Blue Marble - May 2012

WTF Is Going on With Peru's Dolphins and Pelicans?

| Mon May. 7, 2012 12:14 PM PDT

 Hardy Jones (kneeling) and Dr. Carlos Yaipen Llanos (right) with a dead dolphin on Peru's northern coast: Courtesy BlueVoice.org

Hardy Jones (kneeling) and Dr. Carlos Yaipen Llanos (right) with a dead dolphin on Peru's northern coast Courtesy BlueVoice.org

Something awful is happening in the waters off Peru's northern coast, where some 3,000 dolphins have died and washed ashore since January. This rates as one of the worst, if not the worst, Unusual Mortality Event (UME) ever recorded. 

(I've been writing about the UME with marine mammals in the Gulf of Mexico since BP's Deepwater Horizon disaster here and here and here.)

In recent weeks more than 1,200 dead seabirds, mostly pelicans, have washed up along the same Peruvian beaches. And Saturday the government declared a health alert along Peru's northern coastline, urging residents and tourists to stay away from the beach while it investigates the unexplained deaths. It also warned local officials to wear protective gear when handling dead birds and animals.

So what's going on?

Credit: monkey sidekick via FlickrCredit: monkey sidekick via Flickr

My friend Hardy Jones of Bluevoice.org visited Peru in late March, where he joined a crew mustered by veterinarian Dr. Carlos Yaipen Llanos, the Lima-based director of the marine mammal rescue organization ORCA Peru. In one day they counted 615 dolphin carcasses scattered over 84 miles of coast before the high tide swept them off the beach.

Two species were hit: common dolphins (both genders, all ages) and Burmeister's porpoises (only females and calves). As Jones wrote at his blog, BlueVoice Views:

At 11am we packed into a four wheel drive Toyota pickup with a back seat cab and drove through San Jose to the beach, cranked a right turn and headed north at low tide on a beach that was mostly firm…Within a few hundred yards we began to see dead dolphins. In ones and twos, then Carlos saw a Burmeister's Porpoise. Some were highly decomposed while others were in the surfline freshly stranded. All were dead.

  

 

Yaipen Llanos performed beach necropsies and summarized his findings

Macroscopic findings include: hemorrhagic lesions in the middle including the acoustic chamber, fractures in the periotic bones, bubbles in blood filling liver and kidneys (animals were diving, so the main organs were congested), lesion in the lungs compatible with pulmonary emphysema, sponge-like liver. So far we have 12 periotic samples from different animals, all with different degree of fractures and 80% of them with fracture in the right periotic bones, compatible with acoustic impact and decompression syndrome…

At this point, the evidence points towards acoustic impact and decompression syndrome. However, the large aggregation of dolphins is leading towards a potential epidemic outbreak of morbillivirus, brucella or both. We have recorded morbillivirus in South American sea-lions and the Peruvian population of common dolphins is a migratory part of that at Costa Rica, so chances are high. Also, evidence of previous mass stranding of this magnitude was associated to morbillivirus outbreak in Europe during the 90's also in common dolphins and porpoises.

 

Schematic of a marine seismic survey: Credit: Nwhit via Wikimedia CommonsSchematic of a marine seismic survey Credit: Nwhit via Wikimedia Commons

The worry about acoustic impact injuries and accompanying decompression syndrome is that offshore seismic testing by the oil and gas industry may be killing dolphins. Houston's BPZ Energy has exclusive license contracts over 2.2 million acres in four blocks in northwest Peru, including offshore. They issued this statement on April 11, in which they don't actually say much:

BPZ Energy, an independent oil and gas exploration and production company, today issued clarifying comments as a result of recent inquiries received regarding its offshore seismic activity and its possible relation to reported dolphin deaths in Peru. The Company also reaffirmed its commitment to good corporate citizenship in all matters, including social, community and environmental affairs. BPZ Energy operations in Tumbes are located 500 km north of Lambayeque where dolphin deaths have been reported. 

It's possible the dolphins and pelicans have been killed by different problems. Take your pick: In the case of dolphins, acoustic impact or disease outbreak (though officials have recently denied morbillivirus); in the case of the pelicans, some suggest starvation. 

That's because a massive pelican die-off occurred in the same area in 1997, due to a strong El Niño event in the Pacific, when anchovies migrated away from the coast and birds starved. Except there's no El Niño underway just now, only the end of a La Niña event and a return to neutral ocean conditions, according to the Climate Prediction Center.

As with so many mass die-offs in the ocean, we may never know.

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Can Games Help Us Prep for Climate Change?

| Mon May. 7, 2012 10:32 AM PDT

It's a Friday morning, right before lunch, and the sixth day of a seven-day conference on human adaptation to climate change. It's a good conference, but the consensus among attendees is that another PowerPoint presentation might make them puke. Which is probably why Pablo Suarez's session on games and climate change is particularly well attended. 

Suarez, the associate director of programs at the Red Cross/Red Crescent Climate Center, thinks that playing games will help us better prepare for a warming world. Famers, fishermen, shanty town dwellers, Red Cross volunteers, climate scientists, clergy members, donors, and members of parliament from Argentina and Uganda have all played games his program designed. These aren't high-tech video games like Halo. They're more like Dungeons & Dragons or Settlers of Catan, but for climate change. And they're meant to help people think through problems and work together to find solutions, while connecting groups that don't often work together.

For his workshop as part of the Community-based Adaptation Conference in Hanoi, Vietnam, Suarez broke us into teams for a game meant to depict how one determines when and how to spent money on preparing for severe weather. Here's how the game went down.

My team had seven people, including government staffers from the Zambia's Ministry of Health and Pakistan's Ministry of Interior, as well as an American academic, a French aid worker, and a communications guy based in Cairo. Each of us was given a six-sided die and 10 white beans to serve as our currency for the game. Each team also got its own six-sided die. Each player represented an individual community; our teammates would play neighboring communities. The goal was to have the most beans at the end of 10 rounds.

2 Years Later, Grim Photos From the BP Disaster

| Mon May. 7, 2012 3:00 AM PDT

It's been two years since the Deepwater Horizon disaster unleashed 4.9 million barrels of oil on the Gulf of Mexico. In the midst of the disaster, BP and its contractors did everything they could to keep people from seeing the scale of the disaster. But new photos released Monday offer some new insight to just how grim the Gulf became for sea life.

The images were released in response to a Freedom of Information Act request that Greenpeace filed back in August 2010, asking for any communication related to endangered and threatened Gulf species. Now, many months later, Greenpeace received a response from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) that included more than 100 photos from the spill, including many of critically endangered Kemp's Ridley sea turtles dead and covered in oil.

Most photos are missing dates and descriptions, though the FOIA request covered the period of April 20, 2010, to July 30, 2010. But they're pretty shocking—which is probably why they weren't made public at the height of the spill. "It just makes me furious," said John Hocevar, a marine biologist who works for Greenpeace. "I had so many conversations with people in various government agencies working on the Gulf spill, and I feel like they were hiding things from all of us."

"The White House was sitting on this stuff for over two years, at the same time they were saying everything was fine, that the oil was gone, and while they were rushing ahead with plans for new drilling in the Gulf, the Arctic, elsewhere," Hocevar continued. "It's just not okay. This is not an acceptable type of collateral damage."

Mother Jones has requested comment from NOAA but had not received a response at press time.

Jump below the fold to see some of the photos that have been kept under wraps for the past two years:

Chile's Mega-Quake Restored Beaches and Biodiversity

| Fri May. 4, 2012 11:41 AM PDT

 Chilean coast after the 2010 tsunami.: Marcelo Caro via Wikimedia Commons

Chilean coastal town after the 2010 tsunami: Marcelo Caro via Wikimedia Commons

The study is believed to be the first-ever quantification of earthquake and tsunami effects on sandy beach ecosystems along a tectonically active coastal zone.

Chile's 8.8 earthquake and tsunami of 2010 caused massive devastation, not least along its coastline, with some beaches subsiding and losing biodiversity, and some rocky reefs uplifting  and losing biodiversity—as you might expect.

But thanks to the investigations of a science team already looking at the ecology of Chile's sandy beaches before the quake, we now know this natural disaster also engineered some powerful and unexpected forms of coastal restoration. 

This occurred where the temblor uplifted coastlines with coastal armouring—like seawalls and rocky revetments—which allowed those once-disappearing beaches to quickly grow where they had not grown in a long time, and allowed plants and other species to reinhabit places they hadn't inhabited in a long time.

The study, just published in the open-access PLoS ONEalso previews the types of changes we might expect from climate warming and its accompanying sea level rise. 

 

Photos of study sites taken before and after the 2010 Chile earthquake: Eduardo Jaramillo, et al. PLoS ONE. DOI:info:doi/10.1371/journal.pone.0035348.g002Photos of study sites taken before and after the 2010 Chile earthquake: Eduardo Jaramillo, et al. PLoS ONE. DOI:info:doi/10.1371/journal.pone.0035348.g001

In the before-and-after disaster above the orange dotted lines indicate 24 hour spring high tide line. You can see that dry sandy areas above the high tide line dwindled where beaches that subsided (a) and increased where beaches uplifted (b, c and d). These changes were affected by whether or not coastal armoring was in place. Specifically

  • a–b show unarmored sites (a: where land subsided and the beach grew narrower after the quake; b: where coastal uplift made the beach wider afterwards)
  • c–d show armored sites (c: where uplifted wider intertidal occurs in conjunction with a seawall; d: where uplifted wider intertidal occurs in conjunction with a revetment)
  • e–f show relationships between the magnitude of land-level changes (e: shows beach widths; f: shows beach face slopes—red dots=sites with seawalls; blue dots=sites with rocky revetments; black dots=unarmored sites)

 

Land level changes from the 2010 Chile earthquake, epicenter yellow star: Eduardo Jaramillo, et al. PLoS ONE.

Land level changes from the 2010 Chile earthquake, epicenter yellow star: Eduardo Jaramillo, et al. PLoS ONE. DOI:info:doi/10.1371/journal.pone.0035348.g001

"So often you think of earthquakes as causing total devastation, and adding a tsunami on top of that is a major catastrophe for coastal ecosystems," says co-author Jenny Dugan, at UCSB"As expected, we saw high mortality of intertidal life on beaches and rocky shores, but the ecological recovery at some of our sandy beach sites was remarkable. Plants are coming back in places where there haven't been plants, as far as we know, for a very long time. The earthquake created sandy beach habitat where it had been lost. This is not the initial ecological response you might expect from a major earthquake and tsunami."

From the paper:

Ecological effects of extreme events, such those we observed for the [Chile] event, are expected to vary in duration. Shorter-term effects on beaches included direct mortality associated with the tsunami and the indirect bottom up effects of increased inputs of algal wrack from uplifted rocky shores on upper shore invertebrate consumers such as talitrid amphipods (Orchestoidea tuberculata). However, in areas with significant uplift (ca. 2 m), locations of armoring structures were shifted higher on the beach profile, reducing interaction with waves and tides and restoring intertidal zones for biota and ecological function. For this reason we expect positive changes observed in these beach ecosystems to persist, altering intertidal community composition and dynamics over the long term, even in front of existing coastal armoring. In contrast, for the subsided armored areas, community composition and population abundances are expected to remain depressed over time.

 

The paper:

  • Jaramillo E, Dugan JE, Hubbard DM, Melnick D, Manzano M, et al. (2012) Ecological Implications of Extreme Events: Footprints of the 2010 Earthquake along the Chilean Coast. PLoS ONE 7(5): e35348. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0035348

 

Heartland: If You Believe in Global Warming, You're Like the Unabomber

| Fri May. 4, 2012 11:02 AM PDT

The Heartland Institute

UPDATE: Heartland announced on Friday evening that they are pulling the billboard.

Remember when the climate-deniers at the Heartland Institute were all, "Hey, play nice and have some 'common decency' over our 'honest disagreement' about whether or not the earth is warming"? So much for that.

The Guardian posted a photo on Friday of a Heartland billboard near Chicago that compares everyone who believes that climate change is real to the Unabomber. The billboard features a photo of Ted Kaczynski with "I still believe in Global Warming. Do you?" in giant, crimson letters. In a press release, Heartland said it also plans billboards featuring Charles Manson and Fidel Castro, and potentially Osama bin Laden and James J. Lee (they guy who held people hostage at Discovery Channel headquarters a few years ago). From their press release explaining the billboards:

The point is that believing in global warming is not “mainstream,” smart, or sophisticated. In fact, it is just the opposite of those things. Still believing in man-made global warming – after all the scientific discoveries and revelations that point against this theory – is more than a little nutty. In fact, some really crazy people use it to justify immoral and frightening behavior.
Of course, not all global warming alarmists are murderers or tyrants. But the Climategate scandal and the more recent Fakegate scandal revealed that the leaders of the global warming movement are willing to break the law and the rules of ethics to shut down scientific debate and implement their left-wing agendas.

Obviously this is a stupid, crass publicity stunt aimed to gin up media ahead of their big climate-denial-palooza conference later in May. But it was only a few months ago that Heartland was complaining that it had been unfairly maligned when a batch of internal documents was released online outlining their funding and outreach strategies, and we should all just get along and be nice to each other. Yes, that's exactly what they want.

Why Does Coke Care About the Mekong Delta?

| Fri May. 4, 2012 7:10 AM PDT

Kate Sheppard

As our boat motored down a shallow, brown canal, the sound of the motor sent the residents of Tram Chim National Park scattering. Birds—many hundreds of them—were roused from their forest perches by our intrusion on an otherwise peaceful, overcast morning.

I'm not a birder, so my visual description of them is limited to "brown," "bluish," and "black-and-white-spotted." But Tram Chim, located in Vietnam's Mekong River delta, is home to at least 231 different species. That includes a number of rare birds, such as the elegant, red-headed sarus crane, which is native to southeast Asia. A hot spot for the crane, Tram Chim is lush with its preferred food, the Eleocharis dulcis, a green shoot attached to what humans know as the "water chestnut." The park is also one of the last preserved places in the flat, expansive wetland known as the Plain of Reeds.

Later this month, Tram Chim will be officially named a "Wetlands of International Importance" under the Ramsar Convention. Ramsar—an international treaty named after the city in Iran where the convention was adopted in 1971—is used to honor wetland ecosystems that have maintained their "ecological character" through sustainable management. Its listing was announced in February, but will be officially recognized at a ceremony later in May. It is the world's two thousandth Ramsar site and the fourth in Vietnam.

The recognition comes out of the work of an unlikely partnership between Tram Chim, local government officials, the World Wildlife Fund, and Coca-Cola. That last one might seem a little out of place. But Coke has been very involved in funding conservation work with seven major rivers around the world, including here on the Mekong, through a partnership with WWF that began in 2008.

The park is located between two of the Mekong's nine branches, with a number of small canals and small waterways leading through the park that feed the wetlands. The lush park can be covered in two to three meters of water during the wet season. But the low grasslands are prone to fires during the dry season of March through May. To prevent those fires, the local government built up the dike system in the park to trap the natural flows of water, keeping the grassland drenched throughout the year. But that, they soon realized, was bad for biodiversity in the park. It was killing off the grasses that the cranes like to munch on, so fewer of them were coming to the park.

Working with park officials and scientists, WWF helped devise a new water management plan for the park, one that monitored water levels more closely and adjusted the dike system so that it could return to a more natural flow, restoring seasonal changes in the park. The new plan has helped them restore the habitat in the park, while still preventing fires, and has been adopted by the provincial government.

"It was a trade off," said Le Hoang Long, head of the scientific research unit at Tram Chim. "If you wanted to not have a fire, you'd lose biodiversity. With the project, we're trying to introduce a new method so you don't have to have that tradeoff."

WWF Vietnam's work in the park—and in the Mekong Delta more broadly—has been supported by Coca-Cola's Global Water Stewardship program. Over the course of the partnership, Coke has provided $4.1 million in funding for WWF's Mekong work, and funded similar efforts on six other river basins around the world. But why?

Coke's Director of Global Water Stewardship, Greg Koch, is quick to point out that their reasons aren't entirely altruistic—even though he gets excited when he talks about the birds of Tram Chim. For Coke, the health of freshwater sources is crucial to their business. Coke has a presence in all but three countries around the world. (Only North Korea, Cuba, and Burma are Coke-free.) Anyone who has traveled to remote corners of the world has probably been surprised to find Coke pretty much everywhere, and most of that comes via more than 1,000 local bottlers around the world who also depend on the availability of clean, healthy, local water. In Vietnam, they have three bottling facilities in Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, and Da Nang. 

"It's not a reputational driver to do this type of work. We do this because it's critically imperative to our business," Koch said. Their brand recognition has also helped draw the attract attention for conservation work from local and national officials in places like Vietnam. "It's one thing when WWF goes in and says this is important," Koch said. "It's another thing when Coca-Cola and WWF come in and say it's important to both of us, because it changes their perspective." While Coke isn't using water directly from the Mekong, Koch said the company is interested in working to preserve the water freshwater sources that are locally relevant—and in the case of Vietnam, the Mekong is king.

In this case, it's helped protect a massive chunk of wetlands and its winged inhabitants. The gray sky, the remnant of a night in which the clouds had dumped a relentless storm on the province, seemed to keep many birds hidden out of sight on my day in the park. But when the engine stopped, they were easy to hear. One bird in the distance called out an increasingly plaintive, "Hey!" Off to the north, another seemed to be repeating, "Hunh?"

But then the motor kicks back up again, so we can navigate back through the floating lotuses to the park headquarters. Once again, the birds are stirred to flight, taking off to quieter reserves.

Photos by Kate SheppardPhotos by Kate Sheppard

 

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Scientists: Extinctions Just as Damaging as Climate Change

| Wed May. 2, 2012 11:18 AM PDT

 Amazon rainforest: Phil P Harris via Wikimedia Commons.

Amazon rainforest: Phil P Harris via Wikimedia Commons.

A new paper in the prestigious science journal Nature assesses one of the big questions in ecology today: How do species extinctions rack up compared to other global change issues like global warming, ozone holes, acid rain, and nutrient pollution (overfertilization)?

"Evidence is mounting that extinctions are altering key processes important to the productivity and sustainability of Earth's ecosystems."

The answer: Just as nasty. In fact species loss is likely to rank among the top five drivers of global change.

"Some people have assumed that biodiversity effects are relatively minor compared to other environmental stressors,” says lead author David Hooper of Western Washington University. "Our new results show that future loss of species has the potential to reduce plant production just as much as global warming and pollution."

Studies in the past 20 years have demonstrated that more biologically diverse ecosystems are more productive. So there's growing concern that the very high rates of modern extinctions from habitat loss, overharvesting, pollution, biological invasions, human overpopulation, and other human-caused environmental changes will diminish nature's ability to provide goods and services important to all life (ours too)... like food, clean water, and a stable climate. 

A schematic image illustrating the relationship between biodiversity, ecosystem services, human well-being, and poverty: Millennium Ecosystem Assessment via Wikimedia Commons

Schematic illustrating the relationship between biodiversity, ecosystem services, human well-being, and poverty, and where we can improve our strategies: Millennium Ecosystem Assessment via Wikimedia Commons  

"The biggest challenge looking forward is to predict the combined impacts of these environmental challenges to natural ecosystems and to society," said co-author J. Emmett Duffy at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science. 

The team performed a meta-analysis of published data from 192 earlier studies to assess the effects of extinctions on productivity and decomposition:

  1. Productivity (the rate of production of biomass in an ecosystem, starting with plants producing life from sunlight)
  2. Decomposition (the work done by bacteria and fungi that releases nutrients back for recycling by the producers)

The stats:

  • At intermediate levels of species loss (21–40%), plant production is reduced by 5–10%, comparable to previously documented effects of ultraviolet radiation (ozone hole) and global warming.
  • At higher levels of species extinction (41–60%), dwindling productivity rivals the effects from ozone holes, acid rain, global warming, and nutrient pollution (overfertilization).
  • At intermediate levels, species loss had equal or greater effects on decomposition compared to global warming and nutrient pollution.

From the paper:

[O]ur analyses clearly show that the ecosystem consequences of local species loss are as quantitatively significant as the direct effects of several global change stressors that have mobilized major international concern and remediation efforts.

 

The video is the best short describing the importance of biodiversity that I've seen.

The paper:

  • David U. Hooper, E. Carol Adair, Bradley J. Cardinale, Jarrett E. K. Byrnes, Bruce A. Hungate, Kristin L. Matulich, Andrew Gonzalez, J. Emmett Duffy, Lars Gamfeldt & Mary I. O’Connor. A global synthesis reveals biodiversity loss as a major driver of ecosystem change. Nature (2012) doi:10.1038/nature11118

 

The Durian: Everyone's Favorite "Bad Smell Food"

| Tue May. 1, 2012 3:00 AM PDT

This guy is really excited about his purchase.This guy is really excited about his purchase.

Vietnam—especially the province I have spent most of my time reporting from—has loads of delightful fruits. Giant, grapefruit-like pomelos, prickly and brightly colored rambutans, fleshy yellow jackfruit, and delicate mangosteens abound. But the most memorable for me—and probably for many newcomers in the region—is the polarizing durian.

I'd never seen, or smelled, a durian before. My first exposure to the fruit was this sign in my hotel room listing the fees I'd be assessed if I did various things in my room. When I realized the fee for eating durian in your room was twice as much as the fee for letting your kid poop on the floor, I decided that I really had to try it.

No stinky fruit! No stinky fruit! 

It's a large fruit with a hard, spiky green husk, which makes you wonder what made anyone decide it looked tasty in the first place. But you usually smell it before you see it—an odor that's been likened to "completely rotten, mushy onions (by Chef Andrew Zimmerman) and "pig-shit, turpentine and onions, garnished with a gym sock (by author Richard Sterling in The Travelling Curmudgeon, via Wikipedia). Chef, author, and TV travel food guru Anthony Bourdain notes that, after eating it, "Your breath will smell as if you'd been French-kissing your dead grandmother." Yum!

But as fellow traveler noted, the durian "tastes like heaven, but smells like hell." Most people—myself included—have a hard time getting past that initial impression. Its odor permeates through the thick skin, smacking you in the face well before you even see the market stands overflowing with the giant orbs. I'll be blunt: It smells like shit.

If you can get past the smell, there's still the mushy, custard-like texture to contend with. None of this works in the durian's favor. The fruit inside is yellowish-green, and shaped kind of like what I imagine an alien fetus looks like. I've been told it's an acquired taste—though one I didn't happen to acquire over my time in Vietnam. I did, however, grow to like durian-flavored ice cream, a less-pungent version of the treat. But judging by the fruit's ubiquity in Vietnam, the locals love this "bad smell food."

I held off on blogging about it, but then I learned that climate change has been blamed for a durian surplus in the Philippines. Yet another consequence of global warming!