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.

Chemical Dispersant Made BP Oilspill 52 Times More Toxic

| Tue Dec. 4, 2012 3:37 PM PST

Female rotifer, Brachionus manjavacas, with eggs: R. Ric-Martinez et al. Invironmental Pollution. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.envpol.2012.09.024

Female rotifer, Brachionus manjavacas, with eggs: R. Rico-Martinez et al. Environmental Pollution. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.envpol.2012.09.024 

A new study finds that adding Corexit 9500A to Macondo oil—as BP did in the course of trying to disperse its 2010 oilspill disaster—made the mixture 52 times more toxic than oil alone. The results are from toxicology tests in the lab and appear in the scientific journal Environmental Pollution.

Using oil from the Deepwater Horizon blowout and Corexit the researchers tested the toxicity of oil, dispersant, and a mixture of oil and dispersant on five strains of rotifers—the lab rats of marine toxicology testing. Among the results:

  • The oil-dispersant mixture killed adult rotifers
  • As little as 2.6 percent of the mixture inhibited egg hatching by 50 percent  

The inhibition of egg hatching in bottom sediments is particularly ominous because rotifer eggs hatch each spring to live as adults in the water column where they are important food sources for larval and juvenile fish, for shrimp, crabs and other marine life in estuarine and shoreline ecosystems—including fisheries humans depend on.

"Dispersants are preapproved to help clean up oil spills and are widely used during disasters," said lead author Roberto-Rico Martinez currently at the Universidad Autonoma de Aguascalientes, Mexico. "But we have a poor understanding of their toxicity. Our study indicates the increase in toxicity may have been greatly underestimated following the Macondo well explosion."

I wrote here about the dramatic decline in microscopic life on BP's dispersed oil beaches and here about how using dispersant allowed oil to penetrate much more deeply into beaches possibly extending the toxic lifespan of the mix. I wrote here about how BP's oilspill has hammered Gulf fish.

 

 

The paper:

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NOAA Proposes 66 Corals for Endangered Species Protection

| Fri Nov. 30, 2012 3:52 PM PST

Pillar coral in the Florida Keys: NOAAPillar coral in the Florida Keys: NOAA

Today NOAA proposed listing 66 species of reef-building corals under the Endangered Species Act (ESA): 59 species in the Pacific (7 as endangered, 52 as threatened); 7 in the Caribbean (5 as endangered, 2 as threatened). The agency is also proposing that two Caribbean species already listed be reclassified from threatened to endangered. (You can see the full species list here.)

Today's proposal is part of an ongoing response to a 2009 petition from the Center for Biological Diversity to list 83 species of reef-building corals under the ESA. 

NOAA identifies 19 threats to the future of corals, including the ecological impacts of fishing and poor land-use practices. But first and foremost are three daunting problems related to the continued growth in greenhouse gas emissions and a changing climate:

 

David Burdick / NOAA via FlickrDavid Burdick / NOAA via Flickr

Corals are biodiversity factories providing home and shelter to more than 25 percent of fish in the ocean and up to two million marine species. Their direct economic and social benefits are wide ranging, with one independent study finding they provide some $483 million in annual net benefit to the US economy from tourism and recreation and a combined annual net benefit from all goods and services of about $1.1 billion.

The annual commercial value of US fisheries from coral reefs is more than $100 million annually, with reef-based recreational fisheries generating another $100 million a year.

Following NOAA's proposal there will be a 90-day public comment period (you can submit a comment here) including 18 public meetings (schedule here, more will be added) before the listing is finalized in late 2013.  

 

Full reports downloadable here.

BP's Dispersant Allowed Oil to Penetrate Beaches More Deeply

| Thu Nov. 29, 2012 3:33 PM PST

A worker cleans up oily waste on Elmer's Island, LA,  21 May 2010: Photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Patrick Kelley, US Coast Guard, via Flickr

A worker cleans up oily waste on Elmer's Island, Louisiana, on May 21, 2010: Photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Patrick Kelley, US Coast Guard, via Flickr 

In an attempt to deal with the 206 million gallons of light crude oil erupting from the Deepwater Horizon blowout in 2010, BP unleashed about 2.6 million gallons of Corexit dispersants (Corexit 9500A and Corexit EC9527) in surface waters and at the wellhead on the sea floor. From the beginning the wisdom of that decision was questioned. I wrote extensively about those concerns in "BP's Deep Secrets."

In the short term the dispersed oil made BP's catastrophe look like less of a catastrophe since less oil made it to shore. But what about the long term?

In a new paper in PLOS ONE, researchers took a closer look. They examined the effects of oil dispersed mechanically (sonication), oil dispersed by Corexit 9500A, and just plain seawater (the control). They used laboratory-column experiments to simulate the movement of dispersed and nondispersed oil through sandy beach sediments.

Clean seawater, crude oil dispersed by sonication, or crude oil dispersed by Corexit and sonication were flushed through the sand columns by gravity. The effluent of the columns was collected as a time series in 4 vials each. PLOS ONE doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0050549.g001Clean seawater, crude oil dispersed by sonication, or crude oil dispersed by Corexit and sonication were flushed through the sand columns by gravity. The effluent of the columns was collected as a time series in four vials each. PLOS ONE doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0050549.g001

Their findings: Corexit 9500A allows crude oil components to penetrate faster and deeper into permeable saturated sands where the absence of oxygen may slow degradation and extend the lifespan of potentially harmful polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), a.k.a. organic pollutants—a.k.a. persistently abominable hork—in the marine environment.

"The oil concentrations used in our experiments are at the lower end of those reported for coastal waters after the Deepwater Horizon accident, and the Gulf of Mexico beaches were flooded with consecutive surges of oil."

Furthermore, the authors warn, dispersants used in nearshore oil spills might penetrate deeply enough into saturated sands to threaten groundwater supplies. (Did anyone look at this in the BP settlement?)

How does dispersant change oil's behavior in a beach? The authors write:

The causes of the reduced PAH retention after dispersant application has several reasons: 1) the dispersant transforms the oil containing the PAHs into small micelles that can penetrate through the interstitial space of the sand. 2) the coating of the oil particles produced by the dispersant reduces the sorption to the sand grains, 3) saline conditions enhance the adsorption of dispersant to sand surfaces, thereby reducing the sorption of oil to the grains.

In other words, repeated flushing by waves washing up a contaminated beach may pump PAHs deep into the sediment when dispersant is present. Natural dispersants—those produced by oil-degrading bacteria—may support this effect when oil is present in the sand for longer time periods.

Furthermore the continuous flushing by waves on an oil-contaminated beach may result in the release of PAHs from the sand back to the water. And after PAHs are released from the sediment, UV light can increase their degradation but also increase their toxicity to marine life by up to eightfold.

As for what effects those long-lived PAHs have released back into the water, the authors cite recent research findings: 

  • Increased mortality in planktonic copepods exposed to dispersants with stronger effects on small-sized species. 
  • In early life stages of Atlantic herring dispersed oil dramatically impaired fertilization success. 
  • Grey mullet exposed to chemically dispersed oil showed both a higher bioconcentration of PAHs and a higher mortality than fish exposed to either the water-soluble fraction of oil or the mechanically dispersed oil.

 

Carl Pellegrin (left) of the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries and Tim Kimmel of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service prepare to net an oiled pelican in Barataria Bay, La., Saturday, June 5, 2010: Deepwater Horizon Response via FlickrWorkers from the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries and the US Fish and Wildlife Service prepare to net an oiled pelican in Barataria Bay, June 5, 2010: Deepwater Horizon Response via Flickr

The open access paper:

  • Alissa Zuijdgeest and Markus Huettel. Dispersants as Used in Response to the MC252-Spill Lead to Higher Mobility of Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons in Oil-Contaminated Gulf of Mexico Sand. PLOS ONE (2012). DOI:10.1371/journal.pone.0050549

Snails Are Dissolving in Acidic Ocean Waters

| Tue Nov. 27, 2012 4:13 AM PST

The marine snail Limacina helicina antarctica showing acute levels of shell dissolution in Southern Ocean where deep-water upwelling and ocean acidification combined to reduce aragonite saturation in surface waters. This specimen was Image provided by Nina Bednarsek and Bernard LézéThe marine snail Limacina helicina antarctica showing acute levels of shell dissolution in Southern Ocean where deep-water upwelling and ocean acidification combined to reduce aragonite saturation in surface waters. This specimen was alive at capture: Image provided by Nina Bednarsek and Bernard Lézé

A new paper in Nature Geoscience reports the first evidence of marine animals dissolving in acidified waters off Antarctica. The pteropods—also called marine snails or sea butterflies—were found in waters 656 feet (200 meters) deep, alive but suffering severe shell damage from a combination of natural upwelling and human-caused ocean acidification.

Natural upwelling is triggered by strong winds that drive deep cold water from the bottom to the surface. We know that many upwelled waters are corrosive to animals like sea butterflies which use aragonite to build shells. But the saturation horizon for aragonite in the Southern Ocean typically occurs at around 3,280 feet (1000 meters) deep—far below where Limacina helicina antarctica live. So what happened to hoist that horizon line 2,625 feet (800 meters) closer to the surface?

Live Limacina helicina antarctica with intact shell: Russ Hopcroft, University of Alaska, Fairbanks via NOAA Ocean ExplorerLive Limacina helicina antarctica with intact shell and its wing-like "butterfly" parapodium trailing behind: Russ Hopcroft, University of Alaska, Fairbanks via NOAA Ocean Explorer

"Current predictions are for the saturation horizon for aragonite to reach the upper surface layers of the Southern Ocean by 2050 in winter and by 2100 year round," says co-author Dorothee Bakker from the University of East Anglia.

The answer is ocean acidification (OA)—the result of carbon dioxide from fossil fuel burning leaching from the atmosphere into the ocean and changing its pH. (I wrote more about that here and here and here, and about how ocean chemistry is measured in my "Arctic Ocean Diaries" here.)

Numerous lab experiments have demonstrated that OA has the potential to damage marine organisms who make shells or skeletons. This paper reports the first evidence that OA is already damaging marine life in the Southern Ocean. 

And not just any marine life. Marine snails are a vital part of the food web of Antarctic waters, supporting zooplankton, fish, birds, marine mammals, and us. (Read Tom Philpott's piece on the correlation between OA and human food here.)

Marine snails are also important players in the Southern Ocean's carbon cycle—the shuttling of carbon between atmosphere and ocean. In that work they've mitigated a lot of our C02 emissions. Too many for their own good, apparently.

Co-author and science cruise leader, Geraint Tarling from the British Antarctic Survey, says:

Although the upwelling sites are natural phenomena that occur throughout the Southern Ocean, instances where they bring the 'saturation horizon' above 200m will become more frequent as ocean acidification intensifies in the coming years. The tiny snails do not necessarily die as a result of their shells dissolving, however it may increase their vulnerability to predation and infection consequently having an impact to other parts of the food web.


 The paper:

Thanksgiving and the Rise and Fall of the Bird Empire

| Wed Nov. 21, 2012 4:13 AM PST

 Photo: Yathin S Krishnappa via Wikimedia Commons

Photo: Yathin S Krishnappa via Wikimedia Commons

I was struck yesterday reading this report that the population of wild birds in the UK has dropped by 44 million since 1966. The calculation comes from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, the British Trust for Ornithology, and others. Today's 166 million nesting birds numbered 210 million in 1966. Which means that for every five birds you might have seen while strolling the British Isles 46 years ago you'll see only four now. Our world grows quieter... Or does it? 

Numbers from The Economist:  Graphic: Julia Whitty. Photo: Yathin S Krishnappa via Wikimedia Commons

Numbers from The Economist: Graphic: Julia Whitty. Photo: Yathin S Krishnappa via Wikimedia Commons 

Because at the same time that wild birds are declining worldwide the kingdom of poultry rises. In 1960 there was roughly one chicken for for every person on Earth. Today there are three chickens for every person alive. That's 19-plus billion chickens at any one time—a wildly dynamic number since in the US alone 23 million chickens are killed daily, 269 a second

Numbers from WATTAgNet.com: Graphic: Julia Whitty. Photo: Yathin S Krishnappa via Wikimedia Commons

Numbers from WATTAgNet.com: Graphic: Julia Whitty. Turkey photo: lynn.gardner via Flickr

To put it bluntly there are shiteloads of birds today. Just not as many in the air or on the waters or in the forests or grasslands or islands like there used to be. Many are in coops and worse. The lucky ones are free range. Globally we now eat almost as much poultry as pork, the number one meat consumed. Domestic birds thrive albeit mostly miserably. 

 Based on National Audubon Society's Christmas Bird Count: Graphic: Julia Whitty. Photo: Yathin S Krishnappa via Wikimedia Commons

Based on National Audubon Society's Christmas Bird Counts: Graphic: Julia Whitty. Photo: Yathin S Krishnappa via Wikimedia Commons

And wild birds decline. The National Audubon Society's annual Christmas Bird Count reveals that North America's most common birds in decline are down 68 percent since 1967—from 17.6 million to 5.35 million. Some species have declined 80 percent in the past 4.5 decades.  

Numbers from the National Audubon Society:  Graphic: Julia Whitty. Photo: Dominic Sherony via Wikimedia CommonsNumbers from the National Audubon Society: Graphic: Julia Whitty. Photo: Dominic Sherony via Wikimedia Commons

What's hopeful for me is that many of these depressing data come from something new and refreshing: the rise of citizen science. The Christmas Bird Count is the largest and oldest citizen science effort underway, according to Wikipedia. It transformed a bloody 19th century ritual—an annual day-after-Christmas no-holds-barred bird hunt to kill whatever, wherever, the more the merrier—into a bird count. Courtesy of the unusual foresight of ornithologist Frank Chapman, an officer in the newborn National Audubon Society. I'm thankful for that. And for where the next 100 years of that awakening might lead us.

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