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.

Hottest Ever Water Temperatures Off East Coast All the Way Down to the Bottom of the Ocean

| Tue Sep. 18, 2012 1:49 PM EDT

Cod: Derek Keats. Flame: designshard. Bubbles: Velo Steve. All via Flickr.Cod: Derek Keats. Flame: designshard. Bubbles: Velo Steve. All via Flickr. Mashup: Julia Whitty.

Sea surface temperatures (SSTs) off the East Coast from North Carolina to the Gulf of Maine were the hottest ever recorded for the first six months of 2012, according to NOAA's latest Ecosystem Advisory. Above-average temperatures were found everywhere: from the sea surface to the ocean bottom and out beyond the Gulf Stream.

The area is known as the Northeast Shelf Large Marine Ecosystem. Parts of it were declared a fisheries disaster last week (I posted about that here: Fisheries Declared Disasters on Four Coasts). This was due to the fact that stocks of cod, yellowtail flounder, and other groundfish are not rebuilding even though most fishers have adhered to tough quotas.

The problem lies in the warming waters. The super warm SSTs of 2012 jumpstarted an early and intense spring plankton bloom—which began in some places as early as February—and lasted longer than average. This ricocheted through the marine foodweb from the smallest creatures to the largest marine mammals like whales.

NOAA | NEFSC Ecosystem Assessment ProgramNOAA It forced the ongoing trend whereby Atlantic cod are shifting northeastward from their historic distribution center. That's consistent with a response to ecosystem warming—as you can see that in the two maps above. The top map shows cod distribution between 1968-1972. The bottom map shows cod distribution between 2008-2012. (All other four-year distribution maps for the interim here.)

Kevin Friedland, a scientist in NOAA's Northeast Fisheries Science Center Assessment Program (NEFSC), says the average sea surface temperature exceeded 51°F (10.5°C) during the first half of 2012. Whereas the average SST during this period over the past three decades has typically been below 48°F (9°C). Noteworthy from the Ecosystem Advisory:

  • SST data are based on satellite remote-sensing data and long-term shipboard measurements, plus historical SST conditions based on shipboard measurements dating back to 1854. 
  • Some nearshore locations like Delaware and Chesapeake Bays in the Middle Atlantic Bight region saw SSTs more than 11°F (6°C) above historical average at the surface and more than 9°F (5°C) above average at the bottom.
  • Deeper offshore waters to the north saw bottom water temperatures 2°F (1°C) warmer in the eastern Gulf of Maine and more than 3.6°F (2°C) warmer in the western Gulf of Maine.


DIstribution of silver hake, red hake and spotted hake 1968-2008: Janet Nye | NOAA | NEFSCDistribution of silver hake, red hake, and spotted hake 1968-2008: Janet Nye | NOAA | NEFSC NEFSC Ecosystem Assessment Program

Warming ocean temperatures have changed the distribution of other fish stocks besides cod, as reported by the NEFSC in a 2009 study published in Marine Ecology Progress Series. About half the 36 fish stocks studied in the Northwest Atlantic Ocean—many commercially valuable species—have been  shifting northward for the past four decades.

Some, like the three hake species shown in the maps above, have shifted themselves completely out of US waters.

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Arctic 1, Shell Oil 0, for 2012 Season

| Mon Sep. 17, 2012 5:15 PM EDT

Noble Discoverer, Shell's Arctic drill rig: US Coast Guard via FlickrNoble Discoverer, Shell's Arctic drill rig: US Coast Guard via Flickr

Shell's comedy-of-errors season of not-drilling in the Arctic drew to a close today as the company announced it was wrapping up ahead of its 24 September deadline.

Shell was hoping that its $4.5 billion investment and multiple years of preparation would allow it to pierce the virgin seafloor of Alaska's Chukchi Sea and squeeze out some of the 22 percent of Earth's undiscovered fossil fuels believed to be underlying the Arctic and recoverable by current technology, according to the USGS.

Here's a list of some of what went awry with Shell's opening season:

  1. Their drill ship Noble Discoverer—seriously, that's its name—sailed late from New Zealand. Remember Xena the Princess Warrior, aka Lucy Lawless, occupied the ship briefly in protest in February?
  2. The late start ate into a season already shortened by the US Bureau of Ocean Management.
  3. En route to the Chukchi Sea, Noble Discoverer ignobly dragged anchor in the port of Dutch Harbor in the Aleutian Islands under only 35mph of wind... a morning breeze in the Arctic.
  4. Drilling was delayed again because Shell's primary safety vessel, the oil spill containment barge Arctic Challenger, wasn't still being built in the shipyards in Bellingham, WA.
  5. Shell failed to meet some limits on air pollution emissions for its operations set by the EPA.
  6. Test drilling (nowhere near a real oil field, because Arctic Challenger wasn't there) finally began on 9 September, nearly two months later than scheduled. "This is an exciting time for Alaska and for Shell," said Royal Dutch Shell on its website. "We look forward to continued drilling progress throughout the next several weeks and to adding another chapter to Alaska's esteemed oil and gas history."
  7. Noble Discoverer got in 300+ feet of a thin pilot hole—the first drilling offshore in the Alaska Arctic in two decades—before it was halted the next day when a massive iceberg 30 miles long by 12 miles wide came within 105 miles of the drill rig.
  8. Also, damagingly, documents obtained by PEER (Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility) under a Freedom of Information Act request showed that original field-testing of the "capping stack"—a containment dome designed to contain a Deepwater Horizon type blowout—deployed on Arctic Challenger took place over a mere two hours on 25 and 26 June and was not verified by anyone other than two officials from the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement. "The first test merely showed that Shell could dangle its cap in 200ft of water without dropping it," said Kathryn Douglass, a Peer staff lawyer, via The Guardian. "The second test showed the capping system could hold up under laboratory conditions for up to 15 minutes without crumbling.
  9. Finally that same "capping stack" was damaged during final testing off Bellingham, Washington, benching it for the remainder of the season... and ending Shell's miserable Noble Discoverer season.

Peter Slaiby, a VP of Shell Alaska, claimed: "The [Arctic] sea conditions in terms of the wind, waves and currents are not even as extreme as the North Sea, although, clearly, there is no ice in the North Sea." Sounds like the prelude to dangerous hubris.

Fisheries Declared Disasters on 4 Coasts

| Thu Sep. 13, 2012 4:37 PM EDT

jekrub via Flickrjekrub via FlickrToday the US Commerce Department declared disasters not of fishermen's making in three key fisheries on four US coasts: the North Atlantic, the Gulf of Mexico, the Bering Sea, and the Gulf of Alaska in the Pacific Ocean. The declaration opens the door for Congress—if they choose to accept the mission—to appropriate funds to help struggling fishers. The disasters are:

  1. The Northeast, where even though most fishers have adhered to tough quotas on several key groundfish—including cod in the Gulf of Maine and yellowtail flounder in the Georges Bank—stocks are not rebuilding.

  2. Alaska, where low returns of chinook salmon have resulted in commercial fishery disasters in the the Yukon River fishery (ongoing since 2010), the Kuskokwim River (ongoing since 2011), and Cook Inlet fishery (beginning in 2012).

  3. Mississippi, where historically high flooding of the lower Mississippi River in spring 2011 wiped out the oyster fishery and the blue crab fishery from massive freshwater flows. (This disaster might have included the inshore shrimp fishery too, since flooding drove landings down by 41 percent in 2011. But Commerce didn't deem it a commercial failure since revenue losses were "only 19 percent less than the 2006-2009 average.")

The causes run the gamut of natural and anthropogenic. In other words, something of everything, including plenty of unknowns. The disaster declaration for Alaska states:

Exact causes for recent poor Chinook salmon returns are unknown, but may involve a variety of factors outside the control of fishery managers to mitigate, including unfavorable ocean conditions, freshwater environmental factors, disease, or other factors.

The causes in New England are deemed unknown, and severe fishing quotas are pending for 2013, reports Boston.com:

The final numbers aren't in, but officials said preliminary information indicates that catch limits could go down by 72 percent for the cod population in the Gulf of Maine and 70 percent for cod on the Georges Bank fishing grounds east of Cape Cod.

The New England disaster declaration is "a huge win" for fishers, says Democratic Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, via the AP. "Our fishermen are the farmers of the sea and today our fishermen are facing exactly what farmers in the Midwest are facing—a drought. They need our help to get through it."

Even If It Gets Wacky Cold, 2012 Will Still Set Record Heat

| Mon Sep. 10, 2012 4:47 PM EDT

Crazy climate events, August 2012: NOAA | National Climate Data CenterCrazy climate events, August 2012: NOAA | National Climate Data Center

The year so far—January to August—now ranks as the warmest on record in the US, says NOAA's National Climatic Data Center.

  • The national temperature of 58.7°F was an insane 4.0°F above the 20th century average, and 1.0°F above the previous record warm of 2006.
  • Thirty-three states were record warm Jan-Aug this year and an additional 12 states were top ten warm. Only Washington state had temperatures near average for the period.
  • January-August 2012 was also the 14th driest period on record for the lower 48 states with a precipitation total 1.90 inches below the average of 20.20 inches.
  • Drier-than-average conditions stretched across the country. Ten states had year-to-date precip totals among their ten driest.

The US Climate Extremes Index (USCEI) value for January-August was a record large 47 percent: more than twice the average value. Which beat the previous record of 46 percent set only last year. Extremes in warm daytime temperatures and warm nighttime temperatures contributed to the record high USCEI value.

As Wunderblog's Jeff Masters writes:

Temperatures this year in the US have been so far above the previous record... that even if the remainder of 2012 ranks historically in the coldest one-third of September-Decembers on record, 2012 will beat out 1998 for the warmest year in history. Reliable weather records for the US go back to 1895.

To put this in a global perspective, check out Kate Sheppard's posted video: The Warming World in Less Than 30 Seconds.

Jobs for Military Vets to Rebuild Fisheries

| Thu Sep. 6, 2012 6:10 PM EDT

Coho salmon juveniles John McMillan | NOAA via FlickrCoho salmon juveniles: John McMillan | NOAA via Flickr

NOAA announced yesterday a plan to provide jobs and training for military vets to restore habitat and monitor fisheries in northern California. The program will be jointly run with the California Conservation Corps and and the California Department of Fish and Game.

Veterans will start the year-long job by taking courses in how to collect data. In October they'll begin monitoring river restoration sites designed to increase spawning and rearing habitat for populations of endangered coho salmon in Humboldt, Del Norte, and Mendocino counties. The restored streams should help Chinook and steelhead trout as well. Vets will also get training and experience in firefighting.

"This is a win-win for everyone," said Eric Schwaab, NOAA's assistant administrator for fisheries. "Military veterans have tremendous skills to offer, and by helping to restore fish habitats they will be supporting the important role of commercial and recreational fishing in the economy. Restoration jobs pay dividends twice, first because they put people to work immediately, and then because restoration benefits our fisheries, tourism, and coastal communities for years to come."

Sounds like a fun outdoor job. The program combines President Obama's Veterans Job Corps Initiative and America's Great Outdoors.

Interested veterans can call Tina Ratcliff at the California Conservation Corps at 916-341-3123, or email tina.ratcliff@ccc.ca.gov. Training begins Monday 17 September. 

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