Category Archives: Oceans

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).

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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.”

Weather extremes now surpassing the realm of natural possibilities

A new report from the American Meteorological Society makes a rather stunning statement about climate change. For the first time, researchers have concluded that specific weather-related events could not have happened without the influence of climate change caused by human activity.

Three events studied in 2016 were so extreme that they did not fit into the context of natural climate conditions, according to researchers working on separate projects. One involved the global heat record for 2016; another was focused on warmth across Asia; and the third was the “blob” of warm ocean water familiar to folks who follow weather in the Pacific Northwest.

A “blob” of warm water off the Northwest coast from 2013 to the end of 2016 could not have occurred without human-induced climate change, experts say.
Map: NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory

“This report marks a fundamental change,” said Jeff Rosenfeld, editor-in-chief of the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, in a news release. “For years scientists have known humans are changing the risk of some extremes. But finding multiple extreme events that weren’t even possible without human influence makes clear that we’re experiencing new weather, because we’ve made a new climate.”

Personally, I did not expect to see this sort of demonstrable statement about man-made climate change anytime soon. In classes and seminars on the subject of climate change, I’ve often seen lecturers present frequency curves that show the number of times that certain weather-related phenomena — such as temperatures or rainfall — are observed over a given time.

We’re told by climatologists that many of these curves are steadily shifting, so that fairly extreme conditions occur more often and truly extreme conditions emerge for the very first time in certain locations.

Researchers are loathe to say that a given storm, drought or hurricane is the result of climate change. They would rather say climate change affects the likelihood of extreme weather events, plotted at the end of the frequency curve. In the realm of statistics, there is a tendency to hold onto the idea that almost any kind of weather could occur almost anytime, provided that a perfect storm of conditions line up together.

Against that backdrop, comes the new report titled “Explaining extreme events of 2016 from a climate perspective,” which examines extreme weather events throughout the world.

“First, it is important to note that climate scientists have been predicting that … the influence of human-caused climate change would at some point become sufficiently strong and emergent to push an extreme event beyond the bounds of natural variability alone,” state the six editors in an introduction to the report.

“It was also anticipated that we would likely first see this result for heat events where the human-caused influences are most strongly observed,” they continue. “It is striking how quickly we are now starting to see such results, though their dependence on model-based estimates of natural variability … will require ongoing validation …”

In other words, the conclusion comes from computer models that can analyze the probability of an extreme event taking place when greenhouse gases are found at different concentrations. Results using today’s observed conditions are compared with results using conditions before the industrial release of greenhouse gases.

In the three highlighted papers, the researchers calculated the “fraction of attributable risk,” or FAR, for the extreme event they were studying. FAR is a statistical approach used in epidemiology to measure the likelihood of an event under various conditions. For explanations, see Boston University School of Public Health and the 2007 IPCC report.

“All three papers concluded that the FAR was 1, meaning that the event was not possible in the ‘control’ planet and only possible in a world with human-emitted greenhouse gases,” the editors say.

Although this is the first time that researchers have concluded that extreme events could not have happened without human-induced climate change, the editors are quick to point out that the same phenomenon may have occurred unnoticed in the past on a smaller geographic scale.

These findings do not mean that the climate has reached any kind of tipping point. It simply adds to the evidence that mounting weather extremes are not the result of natural processes.

Reporters Brad Plumer and Nadja Popovich of the New York Times do a nice job of delving into the concept of attribution science while mentioning five of the extreme events covered in the new report. They quoted Heidi Cullen, chief scientist at Climate Central, which produces news stories about climate issues.

“In 2011, people were still of the mind-set that you couldn’t attribute any individual event to climate change,” Cullen said. “But with each subsequent issue (of the BAMS report), people are able to say that climate change really is increasing the risk” that extremes will occur.

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Could we ever reverse the trend of shrinking Chinook salmon?

Much has been said about the decline of Puget Sound Chinook salmon. Often the discussion focuses on how to increase the salmon population, but I believe a good case can be made for increasing the size of these once-mighty “kings.”

Chinook salmon // Photo: NOAA Fisheries

There are plenty of reasons why we should strive for larger Chinook, not the least of which is the pure joy of seeing — and perhaps catching — a giant salmon. But I’m also thinking about our endangered Southern Resident killer whales, which don’t seem to find Puget Sound very hospitable anymore. As we know, the whales favor Chinook over any other food.

While it might take more energy for a killer whale to chase down a large Chinook versus a smaller one, the payoff in nutrition and energy far outweighs the expenditure, according to Jacques White of Long Live the Kings, who has been thinking about the size issue for some time.

In terms of competition, a giant returning Chinook might be difficult for a harbor seal to handle, and that could give the orcas a special advantage. Still, we are learning that harbor seals create problems for the Chinook population by eating millions of tiny smolts migrating to the ocean before they get a chance to grow up.

Perhaps the major reason that Chinook have declined in size is the troll fishing fleet off the coast of Alaska and Northern Canada, Jacques told me. It is almost simple math. It takes six, seven or eight years to grow the really large Chinook in the ocean. Today’s fishing fleet goes out into the middle of the Chinook-rearing areas up north. The longer the fishing boats stay there, the more likely it is that they will catch a fish that could have grown into a really big one.

Years ago, the fishing boats did not travel so far out to sea, Jacques said. There was no need to travel far when plentiful runs of salmon came right into the shore and swam up the rivers.

“In the old days,” he said, “you didn’t have people risking their necks off Alaska trying to catch fish in all kinds of weather and seas.”

In additional to the trollers, plenty of sport fishermen have taken the opportunity to catch and take home nice trophy fish, putting extra pressure on the biggest members of the fish population. Fishing derbies, past and present, challenged people to catch the biggest Chinook.

Long Live the Kings, a conservation group, once held fishing derbies, Jacques noted. But, after giving it some thought, everyone realized that the effort was counterproductive. “Long Live the Kings is now out of the derby business,” he said.

Gillnets, once common in Puget Sound, entrap fish by snagging their gills. Gillnets tend not to catch the truly giant salmon, because of the mesh size, but they do catch the larger salmon. Often only the smaller ones make it through to spawn — and that breeds another generation of small fish.

Fishing is not the only factor that tends to favor the survival of small fish, but it tends to be a big factor, according to Tom Quinn, a University of Washington professor of aquatic and fishery sciences. The issue is complicated, and every salmon run has its own characteristics, he said.

Hatcheries, dams and habitat alterations all tend to favor fish that can compete and survive under new conditions, and often those conditions work better for smaller fish. Changes in the food web may create a nutritional deficit for some salmon stocks, and competition at sea with large numbers of hatchery fish may be a factor. Check out the study in the journal Plos One by researchers for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

With the removal of two dams on the Elwha River, I’m hoping that experts can make sure that the conditions will be right for larger fish — if they can survive to make it home.

Quinn, along with doctoral student Michael Tillotson, recently published a paper showing how fishing seasons alone can alter the genetic makeup of a population along with the behavior of individual fish.

Although these characteristics are not necessarily related to the size of fish, it directly affects the fitness of the population. When people are fishing on wild stocks during open season, a fish has the best chance of survival if it shows up before the fishing season begins or after the fishing season is over. But that is not nature’s way.

Through evolution, the greatest number of fish tend to come back when environmental conditions are optimal for migration, spawning and smolt survival. If fishing seasons are timed for the peak of the run, that will reduce the percentage of fish taking advantage of the best conditions. Over time, the population gets skewed, as more fish come back during times when conditions are less than optimal.

The result is likely a lower survival rate for the overall population. The real crunch could come in the future as a result of climate change. If temperatures or streamflows become more severe, the fish may be in a no-win situation: If they show up at the most optimal time, they are more likely to get caught. if they come early or late, the environment could kill them or ruin their chances of successful spawning.

“We are reducing the ability of fish to find good environmental conditions,” said Michael Tillotson in a UW news release about the new paper. “We’re perhaps also reducing the ability of fish to adapt to climate change.”

Certain behaviors are bred into wild fish over many generations, and some traits are connected to their timing. Whether they feed aggressively or passively can affect their survival. Some salmon will wait for rain; others will wait for the right streamflow or temperature. Some smolts will stay in freshwater for extended periods; others will move quickly to saltwater. It’s not a great idea when fishing seasons, rather than environmental conditions, dictate fish behavior.

The move to mark-selective fishing — which involves removing the adipose fin of all hatchery fish before they are released — can help solve some problems for wild fish, Tom told me. Under selective fishing rules, fishers are allowed to keep the hatchery fish with a missing fin, but they must release the wild ones that still have all their fins. Some of the wild fish die from injury, but most of them survive, he said.

The key to the problem is a better understanding of the genetic makeup of the individual stocks while increasing the effort to maintain a high-level of genetic diversity. That’s an insurance policy that allows the fish to survive changing conditions.

The genes for giant Chinook have not been lost entirely, as I pointed out in Water Ways on Nov. 25. If we want to have larger Chinook, we must protect the individual Chinook that are larger. That could mean reduced ocean fishing, selective fishing for hatchery populations, and requirements to release fish larger than a certain size. Perhaps it would even be possible to selectively breed larger Chinook in a hatchery for a limited time to increase the size of the fish.

It won’t be easy, because these notions involve messing with billions of dollars in the fishing industry, not to mention complicated international relations. I will save discussions about the Pacific Salmon Treaty for another day. I will just say that this treaty is supposed to be between the U.S. and Canada. But negotiations involve tradeoffs among Washington, Canada and Alaska. Even the Endangered Species Act can’t always protect wild Puget Sound Chinook from being caught in Alaska, with the ultimate outcome that fewer fish make it home to spawn.

Puget Sound freshens up with a little help from winter snowpack

In the latest “Eyes Over Puget Sound” report, one little note caught my attention: “Puget Sound is fresher than it’s ever been the past 17 years.”

Jellyfish are largely missing this fall from Puget Sound. Some patches of red-brown algae, such as this one in Sinclair Inlet, have been observed.
Photo: Washington Department of Ecology

At least temporarily, something has changed in the waters of Puget Sound over the past few months. It may not last, but it appears to be a good thing.

The monthly EOPS report, compiled by a team of state environmental experts, lays out recent water-quality data for the Department of Ecology. The report also includes personal observations, aerial photographs and scientific interpretations that keep readers abreast of recent conditions while putting things in historical context.

The “fresh” conditions called out in the report refers to the salinity of Puget Sound, which is driven largely by the freshwater streams flowing into the waterway. The reference to 17 years is a recognition that the overall salinity hasn’t been this low since the current program started 17 years ago.

Dissolved oxygen, essential to animals throughout the food web, was higher this fall than we’ve seen in some time. Hood Canal, which I’ve watched closely for years, didn’t come close to the conditions that have led to massive fish kills in the past. The only problem areas for low oxygen were in South Puget Sound.

Water temperatures in the Sound, which had been warmer than normal through 2015 and 2016, returned to more average conditions in 2017. Those temperatures were related, in part, to the warm ocean conditions off the coast, often referred to as “the blob.” In South Puget Sound, waters remained warm into October.

Why is the water fresher this fall than it has been in a long time? The reason can be attributed to the massive snowpack accumulated last winter, according to oceanographer Christopher Krembs, who leads the EOPS analysis. That snowpack provided freshwater this past spring, although rivers slowed significantly during the dry summer and continued into September.

“We had a really good snowpack with much more freshwater flowing in,” Christopher told me, adding that the Fraser River in southern British Columbia was well above average in July before the flows dropped off rapidly. The Fraser River feeds a lot of freshwater into northern Puget Sound.

Freshwater, which is less dense than seawater, creates a surface layer as it comes into Puget Sound and floats on top of the older, saltier water. The freshwater input fuels the circulation by generally pushing out toward the ocean, while the heavier saltwater generally moves farther into Puget Sound.

“The big gorilla is the upwelling system,” Christopher noted, referring to the rate at which deep, nutrient-rich and low-oxygen waters are churned up along the coast and distributed into the Puget Sound via the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Lately, that system has been turned down to low as a result of larger forces in the ocean.

In an advisory issued today (PDF 803 kb), NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center says a weak La Niña is likely to continue through the winter. For the northern states across the country, that usually means below-average temperatures and above-average precipitation. (It’s just the opposite for the southern states.)

With a favorable snowpack already accumulating in the mountains, experts can’t help but wonder if we might repeat this year’s conditions in Puget Sound over the next year.

Christopher told me that during aerial flights this fall, he has observed fewer jellyfish and blooms of Noctiluca (a plankton known to turn the waters orange) than during the past two years. Most people think this is a good thing, since these organisms prevail in poor conditions. Such species also have a reputation as a “dead end” in the food web, since they are eaten by very few animals.

Christopher said he noticed a lot of “bait balls,” which are large schools of small fish that can feed salmon, birds and a variety of creatures. “I assume most of them are anchovies,” he said of the schooling fish.

I would trade a jellyfish to get an anchovy on any day of the year.

Amusing Monday: Odd-looking pyrosomes more familiar in the tropics

“I have just watched the moon set in all her glory, and looked at those lesser moons, the beautiful Pyrosoma, shining like white-hot cylinders in the water.”English biologist Thomas H. Huxley, 1849

Warmer-than-normal waters off the coast of Oregon, Washington and British Columbia may be responsible for an invasion of all sorts of creatures normally found to the south in more tropical waters. None of these animals has attracted more attention than the bright bioluminescent pyrosomes, which showed up last spring as the waters of the Pacific Ocean were returning to normal temperatures.

Pyrosomes — which comes from the Greek word “pyro,” meaning fire, and “soma,” meaning body —are large colonies of small tunicates. These are invertebrates that feed by filtering sea water. The individual tunicates, called zooids, hook together to form tubes. The intake siphon of each zooid is aligned to the outside of the tube, while each discharge siphon is aligned to the inside.

The pyrosomes seen in Northwest waters so far are relatively small, thus fitting their nickname “sea pickles.” Nevertheless, they have impressed scientists who have observed them. The first video, above, was made in late July during the 2017 Nautilus Expedition along the West Coast (Water Ways, Sept. 4).

Hilarie Sorensen, a University of Oregon graduate student, participated in a research cruise in May, traveling from San Francisco to Newport in search of jellyfish that had invaded Northwest waters over the previous two years. She didn’t find the jellies she hoped to see, but she was blown away by the pyrosomes, some more than two feet long, and she wondered what they were up to.

“I am interested in how short- and long-term physical changes in the ocean impact biology,” Hilary was quoted as saying in a UO news release. “With all of these pyrosomes this year, I would like to further explore the relationship between their distribution, size and abundance with local environmental conditions.”

Reporter Craig Welch wrote about the recent findings for National Geographic. He quoted Laurie Weitkamp, a biologist with NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center: “For something that’s never really been here before, the densities are just mind-boggling,” she said. “We’re just scratching our heads.”

Even more impressive are the giant pyrosomes that have not shown up in Northwest waters, at least so far. They are rare even in tropical locales. Check out the second video, which shows a pyrosome found in the Canary Islands in North Africa and estimated to be about 12 feet long.

The third video was filmed in Tasmania south of Australia by Michael Baron of Eaglehawk Dive Centre. It shows both a giant pyrosome and a salp, another colonial creature formed of larger individuals. For the full story on the pyrosome, go to the BBC Two program, “Unidentified glowing object: nature’s weirdest events.”

Another good video on YouTube shows a giant pyrosome in the Maldive Islands off southern India.

Oddly enough, pyrosomes seem to light up in response to light, according to information posted on an invertebrate zoology blog at the University of California at Davis. The colonies may also light up in response to electrical stimulation or physical prodding.

When an individual zooid has activated its luminescence, it will trigger a chain reaction throughout the colony with nearby zooids lighting up in turn.

“When many pyrosomes are present in the same general area it’s possible to observe a vivid array of bright, pale lights produced by the many animals,” said Ian Streiter in the blog post.

“It was just this sort of observation that led the great Thomas Huxley (‘Darwin’s Bulldog’) to remark in 1849: ‘I have just watched the moon set in all her glory, and looked at those lesser moons, the beautiful Pyrosoma, shining like white-hot cylinders in the water.’

Ian concluded, “For those lucky enough to be at sea when they’re around, I imagine there are few sights as pleasant as that of the ‘moonlight’ produced by the fire bodies.”

Other information:

Finally, there is this audio report, “Millions of tropical sea creatures invade waters off B.C. coast,” with commentary from Washington state fisherman Dobie Lyons and zooplankton taxonomist Moira Galbraith of the Institute of Ocean Sciences in Sidney, B.C. They appeared on All Points West, CBC Radio, with Jason D’Souza of Victoria.

Farewell to Cassini, which found wondrous worlds not so far away

I’d like to take a moment to celebrate the discoveries of NASA’s Cassini spacecraft — including the finding of water on Saturn’s moons Titan and Enceladus.

Water vapor escapes from geothermal vents on Saturn’s moon Enceladus. // Photo: NASA

The 13-year mission ended Friday when Cassini, running out of fuel, was directed to self-destruct by burning up in the atmosphere of the ringed planet.

“This is the final chapter of an amazing mission, but it’s also a new beginning,” Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, said in a story on NASA’s website. “Cassini’s discovery of ocean worlds at Titan and Enceladus changed everything, shaking our views to the core about surprising places to search for potential life beyond Earth.”

Cassini was launched from Florida’s Cape Canaveral in 1997 and reached Saturn in 2004. NASA extended the mission for two years and then again for seven years, as new findings continued to emerge, with a later focus on Saturn’s moons. An amazing surprise came when a subsurface ocean was found on Enceladus.

“Cassini may be gone, but its scientific bounty will keep us occupied for many years,” said Linda Spilker, Cassini project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “We’ve only scratched the surface of what we can learn from the mountain of data it has sent back over its lifetime.”

The video on this page reveals some of the feelings that welled up and lingered among the Cassini team after the spacecraft came to its fiery end on Friday.

If you are interested in space discoveries, I recommend a glance at the text, photos and videos shared on NASA’s website. I also enjoyed the “most inspiring, beautiful, and historic” photos taken during the mission and pulled together by Brian Resnick for Vox Media’s website.

As Linda Spilker aptly described it, “Things never will be quite the same for those of us on the Cassini team now that the spacecraft is no longer flying. But we take comfort knowing that every time we look up at Saturn in the night sky, part of Cassini will be there, too.”

Amusing Monday: Splendid underwater images from EV Nautilus

Exploration Vessel Nautilus has completed its journey north to the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary, where the research team captured plenty of intriguing video, including a close look at the sunken submarine USS Bugara (first video below). All videos are best in full screen.

EV Nautilus, operated by Ocean Exploration Trust, conducts scientific research along the sea bottom throughout the world, specializing in biology, geology and archeology. Education is a major part of the effort, and school curricula are built around live and recorded telecasts from the ship. In addition, a select group of educators and students are invited to go on the expeditions each summer.

This year’s expedition began in May in California, where the ship took data for high-resolution maps of offshore areas never surveyed before. That was followed by an examination of the Cascadia Margin, a geologically active area off the Oregon Coast where the researchers identified bubbling seeps with multibeam sonar.

Dives using remotely operated vehicles began in June when the ship arrived off the Canadian Coast west of Vancouver Island. One dive, which went down to 2,200 meters, captured images of a hydrothermal vent, where water gets expelled after being superheated by the Earth’s magma. Watch the video saved on the Nautilus Facebook page. In another video, the temperature at one vent got so hot that the researchers found themselves cheering as the temperature at the probe kept going up.

I am easily amused, but I have to say that I was intrigued by a 9,000-year-old living reef made of glass sponges that was discovered off the coast of Galiano Island, British Columbia (second video this page).

One amusing video was created while watching a six-gill shark in the Channel Islands off California. Suddenly, a crab came into view carrying another crab (third video below). “It’s an Uber crab!” one researcher commented. “Is that lunch?” another wondered.

Another great shot from the Channel Islands showed a big ball of shimmering anchovies along with a select group of predators, including several fish, a six-gill shark and a sea lion. This video can be seen on the Nautilius Facebook page.

The examination of the submarine Bugara (first video on this page) occurred Aug. 25 off Cape Flattery in Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary. The event was live-streamed with commentary from scientists, archaeologists and historians, as well as veterans who served on the submarine. Bugara was built during World War II and later became the first American submarine to enter the Vietnam War after Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution.

After its decommissioning in California, Bugara was being towed to Washington state to serve as a target for a new weapons system. On June 1, 1971, the submarine took on water during transit and sank to the bottom, where it has rested ever since. No injuries occurred during the incident. For historical details, go to Bugara.net, which was set up for former sailors and others associated with the submarine.

A longer 1.5-hour video of the Bugara inspection by ROV can be viewed on the Nautilus Facebook page. This is basically what was viewed online in real time by observers — including a group gathered at Naval Undersea Museum at Keyport.

Another interesting video shot in Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary shows a siphonophore, a colony of specialized organisms that work together to form a chain of individuals that together are capable of swimming, stinging, digesting and reproducing. Researchers working the 4-to-8-p.m. shift were able to observe more than their share of these interesting colonies, so the group became known as the “Siphono4-8” (video below).

Nautilus currently is moored in Astoria, Ore., where it is scheduled to begin the next leg of its expedition on Wednesday. The goal is to search near Oregon’s Heceta Bank for ancient coastal landscapes that may have been above sea level 21,000 to 15,000 years ago. More live sessions and archived video are planned. Follow these Nautilus links for details:

The Ocean Exploration Trust was founded in 2008 by Robert Ballard, known for his discovery of RMS Titanic’s final resting place. The 2017 Nautilus expedition, which will continue into November, marks the third year of exploring the Eastern Pacific Ocean. The expedition has been covered by these news media:

Amusing Monday: Underwater mysteries of the national parks

Mysterious underwater areas can be found in numerous national parks and national monuments throughout the United States. The National Park Service operates a special division, the Submerged Resources Center, to explore some of the mysteries.

To share its underwater exploration and preservation efforts, the Park Service has created seven films in partnership with CuriosityStream, a documentary production and distribution company. Though longer than most videos featured in “Amusing Monday,” I believe the science and history revealed in these fascinating films are well worth the time.

The Submerged Resources Center, which has been in existence more than 30 years, has been recognized as a leader in documenting, interpreting and preserving underwater resources. As you will see in the films, the research teams use some of the most advanced underwater technologies. Their mission is to support the National Park Service’s preservation mandate and to enhance public appreciation, access and protection of these resources. Areas of focus include archeology, marine survey, underwater imaging and diving.

I have embedded three videos on this page, but I’m providing the full list here, with links, also accessible on the National Park Service’s website called “Underwater Wonders of the National Parks.”

Devil’s Hole: This unique underwater cave can be found in Death Valley National Park on the border between California and Nevada northwest of Las Vegas. The film features a unique species of fish called the pupfish, which are among the most endangered species in the world. Assessing and protecting these fish is a major responsibility of the Park Service. Another good story with photos and video was featured in The Desert Sun newspaper of Palm Springs, Calif.

Montezuma Well: Swirling sands at the bottom of this lake create spooky conditions for divers who cannot find the bottom and often find themselves sucked into a kind of quicksand. The “well” can be found within Montezuma Castle National Monument south of Flagstaff, Ariz. Few creatures can survive in the waters rich in carbon dioxide and arsenic and fed by pressurized water vents. But divers are monitoring the populations and interactions among four species found there: diatoms, amphipods, snails, non-blood-sucking leaches and water scorpions.

USS Arizona, Part 1: The USS Arizona, which sank during the attack on Pearl Harbor, is a national memorial to the 1,177 sailors who went down with the ship. The National Park Service is responsible for monitoring conditions — including sea life — in and around the Arizona.

USS Arizona, Part 2: The second video on the Arizona Memorial features more about the history of the ship and artifacts still being discovered. Divers are serious about their solemn roles. For example, World War II survivors of the attack may choose to be reunited with their shipmates, so urns with their remains are moved into a special place aboard the sunken battleship.

Yellowstone Lake: Thermal vents and impressive geothermal spires are unique to the freshwater habitat of Yellowstone Lake, which lies in the center of Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming. A major concern is the survival of the lake’s native cutthroat trout, which are being consumed by the voracious lake trout, an invasive species. Mapping the lake’s bottom to locate the lake trout’s spawning grounds is one idea to help contain the problem.

Lake Mead: The first national recreation area in the United States, Lake Mead, which is east of Las Vegas, was formed by the construction of Hoover Dam in an area known for its military secrets, including Area 51. In 1948, a B-29 bomber crashed and sank in the lake while conducting research into a new navigational concept, which eventually became incorporated into guidance missile systems. The aluminum aircraft is well preserved on the bottom of the lake, although it is now encrusted with invasive quagga mussels, which spread too fast for divers to keep track of them.

Buck Island: An amazingly productive ecosystem can be found within Buck Island Reef National Monument in the U.S. Virgin Islands of the Caribbean. Experts monitoring the reef’s conditions must experience mixed emotions, as they document the amazing sea life as well as “bleaching” of the coral reef, portions of which are dying from disease. Divers have been able to save some of the corals by chiseling away the infected areas. The National Park Service also documents the history of the slave trade as it explores for artifacts from more than 100 slave ships that sank in the Virgin Islands — including at least two near Buck Island.

Canadians produce mariner’s guide to whales; can U.S. follow?

If knowledge is power, officials in British Columbia have taken a strong step to protect whales by producing a booklet that can help ship captains reduce the threats to marine mammals.

The “Mariner’s Guide to Whales, Dolphins and Porpoises of Western Canada” (PDF 39.3 mb) was compiled and published by the Coastal Ocean Research Institute, a branch of the Vancouver Aquarium. Financial support came from nearby ports.

The guide is just one step in resolving conflicts between ships and whales, but it seems like a worthwhile move. If people who control the ships are willing to put scientific information into action, they could avoid cumbersome regulations along with unintended consequences that sometimes arise from political battles.

“The purpose of this guide is to help mariners reduce their risk of striking and killing, or seriously injuring a cetacean (whale, dolphin or porpoise),” writes researcher Lance Barrett-Lennard in a preface to the guide. “It includes descriptions of frequently encountered whales and dolphins, locations along the coast where cetacean densities are highest, and simple measures they can take to greatly reduce their risk of striking a whale, dolphin or porpoise.

“I have yet to meet a mariner who doesn’t feel terrible if his or her ship hits a cetacean … so I know the motivation to reduce strikes is there,” Lance continued. “The key is knowing how to do it. To that end, I hope that bridge crews on vessels transiting through B.C. coastal waters will use the information in this guide to reduce the risk of hitting a whale on their watch.”

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