The Beacon

Blog Tags: Climate Change

Hungry Sea Otters Fight Climate Change

sea otter

Humans have an unlikely ally in the fight against global warming: sea otters.

According to a new study out of the University of California Santa Cruz, the playful, foraging mammals play a vital role in managing kelp forests, which in turn are capable of absorbing large amounts of carbon dioxide. Sea otters prey on sea urchins, which, unchecked, can ravage kelp forests, but thriving sea otter populations help keep the urchins in check.

The study looked at 40 years of otter and kelp data from Vancouver Island to the Western Aleutian Islands in Alaska. The researchers found that in areas where otters flourished, so too did kelp. In fact, the kelp was able to absorb 12 times more carbon in areas that were not overrun by sea urchins. Giant kelp can grow as tall as 30 meters and kelp forests are provide important habitat for a number of fish species, including blue sharks.

"Right now, all the climate change models and proposed methods of sequestering carbon ignore animals," one of the study’s lead authors, professor Chris Wilmers said. "But animals the world over, working in different ways to influence the carbon cycle, might actually have a large impact.”

The study’s authors noted that the carbon sequestered by otter-aided kelp forests alone could be worth between $205 million and $408 million on the European Carbon Exchange, a market for trading carbon credits.

Populations of California sea otters, which once numbered around 15,000 along the Pacific coast, were decimated in the 18th and 19th centuries by hunters. In 1938, one lone colony of 50 otters discovered near Big Sur represented the entire population. Today that number has rebounded to almost 3,000 but the animal still faces threats, especially from parasites and infectious diseases which thrive in polluted waters. Otters, which depend on their fur coats for insulation, are also especially vulnerable to oil spills.

A decision is expected this December about whether to reopen a “no-otter zone” enforced by the Fish and Wildlife Service which extends from just North of Santa Barbara to the Mexican border in California. The zone was originally established in 1987 to help the fishing industry, and sea urchins have removed large swaths of kelp forest in the area.


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Uncovering Surprising Blooms in the Arctic

polarbear

A changing Arctic spells bad news for polar bears and other animals ©Michael Stephens

Last summer I had the amazing opportunity to be on board the U.S. Coast Guard Icebreaker Healy, in partnership with N.A.S.A.’s ICESCAPE mission to study the effects of ocean acidification on phytoplankton communities in the Arctic Ocean. We collected thousands of water samples and ice cores in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas.

While in the northern reaches of the Chukchi Sea, we discovered large “blooms” of phytoplankton under the ice. It had previously been assumed that sea ice blocked the sunlight necessary for the growth of marine plants. But the ice acts like a greenhouse roof and magnifies the light under the ice, creating a perfect breeding ground for the microscopic creatures. Phytoplankton play an important role in the ocean, without which our world would be drastically different.

Phytoplankton take CO2 out of the water and release oxygen, almost as much as terrestrial plants do. The ecological consequences of the bloom are not yet fully understood, but because they are the base of the entire food chain in the oceans, this was a monumental discovery that will shape our understanding of the Arctic ecosystem in the coming years.

The Arctic is one of the last truly wild places on our planet, where walruses, polar bears, and seals out-number humans, and raised their heads in wonderment as we walked along the ice and trespassed into their domain. However, their undeveloped home is currently in grave danger. The sea ice that they depend on is rapidly disappearing as the Arctic is dramatically altered by global warming.

Some predictions are as grave as a seasonally ice-free Arctic by 2050. Drilling for oil in the Arctic presents its own host of problems, most dangerous of which is that there is no proven way to clean up spilled oil in icy conditions. An oil spill in the Arctic could be devastating to the phytoplankton and thereby disrupt the entire ecosystem. The full effects of such a catastrophe cannot be fully evaluated without better information about the ocean, and we should not be so hasty to drill until we have that basic understanding.  

Unless we take drastic action to curb our emissions of CO2 and prevent drilling in the absence of basic science and preparedness, we may see not only an ice-free Arctic in our lifetimes, but also an Arctic ecosystem that is drastically altered.


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‘Frozen Planet’ Raises Climate Questions

Sunday night, Discovery Channel aired the final episode of the Frozen Planet series that aired on the BBC last year.

This episode featured Sir David Attenborough visiting both poles – huddled by a sedated polar bear in the Arctic, hollering over the extreme winds at his Antarctic campsite – reminding the audience of a cold reality regarding any species’ survival: it’s adapt or die.


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‘To The Arctic’: Sneak Peek

We’re excited to be a partner of “To the Arctic,” a new IMAX film by MacGillivray Freeman coming out April 20.

The film, narrated by Meryl Streep, follows a mother polar bear and her two seven-month-old cubs as they navigate the changing Arctic wilderness they call home. Extraordinary footage brings you up close and personal with this family’s struggle to survive.

Check out the trailer, share it and spread the word!


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How Climate Change Affects Sea Turtles

Sea turtle hatchlings. © Houssine Kaddachi

Each of the six sea turtle species found in the United States are listed as endangered or threatened under the Endangered Species Act. Every day, sea turtles face a number of threats including pollution, boat strikes, hunting, accidental capture by fisheries, as well as the development of many coastal beaches that female sea turtles use for nesting sites.

But a growing threat to sea turtles is climate change. Rising sea levels and increased numbers of storms will likely limit the number of beaches that are suitable for nesting, and warmer temperatures could have a significant effect on sea turtle reproduction since the sex of sea turtle eggs is determined by the nest temperature. Warmer sands will result in more females, while cooler sands favor males. The magic temperature seems to be about 82°F, but this can vary depending on the species.

Temperatures are predicted to rise by 2.5-10°F in the next century, which could alter hatchling sex ratios especially in areas that are already warm like the Caribbean. In Florida, loggerhead nests are already producing more than 90% females, and further warming could mean that no males hatch from these nests at all.

In a new study, however, a group of researchers used screens to shade nests, and they found that it effectively reduced nest temperatures and produced a higher proportion of male hatchlings. By protecting beaches where males are more common and by applying artificial shading, if necessary, a healthy ratio of male and female sea turtles will be born.

Although shading may provide some relief to sea turtle populations already threatened with extinction, it is only a temporary solution to a much larger problem. To help take action against climate change, here are a few steps you can take at home and in your community.

 


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New Climate Report: Hot, Sour & Breathless

Matt Huelsenbeck is a marine scientist at Oceana.

Oceana has teamed up with several top scientific institutions in creating a report called "Hot, Sour & Breathless – Ocean Under Stress" which has been released this week at the United Nations climate negotiations in Durban, South Africa.

The collaborative report explains how the oceans are becoming more acidic, warmer, and have less oxygen due to our current fossil fuel emissions. Although it’s hard to visualize the connection between a coal-fired power plant in the Midwest United States and a coral reef in Australia, everyone around the world is bound by widespread changes in the oceans triggered by carbon emissions.

The ocean’s chemistry and its physical properties are changing dramatically fast from the burning of fossil fuels, and when one of the world’s top marine scientists leaves her hard work in the lab to communicate this issue to the international community, pay attention -- it’s probably important. I’m talking about Dr. Carol Turley, senior scientist and executive board member of the European Project on Ocean Acidification (EPOCA), who will be at the climate conference in Durban. 

She will be speaking at a side event entitled “Ocean Acidification: The Other Half of the CO2 Problem” which discusses how carbon dioxide emissions are making the oceans more acidic and posing threats to marine life, fisheries and livelihoods around the world. 

Recently Dr. Turley received a prestigious award called the Order of the British Empire (OBE) for her services to science granted by the Queen of England. Oceana, Dr. Turley and other leading marine scientists have been working to raise international awareness about ocean acidification and climate change threats to marine life and ocean resources during the last two climate negotiations, COP-15 and COP-16, and again this year. 

The continued burning of fossil fuels poses serious threats to many creatures we know and love from plankton, corals, crabs and oysters all the way up to whales. Our report explains how there are big unknowns and massive risks with multiple stressors caused by emissions which could combine to completely alter many marine habitats and food webs.


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New Study: Climate Change Threatens Global Fisheries

As world leaders prepare for international climate change negotiations next week in Durban, South Africa, a new study out this week depicts the widespread threats that climate change presents for marine fisheries.

The bottom line? Emissions from the burning of fossil fuels are presenting very long-term if not irreversible threats for the oceans.

Economists and top fisheries scientists at the University of British Columbia published a paper on Sunday in the journal Nature Climate Change that outlines the many challenges fisheries face from climate change, and how this can impact the global economy and hundreds of millions of lives. 

Global marine fisheries are underperforming, mainly from rampant overfishing, but climate change also creates several serious threats to the future productivity of fisheries. These chemical and physical changes linked to climate change such as decreased oxygen levels, changes in plankton communities and plant growth, altered ocean circulation and increased acidity can disrupt the basic functioning of marine ecosystems and thwart any potential recovery of global fish stocks. 

The study outlines how impacts can scale up from changing ocean conditions to the global economy, but the authors note that the true scope of impacts to employment are hard to predict.


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Melting Ice Beckons Ships, Oil Drills to Arctic

© Oceana

The Arctic’s Northeast Passage is home to walruses, beluga whales, narwhals, and many other marine animals, most of whom have probably never seen an oil tanker or shipping vessel. Unfortunately, thanks to global climate change, that could soon change.

As the planet continues to warm, the coveted Northeast Passage has become ice-free and thus open to cargo ships, oil drillers, and fishing vessels for the first time.

There’s huge incentive for commerce and industry to use the Northeast Passage. The New York Times writes that the opening of the Passage shortens the travel time and reduces costs for shipping between Northern Europe and Asian markets. Companies like Exxon Mobil are attracted to the potential of oil and minerals in the Arctic seabed. And the elusive Arctic “Donut Hole,” a patch of international and unregulated waters in the center of the Ocean, is full of valuable fish including overfished Atlantic cod stocks. 

Offshore drilling, increased shipping traffic, and fishing vessels in the Northeast Passage threatens one of the great patches of marine wilderness in the world. Drilling in the Arctic could mean a spill in a place as remote as Northern Russia, which would make the Gulf of Mexico oil spill cleanup look like a cinch, primarily because cleanup mechanisms such as booms don’t work properly in icy waters.

We’ve been campaigning against offshore oil drilling to protect vulnerable Arctic habitats. We'll continue working with local native communities to ensure that future generations will see a healthy and vibrant Arctic. You can help by supporting our work to fight oil drilling in the Arctic.


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Arctic Sea Ice at Second Lowest on Record

grey seal

A grey seal. © Oceana/Carlos Minguell

The latest sea ice data are out, and they aren't pretty. Here’s the latest:

  • Scientists at the National Snow and Ice Data Center believe that Arctic sea ice reached its smallest extent for this year on September 9, at 4.33 million square kilometers. If this is the case, the only year since 1979 with less ice was 2007, but they note that if wind conditions change, the area covered by ice may still shrink.

The sea ice data in particular are drawing a lot of attention because sea ice maintenance affects weather patterns around the globe, melting ice contributes to warmer oceans and rising sea levels, and unusual ice patterns can wreak havoc on the lives of native humans and animals, particularly polar bears, which can drown, and walruses, which can starve.


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Ocean Hero Finalists: McKenzy Haber

This is the eighth in a series of posts about this year’s Ocean Hero finalists.

Today’s featured junior ocean hero finalist is Homer, Alaska native McKenzy Haber, who hosted the first ever TEDxHomer Teen conference in 2010, with a theme of sustainability.

McKenzy and several other teens adapted the TED model to get the word out about ocean conservation to 140 teens and adults in Homer, Alaska and 1,800 livestreaming online. The conference included talks about the oceans, climate change in the Arctic and Antarctica, and ecological economics.

At the 9th World Wilderness Congress, also known as WILD9, he gave a plenary speech called "Dear Developed Earth," to world leaders about teen leadership and protecting wild Alaskan waters. “Many delegates came up to me afterward crying and saying how moving it was,” McKenzy wrote via e-mail. Watch it and see why McKenzy is such an inspiration:

WILD9 - McKenzy Haber (English) from The WILD Foundation on Vimeo.


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