Sunday, February 23, 2014

Shocking news about mass extinctions and the oceans

First of all you need to remember your history of the Earth.

"The end-Permian mass extinction, which occurred 252 million years ago, was the biggest die-off in the planet's history, and the largest of the five mass extinctions seen in the fossil record. The cataclysm killed as much as 95 percent of all species on Earth." Charles Q. Choi, LiveScience Contributor.

Scientists have just discovered some amazing information about the consequences of this mass extinction on the oceans. "... global oceans in the extinction's aftermath were a bit like a ship manned by a skeleton crew — all stations were operational, but manned by relatively few species." Moreover, "At the level of presence or absence of modes of life, there was virtually no change in the long run."

William Foster, a paleontologist at Plymouth University in England and his colleague Richard Twitchett outlined their findings in the journal Nature Geoscience. "Functional diversity of marine ecosystems after the Late Permian mass extinction event." 23 February 2014, (see Abstract of the article below)

These are very important finding. They provides a window into the challenges the oceans currently face. The research on previous climate change and its effects on the oceans is relevant because past climate change may provide vital clues about the stressors affecting our ocean ecosystems. Moreover, this research reminds us that even without any humans natural factors including catastrophic impacts on planet Earth have caused great devastation.


The Late Permian mass extinction event about 252 million years ago was the most severe biotic crisis of the past 500 million years and occurred during an episode of global warming. The loss of around two-thirds of marine genera is thought to have had substantial ecological effects, but the overall impacts on the functioning of marine ecosystems and the pattern of marine recovery are uncertain. Here we analyse the fossil occurrences of all known benthic marine invertebrate genera from the Permian and Triassic periods, and assign each to a functional group based on their inferred lifestyle. We show that despite the selective extinction of 62–74% of these genera, all but one functional group persisted through the crisis, indicating that there was no significant loss of functional diversity at the global scale. In addition, only one new mode of life originated in the extinction aftermath. We suggest that Early Triassic marine ecosystems were not as ecologically depauperate as widely assumed. Functional diversity was, however, reduced in particular regions and habitats, such as tropical reefs; at these smaller scales, recovery varied spatially and temporally, probably driven by migration of surviving groups. We find that marine ecosystems did not return to their pre-extinction state, and by the Middle Triassic greater functional evenness is recorded, resulting from the radiation of previously subordinate groups such as motile, epifaunal grazers.  Courtesy Nature Geoscience

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Fixing Louisiana?

I have spent some time in southern Louisiana getting briefings from the researchers and government agencies involved in wetland restoration. Here is an good set of  comments from the Environmental Defense Fund.

"Louisiana has lost 25% of its coastal land area since 1930 and continues to lose land at an alarming rate – one football field every hour, on average. Man-made levees along the Mississippi River cut off many small distributaries, like Mardi Gras Pass, from the wetlands in the floodplain of the river and have contributed to this massive wetland loss. Our team here at EDF works with partner organizations, including the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation, as part of the Mississippi River Delta Resotration Coalition, which has a vision of reconnecting the Mississippi River to its delta to help protect people, wildlife and jobs in coastal Louisiana."

I must add that the evidence on whether this wetland restoration is a good idea or comes with serious problems is still out. I was surprised to hear that the scientific community is quite divided on what contaminated Mississippi water will do to the fragile wetlands to which water is going to be massively diverted.

We need to remember that the river is filled with nitrogen from nonpoint source pollution upriver. Farm states leach huge amounts of nitrogen fertilizer into the river which ends up in the Gulf of Mexico and creates the massive "dead zone" where oxygen is so scarce the fish (where there are any left) actually jump out of the water to catch some air! The river is also filled with pil from spills, and a host of other chemicals.

I would ask the folks diverting water from the Mighty river "Would you drink a glass of water from the river?" The answer would be no so why do they think all the wetlands life they are watering with the river waters would benefit from having that wash into their habitat?

This is a great topic for a research project.

Here is another good piece of information from Tulane University that you need to download and read. "The Use of Mississippi River Sediment for Restoration Projects in Louisiana" by
Russ J. Joffrion, P.E 

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

BREAKING news! Sperm Whale dies from plastic - retweet

Whale courtesy Wiki commons. 
For students of coastal and marine debris this is another very important case study of the tremendous damage being done by human activity and products.This is a retweet from SumofUs.  

"A sperm whale that washed up in Spain died after swallowing almost 60 different pieces of plastic dumped by the greenhouses that supply Tesco, Carrefour and Aldi. This 4.5 tonne whale was defeated by 17 kg of plastic waste, including two dozen sections of the transparent sheeting used to cover industrial greenhouses. 

There’s no excuse for these giant supermarkets' failure to ensure their suppliers recycle and safely dispose of their deadly waste — but as long as they’re given a free pass, plastic will continue to swamp our oceans each year, and more whales will die. Tell Tesco, Carrefour and Aldi and to make sure their greenhouses recycle or safely dispose of their waste. 

 Only about 1,000 sperm whales are left in the Mediterranean, and they feed near waters flooded by the greenhouse industry. Acre after acre of farmland in southern Spain is covered in reams of plastic sheeting to produce the perfect growing conditions for year round fruit and vegetables. Due to poor waste disposal, this plastic ends up floating in the Mediterranean. Now these whales are under threat from swallowing huge quantities of non-degradable plastics.

If we lose the whales, we disable an entire ecosystem — and all because grocery stores are too lazy to monitor their suppliers. Our supermarket chains could easily ensure that plastics used to grow our fruit and vegetables are disposed of correctly and recycled. But so far, they are walking away and counting their profits -- and as they do, our oceans and seas are dying.

 Let’s not let another whale die from too much plastic. Tell Tesco, Aldi and Carrefour to clean up their supply chains and stop their suppliers from dumping toxic plastics in to the Mediterranean. This isn’t the first time we’ve taken on the big supermarket chains. We came together to take on the might of Tesco in the UK when it was electronically tagging its workers, and we won a landmark campaign in the US demanding that Trader Joe’s help farm workers get paid a fair wage. Now we need to come together and take on Tesco, Aldi and Carrefour demand they help save the whales.

The question is always how much regulation it would take and by how many nations to start attacking this problem which has horrific health implications not just for marine life but for human as well.

"However, concerns about usage and disposal are diverse and include accumulation of waste in landfills and in natural habitats, physical problems for wildlife resulting from ingestion or entanglement in plastic, the leaching of chemicals from plastic products and the potential for plastics to transfer chemicals to wildlife and humans"  See "Plastics, the environment and human health: current consensus and future trends" The Royal Society.Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 27 July 2009 vol. 364 no. 1526 2153-2166 Richard C. Thompson1,*, Charles J. Moore2, Frederick S. vom Saal3 and Shanna H. Swan4


Sunday, October 27, 2013

Superstorm Sandy Update

NBC news anchor Brian Williams was the guest of Meet the Press on October 27, 2013. Inhis report on conditions a year after Superstorm Sandy he raises several very important issues for students of coastal policy.

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First, he reviewed the level of destruction which we saw during the storm but which we may have forgotten already. Williams visited some beachfront areas where he had lived which were still in shambles

Second, Williams commented about "community" which is critically important because coastal neighborhoods are not "just" summer places and homes by the sea. These are sociological entities. There are social fibers that bind people to their community. There are cemeteries where ancestors are buried and generations of families have their roots. There are economic structures and institutions that empoly people and generated taxes.

Third, his comments about the future are of critical importance for students of coastal zone management.

For example, the response by property owners is largely to rebuild the beaches, waterfront and the homes JUST AS THEY where before the disaster. whether this is realistic or not is not clear but there has been significant push back against simply recreating the exiting land and seascape.

The second is the response of government to the disaster. This comes in two portions.
The first is that FEMA and other finding for disaster recovery has been too slow to come. Even New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, much applauded after the disaster for his quick response and for chumming with Barack Obama to gain state/federal cooperation, has been criticized for not managing the recovery quickly enough. 
The second is a strong criticism by many beachfront property owners that government projects are placing barriers between them and the ocean view. These, in the form of high sand dunes and in some cases steel barriers, are widely opposed by folks whose view of the expansive beach and the Atlantic ocean is obstructed thus harming property values. 
Finally, Williams mentions the "retreat" option. This has been actually enacted in countries where property rights are much weaker than in the United States such as Venezuela as well as many European countries. Moving properties away from the storm surge and damaging winds further inland and to higher ground is, of course one "natural" option which returns shorelines to nature.

Hurricane Katrina was a shock and a huge challenge to people and to governments at all levels. Superstorm Sandy was a surprise. Even the Hurricane forecasting systems of the United States made a horrible mistake in not keeping the term "hurricane" when Sandy's strength subsided from hurricane force winds. That decision alone is blamed for people and governments not taking sandy as seriously as they should have.

So there are numerous important coastal policy lessons to be learned from Sandy a year after. Perhaps these lessons can help prepare better for future climate change challenges in the coastal zone.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Could New York City Subways Survive Another Hurricane?

When Superstorm Sandy hit new York with a massive storm surge a chain of events unfolded that included a heroic effort by subway workers to protect that vital lifeline from the worst damage.

The story of how New York's subway crews improvised and used their amazing experience and imagination to stem the tide of water, block the sea from surging through the blood-vessel like maze of tunnels and underground spaces that make up the hundred year old subway complex.

It is clear that New york City cannot survive as an economic and residential center without the subways. The New York Times article on what happened during Sandy's assault against the Big apple is an interesting case study for anyone who needs to create coastal scenarios for future human preparation for climate change and rising sea levels.

Is Miami, Florida Doomed?

(Photo courtesy of NOAA)

"By century's end, rising sea levels will turn the nation's urban fantasyland into an American Atlantis. But long before the city is completely underwater, chaos will begin."

We do nee to start thinking about coastal forecasting scenarios that may be unpalatable and even horrifying but should be part of the toolbox if ideas that we need to explore. Here is a scenario from the Rolling Stone article on Miami:

"When the water receded after Hurricane Milo of 2030, there was a foot of sand covering the famous bow-tie floor in the lobby of the Fontaine­bleau hotel in Miami Beach. A dead manatee floated in the pool where Elvis had once swum. Most of the damage occurred not from the hurricane's 175-mph winds, but from the 24-foot storm surge that overwhelmed the low-lying city. In South Beach, the old art-deco­ buildings were swept off their foundations. Mansions on Star Island were flooded up to their cut-glass doorknobs. A 17-mile stretch of Highway A1A that ran along the famous beaches up to Fort Lauderdale disappeared into the Atlantic. The storm knocked out the wastewater-treatment plant on Virginia Key, forcing the city to dump hundreds of millions of gallons of raw sewage into Biscayne Bay. Tampons and condoms littered the beaches, and the stench of human excrement stoked fears of cholera. More than 800 people died, many of them swept away by the surging waters that submerged much of Miami Beach and Fort Lauderdale; 13 people were killed in traffic accidents as they scrambled to escape the city after the news spread – falsely, it turned out – that one of the nuclear reactors at Turkey Point, an aging power plant 24 miles south of Miami, had been destroyed by the surge and sent a radioactive cloud over the city."
"In 110 years, Miami as we know it will be a nearly ruined, flooded wasteland thanks to rising sea levels. That's one of the hypotheses of University of Washington professor and popular science writer Peter D. Ward's latest book, The Flooded Earth. The introductory chapter is titled "Miami Beached," and it's an apocalyptic vision of Miami succumbed to a ten-foot rise in sea level. The particulars of Ward's Miami nightmare are a thing of fiction, but the threat of a major rise in sea level wrecking the city, he says, is an unstoppable fact." Read More at Miami NewTimes 

"The Flooded Earth: Our Future In a World Without Ice Caps" is a frightening book to be sure but we cannot ingnore the projections from scientists and futurologists. Here is what Peter ward has to say: 

"Sea level rise will happen no matter what we do. Even if we stopped all carbon dioxide emissions today, the seas would rise one meter by 2050 and three meters by 2100. This—not drought, species extinction, or excessive heat waves—will be the most catastrophic effect of global warming. And it won’t simply redraw our coastlines—agriculture, electrical and fiber optic systems, and shipping will be changed forever. As icebound regions melt, new sources of oil, gas, minerals, and arable land will be revealed, as will fierce geopolitical battles over who owns the rights to them."

It is good to at least take into account the potential extremes of what might happen if global warming continues on the trajectory on which it is set.


Thursday, October 24, 2013

Great Hurricanes and their Consequences

When disasters hit coastal areas these days lots of stuff gets destroyed and people's lives are deeply disrupted. That was probably always true except there were fewer people and less infrastructure on the coast the farther back we go in history.

The deadliest Atlantic hurricane was the Great Hurricane of 1780 which was also known as Huracán San Calixto, the Great Hurricane of the Antilles, or the 1780 Disaster, depending on who wrotes about this storm. Although data collection was sketchy in those days the estimate is that as many as 22,000 people died. Mújica-Baker, Frank. "Huracanes y Tormentas que han afectado a Puerto Rico". Estado Libre Asociado de Puerto Rico, Agencia Estatal para el manejo de Emergencias y Administracion de Desastres. p. 11.

On Sept. 8, 1900, a very powerful Category 4 storm, with sustained winds of more than 130 mph (209 kph), slammed into the shore at Galveston, Texas killing as many as 8,000 people. In the absence of a robust weather forecasting systems and since Galveston is an island with only one bridge to the mainland residents of the seaside resort town were caught off guard and trapped in the brutal tide surge, punishing winds, and ceaseless rain. However, the Weather Bureau did warn of a severe storm but as the record shows people in Galveston stayed to watch the fury and the huge surf not aware of the enormous risk. (Image courtesy of NOAA)

In 1928 the San Felipe-Okeechobee Hurricane hit Florida centering on the South Florida Lake Okeechobee. This storm caused a lake surge of 6 to 9 feet (1.8 to 2.7 m) killing almost 2,000 people.

In 1935 before hurricanes were named, the so-called Florida Keys Labor Day Hurricane slammed into the state. Since measuring hurricanes was in its infancy we only knwo that this storm recorded pressure of 26.35 inches measured at Long Key, FL making this the most intense hurricane to hit the United States. 

There were other storms in 1969, Hurricane Camille, Hurricane Hugo in 1989.

Hurricane Andrew in 1992 was the most damaging storm in U.S. history up to that date. Andrew, a Category 5 storm,caused $26.5 billion in damage, 23 deaths in the United States and three more in the Bahamas. Andrew had estimated winds of an astonishing 167 mph (269 kph). 

In 2004 Hurricane Charley killed 10 people in the United States and caused an estimated $14 billion in damages. The great increase in coastal infrastructure and residence made Charley the second costliest hurricane to date.  

Hurricane Katrina in 2005 was only a Category 3 storm. However it was a huge storm and "...storm surge flooding of 25 to 28 feet (7.6 to 8.5 m) above normal tide level occurred along portions of the Mississippi coast, with storm surge flooding of 10 to 20 feet (3 to 6.1 m) above normal tide levels along the southeastern Louisiana coast. Ultimately, this storm surge was responsible for much of the damage as it flooded coastal communities, overwhelmed levees, and left at least 80 percent of New Orleans underwater. By the time the hurricane subsided, Katrina had claimed more than 1,800 human lives and caused roughly $125 billion in damages. It was the deadliest hurricane to strike the United States since the Palm Beach-Lake Okeechobee hurricane of September 1928."(LiveScience)

We have left out many other lesser storms that had terrible effects in the araes affected but were not at the scale seen above.

Hurricane Sandy which is more commonly called "Superstorm Sandy" was the second-costliest hurricane in United States history.

"One year after Hurricane Sandy devastated coastal New Jersey, New York and Connecticut, the broad signs of recovery are undeniable. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has approved 182,000 individual and household applications for assistance in the three states, totaling $1.4 billion. It has made $3.1 billion available to repair roads, bridges and other publicly owned property after one of the costliest natural disasters in U.S. history. President Barack Obama signed a bill allocating $50.5 billion in disaster aid." Bloomberg (For full article)

Clearly the coastal zones of the Caribbean and the American Atlantic coast are the bulls eye for hurricanes and this area stretching from Central America, the Gulf of Mexico all the way to New England is expected to bear the brunt of growing climate change, sea level rise and the potential for increasingly powerful and devastating coastal climate events. (See NOAA images of before and after Sandy at Long Beach, New York below. For an EXCELLENT interactive site of more images at NOAA click here)
Massive and powerful storms have always slammed into the Caribbean and Atlantic coast of the United States. In the past when there areas where barely populated and there was meager infrastructure the storms were absorbed by the dunes, shifting barrier islands, mangroves, marshes and wetlands and other natural ecosystems which yielded to the fury. Eventually things went back to normal albeit with differently sculpted landscapes.

As soon as humans settled and developed these ecosystems all manner of artificial structures constructed by humans and people themselves got in the way of these natural events. It was only then that these enormous systems became disasters. Remember that if a tree falls in the forest but there is no one to see or hear it it will not be reported and it's as if it had never happened.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Louisiana Agency Sues Dozens of Energy Companies for Damage to Wetlands

JOHN SCHWARTZ (July 24, 2013) of the New York Times had an important report on the lawsuit by Louisiana against a number of of energy companies. Go here for the full article.

(c) 2013 Photo by Schmidt, Louisiana
We know that Louisiana is located at a fragile place place with vast wetlands that act as protective barriers against a relentless attack by the sea, storms, wind and rising sea levels against the coasts. 

Here is the quote that sums it all up:

“This protective buffer took 6,000 years to form,” the state board that oversees flood-protection efforts for much of the New Orleans area argued in court filings, adding that “it has been brought to the brink of destruction over the course of a single human lifetime.”

The lawsuit was filed in civil district court in New Orleans by the board of the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East.  "The board argues that the energy companies, including BP and Exxon Mobil, should be held responsible for fixing damage done by cutting thousands of miles of oil and gas access and pipeline canals through the wetlands."

I have done research in these wetlands and no words can convey what a magnificent architecure of nature this is and how delicate the balance.

As we rode in an air boat down to the marsh we whipped through landscapes of moss covered trees, alligators sunning on the shore, a huge variety of birds and other critters. We flew over grassy marshes and stopped at the research spot where we were to collect samples and observe the behavior of the vast floating marsh.

When you step on this marvelous environment it's a strange sensation. As far as the eye can see there is grass and some small scrub. BUT you can feel the ground give under you because the whole thing is like a water bed!

What has happened to this environment?

"A 2012 report by the state’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority stated, “Dredging canals for oil and gas exploration and pipelines provided our nation with critical energy supplies, but these activities also took a toll on the landscape, weakening marshes and allowing salt water to spread higher into coastal basins.”

That's what this lawsuit is all about. We will be following this suit to see the outcome because the question is whether there is any responsibility for causing serious and potentially disastrous destruction of an irreplaceable ecosystem.
Our air boat on wetland during research trip. (c) 2013 Photo by Schmidt, Louisiana