Tag Archives: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Amusing Monday: NOAA’s top photos, videos and stories

A photograph of a tiny orange octopus was the most popular image last year among all the photographs posted to Instagram by NOAA Fisheries, the agency formally called the National Marine Fisheries Service. More than 2,000 people “liked” the picture and many more viewed it from among more than 150 top photographs posted last year by NOAA Fisheries’ Communications shop on its Instagram page.

A baby octopus found on an autonomous reef monitoring structure. (Click to enlarge.)
Photo: James Morioka/NOAA

The octopus photo was taken during a NOAA expedition to assess the health of coral reefs in the Pacific Remote Islands, which had undergone a massive die-off in 2016 and 2017 caused by excessive warm water. The tiny octopus was discovered on an “autonomous reef monitoring structure” used to measure the recovery of ocean ecosystems. For details about the voyage, see NOAA’s story “Research Expedition to Assess Coral Reef Conditions and Recovery from Mass Bleaching.”

Another popular NOAA photo from last year was a picture of a large number of green sea turtles basking along the French Frigate Shoals in the Northwest Hawaiian Islands.

Green sea turtles bask on a beach in the Northwest Hawaiian Islands. (Click to enlarge.)
Photo: Marylou Staman/NOAA

Starting in 1973, NOAA biologists have traveled to these remote islands to monitor nesting activity among the turtles. They work day and night, counting and marking turtles with unique numbers for identity. Citizens who spot numbered turtles are asked to report them. For more details, check out the story “Honu Count 2018: Help us find numbered sea turtles in Hawaii.”

A video that tells a story of sea turtles also came out among the most popular videos produced by NOAA last year. The story of how their populations are changing is fascinating, and turtles always get attention from readers and viewers, according to NOAA officials.

“One of the really interesting things about sea turtles is their sex is determined by the incubation temperature of the eggs, with cooler temperatures producing more males and warmer temperatures producing more females,” says Michael Jensen, a marine biologist with Ocean Associates.

Jensen, working on a turtle study with NOAA’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center, is the primary voice on the video, in which he talks about how warmer waters in portions of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef are producing about 99 percent female turtles. These findings are based on new genetic studies that track where the turtles are born.

“It’s important to remember that they’ve been around for a hundred million years,” Jensen said. “They’ve outlasted the dinosaurs. They’ve adapted to a changing climate through that whole time. However, the climate is changing faster now than it has ever. The question we are all asking now is: Will they be able to adapt, and will they be able to adapt fast enough. We certainly hope so.”

Humpback whale // Photo: NOAA

One of NOAA’s top stories of last year, as always, was a focus on whales. Communication folks put together some interesting facts for Whale Week, including this one: “Male humpback whales found in U.S. waters sing complex songs in winter breeding areas … that can last up to 20 minutes and be heard miles away.” OK, maybe most of us already knew that, but for each of the 10 whales mentioned, you will find links to a lot more details, such as with humpbacks.

If you are interested in Puget Sound, I would point you toward the “marine mammal” section of the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.

Blue shark // Photo: Mark Conlin/NOAA

NOAA’s number-one story of 2018 was one put together for Shark Week: “12 shark facts that may surprise you.” Here’s a fact that may not be as obvious as it seems:

“Blue sharks are really blue. The blue shark displays a brilliant blue color on the upper portion of its body and is normally snowy white beneath. The mako and porbeagle sharks also exhibit a blue coloration, but it is not nearly as brilliant as that of a blue shark. In life, most sharks are brown, olive, or grayish.”

Another popular “story,” which is actually listed as 16 separate stories, involves issues of sustainable seafood, with mention of National Seafood Month in October. Stories address sustainable labeling, consumer preferences, cuts of fish, fishermen perspectives, species recovery, aquaculture, economics, climate change and descriptions of a variety of individual fish species.

The list of NOAA Fisheries’ top stories, photos and videos can be found on the agency’s news website.

King Tides don’t always follow the tide tables

UPDATE: Dec. 19

An app used for reporting King Tides can also be used to report marine debris along the shoreline. Check out the news release issued today by the Washington Department of Natural Resources.
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Higher-than-predicted marine waters, brought about in part by recent weather conditions, have given us unexpected “King Tides” in many areas of Puget Sound.

I noticed that the waters of Hood Canal seemed exceedingly high this afternoon, as I drove along Seabeck Highway where the road hugs the shoreline. The waters were not supposed to be this high, according to tide tables developed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, so I checked some actual levels recorded at nearby locations.

High-water levels measured on the waterfronts in Seattle, Tacoma and Port Townsend were nearly 1½ feet higher than what had been predicted by NOAA for those areas. For example, in Seattle the preliminary high-water level was listed at a tidal elevation of 12.98 feet at 12:54 p.m. today, compared to a predicted high tide of 11.56 feet.

This is the season for King Tides, a name given to the highest tides of the year. High tides, mostly generated by the alignment of the sun and the moon, are predicted for Christmas Eve, rising higher to the day after Christmas and then declining. But, as we’ve seen this week, as well as on Thanksgiving Day, predicted high tides can be dramatically boosted by heavy rains, low atmospheric pressure and onshore winds.

As one can see by looking at observed and predicted tidal levels in Seattle, the actual tidal level has exceeded the predicted level more often than not over the past 30 days — and lately it has been higher by quite a lot (shown in chart at bottom of this page). Actual levels are measured in real time in only 14 places in Washington state. One can access the charts from NOAA’s Water Levels — Stations Selections page.

King Tides are promoted as an event by Washington Sea Grant and the Washington Department of Ecology, because today’s extreme tides provide a reference point for sea-level rise caused by climate change. The highest tides of today will be seen more often in the future, and even higher tides are coming. Check out the blog post on Water Ways from Jan. 3 of this year. See also the website “Washington King Tides Program.”

Washington Sea Grant has posted a list of dates when high tides are expected in various areas, called King Tides Calendar. Sharing photos of high tides hitting the shoreline is part of the adventure, so sign up for MyCoast to share your pictures or view images posted by others, or download the cellphone app to make the connection even easier.

The chart shows the actual tidal water levels in Seattle (red) compared to the predicted levels (blue). Click to go to NOAA’s website.
Chart: NOAA

Scarlett, the young orca, has gone missing and is presumed to be dead

A tenacious young orca named Scarlet, gravely emaciated for several weeks, has gone missing and is presumed dead.

Scarlet and her mother Slick head toward San Juan Island on Aug. 18. Scarlet is now missing.
Photo: Katy Foster, NOAA Fisheries, under federal permit

Scarlet, designated J-50, was last seen on Friday with her mother and other family members. Since then, observers have encountered her close relatives several times. Yet Scarlet, who was nearly 4 years old, has been nowhere to be found.

Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research, who maintains the official census of the Southern Resident killer whales, announced her death late yesterday.

“J-50 is missing and now presumed dead,” Ken wrote in a press release. “Her last known sighting was Friday, September 7, by our colleagues at NOAA, SeaDoc, and others. The Center for Whale Research has had a vessel on the water looking for J-50 for the past three days. We have seen all the other members of her family (i.e., J-16s) during these outings.”

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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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Winter chum salmon in South Puget Sound fail test for uniqueness

Sam Wright, who has been remarkably successful in getting various fish species protected under the Endangered Species Act, has learned that his latest ESA petition — possibly his final petition — has been rejected.

Sam, who retired from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife after years of studying salmon and other fish, would like to get special recognition for a unique population of chum salmon that return to South Puget Sound in the winter.

Nisqually River near Interstate 5 bridge
Photo: ©2006 Walter Siegmund/Wikimedia Commons

The Nisqually-Chambers Creek run of winter chum is the only population of chum salmon in the world that spawn as late as February, with some fish entirely missing the worst floods of December and January, Sam told me. His petition to the federal government was designed to get these winter chum recognized as a distinct population segment — much as the threatened summer chum population in Hood Canal has been designated as separate from the fall runs of chum throughout Puget Sound.

Being a small population, the Nisqually-Chambers Creek winter chum would probably qualify for threatened or endangered status, he said, but first it would need to be recognized as distinct. If not listed initially as threatened or endangered, those decisions could follow if the population crashes, he said.

“The petition was meant to correct what was, from my perspective, a mistake made 20 years ago when they made a coastwise series of reports assessing the chum salmon populations,” said Sam, who is now 81 years old.

“In the entire range of chum salmon — both in North America and Asia — there are 3,500 streams with chum salmon,” he continued, “but there is only one single winter-run chum salmon, and that is the Nisqually.”

Sam’s petition (PDF 4.2 mb), filed more than two years ago, was subject to a 90-day review by the National Marine Fisheries Service, also known as NOAA Fisheries. Sam was told that the petition had been misplaced all this time. Last week, he got the news that the Nisqually-Chambers Creek winter chum would not be recognized as a distinct population, nor would it be considered for further review without new information being brought forward.

In rejecting Sam’s petition, NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center reviewed available data — including a 2015 genetic study on chum populations — and concluded that the original analysis done in 1997 was still valid. That analysis concluded that the winter-run chum are closely related to the fall-run chum in Puget Sound and Hood Canal and that “there is no clear genetic evidence to support the idea that the winter-run chum salmon in Puget Sound are substantially reproductively isolated from other chum salmon populations in southern Puget Sound.” See “Listing Endangered or Threatened Species …”

Sam argues that the winter chum remain genetically isolated from fall chum populations because of their unusual spawning schedule. That is demonstrated by annual population counts, which go up and down independently of fall chum numbers in South Puget Sound.

“They are reacting to different environmental conditions,” Sam explained.

Studies are needed to show the differences, Sam said, but they may have an advantage over fall chum by avoiding most of the winter floods, which can displace salmon eggs incubating in the gravel or else smother them in silt.

Incubation time is based on temperature, so the late-arriving chum are subject to warmer water and faster incubation. The winter chum fry are only a little behind the fall chum fry, Sam said.

One of the most productive areas for winter chum is Muck Creek, a tributary of the Nisqually River that runs through Joint Base Lewis McCord, where the Army conducts military exercises, according to Sam.

“We’ve had decades of battles with Fort Lewis over whether to use Muck Creek as part of their firing range,” Sam told me, adding that he suspects that pressure from the military played a role in NOAA’s original decision to lump the winter chum together with the fall chum.

Personally, I don’t know anything about such conflicts, but Muck Creek has been the site of a major restoration effort involving JBLM, the Nisqually Tribe and other groups. In 2011, reporter Ingrid Barrentine wrote about the annual salmon homecoming for Northwest Guardian, a JBLM publication.

As for the habitat in Muck Creek, Sam told me something else that was surprising. The stream is spring-fed with freshwater bubbling up from below and providing stable flows, he said. That helps the eggs to survive. Unlike many streams in which only 10 percent of the chum eggs grow into fry headed for saltwater, Muck Creek has had a 90-percent survival rate.

One reason that Sam is so concerned about the Nisqually-Chambers Creek winter chum is the uncertainty about what is coming in the future. Climate change is likely to bring higher stream flows in winter, he said, and chum runs that come later may hold the keys to survival of the species.

“To me, the last thing we want to do is throw away that particular piece,” Sam said, paraphrasing Aldo Leopold, whose exact quote is this:

“If the biota, in the course of aeons, has built something we like but do not understand, then who but a fool would discard seemingly useless parts? To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.” (Round River)

Sam Wright’s persistence has paid off in the past when he has asked for reconsideration and finally received threatened or endangered status for various populations of salmon, steelhead, rockfish and other marine species. This time, he may or may not provide additional information and ask the agency to reconsider its position. In any case, Sam told me that he has no new petitions in the works, and this may be his last effort.

Whether Nisqually-Chambers Creek winter chum — or any salmon population — is considered distinct rests on NOAA’s definition of species, 16 U.S.C. 1531, which includes two criteria:

  1. The population must be substantially reproductively isolated from other nonspecific population units; and
  2. The population must represent an important component in the evolutionary legacy of the species.

In turning down Sam’s petition, reviewers pointed to genetic studies that supported the finding that summer chum in Hood Canal and the Strait of Juan de Fuca were distinct from other chum runs. A second grouping included the remaining fall, summer and winter runs in Puget Sound, with a third grouping of fall chum from the Strait of Juan de Fuca, the Washington Coast and Oregon.

The reviewers also pointed out that the Nisqually River and Chambers Creek to the north are not geographically isolated from the rest of South Puget Sound.

As for “evolutionary legacy,” Sam contends that loss of the winter chum would be forever, as with extinct summer chum in many river systems including Chambers Creek. That critical issue, he said, is the very definition of legacy.

The reviewers of his petition found, like the 1997 review team, that winter and summer runs in Puget Sound only showed “patterns of diversity within a relatively large and complex evolutionarily significant unit,” known as an ESU.

“Both the Nisqually River and Chambers Creek watersheds have supported both summer- and fall-run chum salmon in the past, along with winter-run chum salmon,” concluded the agency’s written findings, “so there is nothing unique preventing these watersheds from supporting multiple chum salmon runs.”

Washington state keeps its cool for the first five months of this year

For the first five months of this year, Washington state has stood out as the only state in the U.S. with a below-average temperature.

While most of the country was experiencing warmer-than-normal temperatures, we here in Washington were going outside to temperatures that averaged nearly 1 degree F. below normal.

In fact, the contiguous 48 states recorded the second-warmest January-through-May period on record, despite cooler conditions in Washington. Average temperatures were 1.4 degrees F. below the record set in 2012 for the same period, according to NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information (PDF 4.2 mb). Click on maps to enlarge.

The average temperature in Washington state was 38.6 degrees for the first five months of the year, compared to an average of 39.4 degrees for the 20th century. Out of 124 years on record, it was the 35th coolest for the five-month period, the coolest since 2011. The coolest on record was in 1950.

Forty states were much warmer than average during the same time period, with Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Texas reaching record-warm levels.

Of course, temperatures can vary greatly from year to year, but climate conditions in Washington, as in most of the world, demonstrate an increasing temperature trend since records began in 1895, as shown by the blue line in the graphic.

The country as a whole has also been much wetter than normal so far this year. Average precipitation across the lower-48 has reached 14.85 inches, which is 2.46 inches above average and the fourth wettest January-through-May period on record. It is also the wettest first five months since 1998.

Washington state was 6.78 inches above the 20th century average of 20.03 inches for the five-month time period. This year was the sixth wettest on record.

Washington and five other western states were listed as much above average for snow and rain, while Idaho reached record precipitation for the first five months of the year. Record flooding was reported in the mid-Mississippi Valley. Below average precipitation was seen in the Northern Plains states and Florida.

Meanwhile, about 5 percent of the lower-48 was listed in drought conditions on May 30, up slightly from earlier in the year. Drought improved in the Northeast, Mid-Atlantic and Southeast, but it worsened in the Northern and Southern Plains and in Florida.