I am currently experiencing mild-to-moderate Antarctica envy. In addition to the continuing STRES cruise, some friends from the Lynch Lab are on their way south as well, to study various aspects of Pygoscelis penguin populations.
So last night I watched Werner Herzog’s 2007 documentary, Encounters at the End of the World. I hadn’t seen it before, but I loved it—for the beautiful images, and for the way he managed to capture the texture of field work and the personalities of the staff and scientists at McMurdo Station and the various field camps. And, of course for Herzog’s trademark existential weirdness. At the beginning of the film, he says, “The National Science Foundation had invited me to Antarctica even though I left no doubt that I would not come up with another film about penguins.” He does not. Highly recommended.
Sunrise at midnight in Wilhelmina Bay. Photo by Michelle Denis (I think).
Speaking of end-of-semester stress…there happens to a better kind going on right now, as well: the Seasonal Trophic Roles of Euphausia superba (S.T.R.E.S) Cruise. My lab’s Fearless Leader is currently aboard the R/V Nathaniel B. Palmer in Antarctica, on a cruise studying the trophic ecology of our planet’s most biomassive animal species, the Antarctic krill Euphausia superba. Alison Cleary, a PhD candidate from the University of Rhode Island, has been blogging updates from the cruise–you can follow along at the Krill Cruise blog here.
Marguerite Perey (left) and Sonia Cotelle, who worked in the Curies’ lab and both died from the effects of radiation exposure. Image from the Musee Curie.
Last week, the New York Times Magazine published a show-stopping piece by Veronique Greenwood about her great-great aunt, Marguerite Perey. Perey worked in the Paris lab of M. and Mme. Curie, where she discovered the element now known as Francium. It was also where a lax culture of safety, and abundant ionizing radiation, gave her the bone cancer that would kill her.
There is a certain kind of gothic romance still associated with the Curies, who are seen as martyrs to the progress of science. As Greenwood describes, they were martyrs who brought a lot of lab assistants and junior scientists down with them:
Several potent accounts come from Elizabeth Rona, a chemist who worked in various European radioactivity labs. She wrote of a lab assistant, Catherine Chamie, who transported radioactive sources to and from a safe each day on a cart, shielded poorly by lead bricks; Chamie later died from exposure….Rona records a litany of radioactivity researchers who followed Chamie, their lungs, hands and bones falling apart. The thumbs, forefingers and ring fingers of their left hands were especially prone to damage, because of the way they were exposed to the radioactive substances they poured from flask to flask without gloves.
This trail of dead could be traced back to a few causes, but the most important was perhaps a particular attitude in the Curie lab Continue reading →
I just heard that Mike Nichols, the great film director, has died. While perhaps best known for his masterpiece The Graduate, we should not forget his other masterpiece:
Yes, Day of the Dolphin, the movie where George C. Scott teaches dolphins to speak English in squeaky dolphin voices, before one of them is unwittingly forced into an evil plot to kill the President of the United States.
While easy to make fun of, I did have a great time watching this movie back in 2010. Here’s wishing Nichols all the best at the big Singleman party in the sky…
Today after work, I left Stony Brook’s Southampton campus (where the ALES Lab is headquartered) and drove 15 minutes to the end of the eastern spit separating Shinnecock Bay from the ocean, to go fishing. This is one of the perks of working at Southampton. The spit is crowded with enormous mansions fronting the beach and a helipad serving Manhattan commuters, but at the end is a small blessing of a county park. On my second cast from the riprap at the edge of the channel, I pulled in a bluefish (Pomatomus saltatrix). Deep breath: kill it with a blow to the head, cut the gills to bleed it out. Dinner.
I decided to make an escabeche, a Spanish preparation where the fish (or meat) is browned and then quick-pickled in a hot brine. This recipe is from the restaurant I was working in when I started this blog four years ago Continue reading →
Catching up with the blogs today, I saw that Cliff Mass had written about a big windstorm that hit California on Monday. Unusually for big storms on the California coast, the winds in this one were from the northwest. Through a process called Ekman transport—a weird, nonintuitive one, caused, like so much else in physical oceanography, by the earth’s rotation—winds from the northwest push the surface of the ocean southwest, instead of southeast as you might imagine. As the surface layer slides slowly away from the California coast, cooler water from below rises up to replace it.
I decided to see what such a strong blow from the Northwest would to the ocean, and looked up data from a couple of buoys (the NDBC’sStation 46042, and MBARI’s M1) off Monterey Bay, my old stomping ground.
This graph shows winds (top plot) and water temperature (bottom) at the two buoys over the past few days (x-axis is the date in April). Sustained wind speed at M1 is the solid lines, and 46042, a bit further offshore, is the dotted lines. The triangles show maximum wind gusts at 46042. The blue dots show the wind direction, on the right axis of the first plot—0 degrees is due north, and the angle rotates around clockwise back to north at 360. Dark blue circles are M1, light blue squares are 46042.
Beginning Sunday afternoon, the wind starts building steadily, topping out at more than 18 m/s (35 kts) Monday morning, Continue reading →
Via my friend (and former shipmate, aboard a houseboat on Portage Bay in Seattle) Emily, Tom Waits and Keith Richards join forces to just kill it on what may be my favorite sea chantey:
If you like the sound of that, there is a whole album coming out next month. From the Anti Records website:
Son of Rogue’s Gallery: Pirate Ballads, Sea Songs & Chanteys, produced by Hal Willner, will be released February 19 on Anti-Records. Executive produced by Johnny Depp and Gore Verbinski, the compilation two-disc recording of sea shanties features Tom Waits, Keith Richards, Iggy Pop, Nick Cave, Patti Smith, Sean Lennon and many more.
Two papers were just published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by friends and former colleagues of mine from the University of Washington. Both of these papers confront an old and persistent question in fisheries science: what causes fish populations to vary through time?
The classical answer, and the one that still lies at the heart of most fisheries population models, is that fish populations don’t vary unless we humans go fishing. Left alone, the idea goes, populations should increase towards their natural, equilibrium level and, give or take some minor fluctuations, stay there indefinitely. By controlling how many fish we catch each year, we can change the equilibrium population, and with it the rate of population growth and the risk of overfishing.
The problem with this model, however, is that many fish populations display worryingly little resemblance to it. Continue reading →
In fact, I might even go so far as to say they screwed the pooch. On my drive home today, I heard a story on the radio about a geoengineering experiment off the coast of British Columbia this summer. This story broke last month in The Guardian, and was put in abundant context on Deep Sea News here and here.
As Martin Kaste of NPR reported it, this was an unauthorized experiment by a small Haida village in coastal BC. An organization called the Haida Salmon Restoration Corp. dumped about 100 tons of iron sulfate into the Pacific Ocean, with the goal of fertilizing a plankton bloom that would help support dwindling salmon runs. As a potential by-product, there might be a chance of selling carbon credits if the plankton bloom managed to take CO2 out of the atmosphere.
Skeptical voices were quoted, of course. A chemical oceanographer at the University of Alaska said that not all effects of iron fertilization are necessarily positive. A law professor at UCLA noted there was no system in place to pay for ocean-fertilization carbon credits, and was worried that environmental groups might take advantage of this scandal to push for overly-restrictive laws against geoengineering.
What’s wrong with this story? Let me count the ways:
The glaring absence of Russ George. The NPR story makes it sound as if this was a plucky expedition organized by an enterprising small village. But the Haida Salmon Restoration Corporation did not come out of thin air. As The Guardian‘s story makes clear, this is a project of Californian businessman Russ George. And George has a history:
George is the former chief executive of Planktos Inc, whose previous failed efforts to conduct large-scale commercial dumps near the Galapagos and Canary Islands led to his vessels being barred from ports by the Spanish and Ecuadorean governments. The US Environmental Protection Agency warned him that flying a US flag for his Galapagos project would violate US laws, and his activities are credited in part to the passing of international moratoria at the United Nations limiting ocean fertilisation experiments.
How NPR managed to miss these facts—or to omit them—is a bit beyond me.
This quote from HSRC president John Disney:
When we added iron into the ocean, there was an almost immediate observable impact on marine life, such as whales and other sea mammals, sea birds, pelagic fish. And this could all be observed immediately from the research vessel.
I could be wrong, but I smell bullsh*t. In these waters, phytoplankton populations would increase noticeably within a day or two following fertilization. But there are few fish that can eat phytoplankton directly, and zero birds or mammals. These animals would have to wait for slower-growing populations of zooplankton, like copepods, to increase following the bloom. This would take at minimum a few weeks. For animals larger than a grain of rice, it would take months. Unless the supposed whales, fish, and birds were cueing on a transient chlorophyll patch—something I haven’t ever heard of—this quote describes something that didn’t happen.
I can’t really blame a journalist for not knowing the generation times of temperate-water copepods and euphausiids of the top of his head, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t infuriating to hear something like this, unquestioned, on national radio.
The absence of this quote from Guujaaw, the President of the Haida Nation.
Again, from The Guardian:
The village people voted to support what they were told was a ‘salmon enhancement project’ and would not have agreed if they had been told of any potential negative effects or that it was in breach of an international convention.
If this quote is accurate, Russ George perpetrated something close to fraud on the Haida Nation. If it isn’t, either Guujaaw or The Guardian is making shit up. Either way, the NPR story looks more than a little incomplete without it…
The omission of the MAJOR scientific issues around ocean iron fertilization. First and foremost, we aren’t even sure if it works. A phytoplankton bloom undeniably takes up carbon dioxide into organic matter. But that carbon only makes it out of circulation if it sinks to the bottom of the ocean and is buried in sediment. In between are legions of animals and bacteria that would like nothing more than to eat that organic carbon and respire it back out as CO2. If the carbon is respired at the surface, it could be back in the atmosphere in a matter of minutes. If the organic carbon makes it down deeper–say a couple hundred meters–it could be out of the atmosphere for months or years. If that carbon makes it into the deep ocean, 3 or 4 km down, it might stay out of the atmosphere for a few millennia—but still not permanently.
That’s where the uncertainty is. Our understanding of the mesopelagic and bathypelagic ecosystems is murky at best. Until maybe 10 years ago, we didn’t really think much about the role of marine microbes in the carbon cycle. Turns out it is enormous, both on the production and consumption sides. While we’re pretty certain that increased plankton production over the long run (centuries to millenia) would take carbon permanently out of the atmosphere, it’s not at all clear if even a massive individual bloom will do much. Think of trying to flood a house through the front door’s keyhole. It won’t really matter if you’ve got a garden hose, a fire hose, or ten firehoses: the house will fill at pretty much the same rate.
The total absence of questions about money. Believe me, there is a lot of money involved here. Any time you have a research cruise, there is a lot of money coming from somewhere. Oceangoing ships cost tens of thousands of dollars a day to operate. Twenty kg of FeS sells here for $1,000. At this price, the hundred metric tons dumped off BC would cost fifty grand.
If the village of Old Masset, BC (pop. 940) has that kind of money lying around—to literally pour overboard into the ocean—I will eat my proverbial hat.
If they don’t, it might be worth asking where the hell it came from, and what its donors expected to get in return, no?
I could say more, but this covers the main points. A discussion of “geoengineering” in general can wait for some other time, since I’ve got school and other work to do. For now, I’ll just point out that making geoengineering profitable through subsidies or carbon credits, while it may be necessary at some point, creates some pretty obvious perverse incentives. How long do you think it would take ExxonMobil to spin off ExxonMobilGeotech? I can see the Sunday Footbal TV ads already…
For over a hundred years, Exxon has helped the world meet its toughest energy challenges. Today, we are proud to announce the start of a new endeavour. ExxonMobilGeotech. Solving the world’s toughest environmental and geophysical problems, for the next hundred years. We are. ExxonMobilGeotech.