dan Wolford said
news release. “We now have six times more canary rockfish than
when we scaled back so many fisheries. This shows the Pacific
council’s conservation policies work.”
Meanwhile, WDFW and NOAA Fisheries are researching the three
species of Puget Sound rockfish listed under the Endangered Species
Act. They are canary
rockfish and yelloweye
rockfish, both listed as threatened, and bacaccio,
listed as endangered.
Underwater surveys with a remotely operated vehicle in 2012 and
2013 looked for all sorts of bottomfish across a grid laid down on
Puget Sound. Researchers found a greater abundance of quillback and
copper rockfish (not ESA listed) than in the past, and young
juvenile quillbacks were seen on muddy substrate — not the place
you would normally look for rockfish.
While that was encouraging, nearly 200 hours of video at 197
grid points revealed just two canary and five yelloweye
“That was quite distressing to us,” Dayv said.
This year and next, surveys are more focused on rocky habitat,
including locations where fishing guides say they have had success
catching rockfish in the past. The results are more encouraging,
locating somewhere around 40 canary and 40 yelloweye and two
bacaccio, Dayv said.
“We’ve caught some big fish and some little fish, so the
population demographics have not entirely collapsed,” Dayv told me,
and that means there is still hope for recovery.
Rockfish don’t typically reproduce until somewhere between 5 and
20 years old, so over-fishing places the future of the entire
population at risk. Some rockfish are known to live as long as 100
Finding juvenile yelloweyes — “bright red with ‘racing stripes’”
— is especially encouraging Dayv said.
Genetic work so far is offering some intriguing new findings, he
noted. While yelloweye rockfish from Puget Sound and the Strait of
Georgia seem to be distinct from those on the coast, the same
cannot be said for canary rockfish.
In fact, the limited samples taken so far suggest that the
coastal population of canary rockfish — those found by the PFMC to
be “rebuilt” — may not be genetically distinct from canary rockfish
living in Puget Sound.
If that proves to be the case, it could have a profound effect
on what we understand about canary rockfish and could even lead to
a de-listing of the Puget Sound population.
Kelly Andrews, a genetics expert with NOAA Fisheries, cautioned
that the sample size is small and more results are needed before
anyone can draw conclusions. New samples are soon to be examined to
see if there are any differences between canary rockfish on the
coast and those in Puget Sound.
“What initially may seem to be the same could change
dramatically with all these new samples we just got,” he told me.
“Still just finding them is good news.”
When the Puget Sound rockfish were listed in 2010, researchers
did not have the genetic data to define the populations in that
way, so they used reasonable assumptions about geographic
isolation. Now, the genetics can be factored in.
A five-year review is due to be completed this year for the
listed rockfish in Puget Sound. If the new genetics information
holds up, then the technical review team could propose a delisting
of the canary rockfish.
For that reason, a long-awaited recovery plan for rockfish is
being completed for the most part, but its release will be delayed
until the genetic information is conclusive and the five-year
review is completed. It would not make sense to come out with a
recovery plan for canary rockfish, if the plan is to delist the
Meanwhile, small areas of Quilcene and Dabob bays have been
reopened to fishing for some flatfish. (See earlier news release.)
Bottom fishing is generally closed in Hood Canal because of the
ongoing low-oxygen problems and its effects of bottom fish.
As in other areas of Puget Sound, targeted bottom fishing must
take place in less than 120 feet of water, and all rockfish caught
must be released. Experts strongly advise using a “descending
device” (see video) to get rockfish safely back to deep water, no
matter where they are caught. Without that, many of the fish die
from barotrauma caused by the ballooning of their swim bladder as
they are brought to the surface. See
“Bring That Fish Down” by California Sea Grant and “Protecting
Washington’s Rockfish” by WDFW.
After much success in cleaning up streams in Kitsap County,
pollution investigators for the Kitsap Public Health District plan
to turn their backs on most state and federal grants and reorganize
their approach to local waterways.
I’m talking about the folks who literally wrote the book on
pollution identification and correction, or PIC, a strategic
approach to tracking down bacterial contamination and eliminating
the sources. A 2012
“Protocol Manual” (PDF 10.6 mb) and a 2014
“guidance document” (PDF 4.3 mb) — both developed by Kitsap’s
pollution investigators — are now being used by local health
departments throughout the state.
That’s why I was surprised to hear that the health district
plans to change course for its pollution-cleanup program this fall
— especially the part about reducing reliance on state and federal
grants. For many Puget Sound jurisdictions, these grants provide
the major sources of funding, if not the only funding for their PIC
Kitsap County is fortunate to have a stormwater fee collected
from rural property owners. For single-family homeowners, the fee
will be $82 this year. The money goes into the Clean Water Kitsap
program, which funds a multitude of clean-water projects —
including street-sweeping, improving stormwater systems and
restoring natural drainage.
The fee also supports the health district’s ongoing monitoring
program, a monthly sampling of more than 50 Kitsap County streams,
along with lakes and marine waters. The program has successfully
reported improvements in various streams while providing
early-warning signs for water-quality problems. The program was
started in 1996.
None of that will change, according to Stuart Whitford,
supervisor for the health district’s PIC Program. While state and
federal grants have been helpful in tracking down pollution
problems, most of the major problems have been identified, he
“We know what we have, and the patient has been stabilized,” he
The problem with grants is that they require specific
performance measures, which must be carefully documented and
reported quarterly and in final reports.
“The administrative burden is heavy, and the state grants don’t
fully pay for the overhead,” Stuart said. “Looking out into the
future, we think state and federal grants will be reduced. We are
already seeing that in the Legislature. So we are going to wean
ourselves off the grants.”
Future efforts need to focus on identifying failing septic
systems and sources of animal waste before they become a serious
problem, Stuart told me. The process of doing that is firmly
established in local plans. Work will continue, however, on nagging
pollution problems that have not been resolved in some streams. And
he’s not ruling out applying for grants for specific projects, if
the need returns.
To increase efficiency in the ongoing program, health district
staff will be reorganized so that each investigator will focus on
one or more of the 10 watersheds in the county. In the process, the
staff has been cut by one person. The assignments are being made
now and will be fully implemented in the fall.
“The stream monitoring will remain the same,” Stuart said. “But
each person will be able to do more intensive monitoring in their
Having one investigator responsible for each watershed will
allow that person to become even more intimately acquainted with
the landscape and the water-quality issues unique to that area.
Because of the extensive problems in Sinclair Inlet, two people
will be assigned to that drainage area, which includes a good
portion of South Kitsap and West Bremerton.
Dave Garland, regional water-quality supervisor for the
Department of Ecology, said he, too, was surprised that the Kitsap
Public Health District wishes to avoid grants, but he is confident
that Stuart Whitford knows what he is doing.
“They are definitely leaders in the state and have been very
successful in their approach,” he said. “We wish more health
districts and surface water departments would be more like Kitsap.
They are improving as they go.”
Garland said Kitsap County officials have done more than anyone
to remove streams and waterways from the “impaired waters” list
that Ecology compiles. The list — also known as 303(d) under the
federal Clean Water Act — is part of Ecology’s
“Water Quality Assessment,” now being finalized for submission
to the federal Environmental Protection Agency.
In 2008, Kitsap County had 69 stream segments listed as
“impaired.” As a result of work over six years, now only 7 are
proposed for the upcoming list. Many streams were removed when they
came under state cleanup plans for Dyes and Sinclair inlets,
between Port Orchard and Silverdale, or in Liberty Bay near
Poulsbo. Those state plans identify cleanup efforts to reduce
pollution loading and bring the waters into conformance with state
water-quality standards. They are called TMDLs, short for total
maximum daily loads.
Because the Kitsap County PIC Program has been so successful,
Ecology has allowed the local program to substitute for TMDL
studies for many streams where stormwater outfalls are not an
issue. Under the Clean Water Act, the local program comes under
Category 4B (for local planning), as opposed to 4A (the state’s
“No one has done a more thorough job,” Dave said of Kitsap’s
effort. “It is very impressive to see that they have gone to TMDLs
or to 4B. That does not mean the waters are clean, but it means
they are under a plan.”
Of the remaining seven “impaired” water bodies, some should be
removed because of Kitsap’s cleanup plans, Stuart said. They
include Anderson Creek and Boyce Creek, which flow into Hood Canal,
and Murden Creek on Bainbridge Island, which is undergoing a
special study. Phinney Creek in Dyes Inlet is already part of a
TMDL, and an area in southern Hood Canal should not be on the list
because it meets water-quality standards, he said. Stuart hopes to
get those changes made before the list is submitted to EPA this
Currently, nothing is being done with regard to Eagle Harbor or
Ravine Creek, two “impaired” water bodies on Bainbridge Island. The
health district’s program does not extend to cities, although
Bainbridge could contract with the health district for monitoring
Eagle Harbor could become subject to a TMDL study by the
Department of Ecology, but it is not currently on the state’s
priority list. As a result, work is not likely to begin for at
least two years.
The Environmental Protection Agency has finally completed a new
rule that defines which waterways across the country fall under
federal jurisdiction for clean-water permits.
Enforcement of the federal Clean Water Act has been stuck in a
state of confusion since 2006, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled
that the Army Corps of Engineers was overreaching by requiring
permits for all sorts of waterways beyond the agency’s
jurisdiction. For background, check out my
Water Ways post from March 25, 2014, in which I describe the
court’s interpretation of “waters of the U.S.” — the key phrase in
The EPA requisitioned a scientific report about hydraulic
connectivity, concluding that even small streams can affect
downstream waters. The final language in the rule, designed to
reduce judgment calls by federal regulators, says tributaries would
come under federal jurisdiction only if capable of delivering
significant pollution downstream. Such tributaries would need to
have flowing water or related features — such as a streambed, bank
or high-water mark.
The rule has worried farmers, who want to make sure the federal
government does not try to regulate ditches designed for irrigation
and drainage. Language in the final rule says ditches will not be
regulated unless they are shown to be a remnant of a natural stream
that has been diverted or altered.
Jo-Ellen Darcy, assistant secretary for the Army, said the rule
represents a “new era” for the Clean Water Act. As she stated in a
“This rule responds to the public’s demand for greater clarity,
consistency, and predictability when making jurisdictional
determinations. The result will be better public service
EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said the rule is grounded in
science and law. For downstream waters to be clean, upstream waters
also must be clean, she said.
McCarthy said the language was revised significantly since the
first proposal, taking into account more than a million public
comments and discussions in 400 meetings across the country. As she
told reporters in a telephone conference call:
“I think you will see that we have made substantial changes that
basically made this rule clearer, crisper and did the job we were
supposed to do. And I’m very proud of the work we have done
McCarthy also told the reporters that climate change increases
the importance of protecting water resources:
“Impacts from climate change — like more intense droughts,
storms, fires and floods, not to mention sea-level rise — affect
our water supplies. But healthy streams and wetlands can help
protect communities by trapping flood waters, retaining moisture
during drought, recharging groundwater supplies, filtering
pollution and providing habitat for fish and wildlife.”
The new rule was applauded by many environmental groups,
including the Sierra Club. Michael Brune, executive director,
“No longer will the Supreme Court’s confusing decisions on the
issue allow dirty fossil fuel companies to threaten people’s health
by dumping toxins into our lakes, rivers, and streams.”
Still, plenty of people contend that the EPA and Army Corps have
contrived this new rule to continue their over-reach into streams
that should be beyond federal jurisdiction. House Speaker John
Boehner, R- Ohio, issued
this statement in response to the EPA’s release of the new
rule, sometimes called “WOTUS” for “waters of the U.S.”
“The administration’s decree to unilaterally expand federal
authority is a raw and tyrannical power grab that will crush jobs.
House members of both parties have joined more than 30 governors
and government leaders to reject EPA’s disastrous WOTUS rule. These
leaders know firsthand that the rule is being shoved down the
throats of hardworking people with no input and places landowners,
small businesses, farmers and manufacturers on the road to a
regulatory and economic hell.”
The House has already passed a bill, HB
1732, that would put the brakes on implementation of the new
rule and send the EPA back to the drawing board for new language.
As you could expect, the vote was mostly along party lines. If the
Senate approves the bill, it is likely to be vetoed by the
The new rule is scheduled to go into effect 60 days from its
publication in the Federal Register. For more details, visit the
EPA’s website “Clean
This year’s research project tracing the movements of Southern
Resident killer whales has ended after 96 days of tracking L-84, a
25-year-old male named Nyssa.
It was the longest period of tracking among the Southern
Residents since the satellite-tagging studies began in 2012. The
transmitter carried by L-84 lasted three days longer than a similar
deployment on K-25 in 2013. The satellite tags, which are attached
to the dorsal fins of the whales with darts, often detach after
about a month.
The nice thing about this year’s study is that it covered the
entire month of April and much of May, according to Brad Hanson,
project supervisor for NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center.
That tells the researchers something about the movement of the
whales later in the year than previous deployments have
A satellite tag on J-27 (Blackberry) in late December extended
the total tracking period to more than four months.
Looking back through the
tracking maps since February, it is clear that L-84 and his
entourage have spent much of their time moving up and down the
Washington and Oregon coasts. They seem to favor hanging out near
the mouth of the Columbia River. On a few occasions, they have
ventured into Northern California.
On May 6, they took their only jaunt north into Canadian waters,
reaching Estavan Point (halfway up Vancouver Island) two days
later. They continued north another day, nearly reaching Brooks
Peninsula (about three-fourths up Vancouver Island) on May 9. Then
they headed back south, ending this year’s tracking program near
the Columbia River.
Just before the satellite tag fell off, biologists from Cascadia
Research Collective caught up with the whales on May 21 south of
the Columbia River. The researchers noticed that the tag was
loosening, and no further satellite signals were picked up.
The tracking studies, combined with efforts to collect samples
of feces and fish remains, are designed to identify where the
whales are spending their time in winter months and what they are
finding to eat when salmon are more scarce. All of this could lead
to a major expansion of their designated “critical habitat” and
increased protections in coastal waters. As of now, critical
habitat for the whales does not extend into the ocean, and NOAA has
concluded that more information is needed before changing the
designated protection area.
Within the next month or so, all three Southern Resident pods
should head into Puget Sound, congregating in the San Juan Islands,
as chinook salmon return to Canada’s Fraser River and other streams
in the Salish Sea.
Meanwhile, J pod seems to be hanging out in waters around the
San Juans, possibly waiting for the other pods to show up. Plenty
of observers have been filing some great reports and related photos
That link also includes recent reports of seal-eating transient
killer whales that have traveled as far south as the
Bremerton-Seattle area, perhaps farther. A few humpback whales have
been sighted in northern Puget Sound.
A couple weeks ago, I wrote about a a new deep-sea observatory
being built off the West Coast. I noted that Washington and Oregon
researchers are thrilled to monitor the eruption of an underwater
volcano called Axial Seamount.
Soon, new equipment and a fiber optics cable will allow these
researchers to widely share discoveries involving the unique
geology and unusual plants and animals living at the bottom of the
ocean. People will be able to watch in real time via the Internet.
Water Ways, May 6.
Now, a new lawsuit filed by the Center for Biological Diversity
has me thinking about the commercial value of the deep ocean. Can
society safely mine the seafloor for valuable minerals used in a
wide variety of consumer products? Can huge mining equipment
operate in water two or three miles deep without destroying the
unique ecosystem at the bottom of the ocean?
For decades, researchers have been aware of high concentrations
of minerals lying on and beneath the sea floor. But nobody was
worried about the environmental damage of mining, because the costs
of commercial recovery were too great.
The high profitability of mining sector companies;
A decline in the tonnage and grade of land-based nickel, copper
and cobalt sulphide deposits; and
Technological advances in deep seabed mining and
The new technology involves giant robotic machines that either
excavate the seafloor or scoop up clumps of polymetallic nodules.
Over the past few years, 26 permits have been issued to mining
corporations, mostly for operations in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone
of the Pacific Ocean, about halfway between Hawaii and Mexico.
“Deep-sea mining is an emerging threat to our oceans that has
the potential to irreparably harm underwater ecosystems before we
even have a chance to fully study its impacts,” declares the
Center for Biological Diversity, adding:
“Life on the deep ocean floor is still a mysterious realm that
scientists have only just begun to fully understand and inventory…
What mountaintop-removal coal mining has done in Appalachia,
deep-sea mining has the potential to do in the Pacific Ocean,
affecting the ecosystem and food web in ways that scientists say
they don’t yet fully understand.”
Last week, the environmental group filed a
lawsuit (PDF 162 kb) against the U.S. government for issuing
exploratory permits without the requisite environmental studies.
Said Emily Jeffers, the attorney who filed the case:
“Deep-sea mining should be stopped, and this lawsuit aims to
compel the government to look at the environmental risks before it
leaps into this new frontier. We need to protect the ocean wildlife
and habitat, and the United States should provide leadership for
other nations to follow before more projects get underway.”
The lawsuit, filed in Washington, D.C., challenges two
exploratory permits issued to OMCO Seabed Exploration, LLC, a
subsidiary of Lockheed Martin, the defense contractor. The original
permits for work in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone expired in 2004.
Jeffers says the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
should have considered the environmental effects of the mining plan
before renewing the permits in 2012.
“If we aren’t careful, this new gold rush could do irreparable
harm to the basic building blocks of life. The federal government
has a moral duty, as well as a legal one, to understand the full
environmental impacts before the mining industry scrapes away our
Besides tearing up the sea floor, mining operations can stir up
sediment, which can smother organisms living on the bottom,
according to the lawsuit. Cloudy water can reduce productivity, and
clouds of sediment may contain toxic metals that reduce
reproductive success of sea life. Light and noise from ships and
vessels can disrupt seabird behavior and affect whales and other
marine mammals, the suit claims.
Other permits have been issued to various countries in Europe
and Asia by the International
Seabed Authority, which hopes to approve environmental
standards by the end of next year. The U.S. is not subject to those
rules and cannot demand compliance from other countries, because
the U.S. has not ratified the United Nations’ Convention on the Law
of the Sea, a treaty that establishes the International Seabed
It was the clever headline that caught my attention: “April
flowers bring May showers?”
But it was the latest research about pollen from the University
of Michigan and Texas A&M that got me digging a little deeper
and eventually arriving at the subject of clouds and climate
The bottom line is a possibility that pollen from trees and
flowers can break apart during a rainstorm. The broken pieces can
then float up into the air and seed the clouds for the next
Allison Steiner, associate professor of atmospheric, oceanic and
space sciences at U-M, began exploring how pollen might seed the
clouds after sweeping a layer of pollen off her front porch one
morning and wondering what happens after the pollen drifts into the
Atmospheric scientists have never paid much attention to pollen.
It is generally believed that pollen grains are too large to seed
the clouds. Instead, most attention has been focused on man-made
aerosols, such as particles from a coal-fired power plant. High in
the atmosphere, the particles can encourage moisture in the air to
condense, the initial step in the formation of rain.
But people with allergies may recognize that their symptoms grow
worse after a rainstorm when the air begins to dry out. As Steiner
explains in an
M-I news release:
“When we were looking in the allergy literature we discovered
that it’s pretty well known that pollen can break up into these
tiny pieces and trigger an allergic response. What we found is when
pollen gets wet, it can rupture very easily in seconds or minutes
and make lots of smaller particles that can act as cloud
condensation nuclei, or collectors for water.”
In a laboratory at Texas A&M, Sarah Brooks, a professor in
atmospheric sciences, soaked six different kinds of pollen in
water, then sprayed the moist fragments into a cloud-making
chamber. Brooks and her colleagues found that three fragment sizes
— 50, 100 and 200 nanometers — quickly collected water vapor to
form cloud droplets, which are 10 times bigger than the particles.
(It takes about 6 million nanometers to equal a quarter of an inch,
so we’re talking about very small particles.) Brooks noted in a
Texas A&M news release:
“Scientists are just beginning to identify the types of
biological aerosols which are important for cloud formation. Our
results identify pollen as a major contributor to cloud formation.
Specifically, our results suggest that increased pollen could lead
to the formation of thicker clouds and longer cloud lifetimes.”
The effect of cloud formation on global warming may be the most
important mystery in climate science today, according to Jasper
Kirby, a particle physicist who is leading a team of atmospheric
scientists from 15 European and U.S. institutions. Consequently,
the effect of aerosols on cloud formation must be equally
Clouds are known to cool the planet by reflecting sunlight back
out to space, but they can also contain heat at night, so cloud
formation plays a critical role in determining the rate of global
warming. To better predict global warming, one has to better
understand when and how clouds are formed at a “very fundamental
level,” Kirby told reporter Rae Ellen Bichell in
“Yale Environment 360.” Kirby added:
“By fundamental, I mean we have to understand what the gases
are, the vapors, that are responsible for forming these little
particles. And secondly, we have to understand exactly how quickly
they react with each other and how they form the aerosol particles
which … constitute the seeds for cloud droplets. And this process
is responsible for half the cloud droplets in the atmosphere. It’s
a very, very important process, but it’s very poorly
In the upper atmosphere, aerosols can directly reflect sunlight
back into space. These include man-made aerosols from industrial
pollution as well as natural aerosols, such as volcanic eruptions
and desert dust and now possibly pollen. Check out NASA’s webpage
Steiner, who is doing the pollen experiments, said understanding
natural aerosols is critical to understanding climate change:
“What happens in clouds is one of the big uncertainties in
climate models right now. One of the things we’re trying to
understand is how do natural aerosols influence cloud cover and
precipitation under present day and future climate.
“It’s possible that when trees emit pollen, that makes clouds,
which in turn makes rain and that feeds back into the trees and can
influence the whole growth cycle of the plant.”
For people more interested in the allergy aspects of this story,
I found a website called pollen.com, which
identifies a variety of ways that weather can affect pollen and
A mild winter can lead to early plant growth and an early
A late freeze can delay pollen production in trees, reducing
the risk of an allergic reaction,
Dry, windy weather increases the spread of pollen and worsens
Rain can wash pollen out of the air, reducing the risk of
exposure to pollen, but
Rain can also increase the growth of plants, especially
grasses, increasing the pollen levels.