Category Archives: Research

Sea-floor mining brings deep concerns about environmental effects

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.

Smoker

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. See 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.

That has been changing, however, thanks to the combination of five factors, according to a 2013 study “Towards the Development of a Regulatory Framework for Polymetallic Nodule Exploitation” (PDF 1.1 mb). They are:

  1. A dramatic increase in demand for metal;
  2. An equally dramatic rise in metal prices;
  3. The high profitability of mining sector companies;
  4. A decline in the tonnage and grade of land-based nickel, copper and cobalt sulphide deposits; and
  5. Technological advances in deep seabed mining and processing.

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.

Said Jeffers in a news release:

“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 deep-sea resources.”

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 Authority.

Map

We know pollen helps seed the trees — but what about clouds?

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 change.

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 rainstorm.

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 air.

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 important.

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 understood.”

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 on “Atmospheric Aerosols.”

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 thus allergies:

  1. A mild winter can lead to early plant growth and an early allergy season,
  2. A late freeze can delay pollen production in trees, reducing the risk of an allergic reaction,
  3. Dry, windy weather increases the spread of pollen and worsens allergy symptoms,
  4. Rain can wash pollen out of the air, reducing the risk of exposure to pollen, but
  5. Rain can also increase the growth of plants, especially grasses, increasing the pollen levels.

For a research report about how rain can break up pollen into smaller particles to trigger allergies, check out “Thunderstorm-associated asthma in Atlanta, Georgia” by Andrew Grundstein et al.

Call it ‘nonpoint’ or ‘stormwater;’ this problem is serious

As far as I know, nobody has come up with a good name for the type of pollution that gets picked up by rainwater that flows across the ground, carrying contaminants into ditches, streams and eventually large waterways, such as Puget Sound.

Cleaning out storm drains is the last line of defense before pollution from the roads gets into public waterways. Kitsap Sun photo
Cleaning out storm drains is the last line of defense before pollution from the roads gets into public waterways. // Kitsap Sun photo

“Stormwater pollution” is a term I have frequently used. But Sheida Sahandy, executive director of Puget Sound Partnership, made a good point when I interviewed her last summer about the perils of stormwater.

“I don’t really like calling it ‘stormwater,’” Sheida told me. “It doesn’t have much to do with storms. It has to do with people. We’re talking about our dirt, our detritus, our filth. Everyone has it, and we all dump it into the sound to one degree or another.”

Stormwater is relatively pure when it falls from the sky as rain. It only gets dirty because the runoff picks up dirt, toxic chemicals, bacteria and other wastes, mostly left behind by people.

“Stormwater has gotten a bad wrap,” Sheida said. “It’s really what we’ve done to the poor thing that makes it evil.”

To read more about this discussion, check out my series “Taking the Pulse of Puget Sound” and the story “Stormwater solutions key in fight for Puget Sound.”

Officially, the Environmental Protection Agency and Washington Department of Ecology tend to call it “nonpoint source pollution.” It’s a term that tells us what this kind of pollution is not. Specifically, it is not pollution coming from a point source, such as a pipe. But “nonpoint” does not describe what it really is.

Technically, nonpoint pollution is more than stormwater. It includes waterborne sources such as marinas and atmospheric deposition from air pollution. Taken together, this form of pollution remains the most serious threat facing those who would clean up and protect Puget Sound.

We need a new term like “mess-left-behind pollution,” because it generally results from someone leaving some kind of contamination on the ground — such as animal waste or leaking motor oil — or failing to anticipate future problems — such as those caused by toxic flame retardants in furniture or mercury from a multitude of coal-fired power plants.

A new plan by Ecology to deal with this type of pollution is now under review. It is called “Washington’s Water Quality Management Plan to Control Nonpoint Sources of Pollution” (PDF 10.6 mb).

The general categories described in the plan are:

  • Agriculture, including livestock wastes; fertilizers and pesticides; and erosion from grazing practices and over-cultivation of fields.
  • Atmospheric deposition, including emissions from automobile, industrial and agricultural sources and backyard burning of trash.
  • Forest practices, including turbidity from erosion caused by loss of vegetation and road-building, as well as pesticides and fertilizers from forest applications.
  • Habitat alteration/hydromodification, including increased temperature from loss of vegetation or water impoundment; turbidity from erosion caused by shoreline alteration; and increased bacteria and chemical concentrations from loss of streamside vegetation.
  • Recreation, including sewage, paint and solvents from boats.
  • Urban/suburban areas, including bacteria from failing septic systems, pet wastes and urban wildlife; erosion from construction and landscaping; lawn chemicals; road runoff; chemical spills; and increased stream temperature from loss of vegetation.

The plan lists a variety of objectives and strategies for reducing the impacts of nonpoint pollution. Among them are these ideas:

  • Complete 265 watershed cleanup plans by 2020, focusing on at least eight priority watersheds each year.
  • Respond to all complaints about water quality by confirming or resolving problems.
  • Provide grants and loans for projects designed to bring a waterway into compliance with state and federal water-quality standards.
  • Support local pollution identification and correction programs to track down pollution sources and eliminate the problems. (Kitsap County was identified as a model program.)
  • Support water-quality trading programs that allow water cleanup efforts in lieu of meeting increased requirements for industrial and sewage discharges.
  • Increase education efforts to help people understand how to reduce nonpoint pollution.
  • Coordinate with organized groups and government agencies, including tribes.
  • Continue existing monitoring programs and increase monitoring to measure the effectiveness of water-quality-improvement projects.
  • Develop a statewide tracking program for cleanup efforts with an annual goal of reducing nitrogen by 40,000 pounds, phosphorus by 14,000 pounds and sediment by 8,000 pounds.

Public comments will be taken on the plan until June 5. Three remaining public meetings are scheduled before then. For information, check out Ecology’s webpage, “Washington State’s Plan to Control Nonpoint Pollution.”

Deep-sea observatory will open doors to science education

Researchers are quite excited about the eruption of Axial Seamount on the Juan de Fuca Ridge, about 300 miles off the Oregon Coast. In following the story, I found that John Delaney of the University of Washington not only explained the findings well but he also put science itself into perspective.

In an interview with KUOW’s Ross Reynolds, Delaney discussed the results of 25 years of work to create an ocean observatory where the volcano is erupting. In the coming months and years, scientists will be able to direct video cameras and instruments into the volcanic storm to record temperatures, measure chemicals and reveal unusual life forms. Researchers will drive unmanned submarines in and around the dense plume spewing from the volcano — all controlled remotely from shore.

The USA Today video provides a good overview, but Delaney goes even deeper in his talk at the bottom of this page.

Already, the sounds of the volcano are being recorded on underwater hydrophones — sounds that Reynolds shares with listeners at the beginning of the interview.

Said Delaney, “I’m tremendously excited about the fact that we have a wired volcano underwater that is very restless, and it looks like it is going to continue being restless for quite a long time.”

Reynolds then asked Delaney about the value of such research, and Delaney took a step back into the nature of scientific discovery.

“The unknown is what drives scientists,” he said, but on occasion they make discoveries that have “profound influence on the well-being of the society.”

The deep-sea research off the West Coast could bring new findings about whale migration, fish stocks and ocean acidification, he said. As with many scientific endeavors, the outcome may be all sorts of unexpected findings — “some of which have societal fascination, some of which have societal value, some of which are just probing the unknown to find out how things work.”

The ultimate value of scientific findings cannot be predicted, which is why I’m reluctant to ridicule even the craziest-sounding studies.

The deep-sea observatory — part of the Ocean Observatories Initiative — will move beyond scientific discovery to become a powerful tool for educating and inspiring future scientists.

When I was in grade school and junior high, I recall science being presented as a collection of interesting facts, based on years of discovery going back centuries. What I don’t remember is a teacher who took students to the edge of discovery, showing them where scientists are probing into the unknown. I believe this is changing. I know teachers today who are helping their students understand the known while revealing the questions yet to be answered.

With respect to Axial, the formation provides an ideal observatory, not only because of its location near the coast but also because of its overall structure, said Bill Chadwick of Oregon State University in a news release about the latest activity there.

“Because Axial is on very thin ocean crust, its ‘plumbing system’ is simpler than at most volcanoes on land that are often complicated by other factors related to having a thicker crust,” said Chadwick, an adjunct professor in OSU’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences. “Thus Axial can give us insights into how volcano magma systems work – and how eruptions might be predicted.”

By studying the movement of magma, researchers are learning how to predict an eruption. The recent eruption was predicted with more precision than the last one in 2011, as explained in an OSU news release at that time.

If you’d like to learn more about this fascinating subject, which even extends to other planets, I advise watching John Delaney’s 2011 TEDx talk performed in Dublin, Ireland, and called Submarine Vulcanism On Earth & Beyond. Click on the video player below.

Global cooling debate was never what some climate skeptics claim

Climate-change skeptics frequently bring up a 40-year-old story about climate change — a fleeting notion that the Earth was cooling.

Talking about that story, which was picked up by Newsweek and other publications, serves as a roundabout way for skeptics to ridicule the science of global warming, suggesting that scientists have never been able to get their story straight.

But the idea of global cooling failed to stand up to scientific scrutiny, and the whole idea of global cooling soon disappeared.

Now is the time to put that old story to rest, writes Peter Dykstra, publisher of the nonprofit Environmental Health Sciences, in a guest blog published on the Scientific American website.

“Rush Limbaugh is a frequent flyer on the Newsweek story, making the common error of promoting it to a ‘cover story.’” Peter writes, noting that it was a single-page, nine-paragraph piece on page 64.

“Lawrence Solomon, a kingpin of Canadian climate denial, added a new twist two years ago, claiming that the global cooling theory was growing to ‘scientific consensus,’” Peter said. “Yet the American Meteorological Society published a 2008 paper, which reported that even in the theory’s heyday, published papers suggesting a warming trend dominated by about six to one.”

Peter goes on to describe how various people have used the story to sew seeds of doubt about today’s leading climate-change findings.

“Science, in particular, moves on as it becomes more sophisticated,” he said. “The scientific community stopped talking about global cooling three decades ago. It’s time to retire this long-dismissed theory as an anti-science talking point.”

Peter’s blog includes a photograph of the old Newsweek story from April 28,1975, so I enlarged it and read what it actually said. Some excepts:

  • “In England, farmers have seen their growing season decline by about two weeks since 1950, with a resultant overall loss in grain production… During the same time, the average temperature around the equator has risen by a fraction of a degree – a fraction that in some areas can mean drought and desolation.”
  • “Last April, in the most devastating outbreak of tornadoes ever recorded, 145 twisters killed more than 300 people and caused half a billion dollars worth of damage in thirteen U.S. states.”
  • “To scientists, these seemingly disparate incidents represent the advance signs of fundamental changes in the world’s weather.”
  • “’Our knowledge of the mechanisms of climatic change is at least as fragmentary as our data,’ concedes the National Academy of Sciences report. ‘Not only are the basic scientific questions largely unanswered, but in many cases we do not yet know enough to pose the key questions.’”
  • “Climatologists are pessimistic that political leaders will take any positive action to compensate for the climatic change or even to allay its effects. They concede that some of the more spectacular solutions proposed, such as melting the polar ice cap by covering it with black soot or diverting arctic rivers, might create problems far greater than those they solve.”

Ironically, current research predicts that we will see increasing weather anomalies as a result of climate change. Studies also show that soot is unintentionally landing on the polar ice caps, melting them even faster. On the other hand, thousands of studies have now documented the warming trends in correlation with an increase in greenhouse gases.

If anyone doubts the level of climate-change research taking place, take a look at “Science Daily,” a website that compiles reports on all kinds of studies. The category “Climate” includes just a portion of the climate research underway throughout the world.

In a related development on climate change, a group of 28 Washington scientists wrote a letter to the Legislature (PDF 110 kb), saying our state is already feeling the effects of climate change:

“We must adapt to the inevitable impacts of a changing climate by investing in communities to make them more prepared for the current impacts and future risks of climate change. At the same time, Washington must also take appropriate steps to reduce heat-trapping emissions that would cause much more devastating consequences in the decades to come…

“We ask that you implement a policy that establishes a price on greenhouse gas emissions to encourage a shift to clean energy solutions and drive low-carbon innovation that will foster the clean industries of the future…

“The emissions choices we make today — in Washington and throughout the world — will shape the planet our children and grandchildren inherit. Please help create a cleaner, safer, and healthier future for Washington. Let this be our legacy.”

Killer whale tagging and acoustic studies provide increasing details

L-84, a 25-year-old male orca named Nyssa, has been carrying a satellite transmitter for more than two months now, allowing researchers to track the movements of Nyssa and any whales traveling with him.

Typical of recent travels by the L- and his entourage, the whales traveled north and south of the Columbia River from April 14 to 20.
Typical of recent travels by L-84 and his entourage, the whales traveled north and south of the Columbia River from April 14 to 20. // NOAA map

Nyssa, the last survivor of his immediate family, tends to stay around L-54, a 38-year-old female named Ino, and Ino’s two offspring, L-108 (Coho) and L-117 (Keta). Often, other members of L pod are with him, and sometimes K pod has been around as well, according to observers.

The satellite tracking is part of an effort to learn more about the three pods of Southern Resident killer whales, which are listed as “endangered” under the Endangered Species Act. That means they are headed for extinction without changes that increase their rate of survival.

The Navy, which has long been training off the West Coast, has been supporting some of the research in hopes of finding ways to reduce inadvertent harm from its active training in that area, officials say.

Over the past week, the whales moved well offshore near Grays Harbor, then returned to the entrance of the Columbia River. NOAA map
Over the past week, the whales moved well offshore near Grays Harbor, then returned to waters at the entrance of the Columbia River. // NOAA map

Since L-84 was tagged on Feb. 17, the whales have been generally traveling up and down the Washington and Oregon coasts. At various times, researchers — including biologists from Cascadia Research — have been able to get close enough to collect fecal samples from the whales and scales from fish they are eating. The goal is to determine their prey selection at this time of year. Chinook salmon are their fish of choice, but they will eat other species as well.

Winter storms and waves create challenging conditions to study the whales, but the satellite-tagging program has helped researchers find them, said Brad Hanson, who is leading the study for NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center.

Brad told me that he is thrilled that the satellite tag on L-84 has remained in operation so long, allowing more and more data to be collected. Satellite tags are designed to fall off after a time, and the compact batteries will eventually run out of juice.

“This is the latest (in the season) that we have had a tag on a Southern Resident,” Brad said. “Who knows how long it will last? The battery will probably make it until the end of May, and the attachment looked good the last anyone saw the tag.”

The research is not just about figuring out where the whales travel, Brad said. It is about finding out which areas are important to them.

While tracking the whales by satellite, the research is being expanded with the use of acoustic recording devices deployed in key locations along the coast. The goal is to find ways to track the whales with less intrusion. But how does one know where they are located during periods when the whales go silent — sometimes for days at a time? Those are the kind of questions that researchers hope to answer by correlating the acoustic and satellite data together, Brad said.

With Navy funding, 17 recorders are now deployed along the coast, including one recorder many miles offshore to pick up whales that get out into the deep ocean.

“We have certainly reduced a lot of the mystery,” Brad said. “The main issue — and what the Navy is interested in — is how they mitigate for marine mammal presence.”

Knowing that killer whales can be silent, the Navy has largely relied on visual sightings to determine the presence of the animals. During high waves, that may not be a reliable method of detection. The answer, based on tracking the whales, could be to move the training operations farther offshore — beyond the continental shelf, since the Southern Residents appear to rarely go out that far.

The Southern Residents are among the most studied marine mammals in the world, yet it is not entirely clear why their population is not recovering. An upcoming effort will begin to look at whether new information about the health condition of the whales can be teased out of existing fecal and biopsy samples or if new methods of study are needed to assess their health.

Meanwhile, raw data from various studies continue to pour in, challenging NOAA researchers to focus on specific questions, complete their analyses and share the findings in scientific reports. According to Brad, ongoing staff cutbacks makes that final step even harder than it has been in the past.

Mystery of the orca moms rekindled by birth of another J-pod whale

A newborn orca calf in J pod extends the ongoing baby boom for the three Southern Resident pods, but it also rekindles a debate about motherhood — namely who is the mom of J-50 and now J-52.

A newborn calf (on the near side) is seen swimming with J-16, while a 3-month-old calf swims on the other side, adding to the mystery of the orca moms.
A newborn calf (on the near side) is seen swimming with J-16, while a 3-month-old calf swims on the other side, adding to the mystery of the orca moms.
Photo by Jeanne Hyde, printed with permission.

The new calf is the fourth to be born since just before the new year. Three of the young ones are in J pod and one is in L pod, bringing the total population of the three pods to 81 — or 82 if you count Lolita in Miami Seaquarium.

Orca observers and researchers are rejoicing about the new calf, which was spotted yesterday by whale watchers near Galiano Island in British Columbia. Jeanne Hyde, a naturalist with Maya’s Legacy Whale Watching, had been observing what she thought was a 3-month-old orca designated J-50. The young whale was traveling with J-16, a female named Slick.

“I thought to myself, ‘There’s mom and the baby,’” Jeanne reported in her blog, Whale of a Purpose. “But then right in front of us and about 25 yards behind mom and the baby, another baby surfaces! That’s when I told Capt. Spencer (Domico), ‘I think there are two babies here!’”

The one alongside J-16 turned out to be a newborn, no more than a few days old, as indicated by fetal folds still evident on its skin. Now J-16 appears to have two calves about three months apart. Of course, that is not possible, given their normal gestation period of 15 to 18 months.

If you recall, there was considerable discussion about whether J-16 was the mother of J-50 after the calf was born in late December. Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research surmised that J-16 was actually the grandmother who was babysitting the new calf. Ken suggested that the December baby might actually be the offspring of J-36, the 16-year-old daughter of J-16. See Water Ways, Jan. 22.

At age 43, J-16 would be the oldest whale known to give birth, since this age is normally associated with menopause.

After several weeks, it appeared that J-36 was never really involved with the baby. Dave Ellifrit, Ken’s close associate, wrote this in his notes following one encounter:

“While all the J16’s traveled together, J36 was consistently the farthest of the group from J50, so whatever doubts remained about J16 being the mother are about gone.”

That sealed the deal for many folks, but Ken was not convinced. While the evidence pointed to J-16 being the mom, there still was the matter of the “rake marks” on the back of the baby — most likely caused when an adult whale used its teeth to pull the newborn from the birth canal, Ken said. If the 16-year-old needed help in giving birth, her own mom was the likely one to do it.

Now, the observations of J-16 with two calves leads Ken to return to his earlier speculation, though he admits that the truth may not be known without genetic evidence. But if the new baby, designated J-52, remains with J-16, then J-52 (not J-50) would be her likely offspring.

Here’s a possible explanation: After J-36 gave birth in December, it became clear that she could not care for the baby, so J-16 took over. If J-16 was pregnant at the time, she could have been lactating and the baby could thrive on her milk. J-36 would fade into the background. If the new calf spotted yesterday came from J-16, then she could be nursing both babies, and we’ll have to see how that works out.

Ken recalls that in 1999, L-51, a female named Nootka, had a baby that died of starvation as an infant. Nootka died shortly before her calf, and a necropsy showed that the mom had a prolapsed uterus and was unable to nurse. Perhaps the calf could have survived if a nursemaid had been available.

I asked Ken if the two new calves might actually be twins, and he noted that some deceased females have been found with two fetuses inside them, but he has never seen what might be considered twins.

Ken told me of a story from his first year of identifying individual killer whales and starting his annual census of their population. It was 1976, and both Ken and Mike Bigg, a Canadian researcher, counted a total of 70 whales. (This followed the capture period when many orcas were taken to aquariums.)

“We had seen one female who was sometimes with one calf and sometimes with another,” Ken told me. “We assumed it was the same calf. It wasn’t until late in the winter of that first year or the following spring that we realized three were two calves — so there were really 71 whales.”

Is it possible that this week’s brief sighting of a newborn with J-16 was nothing more than her being attentive to the needs of another female whale or its baby?

“We know they are extremely care-giving,” Ken said, adding that orcas, like humans, tend to pay a lot of attention to the new ones. Over the next days and weeks, the pattern of care-giving could indicate who belongs to whom — or maybe the mystery of the moms will continue.

Amusing Monday: Wolves found to catch and eat wild salmon

I’m amused by this looping video, which shows a bear waiting for a fish to appear. In the background, a wolf reaches down nonchalantly, bites into a large salmon and carries it away.

Not long ago, it was widely believed that bears love salmon but that wolves prefer deer, elk, moose and related animals whenever they can find them. Now we know, from careful observations in Alaska, that wolves will go after salmon when they get the opportunity.

Researcher Dave Person of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game says wolves will seek out tidally affected streams where they can find salmon passing through shallow water and trapped in pools.

“They’re not as skillful as bears at fishing,” Person told Riley Woodford, reporting for Alaska Fish and Wildlife News. “Each year, they spend over a month in estuary areas, with the pups. It’s right in middle of pink and chum runs, and we watch them eat salmon all the time. There are lots of places they could go; I think they go there for the fish.”

Based on the video, I would have to say that wolves are pretty good at catching fish upstream as well.

Salmon may have gone unnoticed as a staple in the wolves’ diet, because the entire salmon, bones and all, are digested by wolves, leaving no signs of fish in their scat — unlike the bones and fur discovered after they eat a deer or other mammal.

Another Alaskan biologist, Shelly Szepanski, has been studying the stable isotopes of carbon and nitrogen in wolf bones to see whether the bones are made of elements that come from the land or the sea. She found that salmon appeared to make up as much as 20 percent of the diet of wolves living in coastal areas of Southeast Alaska, compared to 10 percent of those living farther inland.

As I continued to look at the video of the bear and wolf fishing for salmon, I wondered if they ever interacted and how things might turn out in a head-to-head fight. I was able to find a video that demonstrates that a bear might get the best of a wolf in a one-on-one battle, but we can never forget that wolves often travel in packs. If you watch to the end, you will see who takes charge of the meal in question.

For another video showing wolves eating salmon, in which a bear plays a minor role, check out this video posted by Tinekemike.

Speaking of fights, I am still amazed at the video below, which shows a leopard swimming across a stretch of water, grabbing onto a crocodile and dragging it back into the water. I never would have guessed that a croc could be defeated in or around water like that — but it looks like he never saw the cat coming until it was too late.

Offshore killer whales gain attention from Canadian government

The Canadian government is calling attention to the special needs of offshore killer whales in a new document, “Recovery Strategy for the Offshore Killer Whale in Canada (PDF 3.8 mb).”

Report

Offshores are a mysterious, little-understood group of orcas that roam the West Coast. They are related to the more familiar resident and transient killer whales, but they are genetically, physically and socially distinct. The name “offshore” sort of tells the story; they often remain miles off the coast, out of sight and out of mind for most researchers as well as the public.

Scientists cannot tell us if their population is increasing or decreasing, though it appears to be generally stable. It is not clear whether human activities are disrupting their behaviors. And without good data, these animals remain in a kind of limbo status, while the highly studied Southern Residents of Puget Sound remain solidly on the Endangered Species List with widespread concerns about their welfare.

While it is true that regulations protecting Southern Residents also protect offshores to a degree, more studies are needed to ensure the future of these unique orcas. As the new recovery strategy points out:

“Offshore killer whales face both anthropogenic and natural threats, limitations or vulnerabilities, including reductions in prey availability; contaminant exposure from prey; spills of substances harmful to the marine environment; acute and chronic acoustic disturbance; physical disturbance; interactions with commercial fisheries and aquaculture; direct killing; climate change; disease agents; fixed dietary preferences and natural decreases in prey supply; inbreeding depression; tooth wear; and mass stranding or natural entrapment.

“The small population size and typically large groupings of offshores makes the population particularly vulnerable to stochastic events.”

Whale watchers aboard the Manute’a in Southern California experienced an amazing encounter with offshore killer whales in 2012. Some have questioned whether the boat's skipper was too close.

Offshores were first identified in Canadian waters in 1988. Since then, they have been confirmed in about 240 sightings in the U.S. and Canada, and their population has been estimated at roughly 300 animals. Although the full extent of their range remains a mystery, they seem to have moved to inland waters more frequently in recent years. The report notes:

“Although it is thought that their seemingly recent presence in inshore waters may reflect a shift associated with oceanographic conditions and/or distribution of prey, the data are also confounded by gradually increasing survey effort and public interest.”

Like the resident killer whales (Southern and Northern Residents), the offshores appear to be primarily fish eaters, with a specialization in eating sharks. They are known to prey on Pacific sleeper sharks, blue sharks, North Pacific spiny dogfish, chinook salmon and Pacific halibut — with sharks making up a significant portion of their diet.

Sharks are a good source of the fats needed for the high metabolism of orcas, but sharks live longer and tend to contain more contaminants. Consequently, offshores tend to have higher levels of PCBs and other contaminants than salmon-eating residents. Studies have revealed that PCB levels appear to be closer to those of transient orcas, which eat marine mammals. Offshores have significantly higher concentrations of DDT and PBDEs (toxic flame retardants) than either residents or transients. From the report:

“A high DDT to PCB ratio is found in offshores, characteristic of waters and sediments off the California Coast, where DDT comprises a more significant portion of contaminants and where prey may be exposed to elevated concentrations of contaminants relative to higher latitude waters; this shared characteristic ratio is thought to be an indication of offshore killer whales’ frequent occurrence off California.

“There are many sources of these persistent substances, often from urban and agriculture runoff, along the West Coast of North America. Runoff
from urban areas is especially troubling in California, where offshores are regularly sighted in the winter, often near large urban centers…”

“Of particular concern is offshore killer whales’ apparent targeting of the liver of at least one of their preferred prey, the Pacific sleeper shark. The liver is a lipid-rich meal, but is also a reservoir of heavy metals. All three shark species known to be consumed by offshores have a high mercury content, likely increasing the severity of heavy metal consumption and accumulation in offshore killer whales.

“Killer whales are thought to have evolved the ability to detoxify heavy metals such as mercury; however, it is unknown whether detoxification in offshore killer whales functions effectively enough to deal with their apparent diet preference for livers from intermediate-to-high trophic level prey, and exposure to an elevated contaminant environment.”

While shark populations along the West Coast appear to be stable at the moment, the number of sharks may have been greater historically, according to the report. In addition, basking sharks may have been an important prey source historically, and a steep decline in basking sharks may have affected the offshore orca population.

One of the greatest risks to the offshores is a spill of oil or other harmful substances. Killer whales have no sense of smell and make no apparent effort to avoid spills. The report notes:

“As described previously, the threat of oil spills and discharges holds risk for offshore killer whales, due to their grouping behavior. With multiple current proposals involving increased marine transport of petroleum products and other hazardous substances to and from British Columbia, an increase in large vessel traffic (e.g. tankers) in these waters heightens the risk of potential spills of substances harmful to the marine environment, and to offshores and their prey.”

Another significant risk is disease among offshore killer whales. Their high toxic loads can reduce their immune response, and their highly social nature increases the risk of disease exposure. According to the report:

“This highly social nature heightens the risk of rapid, pervasive infection and pathogen dispersal throughout the entire population… With an extensive geographic range adjacent to many large urban centers and intensive agricultural activity, offshore killer whales are exposed to numerous sources of emerging pathogens particularly near river and runoff outlets, where concentrations of infectious agents may be introduced into the marine environment.”

Offshore killer whales also are known to have extreme tooth wear, probably caused by their preference for eating sharks with their sandpaper-like skins. In some cases, teeth are worn to the gum line, which could open a route of exposure for infection.

Other risks include noise generated from human operations, including military sonar and seismic surveys, as well as chronic noise from shipping operations. Because of the close grouping among offshores, noise is likely to disrupt their feeding and social behavior.

The Canadian report articulates recovery strategies, primarily focused on learning more about the needs and threats to offshores — including studies on their population and cultural attributes, prey availability and toxic exposure, and response to various types of noise.

Comments will be taken on the new report until April 27. For information, go to Offshore Killer Whale Recovery Strategy.

In the U.S., offshore killer whales are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, but they have not been provided any special stock status (PDF 493 kb) for additional protection or focused study.

L-pod and K-pod whales continue their travels along the West Coast

L-84, a 25-year-old male killer whale named Nyssa, continues to transmit his location and that of his traveling companions who keep moving north and south along the West Coast, going as far south as Eureka, California.

Here’s a quick update, going back to when the orca was first tagged:

K-pod and L-pod whales cross California border before turning back this week. NOAA map
K-pod and L-pod whales cross the California border before turning back this week. // NOAA map

A satellite transmitter was attached to L-84 on Feb. 17 by researchers from NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center during a research cruise focused on the Southern Resident whales. Since then, the orca — often see with whales from K and L pods — moved south past the Columbia River into Central Oregon before turning back north on Feb. 21.

On Feb. 25, the researchers were following the whales in the research vessel Bell M. Shimada off Westport in Washington when another group of L pod whales showed up. It was at that time that a new calf was spotted with L-94, a 20-year-old female named Calypso.

The whales headed south and reached Tillamook Head in Northern Oregon on Feb. 27, then they turned north and reached La Push in Washington on March 1. For the next eight days, the whales moved back and forth in the north-central areas of the Washington Coast before moving south to Grays Harbor on March 12.

On March 13, they began an excursion to the south, reaching the Columbia River on March 14, Cape Falcon on March 15, Depoe Bay on March 16, Coos Bay on March 18, and the California border on March 20.

At that time, marine mammal researcher Jeff Jacobson, based in Northern California, caught up with the whales and confirmed that K pod and a portion of L pod remained with the tagged whale L-84. The whales kept moving south to Cape Mendocino (south of Eureka, Calif.) on March 22 (Sunday), before turning back north, reaching the Rogue River (just north of the Oregon state line) on Tuesday.

The tracking effort provides information about the whale’s travels and where they may be catching fish. Work from research vessels often involves collecting fecal samples and pieces of dead fish to identify what the whales are eating during the winter and early spring.