Category Archives: InFORMing Research

Non-native species from Japanese tsunami aided by unlikely partner: plastics

by Mark Floyd
Originally published by Oregon State University
28 September, 2017

NEWPORT, Ore. – A new study appearing this week in Science reports the discovery of a startling new role of plastic marine debris — the transport of non-native species in the world’s oceans.

Co-authored by Oregon State University marine scientists John Chapman and Jessica Miller, the study also suggests that expanded coastal urbanization and storm activity, including the recent hurricanes and floods around the world, as well as predicted future enhanced storm activity due to climate change, could mean that the role of marine debris as a novel vector for invasive species may be increasing dramatically.

Between 2012 and 2017, scientists documented nearly 300 species of marine animals arriving alive in North America and Hawaii on hundreds of vessels, buoys, crates, and many other objects released into the ocean by the Japanese earthquake and tsunami of March 2011.

Unexpected was that coastal species from Japan would not only survive the trip through the hostile environment of the open North Pacific Ocean, but continue to survive for many years — four or more years longer than any previous observations of species found living on what are called “ocean rafts.”

Tsunami debris items continued to land in North America and Hawaii as late as spring 2017 with living Japanese species.

Between 2012 and 2014, wood from homes and other buildings in Japan landed in Oregon and other locations bearing Japanese species that included dense populations of wood burrowing marine clams known as shipworms. Shipworms destroy wood. Wood landings declined dramatically after 2014.

The declining wood landings early in the study brought the researchers’ attention to the fact that it was the non-biodegradable debris — plastics, fiberglass, and styrofoam — that was permitting the long-term survival and transport of non-native species.

“Given that more than 10 million tons of plastic waste from nearly 200 countries can enter the ocean every year – an amount predicted to increase by an order of magnitude by 2025 – and given that hurricanes and typhoons that could sweep large amounts of debris into the oceans are predicted to increase due to global climate change, there is huge potential for the amount of marine debris in the oceans to increase significantly,” James Carlton, an internationally known invasive species expert with the Maritime Studies Program of Williams College and Mystic Seaport, and lead author the study, said.

Chapman said that scientists thus far have not documented any Japanese species transported by tsunami debris becoming established on the West Coast.  But, Chapman said, it can take years for species to establish and become detected.

“One thing this event has taught us is that some of these organisms can be extraordinarily resilient,” he said. “When we first saw species from Japan arriving in Oregon, we were shocked. We never thought they could live that long, under such harsh conditions. It would not surprise me if there were species from Japan that are out there living along the Oregon coast. In fact, it would surprise me if there weren’t.”

Miller, an OSU marine ecologist who also works at the university’s Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport, Oregon, noted that “not only were new species still being detected on tsunami debris in 2017 but nearly 20 percent of the species that arrived were capable of reproduction. We were able to not only identify this unique suite of species but, in some cases, examine their growth and ability to reproduce which provides useful information on how they fared during their transoceanic voyage.”

Carlton added: “These vast quantities of non-biodegradable debris, potentially acting as novel ocean transport vectors, are of increasing concern given the vast economic cost and environmental impacts documented from the proliferation of marine invasive species around the world,” Carlton said.

Chapman added: “This has turned out to be one of the biggest, unplanned, natural experiments in marine biology, perhaps in history.”

The research was funded by the Ministry of the Environment of Japan through the North Pacific Marine Science Organization, the U.S. National Science Foundation, and Oregon Sea Grant.

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Radioactive ‘pooh sticks’ trace carbon’s ocean journey

By Matt McGrath
17 August 2017
Originally published by BBC News

Radioactive iodine from nuclear reprocessing plants in the UK and France has been detected deep in the waters near Bermuda.

Scientists say the contaminants take a circuitous route travelling via the Arctic Ocean and down past Greenland.

Researchers believe the radioactivity levels are extremely low and present no danger.

However, scientists can use the iodine to accurately map the currents that transport greenhouse gases.

Legally Released

One scientific consequence that arose from the testing of nuclear bombs in the atmosphere in the 1950s was that their radioactive fallout provided a powerful global tracer of water circulation and deep-ocean ventilation.

Other sources of radioactive material for scientists to track water movements have been the nuclear reprocessing plants at Sellafield in the UK and at La Hague in France.

nuclear la hague
Nuclear waste has been vitrified and stored at the La Hague nuclear fuel reprocessing plant. Image copyright: GETTY IMAGES

Contaminants have been legally released from these sites for more than 50 years. One in particular, Iodine-129 (129I), has been very useful for scientists tracing the ocean currents that help pull down greenhouse gases into the waters.

“What we have found is that by tracing radioactive iodine released into the seas off the UK and France, we have been able to confirm how the deep ocean currents flow in the North Atlantic,” said lead researcher Dr John Smith from the Bedford Institute of Oceanography, in Canada.

“This is the first study to show precise and continuous tracking of Atlantic water flowing northward into the Arctic Ocean off Norway, circulating around the arctic basins and returning to the Nordic seas in what we call the ‘Arctic loop’, and then flowing southward down the continental slope of North America to Bermuda at depths below 3000 metres.”

Scientists have used other molecules as tracers, specifically chlorofluorocarbons that were once used in refrigeration. But 129I, which has a half-life of 15.7 millions years, retains the initial imprint of its input history over a long period of time.

Another advantage for researchers is that 129I is relatively easy to detect at extremely low levels.

“In many ways this is a bit like the old ‘stick in a stream’ game we used to play as kids,” said Dr Smith.

“What people call ‘pooh sticks’ in England, where you would drop a buoyant object in the water and observe where it comes out. Of course, it would be much better if these markers were not in the ocean at all, but they are, and we can use them to do some important environmental science.”

This new study is part of an international project called GEOTRACES that uses geochemical markers to follow ocean currents.

The scientists say that 129I has been measured as far south as Puerto Rico, but the expectation is that it will continue to flow southward into the South Atlantic and eventually spread throughout the global ocean.

“The advantage of using 129I as a transient tracer in oceanography is the long half-life of this isotope compared to the circulation times, and the fact that it is largely soluble in seawater,” said Dr Núria Casacuberta Arola from ETH, Zurich, who wasn’t involved with the study.

“Now, major efforts are also devoted to find other artificial radionuclides with similar sources and behaviour than 129I so that the more tools we have, the better we will understand the ocean circulation.”

The research has been presented at the Goldschmidt2017 conference in Paris.

Hypothesis Confirmed: Sea Lion Mass Deaths Caused by Malnutrition

by Alastair Bland
August 2, 2017
Originally published by Hakai Magazine

Meteorologists had never seen anything quite like it—a mass of abnormally warm surface water that overwhelmed much of the northeastern Pacific Ocean for three years starting in late 2013. They called it the Blob.

Within months, thousands of starving sea lion pups began washing ashore along the west coast of the United States. Continue reading Hypothesis Confirmed: Sea Lion Mass Deaths Caused by Malnutrition

Sea cave preserves 5,000-year snapshot of tsunamis

Rutgers University
July 19, 2017
Originally published by EurekAlert!

An international team of scientists digging in a sea cave in Indonesia has discovered the world’s most pristine record of tsunamis, a 5,000-year-old sedimentary snapshot that reveals for the first time how little is known about when earthquakes trigger massive waves. Continue reading Sea cave preserves 5,000-year snapshot of tsunamis

The wasting of the stars: A look into the largest ocean epidemic in recorded history

By Peter Arcuni
July 18, 2017
Originally published in Peninsula Press
Audio report

In June 2013, Steve Fradkin hiked the rugged coast of Washington State’s Olympic National Park to count the stars. In the summertime, the lowest tides expose the slippery rocks of the intertidal zone from daybreak until noon. Perfect conditions for spotting Pisaster ochraceus, the five-armed purple, orange and red sea stars common to Pacific waters along the western edge of the United States. Continue reading The wasting of the stars: A look into the largest ocean epidemic in recorded history