Tag Archives: Ocean pollution

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.”

The last time I spoke to Peter was in 2004 (Kitsap Sun, Jan 31,2004) when he was working for Geoscience Australia and presented his latest findings on coral reefs to audiences in Kingston and Poulsbo. His dad, Alfred Harris, still lives in Poulsbo, while his mom, Sydney Cotton, lives in Silverdale.

For the past four years, Peter has been working in Norway as managing director at GRID-Arendal, a nonprofit foundation that gathers and synthesizes scientific information to help decision-makers. He heads a staff of about 30 people, including experts from various countries.

By the way, GRID stands for Global Resource Information Database, and Arendal is a community about the size of Bremerton, where Peter has purchased a home and agreed to stay on with GRID another four years.

I asked him what his team concluded about the three biggest problems facing the world’s oceans. He said the group, after much consideration, decided that what rose to the top —above ocean acidification, chemical contamination, noise pollution and others — were coral reefs, plastics and overfishing.

“The world is past the tipping point for coral reefs,” he said. “We are past the point where the corals are under stress. They will keep dying off.”

Peter Harris at sea in 2011

Warm water causes the coral colonies to reject their symbiotic algae, leaving them white in a process called coral “bleaching.” They can recover if cooler water returns and there is enough time between bleaching events, he said. But it takes about 10 years for corals to recover, and the Great Barrier Reef has undergone bleaching for three years in a row. Vast areas may never recover.

Coral reefs provide habitats for huge numbers of marine species, and their loss will be an environmental catastrophe brought about by climate change. Even if humans eventually reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, the ecological diversity may be lost in many areas.

“The only solution is to try to preserve coral reefs in locations where they are less susceptible,” Peter said.

The second ocean problem Peter mentioned was plastic pollution.

“More and more people are using more and more plastic,” he said, and some of it eventually reaches the ocean. It can come from stormwater, litter, fishing activities, garbage picked up by the wind and outright dumping. Much of it comes from developing countries with inadequate waste-treatment systems.

“It seems like many people and countries see this as a problem that can be addressed, like the ozone problem,” he said. “It all comes down to how you deal with plastic in your own life.”

The third problem he mentioned was overfishing, which has the potential to drive some populations to the brink of extinction.

While some countries, such as the U.S. and Canada, are doing much better in managing their fisheries, many developing countries are stuck in a cycle of needing more fish to feed a hungry population while generating revenue from fisheries, he said. Taking more and more fish from the ocean will lead to population collapse.

Some of the greatest concerns are on the high seas, where there is little control over what anyone does, he said. Some fishermen are targeting seamounts, where large numbers of various fish species congregate.

“When fishermen find a good spot out in the ocean it is usually a spawning aggregation,” he said, adding that removing those fish can affect growth of entire populations.

“One solution is to put a moratorium on high seas fishing altogether,” he said, adding that it would take a major international effort, but people should recognize that the high seas is the least productive part of the ocean.

GEO-6, the U.N. report on the world environment, is scheduled for publication before the end of the year.

Through GRID-Arendal, Peter keeps in touch with many environmental issues, which can be reviewed on the foundation’s “Activities” page as well as its “Publications” and “Graphics” pages.

Peter’s world travels are as interesting as his research. After graduating from North Kitsap High School in 1976, he went on to receive an oceanography degree from the University of Washington in 1981.

“I think I have always had an interest in the ocean,” he said, noting that his father built sailboats as a hobby and raced them on Puget Sound.

At the age of 12, he took a course at the Poulsbo Marine Science Center (now SEA Discovery Center). After that, he took advantage of every opportunity to visit the marine animals in tanks at the center and to go out on tide-pool walks on Puget Sound.

“I was really captured by the image of how this place was formed,” he said. “I came to understand that there is a reason for everything you see. Puget Sound was once under an ice sheet. The gravel is glacial till. Suddenly it all starts to make sense.”

While other places, such as Chile and Norway, have waterways that look similar to Puget Sound, they often lie over rocky outcroppings rather than gravelly substrate. Puget Sound is truly unique, he added.

“When you travel the world, you realize how rare and precious it is,” he said. “There are no other places like it.”

At the UW, one of Peter’s professors, Dick Sternberg, convinced him to do his graduate work at the University of Wales in Great Britain, where he could work under the late Michael Collins, co-editor with Sternberg of the journal “Continental Shelf Research.”

While there, Peter met his future wife Ellen, an Australian native, and he decided to take a job at the University of Sydney, where he taught oceanography and conducted research on the Great Barrier Reef. When he joined the Australian government, he was required to become an Australian citizen, though he maintained his American citizenship. He worked for Geoscience Australia for 20 years, becoming head of the Antarctic marine and coastal programs, before moving to Norway in 2014.

He and his wife have three grown children, two still living in Australia. Eleri, the oldest, recently took a job with the online political cartoon magazine “The Nib” in Portland, Ore. With a grandchild now on the way, Peter says he has even more reasons to return to the Northwest.

Much floating trash winds up in Silverdale

Silverdale’s waterfront is seeing the effects of recent storms in our area, as documented by Susan Digby, a geography instructor at Olympic College.

Recent storms have brought a lot of trash and marine debris to Silverdale’s waterfront. / Photo by Susan Digby

High stormwater flows have washed litter, debris and dead salmon into Sinclair and Dyes inlets, where currents and winds from the south carry the materials to Silverdale’s beaches, including Silverdale Waterfront Park and Old Mill Park.

“The north end of Dyes Inlet is like the end of a sock,” Susan told me. “When we get rain and wind, everything piles up there.”

Photos of all this debris — including parts of three docks — were taken by Susan on Sunday, just two weeks after her students cleaned up the beach entirely as part of an ongoing study that counts and categorizes marine debris that collects there.

A phenomenal amount of trash winds up on our beaches, including discarded food wrappers that people have carelessly discarded. Just about anything that floats can wash into a stream or storm drain to be carried into one of our local inlets. Some debris may be coming from the nearby streets and parking lots in Silverdale, but some could be coming all the way from Gorst, as suggested by drogue studies (PDF 1.6 mb) conducted by the Navy.

As Susan points out, the debris includes lots of Styrofoam, which can be ingested by birds and sea creatures, as well as baby diapers and syringes, which are a reminder that disease organisms are making their way into our local waters with uncertain effects on the fish and shellfish we eat.

I plan to cover Susan Digby’s student research project in more detail early next year, after 2012 data are compiled.

A piece of a dock washed up on Silverdale’s waterfront during a recent storm. Parts of two other docks also were found. / Photo by Susan Digby

Gulf damage assessments begin to roll in

It seems there is finally some good news coming out of the Gulf of Mexico.

After 170 days, the leaking oil well — nearly a mile under water — was finally plugged with mud. Officials say it means an end to the long spill. As BP stated in a news release:

“Pumping of heavy drilling mud into the well from vessels on the surface began at 1500 CDT on August 3, 2010 and was stopped after about eight hours of pumping. The well is now being monitored, per the agreed procedure, to ensure it remains static. Further pumping of mud may or may not be required depending on results observed during monitoring…

“A relief well remains the ultimate solution to kill and permanently cement the well. The first relief well, which started May 2, has set its final 9 7/8-inch casing. Operations on the relief wells are suspended during static kill operations. Depending upon weather conditions, mid-August is the current estimate of the most likely date by which the first relief well will intercept the Macondo well annulus, and kill and cement operations commence.”

If the spewing has indeed stopped for good, discussions about the fate of the contamination and restoration of the ecosystem have some real meaning. A report issued this morning by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration starts to put the issue into perspective.
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Lots of things soak up oil, but what works best?

For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been looking into materials that can soak up oil during a major oil spill, as well regulations governing the use of such equipment. The effort culminated in a story in Sunday’s Kitsap Sun, which described the thousands of people donating their hair to soak up oil, and Tuesday’s story, which talks about potential uses of alternative technologies.

Frankly, I learned far more about various materials than I could fit into either story, so I’m filing away some information for future reports and discussions.

I began looking into hair booms when I saw newspaper and television reports about hair salons collecting cast-off hair. Volunteers were stuffing the hair into the legs of panty hose to create makeshift hair booms to soak up oil in the Gulf. It bothered me that none of the reporters were asking whether the hair was actually being used. Cleanup officials in the Gulf soon announced that they would not use the hair, yet organizers remained determined to carry out their plans.

I came to learn that these hair booms were more than a potential clean-up tool; they were a symbol of concern and empathy being sent from throughout the world.

Monday’s story focused on inventions using alternate materials to clean up oil and the difficulty of getting new ideas put to use. There are so many ideas that I couldn’t begin to explain them all in a news story, so I focused on a couple of Washington companies.

For some reason, many people are fascinated with the idea of using hay to clean up oil. A demonstration on YouTube by a couple of interesting characters (who also appeared on the Sean Hannity Show) has reached 1.7 million hits. I guess people are enthralled with the simplicity of using such a basic material as grass — but lots of natural materials will soak up oil. The questions are: How much oil can be captured per unit of material? How well do the materials work in the environment? And how easily can they be recovered after being soaked with oil? Other factors include cost, availability, potential reuse , etc.

Following a hearing before the House Subcommittee on Energy and Environment, Chairman Brian Baird, a Democrat from Washington state, concluded that much more research is needed on sorbents and other cleanup technologies.

When I get a chance, I will make a list of the various kinds of materials being promoted for the cleanup, including natural materials treated with chemicals to improve their performance. The list is long and varied. I’m convinced that it would be useful — either now or later — to have a research group look at all the factors and offer some observations, perhaps suggesting a “best buy.”

No end in sight for Gulf oil-spill problems

As the worst ecological disaster in U.S. history unfolds in the Gulf of Mexico, emotions are boiling over along the Gulf Coast.

An oil-covered pelican flaps its wings on an island in Barataria Bay off the coast of Louisiana on Sunday. The island, home to hundreds of brown pelican and other birds, is being hit by oil washing ashore.
AP photo by Patrick Semansky

Sitting here in the Pacific Northwest, I am still dazed by the realization that an oil well, nearly a mile under water, has gone out of control, spewing millions of gallons of crude and creating an underwater mess bigger than what we see on the surface.

I cannot fathom that we are experiencing a disaster likely to be many times worse than Alaska’s Exxon Valdez. Until somebody figures out how to turn off the flow of oil, we can’t begin to estimate the size of this catastrophe or imagine that things will get better.

BP is hoping that a process, never used underwater, will stop the flow of oil. The technique, called a “top kill” and performed on above-ground wells in the Middle East, involves shooting heavy mud and cement into the well. The first shot could come tomorrow. Chances of success are estimated at 60-70 percent by BP, but the company’s track record for estimates has not been good so far.

Oily dead birds and other sea life, predicted weeks ago, are washing up on shore. Sensitive marsh lands, impossible to clean without destroying them, have been touched. Longtime fishermen and fishing communities are shut down.

“Once it gets in the marsh, it’s impossible to get out,” Charles Collins, 68, a veteran crew boat captain told reporters for the Los Angeles Times. “All your shrimp are born in the marsh. All your plankton. The marsh is like the beginning of life in the sea. And it’s in the marshes. Bad.”

Yesterday, I joined a telephone press conference with Lisa Jackson, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. She was doing her best to calmly cope with the enormity of the disaster. She had just come off a boat after witnessing oil piling up on shore. Joining her was Coast Guard Rear Adm. Mary Landry, who is in charge of the National Response Team.

Jackson said the federal government has ordered BP to cut back on the use of dispersants, which break up the oil but may have some toxic effects. No formal studies have ever been conducted on the effects of applying huge quantities of dispersants underwater, but limited studies in recent days suggest that this approach may be the least harmful method to keep the oil from coming ashore.

Without such treatment, the oil itself is highly toxic and a much greater concern, she said. BP has been ordered to look for less toxic alternatives than the dispersant currently being used, but safer alternatives may not be available in the quantities needed. Meanwhile, Jackson said her staff believes the treatment can be equally effective by using half or less the amount of chemical applied until now.

Keeping as much oil off the shorelines as possible seems to be the top priority. That starts by keeping some of the oil immersed as tiny droplets underwater. Oil that reaches the surface is attacked by skimmers and burned if necessary. Fighting the oil with absorbent booms and pads along the shore is the last step.

I hope this strategy is not one of “out of sight, out of mind,” because the oil immersed in the water becomes a problem of its own. It’s been compared to a bottle of oil-and-vinegar salad dressing that you shake up, breaking the oil into tiny globules that float around. Smaller globules are believed to degrade faster in the environment.

Still, with this oil starting 5,000 feet below the surface, it could take months or years to coalesce, rise to the surface and come ashore, where cleanup crews could be facing oil damage for an undetermined amount of time.

“I’m afraid we’re just seeing the beginning of what is going to be a long, ugly summer,” Ed Overton, who has consulted on oil spills for three decades, told Bob Marshall, a reporter with the New Orleans Times-Picayune. “I hope and pray I’m wrong, but I think what we’re in for is seeing a little bit come in each day at different places for a long, long time — months and months. That’s not what I said in the beginning of this. But events have made me amend my thoughts.”

Some constituents of the oil will never come ashore but will drop to the bottom of the Gulf in various locations. As specialized bacteria move in to break down the oily compounds, they will consume oxygen, potentially adding to the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico.

If this were an earthquake, I would be reporting on damage assessments and offering hope for a renewed community. If this were an oil spill from a ship, I would be talking about worse-case scenarios and long-term effects. But, frankly, it is hard to know what to say when the spill goes on and on with no certainty at all.

To view a live video feed of the oil spill, go to BP’s web cam mounted on a remotely operated vehicle.

Official sources of information:

Deepwater Horizon Unified Command

NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration

NOAA Fishery Closure Information

EPA Response to BP Oil Spill

Other valuable links can be found on a website for Gulf of Mexico Sea Grant Programs

Last, but not least, I am learning a good deal from bloggers who are part of the UC Davis Oiled Wildlife Care Network. They are working in the Gulf and providing an insider’s view about their work with affected wildlife.

Pelicans fly past a nest of eggs on an island off the the coast of Louisiana on Saturday. The island, home to hundreds of brown pelican nests, is being impacted by oil coming ashore.
AP Photo by Gerald Herbert

State will provide cleanup resources to the Gulf

When Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano declared the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico a matter of national significance, she essentially put on alert all emergency management systems across the country.

Washington Department of Ecology, which is responsible for responding to oil spills in this state, has identified resources the agency could send while maintaining an adequate local response capability, said Ecology’s Curt Hart in a memo he issued Monday to news reporters and editors.

Spill response companies in Washington and across the country are identifying people and resources that could be sent to the Gulf, he said.

Hart is communications manager for Ecology’s Spill Prevention, Preparedness, and Response Program. Here’s a portion of his memo:

Ecology expects to continue to receive requests for people and equipment from the spill response community to assist in the response. Our department is working to make sure we have a sound plan in place to process these requests. It is important that we are well coordinated in this effort and that no required response resources are moved out of Washington state without explicit approval.

Some, like the Marine Spill Response Corp., have already sent 26 experienced responders, 15,000 gallons of chemical dispersants used to minimize oil shoreline impacts, 1,400 feet of special fireproof boom to burn oil in place on the water.

On Friday, April 30, the Department of Homeland Security asked state agencies in Washington, including Ecology, what resources they could send to aid our Gulf coast communities if and when it becomes necessary.

This type of issue is not new to Ecology. We have had mutual aid plans in place with the other west coast states and the Province of British Columbia since 1993. It is our general policy to provide the appropriate resources necessary to support our partners in the United States and Canada in order to protect our national environmental and economic interest. We may also need their help in return someday.

Ecology and other state agencies are participating in the state Department of Military Emergency Management Division’s “Emergency Management Assistance Compact (EMAC)” activation. EMAC is a national interstate mutual aid agreement that enables states to share resources during times of disaster. We have identified the types and number of resources that we could send while still maintaining our local response capability.

Ecology has set up a website for those who want to follow Washington state’s response to the Gulf oil spill.

In addition to private responders, Ecology has indicated that it could send 11 specialists in oil spills and natural resources and 27 shoreline cleanup technicians, according to an Associated Press story by George Tibbits.

It is likely that the cleanup will go on for months. In previous oil-spill cleanups, workers who come later to relieve the first responders are invaluable — and that may be when the most workers from the West Coast are called in.