Blue Marble - January 2013

BP's Oil and Especially Dispersant Toxic to Baby Corals

| Wed Jan. 9, 2013 5:00 PM EST
Mountainous star coral (Montastraea faveolata) spawns, releasing sperm and eggs that will combine to produce larvae: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association

Results are in from the first controlled laboratory tests on how Deepwater Horizon oil and the dispersant Corexit® 9500 affect coral larvae. Conclusion: Baby corals of at least some species are likely to be killed when exposed to oil and are especially likely to die when exposed to dispersants. The results have just been published in the science journal PLOS ONE.

Coral larvae are delicate little beings that drift away from their parents (see video below) to settle on near or distant reefs. The study from Mote Marine Laboratory scientists focused on two coral speciesmustard hill coral  (Porites astreoidesand mountainous star coral (Montastraea faveolata)—from the Florida Keys, an area not directly impacted by the spill. Both species are common reef builders in the Gulf and the Caribbean. 

The researchers tested larvae in water containing 1) the dissolved components of Deepwater Horizon oil from the source; 2) weathered oil; 3) the dispersant Corexit® 9500; and 4) the combined oil and dispersant. They monitored the coral larvae for 72 hours at different concentrations of each solution, and tested how the mountainous star coral larvae fared in solutions that were slowly diluted over 96 hours.

Highlights from the paper:

  • Larvae exposed to oil components died sooner and settled less than control larvae given only seawater.
  • Mustard hill coral larvae were significantly less likely to survive and settle amid high concentrations of oil components (0.62 parts per million).
  • Mountainous star coral had significantly lower survival rates even at the lowest oil concentration (0.49 ppm diluted over time).
  • Larvae exposed to weathered crude oil had significantly lowered survival rates and stopped settling after 72 hours, while the control larvae continued to settle through 96 hours.

 

Settlement by larvae exposed to crude oil. Mean percent (% 6 SE) new settlement by P. astreoides larvae exposed to Louisiana weathered crude oil (solid bars) and a seawater control (open bars) observed at each time point (24, 48, 72 and 96-hr). Mean percent (% 6 SE) cumulative settlement by P. astreoides larvae after 24, 48, 72 and 96-hr exposure to Louisiana weathered crude oil (dashed line) and a seawater control (solid line)" doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0045574.g001

Both species were highly vulnerable to Corexit® 9500:

"Our results support the growing knowledge that certain coral species may fare worse than others during oil spills," said Kim Ritchie, principal investigator.
  • No mountainous star coral larvae settled or survived at the medium and high concentrations (50 and 100 ppm).
  • No mustard hill coral larvae settled or survived at the high concentration (100 ppm).
  • Both species of coral larvae were significantly less likely to survive and settle amid medium concentrations (4.28 ppm for mustard hill coral and 18.56 ppm for mountainous star coral) or high concentrations (30.99 for mustard hill and 35.76 ppm for mountainous star) of oil mixed with dispersant.
  • Even at a low concentration (0.86 ppm) of oil-dispersant mixture diluted over 96 hours, most of the mountainous star coral did not survive.

"To understand how oil and dispersant could affect wild corals, more research is needed on their complex natural life cycles," said Kim Ritchie, principal investigator on the emergency Protect Our Reefs grant supporting this study and manager of the Marine Microbiology Program at Mote. "Coral larvae seem to settle with help from landing pads called 'biofilms' that are formed by microbes like marine bacteria. This delicate natural process might be interrupted by dispersant and its mixture with oil, so it's important to know how it works in detail."

Aerial view of the oil leaked from Deepwater Horizon, May 6 2010: Reuters/Daniel Beltra via Flickr

The Deepwater Horizon rig spewed more than 200 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico and responders used nearly 2 million gallons of dispersant to try and keep the slicks from reaching shore—a mitigation that likely exacerbated the threats from oil toxins underwater.

The open access paper:

  • Gretchen Goodbody-Gringley, Dana L. Wetzel, Daniel Gillon, Erin Pulster, Allison Miller, Kim B. Ritchie. Toxicity of Deepwater Horizon Source Oil and the Chemical Dispersant, Corexit® 9500, to Coral Larvae. PLOS ONE. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0045574.g001

*The coral larvae in this study were collected under the government research permit FKNMS-2010-080-A2 issued by the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. Coral reefs within the Sanctuary are protected by federal law.

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5 Ways to Prepare NYC for the Next Hurricane Sandy

| Wed Jan. 9, 2013 6:06 AM EST

As New York City and state dried out in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, Gov. Andrew Cuomo called together a special commission to draw up, in the face of climate change, a plan for how to prepare for the next Big One. Last month, Judith Rodin, the group's co-chair, said no idea would be too big or too small to take up. This week, after only a month of deliberations by the commission, the New York Times obtained a leaked early draft of its recommendations; an official release is expected today with the governor's State of the State address. Here's a look at a few of the big ideas guiding the commission's vision for a climate-adapted New York.

1. Protect the old stuff:

downed tree
circulating/Flickr

Coral Fights Back Against Warming Seas

| Tue Jan. 8, 2013 6:01 AM EST

Different colonies of Acropora hyacinthus, one species examined by the Stanford team, showed different levels of heat tolerance depending on which pool they were in.

In the world of coral reefs, most of the news is pretty gloomy. Rising ocean temperatures have led to massive die-offs from Indonesia to Florida; emissions-driven acidity could dissolve corals' structure-building ability in 20 years; rising sea levels threaten to block sunlight even from healthy reefs; and in November NOAA called on Congress to afford endangered species status to over 60 species. A blunt, unsparing editorial in the Times this summer slathered on the melodrama: Coral reefs are being pushed "into oblivion... there is no hope."

Coral are not exactly the most dynamic animals in the ocean: They take decades to grow and are then rooted at the mercy of their environment, so they don't inspire much confidence when it comes to adapting to climate change. But a study out Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science from a group of Stanford geneticists suggests that coral might have more of a fighting spirit than we gave them credit for.

In 2000, ecologist Dan Barshis was with a research group in American Samoa, wading through tide pools, when he noticed that coral in some pools seemed healthy, despite being bathed in water much warmer than corals can normally survive, and despite the fact that individuals of the very same species were on their deathbeds in pools just down the beach. Corals get stressed when water temperatures rise, especially when it happens quickly; under enough stress, they'll boot out the symbiotic algae that photosynthesize sunlight for the coral's food and give the coral its signature color palette, leaving the coral pale—hence the term "bleaching"—and starving.

underwater lab
An experimental transplant setup where Steve Palumbi, Dan Barshis, and coauthor Francois Seneca moved corals from the moderate pool into the more extreme pool and vice versa to investigate whether all corals can acquire increased stress tolerance in the more extreme pool. Photo by Dan Griffin-GG Films

But the coral Barshis saw looked inexplicably happy, and over the next several years he found that the reason why is all about training. Barshis compared the genes of the heat-resistant corals and their more fragile bretheren under a range of water temperatures. He found that, in both groups, heat changed the way hundreds of genes were expressed. But in the heat-resistant group, 60 of these genes were flipped on all the time, and helping to crank out heat-resilient proteins and antioxidants. Using records of the pools' temperatures, Barshis found that the strongest corals came from pools that were consistently but briefly exposed to high temperatures during low tides over time. He thinks the repeated exposure helped condition the corals to build up their tolerance, like an athlete building endurance through weight training, only on the level of DNA.

"It kinda comes down to what doesn't kill you makes you stronger," he says.

Will Thorium Nuclear Energy Save Us All?

| Mon Jan. 7, 2013 9:37 PM EST

Even in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, which half-drowned our biggest metropolis, Congress is still ostriching on climate change and thinking about chopping clean-energy programs as part of fiscal cliff, part II. Meanwhile, China, which has been leading the way on futuristic ideas from offshore wind energy to high-speed rail, is spearheading the development of nuclear energy derived from thorium, a naturally occurring radioactive element.

The Telegraph reports that the politically connected industrialist Jiang Mianheng is bankrolling a $350 million project at China's National Academy of Sciences to develop thorium power, which would be used to fuel molten-salt reactors, as opposed to old school uranium-fueled water reactors, and which would be much cleaner and meltdown-safe.

On Sea Level Rise, More Experts Lean Toward High End

| Mon Jan. 7, 2013 2:47 PM EST
Flooding on the Virginia coast.

If you want to imagine what the future, climate-changed world will look like, one of the biggest questions is by how much, exactly, the sea levels will increase. Rising tides have already become one of the most prominent climate change impacts, threatening coastal communities from Virginia to Palau and amplifying the damage of storms like Sandy. Estimates vary: 2007's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report pegged the figure at somewhere around a foot by 2100, while a December study from NOAA went as high as 6.6 feet. But a swath of recent studies put the estimate at around three feet, including a report out Sunday in Nature Climate Change. From NBC:

Melting glaciers in Antarctica and Greenland may push up global sea levels more than 3 feet by the end of this century, according to a scientific poll of experts that brings a degree of clarity to a murky and controversial slice of climate science. 

Such a rise in the seas would displace millions of people from low-lying countries such as Bangladesh, swamp atolls in the Pacific Ocean, cause dikes in Holland to fail, and cost coastal mega-cities from New York to Tokyo billions of dollars for construction of sea walls and other infrastructure to combat the tides.

"The consequences are horrible," Jonathan Bamber, a glaciologist at the University of Bristol and a co-author of the study, [said].

While efforts to stem the rising sea, like reducing greenhouse gas emissions from burning fossil fuels, are always worth pursuing, in light of the mounting evidence for large-scale changes it seems prudent for more coastal cities to take a lead from places like New York and start preparing for a closer coastline.

VIDEO: Hiking the 1,700-Mile Keystone Pipeline "Trail"

| Mon Jan. 7, 2013 6:01 AM EST

"I live a pretty unconventional life," Ken Ilgunas tells me, speaking over Skype from a community library in Marion, Kansas. It's a typical understatement for Ilgunas, who has the kind of ultra-low-key demeanor one acquires after many nights in the backcountry by oneself. In September, after a year of minimalist living in his van, Ilgunas, 29, was on the hunt for a new adventure. He'd been following the controversy over the Keystone XL pipeline, heard stories of the landscapes it could jeopardize, and decided the best thing to do would be to go see the thing first-hand. So in September, he found a State Department map, strapped on a pair of good hiking boots, hitchhiked to Canada, and started walking the 1,700-mile route the pipe, if built, will take from the tar sands to ports in the Gulf of Mexico. He expects to finish his journey mid-February; along the way he's encountered frigid cold, charging moose, cows (lots of cows), and plenty of folks who want to keep the pipe out of their backyards.

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A Hidden Climate Win in the Fiscal Deal

| Fri Jan. 4, 2013 1:10 PM EST

In the midst of this week's fiscal cliff hullabaloo, with tax hikes for many Americans, tax breaks for Big Oil, and a superstorm of righteous outrage over withheld storm aid, you'd be forgiven for not noticing the climate win that slipped in at the eleventh hour: a long-awaited extension of the wind energy Production Tax Credit, a federal incentive that has for many years been the bread and butter of the wind industry, providing $1 billion each year to keep wind competitive against heavily-subsidized fossil fuels.

Despite being a record-setting year for wind installations, 2012 was a nail-biter for many in the industry, who feared Congress would axe the credit and send the industry from boom to bust, as has happened several times in the past when the credit has not been extended. The industry's trade group was a clearinghouse for grim prognostications: Some 35,000 jobs lost and up to a ninety-percent drop in wind projects, should the credit not be passed. Even with the extension, the industry's financial backers were so spooked by last year's uncertainty that investments are almost sure to fall in 2013.

"We've effectively killed 2013 by waiting this long to extend [the PTC]," Jacob Susman, CEO of wind installer OwnEnergy, told me a few months ago.

And while the extension was an excuse for wind folks from Colorado to Iowa to Boston to pop an extra bottle of champagne, the industry ain't out of the woods yet: The recent extension is only for one year, which means the battle to wring money from Congress will need to be fought all over again in just a few months. Indeed, the complaint one hears most often from industry leaders is that the constant political kowtowing necessary to secure this essential tax credit makes it nearly impossible for the industry to secure long-term growth. That's very different from fossil fuels, whose benefits, as my colleague Andy Kroll points out, are "baked into the tax code."

But this extension comes with at least one big improvement: In the past, to secure the credit, wind projects had to be delivering power to the grid before the credit's expiration date at year's end. That led to a huge push to get projects up and running in the final months of 2012, but also threw up a barrier to any projects that got started too late. This version sets a lower bar: The credit is now available to any projects that break ground in 2013, giving everyone from turbine manufactorers to installers to investors much more breathing room on a realistic timescale, which David Roberts at Grist says is equivalent to extending the old version for two or three years.

The challenge for Big Wind this year will be to work with Congress to find ways to keep the industry competitive in the long term, while unleashing it from year-to-year political turmoil.

"The extension is a very important piece of legislation," industry researcher Matt Kaplan told the Financial Times. "The big question, though, is what comes next."

Study: Cows Are 25 Percent Snake

| Thu Jan. 3, 2013 10:20 AM EST

You vaguely know how DNA works, right? You get it from your parents. Well, hold onto your britches, because scientists from down under are about to turn your world upside down.

A study by Australia's Adelaide and Flinders Universities and the South Australian Museum has found that in complex organisms, DNA is not only transferred from a parent to its offspring like your science book told you, but can also be "laterally" transferred between species. The research, published in the peer-reviewed Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in the US, involved comparing dozens of DNA sequences from different species. It found that cows inherited up to a quarter their genes from reptiles.