Category Archives: Oceans

Nautilus submarine ‘can send your soul to the bottom’ — Bob Ballard

It is rather amazing to watch live video from a submarine creeping along along the bottom of the Pacific Ocean off the Oregon Coast, and I wanted to remind everyone that this is something they can experience right now via the Nautilus Live webfeed. The live commentary from the operators can be amusing at times, but I didn’t want to wait until Monday to let you know what’s going on.

Exploration Vessel Nautilus, with its remotely operated submarines Hercules and Argus, has been exploring deep-sea vents off Oregon the past few days, marking the beginning of a six-month expedition along the West Coast and around Hawaii. The ROVs were launched Sunday as the weather allowed, and the mother ship is now moving up the coast. I’ve embedded the video on this page, but more information and alternate channels are provided on the Nautilus homepage. One can also send questions to the research team.

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World ocean researcher traces his interests back to Puget Sound

Marine geologist Peter Harris, a 1976 graduate of North Kitsap High School, has been awarded the prestigious Francis P. Shepard Medal for Sustained Excellence in Marine Geology.

Peter Harris

The annual award, from the Society for Sedimentary Geology, recognizes Peter’s 30 years of research accomplishments — “from the polar to the tropical,” as the judges described it — including his discovery of new coral reefs off Australia.

Also noteworthy is his work documenting the margins of the Antarctic continent; describing the prehistoric formation of the Fly River Delta in Papua New Guinea; and explaining changes in the “Antarctic bottom water,” a dense water mass surrounding Antarctica. Peter has published more than 100 research papers in scientific journals.

After an awards ceremony in Salt Lake City, Utah, Peter returned last week to Kitsap County, where he spoke to me about his current efforts on upcoming state-of-the-environment report for the United Nations. He is working on an oceans chapter for the “Sixth Global Environmental Outlook,” known as GEO-6, which will be used to advance environmental policies around the world.

“There are so many environmental issues in the ocean,” he told me, “but we were asked to identify three things that are the most urgent.”

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Europe may soon launch wide-ranging solutions to plastic pollution

Taking on the enormous problem of plastic pollution in the ocean, the European Union is on track to ban single-use items made of plastic, while communities in Washington state slowly adopt bans on plastic bags.

Straws are listed as a problem plastic.
Photo: Horia Varlan, Wikimedia Commons

The European Commission is targeting specific plastic products that constitute 70 percent of the items found among marine debris lost in the sea and along the shoreline. Cotton swabs, plastic cutlery, plates, drinking cups and straws are among the items that would be banned outright, because non-plastic alternatives are available.

The proposal announced this week goes well beyond those items, however, calling for a 90-percent reduction in plastic drink-bottle waste, possibly through a deposit system. In addition, plans are underway for new waste-disposal programs, ongoing cleanups, and educational efforts designed to reduce the purchase of and encourage the proper disposal of food containers, plastic wrappers, cigarette butts, wet wipes, balloons and fishing gear. Manufacturers of plastic products would help fund those various programs, according to the proposal.

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Students reflect on impact of marine debris in annual art contest

NOAA’s annual Marine Debris Art Contest continues to attract creative students able to spread the message about how loose trash can escape into the ocean and harm sea creatures.

Zilan C., a Michigan second-grader, was one of 13 winners in this year’s Marine Debris Art Contest.
Image: Courtesy of NOAA

“The ocean is the ocean animals’ home, not a trash can,” writes Zilan C., a Michigan second-grader who drew the first picture on this page. “Everyone should keep the debris out of the ocean and save the ocean animals’ home!”

“Plastics, rubber, paper and other lost or discarded items enter the ocean and lakes everyday,” said Yufei F., a Michigan fifth grader who created the second piece. “Everyone can do our part in reducing and preventing marine debris. We can also join in cleaning the beach and clean our streets. When everyone takes action, we can keep our ocean clean.”

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Rainfall pattern returns to normal across the Kitsap Peninsula

After two years of near-record rainfall across the Kitsap Peninsula, precipitation has returned to a more normal pattern.

Halfway through the water year, which begins in October, rainfall in Hansville, Silverdale and Holly are all within 10 percent of the average for this time of year, according to weather instruments managed by Kitsap Public Utility District.

This near-average total for the first half of the year comes about despite a very wet November, when Hansville broke the all-time record for precipitation for that month. Since then, the monthly rainfall numbers have been mostly below average, except for a wet January when Holly nearly broke the record for that month.

As we’ve seen time and again, the amount of rainfall decreases dramatically as one travels from south to north on the Kitsap Peninsula. That’s the general pattern for all times of the year, although the amount of precipitation can vary wildly.

Hansville received 25.5 inches for the six months ending April 1, compared to a 28-year average of 23.1 inches for that period. Last year, the six-month figure was 7 inches higher at 32.5 inches, and the first half of 2016 went down in the record books with a total of 37.0 inches.

Silverdale posted 35.1 inches of rain by April 1, compared to a 28-year average of 38.1 inches for this time of year. Last year, this Central Kitsap area received 51.7 inches by April, and in 2016 the number was 52.3 inches, second only to 1999 with 69.8 inches.

In rainswept Holly, residents experienced 68.7 inches by April 1, compared to a 27-year average of 65.0 inches. By April 1 last year, Holly was practically swimming with 95.9 inches, driven by 24.0 inches during the month of October 2016 and 21.8 inches the next month. But nothing compares to the first half of water year 1999, when Holly received 120 inches for the first half of the year. Following a fairly dry summer, water year 1999 in Holly ended with 127.5 inches of precipitation.

NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center has projected somewhat higher-than-average rainfall through the end of this month in the Pacific Northwest, followed by fairly average conditions going into summer. Forecasters rely heavily on observations about temperatures in the Pacific Ocean, which influence a natural cycle known as the El Niño Southern Oscillation, or ENSO. See video this page.

A very strong El Niño during 2015 and 2016 (associated with the much-discussed “blob”) shifted into a weak La Niña in 2017. Conditions have now reversed course again and seem to be headed toward neutral. La Niñas are generally associated with cooler and wetter weather for our region of the country, while El Niños suggest warmer and dryer conditions — although it does not always turn out that way.

Neutral conditions are expected to arrive by summer, and some forecasters predict that the warmer El Niño could arrive toward the end of the water year in September, according to information released today by the Climate Prediction Center.

“Some of the computer models are forecasting development of El Niño by next fall,” noted research scientist Emily Becker in a new post on the ENSO Blog, “but there are a number of reasons why we’re not completely taking the bait right now.

“First, forecasts made this time of year tend to be less successful,” she continued. “Another reason is that, while elevated subsurface heat content in the spring sometimes precedes the development of El Niño in the fall, some recent studies have found that this relationship has not been very reliable over the past two decades.”

Researchers observed a warming trend in March among subsurface waters in the Eastern Pacific. Those waters are expected to rise to the surface over the next few months to potentially neutralize any cool surface waters that remain. The outcome is likely to be the end of the current La Niña and possibly the beginning of a new El Niño, featuring warmer ocean conditions.

Amusing Monday: Watching green waters for St. Patrick’s Day

In Chicago, it has become a tradition to dye the Chicago River bright green to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, as shown in a timelapse video featured by ABC News. But some waterways are naturally green, so I have posted eight videos from throughout the world to show these natural wonders.

Huge crowds of people visit the Chicago River each year to see the color change, which lasts about five hours, according to a report by Jennifer Wood in Mental Floss.

At one time, a green dye was used as needed to identify sources of sewage flowing into the river, Jennifer reports. The result was an occasional green splotch seen in the river. In 1962, a member of the local plumbers union thought it would be a good idea to dye the entire river green for St. Patrick’s Day. It has since become an annual tradition — although in 1966 the dye was changed to a nontoxic vegetable-based coloring at the insistence of environmentalists.

Today, environmentalists are still grumbling about artificially turning the river green, not so much because of damage to the ecosystem — which is really unknown — but because the river is much healthier than it has been in 150 years, according to a report by Steven Dahlman in Loop North News.

“I think [it] sends a message to people that the river is not alive,” said Margaret Frisbie, executive director of Friends of the Chicago River. “Dyeing the river green does not respect that resource.”

In a story written for Smithsonian magazine, Jennifer Billock reports that no dye is needed if you really want to enjoy St. Patrick’s Day in or around a green waterway. The source of the green color varies from one place to another and may include natural minerals, algae growth or even optical illusions based on reflections or depth.

Jennifer talked to Rick Stumpf, an oceanographer who said one of his favorite places is Florida Bay in the Keys, where the green color is a reflection of seagrass just a few feet underwater.

Our tour of green waterways begins with Lake Carezza, in South Tyrol, Italy. The lake is fed from underground springs, and the level of the lake changes with the seasons.

According to a local fairy tale, a wizard fell in love with a beautiful water nymph while watching her braid her hair at the edge of the lake. To get her attention, a witch advised him to dress up as a jewel merchant and cast a rainbow across the lake. He followed her instructions except that he forgot to change his clothes. The water nymph realized his true identity and disappeared into the lake. In frustration, the wizard destroyed the rainbow, which fell into the lake, and then he tossed all of his jewels into the water, leaving the lake with its unusual colors.

Wai-O-Tapu is a lake in an 18-square-mile geothermal area in New Zealand’s Taupo Volcanic Zone. The green color of the water, which is somewhat milky and yellowish, is due to particles of sulfur floating in the water.

The area has been protected as a scenic reserve since 1931 and includes a tourism attraction known as Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland. Marked hiking trails provide visitors access to natural hot springs and mud pools.

The Verzasca River in Switzerland is a 19-mile river known for its turquoise-colored water and colorful rocks. The swift river, which flows into Lake Maggiore, is popular with scuba divers.

The green colors are provided by natural algae growing in the water as well as the reflection of vegetation along the shoreline.

Ambergris Caye, the largest island in Belize, offers the sea-green colors of a tropical paradise. It is mainstay for tourists who wish to swim or dive in the Caribbean Sea. Visitors can enjoy the marine life of Belize Barrier Reef, the longest reef system in North America, second in the world after the Great Barrier Reef of Australia.

Blue Spring State Park features the largest spring on Florida’s St. Johns River, a critical winter refuge for manatees. To protect the manatees, the spring pool is closed from Nov. 15 to March 15.

From the pool, a vertical cave plunges down to a room about 90 feet deep. At about 120 feet down, the cave constricts and water pours swiftly out of the spring, which produces about 165 million gallons of water per day.

In addition to the pool, the park includes a historic home and offers boat tours, hiking trails and camping sites.

Lake Quilotoa in Ecuador is a deep crater lake in the Andes formed by the collapse of a volcano following an eruption about 600 years ago. The green color is caused by dissolved minerals.

In five hours, visitors can hike around the volcano’s caldera, which is about two miles across. Pack mules and guides are available in and around the village of Quilotoa.

Sproat Lake is located in the center of Vancouver Island in British Columbia. In addition to lakeside homes, three provincial parks are located along the shore.

Sproat Lake Provincial Park features a variety of trails, including one trail that reaches the eastern side of the lake. A wall of rock carvings, named K’ak’awin, depict mythological creatures. The age of the petroglyphs is unknown.

Abyss Pool is the name of a hot spring in the West Thumb Geyser Basin of Yellowstone National Park. In 1883, a visitor to the park called the pool “a great, pure, sparkling sapphire rippling with heat.”

The pool is about 50 feet deep. A geyser in the pool had no record of eruption until 1987, when the first eruption was followed by several others until June 1992. The eruptions were up to 100 feet high.

Washington officials build state’s case against offshore oil drilling

If oil companies were secretly interested in drilling off the Washington coast — which is doubtful — then I suspect that state and tribal officials scared them off yesterday.

It’s one thing for an oil company to sign a lease with the federal government. It’s quite another thing to go up against other sovereign governments determined to use every means to make the venture unprofitable.

Participants in press conference, left to right: Attorney General Bob Ferguson; Gus Gates, Surfrider Foundation; Gina James, Quinault Nation; Larry Thevik, Dungeness Crab Fisherman’s Association; Gov. Jay Inslee; Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz; Ocean Shores Mayor Crystal Dingler; and Chad Bowechop, Makah Tribe. (Click to enlarge)
Photo: Governor’s Office

In a press conference yesterday, Gov. Jay Inslee said the Legislature could pass laws that establish new taxes or limit the use of port facilities needed to service oil rigs.

“We could set up our own safety standards, for instance, that frankly the industry may not be able to meet,” Inslee said. “So, yes, we have multiple ways. Counties and cities would also have jurisdiction.

“What I’m saying is that when you have a policy from a president that is uniformly reviled in the state of Washington both by Republicans and Democrats, there are so many ways that we have to stop this — and we’re going to use all of them.”

The entire press conference is shown in the first video below.

In a two-page letter to Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke, Inslee wrote, “I urge you in no uncertain terms to respect our local voices, our state’s laws, and our hard-working families by removing Washington’s coasts from any subsequent plan your department may propose to expand oil and gas leasing in this country.”

As Inslee prepared to take another question at the press conference, Public Lands Commissioner Hillary Franz, who oversees the state’s forests and aquatic lands, quickly wedged up to the microphone. She pointed out that Washington state has the authority to lease — or not — much of the deep-water areas in Puget Sound and along the coast, including areas used by local ports. The state would have a say over almost any infrastructure the industry might need to develop along the shore, she said.

In addition, the state has ownership over vast shellfish resources, Franz noted, and so state officials would have a clear interest to protect against any damage that might result.

Attorney General Bob Ferguson said if the leasing plan goes through, it would be challenged in court on many grounds. Just one example of a legal violation, he said, is the off-handed way that the Trump administration exempted the state of Florida from the leasing plan.

“It was completely arbitrary,” Ferguson said at the press conference. “It’s a classic example of how this administration rolls something out; they haven’t thought it through; and they take an action that we think will help make our case against it.”

Ferguson laid out his legal, moral and practical arguments against offshore drilling in a long five-page letter, which included this comment: “The proposal to open the Pacific Region Outer Continental Shelf to oil and gas leasing is unlawful, unsafe and harmful to the economy and natural beauty of Washington’s coastline. As Attorney General, my job is to enforce the law and protect the people, natural resources and environment of my state, and I will use every tool at my disposal to do so.”

Chad Bowechop, policy adviser and member of the Makah Tribe, explained that tribes have legal rights under the treaties to protect the environment in their native lands. He noted that the press conference was being held in the very room where legislation was signed to dispatch a rescue tug at Neah Bay. The bill was the result of oil spills that had damaged the natural and cultural resources of the area.

“We’re very proud of our working relationship with the state of Washington Department of Ecology Spills Program and with the United States Coast Guard,” he said. “Our basis of objection to this issue is based on our cultural and spiritual values. Our spiritual values hold the environment and the ocean resources in spiritual reverence.”

Drilling, he continued, would be in conflict with the tribe’s cultural and spiritual values. As a legal trustee of the ocean’s natural resources, the tribe “will pledge to work closely with the other resource trustees,” meaning the state and federal governments to prevent offshore oil drilling.

Early today, Washington Sen. Maria Cantwell appeared on the Senate floor to protest the oil-drilling proposal. She talked about the natural resource jobs that would be threatened by drilling activities. Check out the second video.

Now that Alaska Gov. Bill Walker has asked the Trump administration to dial back the offshore drilling proposal in his state, all the West Coast governors stand in opposition to the drilling plan. In a press release, Walker said he supports offshore drilling, but he wants Zinke to focus on the Chukchi and Beaufort seas along with Cook Inlet.

“I support removal of potential sales in all other Alaska waters for the 2019 to 2024 program,” he said, “and I will encourage the Interior Department to include the longstanding exclusions for the Kaktovik Whaling Area, Barrow Whaling Area, and the 25-mile coastal buffer in upcoming official state comments on the program.”

Alaska’s congressional delegation, all Republicans, previously made the same request in a letter to Zinke. The members are Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan and Rep. Don Young.

Except for three U.S. representatives, Washington’s and Oregon’s entire congressional delegations — four senators and 12 representatives — signed a joint letter to Zinke asking that both states be excluded from further leasing plans.

“The states of Washington and Oregon have made clear through local, state, and federal action, as well as extensive public comment, that oil and gas lease sales off the Pacific Coast are not in the best interest of our economies or environment,” the letter says. “The Department of the Interior’s proposal to consider drilling off the states we represent, absent stakeholder support and directly contradicting economic and environmental factors of the region, is a waste of time, government resources, and taxpayer dollars.”

The only Washington-Oregon lawmakers not signing the letter are Reps. Dan Newhouse and Cathy McMorris Rodgers, both Republicans representing nearly all of Eastern Washington, and Rep. Greg Walden, a Republican representing Eastern Oregon.

Does new ‘mother ship’ portend increased whaling by Japan?

The Japanese government is considering the replacement of the “mother ship” in its fleet of whaling vessels, as part of a potential expansion of whaling in the Antarctic.

Nisshin Maru, Japan’s whaling factory ship
Photo: Sea Shepherd Conservation Society

The newspaper Japan Times today received confirmation that the Japanese Fishing Agency has requested the equivalent of $910,000 to study the future of commercial whaling. If approved, the study would consider ideas for replacing the 30-year-old Nisshin Maru, best known as the factory ship used for processing whale meat. Japanese officials collect certain information about the whales and call it scientific research.

Anti-whaling activists, including Paul Watson of Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, reacted harshly to the news, saying the study is a sign that the Japanese government not only intends to keep slaughtering whales but may be on the verge of expanding commercial operations.

“I will say, that if this replacement floating slaughter house — this Cetacean Death Star — is built and if it returns to the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary with an increased quota, it will be strongly, passionately and aggressively opposed,” Watson wrote in a Facebook post. “The Whale Wars is not over.”

After problems with finding and pursuing the Japanese whalers last year, Sea Shepherd did not send any ships into battle this year. It was the first time in 12 years that Sea Shepherd has failed to confront the whalers in the Southern Ocean — except for 2014 when the Japanese whalers called off the hunt.

“What we discovered,” Watson said in a news release last August, “is that Japan is now employing military surveillance to watch Sea Shepherd ship movements in real time by satellite, and if they know where our ships are at any given moment, they can easily avoid us…. We cannot compete with their military-grade technology.”

Watson said he has also heard that the Japanese military may be sent to protect the whalers if Sea Shepherd tries to stop them.

Sea Shepherd is not giving up its efforts to protect the whales in the Southern Ocean, Watson stressed. Instead, the organization will develop new tactics while calling on the Australian government to do more to protect the whales.

In December, countries in the European Union and 12 other nations expressed their opposition to the whaling taking place in the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary, a protected area established by the International Whaling Commission. Australia and New Zealand, but not the United States, are among the signatories.

The “Joint statement against whaling” points out that the International Court of Justice ruled in 2014 that the Japanese whaling did not meet the basic requirements for scientific studies. Legitimate research is one of the few exemptions that allow the killing of whales under the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling.

The Japanese called off the whaling the following summer in Antarctica but started it up again the next year under a new whaling plan submitted to the International Whaling Commission. The Japanese government said it would never again place itself under the jurisdiction of the international court.

The IWC has since questioned the new whaling plans and has adopted two resolutions calling on the Japanese to halt whaling until the new scientific plan can be reviewed by the Scientific Committee of the IWC. Japan objected to the process on procedural grounds in a position statement and ignored the international posture, including the latest IWC resolution (16-2) in 2016.

Plans to replace or overhaul the Nisshin Maru were first floated in 2005, according to sources quoted in Japan News. Nothing happened, however, until this year when the idea was resurrected by pro-whaling lawmakers in Japan.

The ship was built in 1987 as a trawler and converted to a whale processor in 1991. Whales harpooned by smaller vessels can be pulled up a gangway to the deck for slaughter. Up to 1,200 tons of meat can be stored in a freezer below decks, according to the newspaper.

“Even though the ship has been painted over, rust that can’t be hidden stands out,” said an observer quoted in Japan News. “It is old, aged nearly 100 in human years.”

Some reports said Japanese officials want a ship that could operate quicker on the high seas to evade Sea Shepherd’s aggressive actions, which they consider to be terrorism.

About 100 people were said to be on board the Nisshin Maru in November when the ship departed from Japan’s Innoshima island, Hiroshima Prefecture, heading for the Southern Ocean. The goal is to hunt up to 333 minke whales, a quota established by the Japanese government with no outside approval.

Offshore drilling plan moves quickly into the political arena

UPDATE: Jan 12

News was breaking yesterday as I completed this blog on offshore oil drilling. I doubt that anyone was surprised by the reaction of outrage that followed Secretary Ryan Zinke’s apparently offhanded and arbitrary decision to exempt Florida from an otherwise all-coast leasing plan.

All U.S. senators from New England states, Democrats and Republicans, signed onto legislation to exempt their states from the drilling plan, while U.S. Rep. David Cicilline, D-RI, says he has unanimous bipartisan support for a similar bill in the House. Now, if they move to include the rest of the East Coast and the West Coast in the bill, they might have enough votes to pass it. (See statement from Rep. David Cicilline.)

Meanwhile, Washington’s Sen. Maria Cantwell, the ranking member of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, set the stage yesterday for the inevitable lawsuits that will follow if Zinke maintains his present course of action. Cantwell said in a statement that Zinke may have violated the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act. Others have said that he may have violated the Administrative Procedures Act as well (Washington Examiner).

—–

The Trump administration’s announcement of an open season on offshore oil drilling all around the edges of the United States has put some congressional Republicans on the hot seat during a tough election year.

Opposition to the proposed oil leases along the East Coast is reflected in the negative comments from Republican governors Larry Hogan of Maine, Charlie Baker of Massachusetts, Chris Sununu of New Hampshire, Henry McMaster of South Carolina and Rick Scott of Florida. None want to see drilling anywhere off their shorelines.

“Of course I oppose drilling off of New Hampshire’s coastline,” Gov. Sununu said in a statement made to New Hampshire Public Radio.

Just days after Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke announced his plan to issue leases for oil and gas exploration and development nearly everywhere, he decided to let Florida off the hook — to the relief of Gov. Scott, who is said to be a close friend of the Trump administration.

Zinke’s exemption for Florida was announced in a tweet posted on Twitter, in which he called Scott “a straightforward leader that can be trusted.”

“President Trump has directed me to rebuild our offshore oil and gas program in a manner that supports our national energy policy and also takes into consideration the local and state voice,” Zinke tweeted. “I support the governor’s position that Florida is unique and its coasts are heavily reliant on tourism as an economic driver. As a result of discussion with Governor Scott’s (sic) and his leadership, I am removing Florida from consideration of any new oil and gas platforms.”

It appears that Zinke is admitting that oil and gas development can harm the local tourism industry. Needless to say, the other Republican governors also would like a piece of that “support” from Zinke, as reported in a story by Dan Merica of CNN News.

Meanwhile, on the West Coast, Democratic governors and many members of Congress also oppose the drilling plan — with the exception of Alaska, where Gov. Bill Walker supports expanded drilling anywhere he can get it — even into the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. I discussed the ANWR drilling proposal in Water Ways on Nov. 16, before approval of the Republican tax bill.

Democrats in Washington state’s congressional delegation are unified in their opposition to offshore drilling, and most of them support legislation that would take the entire matter off the table for good. They are joined in their opposition by Rep. Dave Reichert, a Republican from the Eighth District.

“This moves America in the wrong direction and has the potential to have a negative lasting effect on our oceans as well as the shorelines of states on these coasts,” Reichert said in a statement. “Our country is at the forefront of developing efficient and cost effective alternative energy technologies and we should continue to support innovation in this area.”

Congressional districts in Western Washington.
Graphic: govtrack

Jaime Herrera Beutler, a Republican who represents the Third District — including coastal areas in Southwest Washington — was a little more low-key.

“I don’t support offshore oil and gas exploration in states that don’t want it, and Washington’s citizens have never indicated any desire to have oil and gas activity off their coast,” she said in a Facebook post. “I’m not aware of any active plan to drill off Washington or Oregon, but I will act to protect our citizens and our coast if any such effort does arise.”

Other comments on the plan:

  • Letter in opposition (PDF 974 kb) from 109 U.S. representatives, including Washington’s Suzan DelBene, 1st District; Derek Kilmer, 6th District; Pramila Jayapal, 7th District; Dave Reichert, 8th District; Adam Smith, 9th District; and Denny Heck, 10th District.
  • Letter in opposition (PDF 997 kb) from 37 of the 50 U.S. senators, including Washington’s Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell.
  • Rep. Derek Kilmer, Sixth District: “For decades, Democrats and Republicans have agreed that opening our waters up to drilling would be shortsighted and wrong. Doing so could threaten our fisheries, shellfish growers, tourism, and jobs in other key sectors of our economy.”
  • Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell: “This draft proposal is an ill-advised effort to circumvent public and scientific input, and we object to sacrificing public trust, community safety, and economic security for the interests of the oil industry.”

With substantial opposition from all sides, the looming question is whether Congress will allow the leasing program to move forward before expiration of the existing five-year plan for offshore drilling (PDF 34 mb), which ends in 2022 and focuses mostly on offshore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico.

While the California Coast remains a key target for oil companies, it is unlikely that we will ever see oil rigs off the Washington Coast, no matter what happens with the leasing program. Oil and gas resources simply aren’t known to be there, according to all published data.

During the 1960s, 10 exploratory wells were drilled with no significant finds off the coast of Washington and Oregon, according to a 1977 report by the U.S. Geological Survey (PDF 10.2 mb). Some 14 other wells were drilled without result offshore near Vancouver Island in Canada. Many more onshore wells have been drilled without major success throughout the region.

In 2008, I explored the idea of offshore drilling in Washington state when the George W. Bush administration attempted to lift the offshore-drilling moratorium.

“We would probably be last, or next to last,” state geologist Ray Lasmanis told me in a story for the Kitsap Sun. “The geology is too broken up, and it does not have the kind of sedimentary basins they have off the coast of California.”

Officials told me at the time that even if oil companies were given free rein, they would not line up to drill off our coast.

“It is important to note that, at least here on the West Coast, that it will take more than lifting the congressional moratorium,” said Tupper Hull, spokesman for the Western States Petroleum Association. “In addition to state and local constraints, a number of marine sanctuaries would restrict development.”

Gov. Jay Inslee, who was a U.S. representative at the time, said offshore drilling was a diversion, because much better alternatives exist on land. Because of climate change, Inslee was pushing Congress to encourage renewable energy sources, as he continues to do today as governor.

“Drilling offshore,” he told me, “is doomed to failure. I’m not opposed to drilling. We accept massive drilling on federal land. But the danger is we’ll get wrapped around the minutia of the drilling issue … and we’re still going to be addicted to oil.”

The latest proposal by the Department of Interior is subject to public hearings, including one scheduled in Tacoma on Feb. 5. Check out the full schedule of 23 hearings.

Other related documents:

Carbon emissions and nitrogen releases alter Puget Sound’s chemistry

Understanding the chemistry of Puget Sound may be as important as understanding the biology. Let me put that another way: Biology as we know it in Puget Sound wouldn’t exist without the right chemistry.

Tiny krill, one of many organisms affected by ocean acidification, demonstrate how water chemistry can affect the entire Puget Sound food web. For example, krill are eaten by herring, which are eaten by Chinook salmon, which are eaten by killer whales.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Ocean acidification is altering the chemistry of the oceans on a worldwide scale, but the Pacific Northwest and Puget Sound are being hit with some of the most severe problems, as experts point out in a new report by the Washington State Marine Resources Advisory Council.

For years, I have written about the low-oxygen problems in Hood Canal and other areas of Puget Sound. Of course, oxygen is essential to life as we know it. Major fish kills, in which dead fish float to the surface, have generated a lot of attention. At the same time, it has been harder to report on the animals dying from lack of oxygen when their carcasses are at rest in deep water. And it has been nearly impossible to keep track of the “dead zones” that come and go as conditions change.

It wasn’t until more research was conducted on the effects of ocean acidification that researchers realized that low-oxygen conditions — which were bad enough — had a dangerous companion called low pH — the increased acidity that we are talking about. Low pH can affect the growth and even the survival of organisms that build shells of calcium, including a variety of tiny organisms that play key roles in the food web.

As the oceans absorb carbon dioxide from the air, we see an increase in carbonic acid in the water, which has an effect on the ability of organisms to take up calcium carbonate. For a more complete explanation, check out “What is aragonite saturation?” on page 17 of the report.

Increased acidification is a special problem for Washington and the West Coast of North America, where deep acidified water in the Pacific Ocean hits the coast and rises to the surface.

“By accident of geography, we have this upwelling that … forces us into dealing with ocean acidification before almost anywhere else on the planet,” said Jay Manning, chairman of the Puget Sound Leadership Council. “I don’t believe I’m exaggerating when I say that Washington is leading the world in terms of science and monitoring…”

Jay, who serves on the Marine Resources Advisory Council, was quoted in a story I wrote for the Puget Sound Institute, later republished by the Kitsap Sun. The story describes some of the problems resulting from ocean acidification in Puget Sound, where an entirely different mechanism connects ocean acidification closely to low-oxygen conditions.

Researchers have concluded that an excessive growth of plankton in Puget Sound can be triggered, in part, by the release of nutrients from sewage treatment plants, septic systems and the heavy use of fertilizers. When plankton die and decay, bacteria use up oxygen while releasing carbon dioxide, thus increasing acidification.

Although the details still need to be sorted out, it is clear that some creatures are more sensitive than others to low oxygen, while low pH also affects animals in different ways. This “double whammy” of low oxygen and low pH increases the risks to the entire food web, without even considering the added threats of higher temperatures and toxic pollution.

Ongoing actions emphasized in the new report fall into six categories:

  • Reduce carbon emissions
  • Cut back on nutrient releases into the water
  • Improve adaptation strategies to reduce the harmful effects of ocean acidification
  • Invest in monitoring and scientific investigations
  • Inform, educate and engage Washington residents and key decision makers
  • Maintain a coordinated focus on all aspects of ocean acidification

“The updated report reinforces our federal, state and tribal partnership to combat ocean acidification by working together, modifying and expanding on approaches we have developed through ongoing research,” said Libby Jewett, director of NOAA’s Ocean Acidification Program in a news release (PDF 166 kb).

“For instance,” she continued, “in the new plan, scientists in the state of Washington will be asked not only to test hands-on remediation options which involve cultivating kelp as a way to remove carbon dioxide from local waters but also to explore how to move this seaweed into land agriculture as a way of recycling it.”

I thought Martha Kongsgaard, chairwoman of the MRAC, said it well in an introduction to the report (PDF 39 kb):

“Global and local carbon dioxide emissions, as well as local nutrient sources beyond natural levels, are significantly altering seawater chemistry. We are the cause for the rapid accumulation of 30 to 50 percent of the enriched CO2 in surface waters in Puget Sound and 20 percent of enriched CO2 in deep waters off our shores. Washingtonians understand what is so dramatically at stake. We are not standing by waiting for someone else to inform or rescue us.”