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.

Japan Quake and Tsunami Rattled Upper Atmosphere

| Wed May 30, 2012 4:04 PM EDT

Travel-time plots of observed ionospheric perturbations and modeled ocean tsunami within 1,500 km (932 miles) of earthquake's epicenter NASA/JPL-CaltechTravel-time plots of observed ionospheric perturbations and modeled ocean tsunami within 1,500 km (932 miles) of earthquake's epicenter NASA/JPL-CaltechThe 9.0 earthquake and tsunami that devastated northeastern Japan in March 2011 did more than rattle the ground and upheave the ocean. Shock waves also rippled all the way up through the ionosphere—the upper atmosphere stretching ~50-500 miles above Earth's surface.

That motion was observed in the signals between GPS satellites and a dense network of ground receivers around Japan, reports NASA. The video explains these observations, never before seen in so much detail for a quake and tsunami of this size. 

 

 

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Record Early Start to Hurricane Season

| Fri May 25, 2012 3:00 PM EDT

Hurricane Bud at 1345z on 25 May 2012 NOAAHurricane Bud at 1345 Zulu on 25 May 2012: NOAA Last night Hurricane Bud off Mexico's west coast peaked at Category 3 strength, with 115 mile-per-hour winds. That makes it the earliest Category 3 hurricane on record this early in the Eastern Pacific. As Jeff Masters writes at Wunderblog:

Hurricanes are uncommon in the Eastern Pacific in May; there have been just twelve since record keeping began in 1949—an average of one May hurricane every five years. If Bud ends up making landfall in Mexico as a hurricane, it would be only the second Eastern Pacific May hurricane on record to hit Mexico.

Sea surface temperatures in degrees Celsius. NOAASea surface temperatures on 24 May 2012, in degrees Celsius: NOAA Masters also notes that sea surface temperatures (SSTs) this year in the Pacific where Aletta and Bud formed are slightly above average... though he concludes that large-scale atmospheric patterns are the more likely cause of this year's exceptionally early start to hurricane season in the Eastern Pacific.

Near-average SSTs are one factor NOAA is citing in its prediction for a near normal hurricane season on the Atlantic side this year—with 9 to 15 named storms, 4 to 8 hurricanes, 1 to 3 major hurricanes, and an Accumulated Cyclone Energy for the season ranging from 65 to 140 percent of the median.

94L at 1915 Zulu on 25 May 2012 NASA | NOAA | GOES Project Science94L at 1915 Zulu on 25 May 2012: NASA | NOAA | GOES Project Science At the moment the National Hurricane Center is following a system called Invest 94L 275 miles southeast of the Carolinas. There's currently an 80 percent chance this system will develop into a tropical or subtropical cyclone in the next 48 hours and turn west into the US coast over the weekend.

The good news is that 94L, which may develop into Beryl, will likely bring relief to the severe drought underway in the US Southeast. 

New Climate Threat to Critically Endangered Leatherback Sea Turtles

| Thu May 24, 2012 3:12 PM EDT

Leatherback sea turtle hatchling: Florida Fish and Wildlife via FlickrLeatherback sea turtle hatchling: Florida Fish and Wildlife via FlickrA new paper in PLoS ONE reports that critically endangered leatherback sea turtles nesting in Costa Rica—a stronghold of the surviving population—are severely affected by the warmer and drier climate that accompanies El Niño cycles.

Unfortunately, a warmer and drier climate is also exactly what's forecast for Costa Rica in a warming world in the coming century, according to IPCC projections... a whopping 3°C (5.4°F) warmer and 25 percent drier on the Pacific coast.

As the authors note, leatherback turtles are already critically in danger of extinction from egg poaching and  bycatch in fisheries. Now climate change threatens them further. From the paper:

Egg-burying reptiles need relatively stable temperature and humidity in the substrate surrounding their eggs for successful development and hatchling emergence. Here we show that egg and hatchling mortality of leatherback turtles (Dermochelys coriacea) in northwest Costa Rica were affected by climatic variability (precipitation and air temperature) driven by the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO). Drier and warmer conditions associated with El Niño increased egg and hatchling mortality... Using projections from an ensemble of global climate models contributed to the IPCC report, we project that egg and hatchling survival will rapidly decline in the region over the next 100 years by ~50–60%, due to warming and drying in northwestern Costa Rica, threatening the survival of leatherback turtles. Warming and drying trends may also threaten the survival of sea turtles in other areas affected by similar climate changes.

 

Hatching success and emergence rate projections of leatherback nests in 100 years of climate change: Pilar Santidrián Tomillo, set al. PLoS ONE. DOI:10.1371/journal.pone.0037602Hatching success and emergence rate projections of leatherback nests in 100 years of climate change: Pilar Santidrián Tomillo, et al. PLoS ONE. DOI:10.1371/journal.pone.0037602

In the graphs above you can see the authors' projections of both hatching success (the percentage of eggs within a clutch that develop completely) and emergence rate (the percentage of hatchlings that successfully emerge from the nest within two nights of the initial emergence event). From the paper:

Our model projected that both hatching success and emergence rate would significantly decrease between years 2001 and 2100 due to a warming and drying of the area encompassing northwest Costa Rica. Of the 17 IPCC models used here, 13 of them projected a decrease in precipitation while all models projected an increase in air temperature. Our projections indicated that hatching success would decrease from a 10-year moving average ~0.42 to ~0.18 from the beginning to the end of the 21st century, and emergence rate from ~0.76 to ~0.29.

 

Leatherback sea turtle hatchling: Ken Clifton | algaedoc via Wikimedia CommonsLeatherback sea turtle hatchling: Ken Clifton | algaedoc via Wikimedia Commons

As the IUCN Red List notes, the decline in nesting of leatherback turtles has been far greater than 80 percent in most Pacific populations, the species' major stronghold. Global adult female populations have fallen by more than 70 percent in less than one turtle generation. Current annual nesting  mortality for females is estimated at ~30 percent.

That means adult females stand a nearly one-in-three chance of dying every year.

Add to that the increasing rates of nesting failure in a warming world and you get the fast-track to extinction for a species that's survived 110 million years of pre-human challenges.

The paper:

  • Santidrián Tomillo P, Saba VS, Blanco GS, Stock CA, Paladino FV, et al. (2012) Climate Driven Egg and Hatchling Mortality Threatens Survival of Eastern Pacific Leatherback Turtles. PLoS ONE 7(5): e37602. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0037602

The Endangered Species Act Really Works

| Fri May 18, 2012 1:36 PM EDT

 Gray wolves were hunted to near extinction in the western US. By 1973 none remained in the wild. Listed as endangered in 1967, they recolonized the Rocky Mountains from Canada. Protected, they grew to 1,679 wolves by 2009, delisted in 2011: Martin Mecnarowski via Wikimedia CommonsGray wolves were hunted to near extinction in the western US. By 1973 none remained in the wild. Listed as endangered in 1967, they recolonized the Rocky Mountains from Canada. Protected, they grew to 1,679 wolves by 2009, delisted in 2011: Martin Mecnarowski via Wikimedia Commons

Just in time for Endangered Species Day the Center for Biological Diversity analyzed 110 species protected under the US Endangered Species Act (ESA) and found that 90 percent are on track to meet recovery goals set by federal scientists, with some far exceeding expectations. From the report:

On average, species recovered in 25 years, while their recovery plan predicted 23 years — a 91 percent timeliness accomplishment.

Critics of the Endangered Species Act contend it is a failure because only 1 percent of the species under its protection have recovered and been delisted... To objectively test whether the Endangered Species Act is recovering species at a sufficient rate, we compared the actual recovery rate of 110 species with the projected recovery rate in their federal recovery plans. The species range over all 50 states, include all major taxonomic groups, and have a diversity of listing lengths.We found that the Endangered Species Act has a remarkably successful recovery rate: 90 percent of species are recovering at the rate specified by their federal recovery plan.

We confirmed the conclusion of scientists and auditors who assert that the great majority of species have not been listed long enough to warrant an expectation of recovery: 80 percent of species have not yet reached their expected recovery year. On average, these species have been listed for just 32 years, while their recovery plans required 46 years of listing.

Meet a few of the success stories:

Bighorn sheep: Philipp Haupt via Wikimedia CommonsBighorn sheep: Philipp Haupt via Wikimedia CommonsThe Peninsular bighorn sheep declined to near extinction because of housing developments, agriculture, collisions with cars, predation by mountain lions and diseases contracted from domestic sheep. Sheep populations plummeted from 971 in 1971, to 276 in 1996, but since being listed as endangered in 1998, the number of bighorns has increased to 981 as of 2010.

 

Green sea turtle: Brocken Inaglory via Wikimedia CommonsGreen sea turtle: Brocken Inaglory via Wikimedia CommonsGreen sea turtles in the Pacific are threatened by habitat loss, egg collection, hunting, beach development, bycatch mortality in commercial fisheries, and sea level rise due to global warming. In Hawaii, more than 90 percent of nesting occurs at French Frigate Shoals. Since being listed as endangered in 1978, the number females nesting there increased from 105 to 808 in 2011.

 

 

Piping plover: Mdf via Wikimedia CommonsPiping plover: Mdf via Wikimedia Commons

Atlantic piping plover populations declined due to 19th-century hunting and the millinery trade. After these threats were eliminated, its numbers increased, but began declining after 1950 due to beach development and predation by native and introduced predators. It was listed on the ESA in 1985, and gained habitat protection, control of recreationists on beaches, and predators, which allowed its population in the US to increase from 550 pairs in 1986 to 1,550 in 2011. The US population reached its overall recovery goal in three of the past five years, but some of its subpopulations haven't reached recovery yet. Its associated Canadian population has grown little.

From the report:

The corollary to claiming the Endangered Species Act is 1 percent successful because only 1 percent of species has been delisted is that the other 99 percent are failures. In fact, many still endangered species have increased dramatically since being placed on the list. Among them are the California least tern (2,819 percent increase in nesting pairs), San Miguel island fox (3,830 percent increase in wild foxes), black-footed ferret (8,280 percent increase in the fall population), Atlantic green sea turtle (2,206 percent increase in nesting females on Florida beaches) and El Segundo blue butterfly (22,312 percent increase in butterflies).

"Saving species from the brink of extinction—and bringing them back to a point where they're going to survive into the future—can't happen overnight," says lead author Kieran Suckling. "Calling the Act at failure at this point is like throwing away a 10-day prescription of antibiotics on the third day and saying they don't work. It just makes no sense."

You can read the entire report and meet some of the other species being aided by the ESA here.

Rapid Retreat of Columbia Glacier

| Thu May 17, 2012 5:05 PM EDT

 

Columbia Glacier in 1986 (top) and 2011 (bottom): NASAColumbia Glacier, Alaska, in 1986 (top) and 2011 (bottom): NASA

Alaska's Columbia Glacier is one of the fastest evolving ice rivers on Earth. It flows from its headwaters 10,000 feet up in the Chugach Mountains towards Prince William Sound. In 1980 it began a rapid retreat that continues today. From NASA Earth Observatory:

These two false-color images, both captured by the Thematic Mapper (TM) instrument on Landsat 5, show the glacier and the surrounding landscape in 1986 and 2011. Snow and ice appears bright cyan, vegetation is green, clouds are white or light orange, and the open ocean is dark blue. Exposed bedrock is brown, while rocky debris on the glacier’s surface is gray. The 2011 image has more snow because it was captured in May, while the 1986 image was captured in July... As the glacier has retreated, it has also thinned substantially, as shown by the expansion of brown bedrock areas. Rings of freshly exposed rock, known as trimlines, are prominent in the later image. Since the 1980s, the glacier has lost about half of its total thickness and volume.

The retreat has also changed the flow dynamics of the glacier. The medial moraine—a line of debris deposited when separate channels of ice merge (seen as a line down the center of the 1986 glacier)—divided the Main Branch from West Branch in 1986. Now the retreating terminus has effectively split the Columbia into two glaciers, with calving occurring on both fronts.

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