Julia Whitty

Julia Whitty

Environmental Correspondent

Julia is an award-winning author of fiction and nonfiction (Deep Blue Home, The Fragile Edge, A Tortoise for the Queen of Tonga), and a former documentary filmmaker. She also blogs at Deep Blue Home.

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Julia is a writer and former documentary filmmaker and the author of The Fragile Edge: Diving & Other Adventures in the South Pacific, winner of a PEN USA Literary Award, the John Burroughs Medal, the Kiriyama Prize, the Northern California Books Awards, and finalist for the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, and Deep Blue Home: An Intimate Ecology of Our Wild Ocean. Her short story collection A Tortoise for the Queen of Tonga won an O. Henry and was a finalist for the PEN Hemingway Award. She also blogs at Deep Blue Home.

And We're Off: Arctic Ocean Diaries No. 1

| Mon Oct. 8, 2012 5:51 PM EDT

USCGC Healy in port at Dutch Harbor, Unalaska.

Last Friday the US Coast Guard icebreaker Healy sailed from the gorgeous shelter of Dutch Harbor, Unalaska, in the Aleutian Islands, bound north for the Arctic Ocean.

Healy is a research vessel carrying 38 science crew on this cruise. I'm working with Jeremy Mathis, a chemical oceanographer, and his lab, from the University of Alaska Fairbanks. He's collaborating with Bob Pickart from WHOI (Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution), a physical oceanographer. They're jointly investigating how a changing climate might be affecting the chemistry of ocean and atmosphere in the Arctic. I'll write more about that later.

But for now we're just hunkering down while Healy makes the 1,000-mile long transit from Dutch Harbor through the Bering and Chukchi Seas to the first research stations in the Beaufort Sea. We should arrive after three days, depending on weather. You can check out the view from Healy's Bridge from this webcam, which updates hourly.

So far the Bering Sea is being really kind to us. Fingers crossed.

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Marine Ecologist Featured in MoJo Cover Stories Wins MacArthur "Genius" Award

| Tue Oct. 2, 2012 2:51 PM EDT

Nancy Rabalais: Courtesy of the John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.Nancy Rabalais: Courtesy of the John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.I was very happy to hear that one of this year's MacArthur's Fellows is Nancy Rabalais, executive director and professor at the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium (LUMCON). I profiled Nancy's work in my MoJo cover story "The Fate of the Ocean" after her research facility in Chauvin, Louisiana, had been hammered by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, and again in my MoJo piece "The BP Cover-Up" when her facility was slammed by an oil spill and oil-dispersant catastrophe, and this year in my profile of Keystone Ladies in science and conservation. I've also blogged regular updates on her pioneering work on dead zones and on her receipt of a prestigious Heinz Award last year.  I honestly can't think of anyone more deserving of a MacArthur Fellowship in light of her constant efforts against the odds in the near-war zone of the Gulf of Mexico.

Here's what the MacArthur Foundation has to say about her career so far:

Nancy Rabalais is a marine ecologist who is dedicated to documenting and mitigating the effects of hypoxic zones—aquatic areas with low dissolved oxygen levels commonly known as "dead zones—that have expanded dramatically in the Gulf of Mexico and many other coastal systems around the globe. Since the mid-1980s, she has led a long-term monitoring program to study the size, intensity, and seasonal occurrence of dead zones in the waters off the Louisiana continental shelf; she has also analyzed the relationship between the extent of hypoxia and the increasing quantities of nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus flowing into the Gulf from the Mississippi River watershed. When concentrated in coastal waters, the nutrients from farmland fertilizer and other sources spur the growth of an overabundance of algae, the decomposition of which consumes oxygen vital to sustaining an enormous spectrum of aquatic species. Over the past three decades, Rabalais's studies have evolved to include collaborations with researchers from many different disciplines and have used methods from physical oceanography, hydrology, geochemistry, and paleoecology to make ever more precise assessments of hypoxia dynamics and their impact on a range of fragile, interconnected ecosystems. In addition to her scientific contributions, Rabalais has played a prominent role in informing strategies to restore the degraded waters of the Gulf by reducing nutrient pollution from urban and agricultural runoff upstream and has focused national attention on the environmental and economic consequences of large-scale eutrophication. Her outreach efforts have included lecturing throughout the United States about the effects of hypoxia on those far from its waters, testifying before Congress, and working with federal, state, and tribal agencies on an action plan for improving water quality in the Mississippi River basin. While weathering the destruction of her research facility in catastrophic hurricanes and treacherous diving conditions due to oil spills, Rabalais continues to deepen our understanding of this profound oceanographic problem that threatens the well-being of the entire Gulf region.



Congratulations, Nancy!

The Arctic Is Way Hotter Now Than Anytime in Past 1,800 Years

| Thu Sep. 27, 2012 2:14 PM EDT

Since 1987 summers on Svalbard have been up to 4.5°F (2.5°C) hotter than they were there during the warmest parts of the Medieval Warm Period: Svalbard landscape: Wen Nag (aliasgrace) via Flicke. Viking statue: frankdouwes via Flickr. Mashup: Julia Whitty (thanks PicMonkey!)Summers on Svalbard are up to 4.5°F (2.5°C) hotter than during the warm period when Vikings colonized Greenland and Iceland: Svalbard landscape: Wen Nag (aliasgrace) via Flickr. Viking statue: frankdouwes via Flickr. Mashup: Julia Whitty (thanks PicMonkey!)

Things are so hot on the Norwegian Arctic island of Svalbard these days that if the Vikings were still around they'd flee north to get away from their own sweat. Okay, that's total conjecture. But a fascinating new paper in the science journal Geology describes how much hotter it is on Svalbard now than it was during the Medieval Warm Period when Vikings colonized Greenland and Iceland and briefly Newfoundland.

The Medieval Warm Period was driven by a natural increase in solar radiation that warmed parts of the northern hemisphere and severely dried out others (California, Nevada, Mississippi Valley). The current warming is driven by us.

Since 1987 summers on Svalbard have been 3.6° to 4.5°F (2° to 2.5°C) hotter than they were  during the warmest parts of the Medieval Warm Period.

The authors used a novel method to decipher temperatures on Svalbard for the past 1,800 years based on the fatty remains of microscopic algae left behind in Kongressvatnet lake. Turns out the algae are miniature record-keepers extraordinaire because they make more unsaturated fats in colder water and more saturated fats in warmer waters, reports the Earth Institute at Columbia University.

The researchers then dated the sediments based on grains of glass spat from volcanoes hundreds of miles away in Iceland: Snæfellsjökullin volcano in the year 170, Hekla in 1104 and Öræfajökull in 1362. How cool is that detective work?

The big difference with the new research is that most Arctic climate records come from ice cores that tell of winter snowfalls. The lake sediments record summertime temperatures. Which reveals a lot about how climate varied from winter to summer and also in places where there are no (longer) ice sheets.

Based on the new summertime story, here's some of what the authors learned:

  • The region was not particularly cold during another recent anomalous period: the Little Ice Age of the 18th and 19th centuries when Svalbard glaciers grew to their greatest extent of the past 10,000 years (and when glaciers in much of parts of Western Europe grew too).
  • This suggests that a wetter climate (more snow) rather than colder temperatures may have fed the Svalbard glaciers.
  • By 1600 Western Svalbard had begun to gradually warm as the northern arm of the Gulf Stream (the West Spitsbergen Current) brought more tropical water to the region. 
  • In 1890 the warming began to accelerate.
  • Meanwhile ice cores from Svalbard tell a different wintertime story: a slight cooling over the last 1,800 years.
  • The conflicting evidence suggests that temperatures may have fluctuated sharply between winter and summer.

From the Earth Institute at Columbia University:

Climate models suggest that by 2100 Svalbard will warm more than any other landmass on earth, due to a combination of sea-ice loss and changes in atmospheric and oceanic circulation... In a study published last year in the journal Advances in Meteorology, Norwegian researchers estimate that average winter temperature in Svalbard could rise by as much as 10 degrees C or 18 degrees Fahrenheit [by 2100].



This video from lead author Billy D'Andrea, a research professor at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University, describes the scientific motivations behind his work.

The paper:

  • William J. D'Andrea, David A. Vaillencourt, Nicholas L. Balascio, Al Werner, Steven R. Roof, Michael Retelle and Raymond S. Bradley. Mild Little Ice Age and unprecedented recent warmth in an 1800 year lake sediment record from Svalbard. Geology (2012). DOI:10.1130/G33365.1 


Pygmy Seahorse Discovered on Google Street View

| Wed Sep. 26, 2012 12:43 PM EDT

Denise's pygmy seahorse: O.J.Brett, Norway, via Wikemedia CommonsDenise's pygmy seahorse: O.J.Brett, Norway, via Wikimedia Commons

In the course of mapping the the world's reefs for Google Street View, divers found the teensy weensy Denise's pygmy seahorse (Hippocampus denise) in Australian waters for the first time, reports New Scientist (subscription). The five-eighths-inch long (1.5 cm) seahorse had previously been found living on coral reefs off Vanuatu, Palau, Malaysia, Solomon Islands, New Caledonia, and southern Japan. The mapping team found it off Heron Island on the Great Barrier Reef at 302 feet (92 meters) deep.

"It's very much a critical time for reefs and we want to cover as much as we can in the next two to three years to create a global record," says project founder and director Richard Vevers.

The announcement marks today's launch of Google underwater street view. In the same way you can virtually walk around the topside world you can now virtually dive through the underwater world of a coral reef off Australia. It's stage one of a six-part underwater series. Next up, the deep and shallow coral reefs of Hawaii, the Philippines, and Bermuda.

The mappers are Catlin Seaview Survey—a partnership between the global insurance company Catlin Group Limited and the nonprofit Underwater Earth (check out the insanely beautiful images at their site). One of the two unique cameras used for the project (each capturing ≤50,000 360-degree panoramic images stitched together to create the underwater street views) was named "Sylvia," for legendary marine biologist Sylvia Earle, founder of Mission Blue.

The lucky mappers probably have the coolest job on Earth. And they've given us another unbelievably addicting way to get no work done.



"New" CO2 Source Spells Trouble for Marine Life

| Fri Sep. 21, 2012 5:07 AM EDT

CO2 from water pollution interacts with atmospheric CO2 in a warming ocean to intensify changes in acidity, spelling trouble for marine life: Witches: ~Brenda-Starr~; Scallop: walknboston; Anemonefish: lakewentworth; Seahorse: Mr. Mohammed Al Momany | NOAA. Starfish: MikeMurphy. Mashup: Julia Whitty.Witches' brew: CO2 from water pollution interacts with CO2 from atmosphere in a warming ocean to intensify acidification: Witches: ~Brenda-Starr~. Scallop: walknboston. Anemonefish: lakewentworth. Seahorse: Mr. Mohammed Al Momany | NOAA. Starfish: MikeMurphy. Mashup: Julia WhittyA new kind of witchy interaction is underway in the oceans, report the authors of a new paper in Environmental Science & Technology.

William G. Sunda and Wei-Jun Cai created a model to predict how CO2 from water pollution—that is, runoff from chemical fertilizers (farms), human waste (sewage), and animal waste (feedlots, ranches), plus nitrogen oxide from fossil fuel burning—might interact with the better-known source of CO2 that enters the ocean from the atmosphere, much of it a result of fossil fuel burning.

In either case, too much CO2 entering the ocean lowers the pH of seawater, which raises the acidity of the waters, preventing many marine organisms from getting access to the calcium carbonate needed to make their shells or skeletons. The result, called ocean acidification—sometimes called the "other CO2 problem," global warming being the original—is already impacting commercial oyster beds in the Pacific Northwest. This process has been firmly on the scientific radar for the past 10+ years.

But no one has spent a whole lot of time thinking about the excess CO2 created by water pollution running off the land. Here's what happens. Enriched waters wash off farms, feedlots, and cities to fertilize the ocean. Enough fertilized runoff triggers a cascade of catastrophic events:

  • Fertilizing huge algal blooms
  • Which lead to massive die-offs of the huge algal blooms
  • Which settle to the bottom and feed the growth of bacteria
  • Who consume much of the available oxygen in the water and release large amounts of CO2
Clams, oysters, scallops, mussels, and finfish could be the most heavily impacted in affected coastal regions such as the Gulf of Mexico and the Baltic Sea.

The result is a dead zone: where oxygen levels are too low (hypoxic) to support most marine life. A good example is the Gulf of Mexico dead zone that "blooms" every spring and summer when the spring and summer rains wash the excess nutrients from the bread basket of the American heartland downstream into the ocean. I wrote more about that here and here.

But there's the excess CO2 of a dead zone too—which also causes ocean acidification. Basically the other other CO2 problem.

So the authors wondered: what happens when you get ocean acidification from the atmosphere mixing with ocean acidification from water pollution?

Their model predicts that rising acidity from water pollution will interact synergistically—that is, more than just the sum of the two sources—with rising acidity from air pollution at intermediate to higher temperatures. Together, the two processes could substantially increase ocean acidification and impact commercial fisheries in places with dead zone problems, like the northern Gulf of Mexico and the Baltic Sea.

Lead author Bill Sunda says: "The largest acidification effects from decaying algal blooms actually occur in colder waters such as those in coastal waters of Northern Europe or Alaska. However, in warmer ocean waters, where the acidification effects from this source are currently smaller, the rising atmospheric CO2 not only lowers the pH (raises the acidity) of the water, but makes the additional acidification effects from decaying algal blooms much worse; i.e., there's a synergistic effect (the effect of the two processes together are more than additive in lowering pH [or are more than multiplicative in raising acidity])."

From the paper:

Thus, while the impact of the two acidification mechanisms by themselves may be moderate in many instances, the combined effect of the two can be much larger. Such large combined acidification effects may cause significant negative impacts on coastal benthic [seafloor] ecosystems that are already stressed by hypoxia and rising water temperatures. Coastal systems support most world finfish production and the overwhelming majority of shellfish production, so the combined negative future impact of these anthropogenic stressors to marine ecosystems and fisheries production could be substantial. However, future impacts will not only be dependent on increasing atmospheric PCO2 [partial pressure of CO2] or the amount of respiratory depletion of O2 [oxygen], but also on temperature and salinity, which will be influenced in the future by a changing climate linked to increasing CO2 in the atmosphere.


The bubbling brew of CO2 synergies: Witches: ~Brenda-Starr~. Diagram: Sunda and Cai, ES&T doi: 10.1021/es300626f. Mashup: Julia WhittyThe bubbling brew of CO2 synergies: Witches: ~Brenda-Starr~. Diagram: Sunda and Cai, ES&T doi: 10.1021/es300626f. Mashup: Julia Whitty

The paper:

William G. Sunda and Wei-Jun Cai. Eutrophication Induced CO2-Acidification of Subsurface Coastal Waters: Interactive Effects of Temperature, Salinity, and Atmospheric PCO2. Environmental Science & Technology (2012). DOI:10.1021/es300626f


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