Category Archives: Oceans

Amusing Monday: Tiny creature manipulates light waves to disappear

Now you see it; now you don’t.

As you can see in the first video, a beautiful sea sapphire flashes in brilliant hues of green, blue and purple before disappearing before your eyes.

Sea sapphires are tiny copepods, and the color changes probably relate to their process of attracting a mate. How these little creatures change their colors was finally explained by a group of researchers this past summer in the Journal of the American Chemical Society.

The colors relate to an innate ability to adjust the spacing between their tiny plates, adjusting the wavelength of light reflected from the crystals underneath. When the reflected light is shifted far enough into the ultraviolet, the little critters nearly disappear.

The process of discovering the mechanism was fully explained in the journal article. For a less technical discussion of these unusual copepods, read the blog post by Jennifer Frazer, a who writes “The Artful Amoeba” for the Scientific American website.

I like the narration on the first video, produced by the American Chemical Society, but credit for the amazing pictures of the sea sapphire goes to videographer Kaj Maney of Ambon, Indonesia. Kaj did not reveal his video technique, but it must be good. I looked everywhere for additional videos of sea sapphires, but it was his video that was copied again and again by others. For other great videos of sea creatures, see his Liquid Guru website.

The second video relates to the amazing process called bioluminescence, in which animals produce their own light with biochemistry. The video was part of National Geographic’s 2013 program “Expedition Week: Hunt for the Giant Squid.”

Again, I will turn to Jennifer Frazer for her interesting story about turning out her dive light in the depths of the ocean. The post is titled, “The starry night beneath the Caribeean Sea.”

My most impressive encounter with bioluminescence was in 1997, when I went out at night on Dyes Inlet near Silverdale with killer whale researcher Jodi Smith. As the whales swam near the boat, it was easy to see the trail of glowing plankton they left behind. It was an experience I’ll never forget.

New publications provide fascinating info about local sea life

Those interested in the creatures that inhabit our local waterways may find themselves enthralled by two recent publications — one describing the many species of fish found in the Salish Sea and the other examining the lifestyles of crabs and shrimps living along the Pacific Coast.

The new fish report (PDF 9.2 mb), published by NOAA Fisheries, documents 253 species found in the Salish Sea, including 37 additional species not listed in the previous comprehensive fish catalog, now 35 years old.

Fourhorn poacher Illustration: Joe Tomelleri
Fourhorn poacher // Illustration: Joe Tomelleri

What caught my immediate attention in the report were the beautiful illustrations by Joe Tomelleri, who has spent the past 30 years capturing the fine features of fish from throughout the world. Check out the ornate fins on the fourhorn poacher and the muted colors of the spotted ratfish. I never realized that common ratfish wwere so beautiful.

The new report offers a preview of a much-anticipated book by Ted Pietsch, retired fish curator at the University of Washington’s Burke Museum, and Jay Orr, a biologist at NOAA’s Alaska Fisheries Science Center. The book, “Fishes of the Salish Sea,” will provide extensive descriptions as well as illustrations of all known species — including some early discoveries that came to light after publication of the new NOAA report. The book could be 600 pages or more.

Spotted ratfish Illustration: Joe Tomelleri
Spotted ratfish // Illustration: Joe Tomelleri

I interviewed author Ted Pietsch of Seattle and illustrator Joe Tomelleri of Leawood, Kans., for a piece incorporated into the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.

The other book, “Crabs and Shrimps of the Pacific Coast” by Greg Jensen of Bremerton, pulls together information about 300 of these various crustaceans. The book, which has been on my review list for more than year, has won acclaim from experts in the field as well as casual observers of nature. The book comes with an associated computer disc of the book’s text, which allows one to link to other articles and reports. One can also load much of the book onto a smart phone, which can be taken to the shoreline and used as a field guide.

Book cover

“My goal was to make a book that would appeal to someone who just wants to learn about this stuff and would also be valuable to someone, like myself, who is a specialist in the field,” Greg told me.

I enjoy Greg’s light writing style, as he tells little stories in sidebars, shares brief biographies of key scientists and clears up myths and confusion. One sidebar, for example, tells us that the lines between shrimp and prawns have become blurred.

In Great Britain, he said, Crangonids, “with their stout, somewhat flattened form, were called ‘shrimp,’ while palaemonids were known as prawns.” In other places, prawns are considered larger than shrimp. Sometimes prawns refer to freshwater versus saltwater species.

Spot shrimp Photo: Greg Jensen
Spot shrimp // Photo: Greg Jensen

“Bottom line: There is no formal definition separating the two. Like the Queen’s English, once they left home for America and Australia, they became bastardized beyond recognition,” he wrote.

Greg, a scuba diver, shot about 90 percent of the pictures shown in the 240-page book. If nothing else, he told me, the book provided an excuse for him to dive in waters all along the coast.

“It was like a big scavenger hunt,” he said. “You look through the literature and you have this list (of crabs and shrimps). You dig up anything and everything about where to find them.”

Pacific rock crab Photo: Greg Jensen
Pacific rock crab // Photo: Greg Jensen

Like Ted Pietsch has done for fish, Greg has gone back to the original references about crabs and shrimp, taking pains to correct mistakes passed down through scientific literature. It has taken years to track down the many references to ensure accuracy and give credit to the right people, he said.

Greg, who grew up in Bremerton, was in grade school when a field trip took him to Agate Passage on a low tide, where he became intrigued by crabs. He soon started an extensive collection of dried crab shells. Looking back, Greg credits marine biology instructors Ted Berney at East High School and Don Seavy at Olympic College for helping him pursue his interests, eventually launching his career at the University of Washington.

Today, Greg still lives in Bremerton, researching, writing and teaching at the UW School of Aquatic and Fishery Science.

The book can be purchased directly from Greg Jensen, from Amazon and from Reef Environmental Education Foundation.

Amusing Monday: Enjoying the many sounds of water

I’ve always enjoyed listening to sounds, whether it be easily identified natural sounds or mysterious sounds that are hard to figure out.


When I was kid, I was given a tape recorder, which I used to collect all sorts of natural and unnatural sounds. I would play back the sounds and ask people if they could identify the source. Even as an aging adult, I enjoy listening to the sound of a flowing stream, breaking waves or falling rain. I also like to listen to bird calls, and I keep telling myself that I need to learn how to identify more of them — but that’s another story.

For this blog, I would like to return again to this idea of natural sound and share some websites where you can listen to your heart’s content and sometimes shape the sound itself. Since this is a blog about water, I’ve tended to focus on rain, streams, oceans and such things, but these links can be just a starting point.

Soundsnap is a website that boasts of having 200,000 sounds in its catalog, including 6,000 sounds of nature. Included are 249 sounds of rain, 117 sounds of the sea, 1,065 sounds of water and 298 sounds of ice. These sounds can be downloaded for a fee, but it costs nothing to explore Sound Snap’s website.

At the other end of the spectrum is a single 11-hour YouTube video featuring the sound and images of ocean waves. I have not listened to more than a few minutes of this video at a time, so I don’t know what happens if you turn on this video to go to sleep and then leave it on all night. But the sound coming from the video is certainly more pleasant than the nightly sounds that some people learn to tolerate. The video, embedded on this page, was posted by YogaYak, which has several videos of a similar vein.

If you would like to download a sound to save it or use it in a video project, Sound Bible is a royalty-free site with a large collection of sounds. I downloaded the files below from collections called “Sea Sounds” and “Water Sounds.”

      1. Babbling brook.
      2. Rain.

I also found a sound generator that one can play with or simply leave on as background noise. Called “My Noise,” the website features an ocean waves noise generator.

If you would like to share your favorite sound website, please add it to the comments section below.

Amusing Monday:
Sea slugs bring color
to Puget Sound

Nudibranchs, soft-bodied mollusks often called “sea slugs,” are among the most ornately decorated creatures in the sea. With about 3,000 species of nudibranchs coming in all shapes and colors, I thought it might be fun to track down some of these animals.

Frosted nudibranch Photo: Dan Hershman
Frosted nudibranch // Photo: Dan Hershman

Nudibranchs are found in all the world’s oceans, but you don’t need to go beyond Puget Sound to find some of the most beautiful ones. I’m grateful to Dan Hershman, a retired Seattle teacher, part-time musician and underwater naturalist, who shared some of his best photos of sea slugs from this region. Check out Dan’s Flickr website.

The word nudibranch (pronounced nude-eh-brank) comes from the Latin word nudus, meaning naked, and brankhia, meaning gills. So these are animals with naked gills, which often grow out of their backs and sides. These creatures can be as small as a quarter-inch or as long as a foot or more.

White and orange tipped nudibranch Photo: Dan Hershman
White and orange tipped nudibranch
Photo: Dan Hershman

Nudibranchs are carnivores, eating things ranging from algae to anemones, barnacles and even other nudibranchs. They can pick up coloring for camouflage and even poisons from the prey they eat, using the chemicals in defense against predators.

Hermaphrodites with reproductive organs of both sexes, these animals don’t normally self-fertilize. But they are prepared to mate with any mature individual of the same species. Eventually, they will lay masses of spiral-shaped or coiled eggs.

Diamond back nudibranch Photo: Dan Hershman
Diamond back nudibranch
Photo: Dan Hershman

For more great pictures, check out Bored Panda’s collection, the 500PX photo gallery or National Geographic’s page of David Doubilet’s photos. If you would like to join a sea slug fan club, visit Slug Site, home of Opisthobranch Molluscs..

Opalescent nudibranch Photo: Dan Hershman
Opalescent nudibranch // Photo: Dan Hershman

Low-oxygen scenario following unusual course this year in Hood Canal

Death came early to Hood Canal this year, demonstrating just how odd and unpredictable ocean conditions can be.

Fish kills caused by low-oxygen conditions in southern Hood Canal usually occur in late September or October. That’s when low-oxygen waters near the seabed are pushed upward by an intrusion of heavier water coming in from the Pacific Ocean and creeping along the bottom. Winds out of the south can quickly blow away the surface waters, leaving the fish with no escape.

That’s basically what happened over the past month, as conditions developed about a month earlier than normal. South winds led to reports of fish dying and deep-water animals coming to the surface to get enough oxygen, with the worst conditions occurring on Friday. Check out the video on this page by Seth Book, a biologist with the Skokomish Tribe, who found deep-water ratfish swimming near the surface.

The story of this year’s strange conditions actually begins about a year ago and involves a 1,000-mile-long “blob” of unusually warm ocean water off the West Coast. State Climatologist Nick Bond, who coined the term “blob,” explains its formation in an article in Geophysical Research Letters with a summarized description by Hannah Hickey in UW Today.

The warm, low-density coastal waters related to the blob came into Hood Canal on schedule last fall, but they were not dense enough to flush out the low-oxygen waters, according to University of Washington oceanographer Jan Newton.

Hood Canal entered 2015 with the least-dense waters at depth over the past 10 years. They remained in a hypoxic state, meaning that levels were below 2.5 parts per million. Sea creatures unable to swim away can be unduly stressed and unable to function normally at that level. Conditions worsened into the summer, when the hypoxic layer at Hoodsport grew to about 300 feet thick.

By then, the annual intrusion of deep seawater with somewhat elevated oxygen levels was on its way into Hood Canal, spurred on by upwelling off the coast. This year’s waters are more normal in density, though their arrival is at least a month early. By August 9, the hypoxic layer at Hoodsport was reduced from 300 to 60 feet, pushed upward by the denser water.

It’s always interesting to see this dynamic play out. The layer of extreme low-oxygen water becomes sandwiched between the higher-oxygen water pushing in from the ocean and the surface water, which ordinarily stays oxygenated by winds and incoming streams. Without south winds, the middle low-oxygen layer eventually comes up and mixes into the surface layer.

If south winds come on strong, however, the surface layer is blown to the north, causing the low oxygen water to rise to the surface. Fish, shrimp and other creatures swim upward toward the surface, trying to stay ahead of the rising low-oxygen layer. When the low-oyygen layer reaches the surface, fish may struggle to breathe in the uppermost mixing layer. Unfortunately, the fish have no way of knowing that safer conditions lie down below — beneath the low-oxygen layer and within waters arriving from the ocean.

Jan Newton reported that the low oxygen levels in southern Hood Canal earlier this year were the most extreme measured over the past 10 years. So far, however, the fish kills don’t seem as bad as those in 2003, 2006 and 2010, she said.

The graph below shows how the deep layer coming in from the ocean at 279 feet deep contains more oxygen than the middle layer at 66 feet deep. The surface layer, which normally contains the most oxygen, dipped to extremes several times near the beginning of August and again on Friday, Aug. 28. These data, recorded from a buoy near Hoodsport, are considered unverified.


Amusing Monday: Rare octopus has variety
of tricks up its sleeves

The surprise trick of coming up behind someone and tapping him or her on the opposite shoulder is a technique that seems to work especially well for the larger Pacific striped octopus.

This is how the octopuses often catch a shrimp for dinner, as you can see from the first video on this page. For a little more emotional drama, watch this same video with a musical soundtrack added by UC Berkeley Campus Life.

The larger Pacific striped octopus seems to be the odd one out, according to recent observations by marine biologist Roy Caldwell of the University of California at Berkeley. Findings reported this month by Caldwell and colleagues in the open-access journal “PLOS ONE” confirm strange stories told about the octopus over the past 30 years — behaviors far different from those of most octopuses.

Two years of observations of live large Pacific striped octopuses in Berkeley laboratories and elsewhere have confirmed behaviors never seen among most octopuses. Activities include unusual beak-to-beak mating, which looks like the animals are kissing; males and females shacking up together, sharing food and having sex for days at a time; and females living long beyond the time they lay their first clutch of eggs, as they continue to eat, mate and lay more eggs.

Male larger Pacific striped octopus stalks its prey. Photo: Roy Caldwell
Male larger Pacific striped octopus stalks its prey.
Photo: Roy Caldwell

The paper also discusses the possibility that these odd octopuses may live together in colonies, as observed by scuba divers, and come to recognize each other based on unique color patterns and postures.

As for tapping a shrimp on the shoulder, “I’ve never seen anything like it,” Caldwell told Robert Sanders of Berkeley News, the media outlet for UC Berkeley.

“Octopuses typically pounce on their prey or poke around in holes until they find something,” he continued. “When this octopus sees a shrimp at a distance, it compresses itself and creeps up, extends an arm up and over the shrimp, touches it on the far side and either catches it or scares it into its other arms.”

In addition to Caldwell, authors reporting observations in the paper are Christine L. Huffard of Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute; Arcadio Rodaniche of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute; and Caldwell, Huffard and Richard Ross, all of the California Academy of Sciences.

The larger Pacific striped octopus is perhaps the oddest of an odd group of creatures, with their shifting octopus shapes, mesmerizing eyes and uncanny intelligence, Richard Ross told Associated Press reporter Seth Borenstein.

“They’re aliens alive on our planet,” Ross said, “and it feels like they have plans.”


Two larger Pacific Striped Octopuses appear to embrace and kiss in a unique mating ritual.

Sometimes these octopuses move along by bouncing across the bottom of the ocean.

These octopuses can change their coloration along a bilateral line while twirling their arms.

NASA researchers measure sea levels, predict faster rise

A new worldwide map of sea level rise, plotted with precision satellite instruments, shows that the Earth’s oceans are rising faster with no end in sight.

Sea levels have gone up an average of 3 inches since 1992, with some locations rising as much as 9 inches. Meanwhile, some limited areas — including the West Coast — have experienced declining sea levels for various reasons.

Sea level change over 22 years. Map: NASA
Sea level change over 22 years. (Click to enlarge) // Map: NASA

Two years ago, climatologists released an international consensus, which predicted a sea-level rise of between 1 and 3 feet by the end of this century. It was a conservative estimate, and new evidence suggests that ocean waters are likely to meet or exceed the top of that range, possibly going much higher, according to four leading researchers speaking at a news conference yesterday.

The implications are huge and growing more important all the time. At a minimum, waterfront property owners and shoreline planners need to begin taking this into consideration. It doesn’t make sense to build close to the shoreline if extreme high tides will bring seawater to one’s doorstep.

If we hope to avoid local extinctions of key intertidal species, we must start thinking about how high the waters will be in 50 to 100 years.

For clues to the future, we can watch Florida, where vast areas stand at low elevations. Even now, during high tides, Miami is beginning to see regular flooding in areas that never got wet before. This is the future of low-lying areas in Puget Sound, such as estuaries. In the Pacific ocean, the threat of inundating complete islands is becoming very real.

Along the West Coast, sea levels have actually declined over the past 20 years, largely because of the cooling effect of the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, a warming/cooling cycle that can remain in one phase for decades. The cycle appears to be shifting, with the likely effect that sea levels on the West Coast will soon rise as fast or faster than the worldwide average, according to Josh Willis, an oceanographer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

Global sea level has been measured accurately and continuously by satellites since 1993. Graphic: Steve Nerem, University of Colorado
Global sea level has been measured accurately and continuously by satellites since 1993.
Graphic: Steve Nerem, University of Colorado

The cause of sea level rise is attributed to three factors. Scientists estimate that roughly one-third of the rise is caused by thermal expansion of ocean waters, which absorb much of the energy from global warming. Another third comes from the melting of the massive Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets. The remaining third comes from the melting of mountain glaciers throughout the world. Researchers at yesterday’s news conference said they expect the melting to accelerate.

Measuring the change in sea-level rise has become possible thanks to advanced technology built into altimeters carried aboard satellites. The instruments can distinguish changes in elevation as small as one part in 100 million.

“The instruments are so sensitive that if they were mounted on a commercial jetliner flying at 40,000 feet, they could detect the bump caused by a dime lying flat on the ground,” said Michael Freilich, director of NASA’s Earth Science Division.

While sea level rise can now be measured, predicting the rate of future rise is difficult, because much of the melting by ice sheets occurs out of sight under the water.

The Greenland ice sheet covers 660,000 miles — nearly the size of Alaska. Satellite measurements have shown that an average of 303 gigatons of ice have melted each year over the past decade. The Antarctic ice sheet has lost an average of 118 gigatons per year, but some new studies suggest it could begin to melt much faster.

In Greenland, researchers are reporting that one of the largest chunks of ice ever to break away from land cleaved from the Jakobshavn glacier in a “calving” event that left researchers awestruck. More than 4 cubic miles of ice was loosed quickly into the sea. Check out the news release by the European Space Agency.

“This is a continuing and evolving story,” glaciologist Eric Rignot said during yesterday’s news conference. “We are moving into a set of processes where we have very tall calving cliffs that are unstable and start fracturing and break up into icebergs …

“We have never seen something like this on that scale before,” said Rignot, associated with JPL and the University of California at Irvine. “Personally, I am in awe at seeing how fast the icefall, the calving part of the glacier, is retreating inland year by year.”

Other new information from NASA, including lots of graphics:

The following video tells the basic story about sea level rise.

How did one magazine article generate such a tsunami of public alarm?

I am still baffled, as are the folks at the University of Washington’s Seismology Lab, why people freaked out over the earthquake article, titled “The Really Big One,” published this month in New Yorker magazine.

Could it be that Northwest residents were unaware or had forgotten about the risk of earthquakes in this area until a national magazine called attention to the problem?

Was it the lack of credible details about earthquake risks in the original article, which included this quote from an emergency-management official: “Our operating assumption is that everything west of Interstate 5 will be toast.”

Or maybe it was the rapid spread of information via social media and the huge number people living in other parts of the country who texted, tweeted and inundated Facebook with worries about their relatives in the Pacific Northwest.

“I don’t really know what it was,” said Bill Steele, my longtime contact at the UW’s Seismology Lab. “We are a bit baffled by it. There is nothing really new.”

Hazard maps are used by structural engineers to design building to withstand shaking. This map depicts maximum ground acceleration (measured in gravitational pull) predicted in a rare earthquake with a 2 percent chance of occurring in the next 50 years. Hazard maps of more likely earthquakes are similar but with less emphasis on the Seattle and subduction fault zones. Kitsap Sun graphic
Hazard maps are used by structural engineers to design buildings to withstand shaking. This map depicts maximum ground acceleration (measured in gravitational pull) predicted in a rare earthquake with a 2 percent chance of occurring in the next 50 years. // Kitsap Sun graphic

Although the author, Kathryn Schultz, left out specifics about which areas might be affected more than others, she did tell a compelling — and fairly accurate — story about what could happen when the North America plate breaks free of the Juan de Fuca plate, which is sliding underneath it.

I was pleased to see that she came back this week with a follow-up article describing where the greatest shaking would occur and which areas would be at greatest risk from a tsunami unleashed by slippage along the Cascadia subduction zone. She also suggests steps that people can take to protect themselves and their property — something I have always felt is a mandatory part of any story I write about earthquakes. Review a webpage put together by the Kitsap Sun.

I’ve been very fortunate to have worked as a news reporter during a time when many important discoveries were made in Northwest seismology. I accompanied researchers digging in swamps, riverbanks and man-made trenches, where they found traces of ancient earthquakes. That work and much more comprises a body of evidence across many disciplines that helps us understand how bad our “big one” could be.

In 1999, I paused from covering individual discoveries about earthquakes to write a story for the Kitsap Sun focusing on a few of the researchers and their key findings. We called the story “Finding Fault: 13 Years of Discoveries.”

I can’t begin to recount all the stories I’ve written about earthquakes through the years, but I do recall warning people a few years ago to get prepared after the massive Japanese earthquake made headlines across the the globe (Kitsap Sun, March 11, 2011):

“While Japan struggles to recover from one of the greatest earthquakes in world history, West Coast seismologists are warning that a quake just like it could occur at any time off the Washington and Oregon coasts.

“In broad-brush terms, ‘the two earthquakes are very similar,’ said John Vidale, director of the Pacific Northwest Seismograph Network at the University of Washington. ‘As a first guess, what might happen here is what happened there.’

Of course, we have had our own earthquakes that should give us plenty of reason to get prepared. The 6.8-magnitude Nisqually earthquake on Feb. 28, 2001, occurred in the Puget Sound region and served as a powerful wakeup call for many people.

During the 2001 Nisqually earthquake, many roads were damaged. Here, Janine Morris, right, and her daughter, Erin, 12, explore a section of Highway 302 near Victor in Mason County. Kitsap Sun file photo, 2001.
During the 2001 Nisqually earthquake, many roads were damaged. Here, Janine Morris, right, and her daughter, Erin, 12, explored a section of Highway 302 near Victor. // Kitsap Sun file photo, 2001.

The Nisqually quake was called the “miracle quake” because nobody was killed, although one man died from a heart attack that could have been related to the event. About 400 people were injured and damage estimates ranged up to $4 billion. (U.S. Geological Survey)

In the Puget Sound region, the shaking from the Nisqually quake could be something like area residents will experience in a Cascadia subduction-zone quake, though shaking from a subduction quake is expected to last longer, depending on how much of the plate breaks free. Things will not be the same in all places, and communities closest to the Olympic Mountains might experience the most damage from a subduction quake.

Five years after the Nisqually quake, Phyllis Mann, who was director of Kitsap County Department of Emergency Management at the time, was still wondering why many people were not prepared for an earthquake in Kitsap County.

“Kitsap has never depended on the federal government as part of its plan,” Phyllis told me in a Kitsap Sun story published Feb. 28, 2006. “The federal government can’t be with us the day of the disaster. With the exception of the military, which is part of our community, you can’t count on the feds early on.”

Mann used our interview to direct pointed questions at Kitsap County residents:

“Why aren’t you ready? What is it going to take? We keep asking this question and finding out that people aren’t prepared. Where is your food and water for three days? (A week is the latest recommendation.) Where are your reunion plans? Is it my responsibility as the county emergency manager to make sure everyone does it?”

The New Yorker article failed to mention an earthquake threat that should be of equal concern to residents of the Puget Sound area. You may have heard of the Seattle fault, which runs from Seattle across Bainbridge Island and Central Kitsap to Hood Canal.

Although the frequency of huge earthquakes on the Seattle fault appear to be less than those along the Cascadia subduction zone, we must not forget that a quake on the Seattle fault about 1,100 years ago lifted up the south end of Bainbridge Island by 21 feet and created a tsunami that inundated shorelines now occupied by people. By contrast, a tsunami coming from the ocean after a subduction quake might raise the water level quickly in Puget Sound but probably no higher than what we see with daily tides.

In a way, the Seattle fault put the Kitsap Peninsula on the map with a red bull’s-eye, which I wrote about five years ago. See Kitsap Sun, May 8, 2010, along with the map on this page.

Bill Steele told me that he is sure that Kenneth Murphy, regional director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, regrets saying, “Our operating assumption is that everything west of Interstate 5 will be toast.” That may be a good “operating assumption” for an agency trying to plan for the worse possible emergency, but it is not a very good description of what seismologists predict by modeling various scenarios.

Bill said many people failed to read the New Yorker article carefully and took the comment to mean that most of Western Washington would be hit with a 50-foot wall of water — something that could not be further from the truth.

“The good news for us is that we have a pretty good 10,000-year history of what happened on the fault,” Bill said. “We know how the shaking will be distributed.” Again, look at the hazard map on this page and note the strip of red along the coast.

While many earthquake experts are surprised by the reaction to the New Yorker article, it has accomplished one goal of those who understand the risks: getting people to create earthquake kits, secure homes on their foundations and other things that could help prevent damage and get people through the emergency.

“You have to take your hat off to the author,” Bill told me, “because she got a lot of people thinking. It is not like the New Yorker has that many subscriptions.”

Emergency managers may be studying the cascading events triggered by the New Yorker article, including the initial publication, the ripples running through social media and the public alarm that rose up and eventually died down.

Directing public concern into action is what folks like Bill Steele and others are doing right now. Check out the video in the player below for Bill’s appearance on “New Day Northwest,” and visit the webpage of the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network for basic information and scheduled discussions about earthquake risks. One public forum is scheduled for Tuesday at the University of Oregon, and other forums are under consideration at the UW.

Coastal researchers launch blog to share findings about ocean

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 sealife.

The colors reveal that sea surface temperatures are significantly higher than the long-term average. Click on the map to view a six-month animation. Graphic: NOAA OSPO
Colors indicate that sea surface temperatures (°C) are significantly higher off the West Coast than the long-term average. Click on the map to view a six-month animation.
Graphic: NOAA OSPO

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.

Juvenile jack macherel Photo: Newporter Blog
Juvenile jack macherel
Photo: Newporter Blog

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 Administration.

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.

Orca-tracking project ends for this year when satellite tag falls off

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.

Nyssa (L-84) and his entourage traveled north into Canadian waters the first week of May. NOAA map
Nyssa (L-84) and his entourage traveled north into Canadian waters the first week of May. // NOAA map

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 revealed.

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.

Nyssa (L-84) and his entourage traveled north into Canadian waters the first week of May. NOAA map
The whales quickly returned to the U.S., ending the tracking project when the satellite tag fell off near the Columbia River. // NOAA map

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 with Orca Network.

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.