Saturday, 21 April 2012

Giant swirl, tiny swirl - the dancing sea

Simulation of oil spread by Gulf Stream
Giant swirl, big swirl, tiny swirl - the ocean is full of these. Their dance carries heat, salt, nutrients, plankton, pollutants, debris ... all over the globe.

It's about fifty years ago that marine scientists, oceanographers started to find out about these swirly movements (geostrophic turbulence [1]) hundred and fifty  years after they started to map the big persistent current at the east coast of North America, the Gulf Stream. Most ocean currents look much different then this big stream of water, which is moving steadily across the widths of the sea.

 [1] "Geostrophic trubrulence is the chaotic, non-linear motion of fluids that are near the state of geostrophic and hydrostatic balance." (Peter B. Rhines 1979, Annual Review of Fluid Mechanics Vol. 11: 401-441)

There are several of these visible streams out there; they are powerful and dramatic – be it the Gulf Stream in the Northern Atlantic or the Kuroshio (黒潮 "Black Tide") in the North Pacific. These currents, focused by an effect of the rotation of the earth stting the geostrophic balance, are mainly found at the east coasts of the continents moving poleward, and are the western branch auf the giant swirl covering the width of the ocean basin. In general the ocean water movements are  much more like a wavy drift of swirly  They may be persisting rings of the Agulhas Current shed off south of Cape Hope or they are just transient features, sometimes forming more or less repetitive patterns. 
Dust plume off the Sahara desert over the Atlantic Ocean.
SeaWiFS satellite picture 
The ocean is agitated as we feel and know it from the atmospheres. Storms, winds, breezes, gusts we know. They come with ever changing directions. They carry leaves, dust, smell or pollution over wide distances. Dust from the Sahara can be found over the North Atlantic far off the African coast.   The sea is the same, to a fair degree – a bit more gentle, a bit less up and down. Flows are more in the horizontal plane. Some swirls, Gulf Stream Rings, are persistent and mighty like storm systems in the atmosphere.  Other swirls are short-lived, transient and fade away. 

Plankton bloom in the Baltic Sea
(Satellite picture published by BBC 23rd July 2010) 
If conditions are right; river inflow of tannin fresh water or phytoplankton blooms render these swirls visible, even the tiny ones. Modern observation techniques, satellites and floats allow to measure them and to show the dance of the giant swirls, big swirls, and tiny swirls.

Often a swirl is are made of water having a slightly different composition, salinity, temperature or nutrients then the neighbouring swirl. This  then may go together with different marine life  [*], which often flourishes best at the border zone between swirls.   

Recently NASA has given the public a fascinating, realistic show (Video) of the surface currents of the world ocean – an global sea full of giant swirls, big swirls, tiny swirls of overwhelming beauty; modern computers rendered this animated show technical feasible [2]. These swirly currents carry water, salt, heat, debris, pollution... over the globe, from one swirl to the next. These swirly movements may dilute, but often they carry substances over wide distances and gather them in places, if the conditions are right.  Thus floating plastic debris are found accumulated in the mid of the ocean or are carried over the width of the Pacific  [**], as shown by the sneaker drift .

[2] NASA "This visualization shows ocean surface currents around the world during the period from June 2005 through December 2007. The visualization does not include a narration or annotations; the goal was to use ocean flow data to create a simple, visceral experience"

The East Anglian plume an
 sediments along the shoreline  of Belgium and Holland.
River outflow follows closely the coast, bringing nutrients that may support coastal ecosystems and fishing grounds. The river outflow may mark coastal seas with sediments, or in worst conditions lay a band of pollution along the coast.

Mixing in the sea is slow, slower as one believes seeing the waves hitting the shore. The stabilizing effects of earth rotation and topography keep waters together in bands and swirls, so that there distinct constituencies are kept.  The outflow of radionuclide of the nuclear wast processing plants in France (Le Hague) and UK (Sellaflield) can be traced following the European coast [***] up into the Baltic Sea .  

Pollutants coming down Thames, Rhine and Elbe river goes north and is found in the Arctic waters of the Barents Sea. Among those pollutants are PCB (polychlorinated biphenyls), which are causing reproduction problems in ice bears. These chemical substances discharged into the river water in small quantities, get accumulated in marine life, from plankton to seals. Finally, going up the food-chain, they end in ice bears or humans, which are hunting and eating seals or Arctic fish.

Deep layers of salty water flowing out of the Mediterranean Sea move north along the European shelf break finally into the Greenland Sea. The salt it brings to the Sub-Arctic from the Mediterranean ease the winterly formation of deep water at the surfcae. When the sea is cooled at the surface and freezing sets in then the sea surface water gets heavy and may dive kilometre deep to the bottom of the sea leaving heat and plastic debris at the surface but carrying heat, salt, oxygene and pollutants into the depth of the Ocean. Form there the dance of giant swirl, big swirl and tiny swirl - now in the interior and depth of the sea but as like as at the surface - carry heat, salt, oxygene and polutants around the globe; a never ending dance.

[*] from Wikipedia: "Warm core rings are known to have lower primary productivity than surrounding cold waters. Agulhas Rings are no exception, and have been observed to carry waters with low chlorophyll-a concentration water into the South Atlantic... removing larval and juvenile fish from the continental shelf. This removal of young fish can result in a reduced Anchovy catch in the Benguela system if a ring passes through the fishery."

[**] from EOS, Transactions, American Geophysical Union  Vol. 88, No. 1, 2 January 2007: "In 1992, a cargo container of children’s bath toys fell overboard in the middle North Pacific Ocean. Subsequently, 29,000 toys were tracked 4,000 kilometres to south-eastern Alaska... toys stranded on shorelines around the Subarctic Gyre, a planetary vortex the size of the United States."

[***] "Radionuclides (99Tc, 125Sb, 90Sr, 137Cs) discharged from La Hague in France have been used to trace advection and dispersion of water masses in the “European Coastal Current” from the English Channel to the Baltic...  It is concluded, that 10% of the La Hague discharge is transported through Kattegat... This coastal transport is important when contaminant transport is monitored." (Radioactive tracers as a tool in coastal oceanography: An overview of the MAST-52 project H. Dahlgaard  Journal of Marine Systems Volume 6, Issues 5–6, November 1995, Pages 381–389)

Saturday, 14 April 2012

Protecting Deep Sea Biodiversity too

Europe, or more specific the European Union, has its strategy for biodiversity, NATURA 2000. Political language used by EU Member States reflects understanding of thread to biodiversity and actions needed to mitigate loss of biodiversity.  However concrete actions on the ground, and particular in the sea lag behind and integration with other politics is much improvable, so judgement of campaigners and press.

Fish ruler poster - here for Gambia
Rising public awareness for protecting endangered marine fish species is making ground in developed countries [1] as well as in developing world, but much more is at risk of the coast in the deep ocean.  

The European Union has met the target of the Nagoya Protocol - signed by the states which adhered to the Convention on Biological Diversity - for protected areas on land.

Environmentally protected areas, about 2500 sites, make 18% of the territory of the European Union;  the target of Nagoya Protocol is 17%. However protected coastal or marine areas total just to about 4% of the EU marine area [2].

Big difference between EU Members Sates are found regarding areas covered by management plans or not. The part of areas for which management plans are established is ranging from more than 95% for Sweden to less than 15% for Ireland, Greece or Spain  [3].  

Satellite picture (published by BBC 23rd July 2010) 
Lag of funding seems to be a main cause, although research has demonstrated that protecting biodiversity, keeping natural environments intact, and even re-naturalization of is economically beneficial. For example, re-naturalization of bogs around the Baltic Sea would be an effective and economic means to reduce nutrient input the Baltic Sea that is causing algal blooms, sometimes toxic, and oxygen deficits in the Baltic Sea - that may extend over a vast area as shown in the picture of  central Baltic.  

"Reefs off Rockall Island"
Picture taken from article by D. Derbyshire - Mail Online 20th February 2010:
"UK's stunning cold water reefs in danger of being smashed to pieces"
Currently and on global scale, the fraction of marine areas protected under the Convention on Biological Diversity is only 2%; mostly in coastal and shelf seas. Little is done for the open, deep sea although we know quite well about most endangered species in the open sea. But there is more to protect but some species; just as at land areas need protection to safeguard habitats and specific ecosystems -  for example "cold-water coral reefs". Lack of firm empirical base arguing the case to protect a large  area and strong pressure to keep unhindered access to valuable resources possibly is the reason.  

The Convention on Biological Diversity opened in 2010 the opportunity to identify “Ecological or Biological Significant Areas” (EBSA) and to propose these to intergovernmental organizations for protection because of their importance to ecosystem functioning. But a firm management plan of the EBSA would not be required to establish an EBSA, what should ease much agreeing on such areas, although protecting without managing protection seems vain. EBSA  should contain for example unique, rare or endemic creatures and /or habitats, or should have high biological productivity or high biological diversity.

Scientists, at a recent workshop about EBSA in the north-east Atlantic, identified Hatton-Rockhall bank west of Ireland and Scotland as a top candidate  – about 260.000 km of deep sea environment. Scientists have developed a three-tiers approach for managing an EBSA; an approach that combines fully protected areas, areas with regulated use and unprotected areas.

Post stamp featuring petrels
The Hatton-Rockhall bank area is a prime candidate because it is partly heavily fished, needs precautionary bottom-fisheries closures, hosts specific habitats including fragile cold-water coral reefs as well as feeding grounds for bird such as petrels.

("The European Storm-petrel or Storm Petrel (Hydrobates pelagicus) is a small bird of the storm-petrel family, Hydrobatidae, part of the seabird order Procellariiformes. It lives on inaccessible islands in the north Atlantic and western Mediterranean, with the core population in western Ireland, northwest Scotland and the Faroe Islands, where the worldwide biggest colony breeds. It nests in colonies close to the sea in burrows or rock crevices and lays a single white egg.")

[1] RTL "Often, the fish that end up in the trawl nets are too young: 92% of the flounders caught in the North Sea are smaller than permitted by EU laws. These fish are caught before they have a chance to reproduce, which puts the ecosystem at risk. And even fish which comply with the sizes mandated by the EU have not always reached reproductive majority: for instance, cod may be caught as soon as it is 35 cm long, but doesn't become sexually mature until it has reached a length of 68 cm. German fish currently not regarded as endangered are the herring, sprat and pollock."

[3]  see also Mundus Maris for information beyond Europe 

[3] data from article by Dave Keating

Sunday, 8 April 2012

Blue Planet under pressure

What about we started the Anthropocene now? Human economic activity is now so strong that it is driving this planet into a new geological age.

“Human domination of earth's ecosystems” was a title two decades ago of a scientific article by P.M. Vitousek and co-workers. Since then much more evidence has been gathered showing that our daily activities gathered such force that they drive the globe in the same manner as ordinary natural process do. The size of human population, its appetite for natural resources, and the speed turning these around transform landscape, ecosystems and global biogeochemical cycles for, e.g. carbon, nitrogen, water or our wastes. 

In addition we consume directly about 20% of the global primary production -  the marine fishery example “Modern fisheries, including both landings and by-catch, currently consume 24-35% of global marine primary production in the continental shelf and major up-welling areas, corresponding closely to recent estimates that humans now appropriate roughly one quarter of the land's potential net primary production as well. Humans are thus the dominant marine predator on earth... meaning that they [fisheries stocks] are being harvested at rates estimated to be near their maximum sustainable limit, 24% are over-exploited [*] or depleted, meaning that they are being harvested at rates not sustainable in the long term, and 1% are considered to be recovering from depletion.” (J.E. Duffy, Marine Biodiversity and Food;  earthportal, quoted: 8th April 2012). 

This experience calls for global stewardship, going well beyond biodiversity concerns because most of our economic use of  the planet's resources is undertaken in a stone-age like manner - "search, find and, gather" - as in modern marine fishery;  or at best  as "slash, burn and grow", as done once in neolithic agriculture, or nowadays for oil.  However, many local settings or restricted use-cases of sustainable use are  found,  evidently most often for activities for which we care because of our cultural, social or economic value systems. It is understood that lasting,  sustainable use of resources requires binding these value systems into one balanced set to guide our practice to the best of our knowledge.

In the pressure cooker

Gathering for the conference “Planet under Pressure” - 26th-29th March London - to argue how to make best if that unprecedented situation our peers published the “State of the Planet Declaration" [2]:
  • Research demonstrates that the continued functioning of the Earth system as it has supported the well-being of human civilization in recent centuries is at risk. Without action, we could face threats to water, food, biodiversity and other critical resources: these threats risk intensifying economic, ecological and social crises, creating the potential for a humanitarian emergency on a global scale.
  • In one lifetime our increasingly interconnected and interdependent economic, social, cultural and political systems have come to place pressures on the environment that may cause fundamental changes in the Earth system and move us beyond safe natural boundaries. But the same interconnectedness provides the potential for solutions: new ideas can form and spread quickly, creating the momentum for the major transformation required for a truly sustainable planet.
  • The defining challenge of our age is to safeguard Earth's natural processes to ensure the well-being of civilization while eradicating poverty, reducing conflict over resources, and supporting human and ecosystem health.
  • As consumption accelerates everywhere and world population rises, it is no longer sufficient to work towards a distant ideal of sustainable development. Global sustainability must become a foundation of society. It can and must be part of the bedrock of nation states and the fabric of societies.

  What's on stage - one?

Curiously, the global process are less visible to us; we, as citizen in our daily life, cannot grasp easily the sheers size of our human activities. What does it mean people consuming annually about 91.000 TerraWattHours energy? What does it mean that global primary production is about half terrestrial and half marine and we consume directly about a fifth of it?

Science, research and reason based choices can handle these complexities; and modern societies that have a science base could grasp them through their educational systems. Local, traditional knowledge based societies, although they miss the global scale, they have a way of functioning in which the need to nurture commons is a self-evident behaviour and thus stewardship comes naturally. Between these two poles there is a range of societies in which poverty ravages and thus neither caring of commons  nor understanding the global picture is an evident option.

Thus it is to acknowledge: 

“Humanity's impact on the Earth system has become comparable to planetary-scale geological processes such as ice ages. Consensus is growing that we have driven the planet into a new epoch, the Anthropocene, in which many Earth-system processes and the living fabric of ecosystems are now dominated by human activities.”  

“These insights demand a new perception of responsibilities and accountability of nation states to support planetary stewardship. A crucial transformation is to move away from income as the key constituent of well-being and to develop new indicators that measure actual improvements in well-being at all scales. Equity in opportunities to improve well-being and eradication of poverty at the individual level will also play pivotal roles in the transition towards planetary stewardship.”

 What's on stage -  two? 

The global village is emerging rapidly, and it gets visible - least on this side of the digital divide. As villagers we know about our neighbours; their deeds, strengths and failures. As villagers we may hate each other, but even then we are bundled into one undertaking. Villagers know that they are bound to work together, or fail, in particular to face the challenges of the environment - be it on the fields of the Nile valley or keeping  local fishery communities prosperous. The village is a interconnected system of surprising complexity; mutual assistance and caring is possible as well as destructive run-away reactions.  The risk for the latter rises in the global village.

Thus, opportunities and risks:

“The Earth system is a complex, interconnected system that includes the global economy and society, which are themselves highly interconnected and interdependent. Such systems can confer remarkable stability and facilitate rapid innovation. But they are also susceptible to abrupt and rapid changes and crises, such as global financial meltdowns or the volatility of the global food system.”

"A commitment to the proposal for universal Sustainable Development Goals is needed, as goals for Global Sustainability. These should be developed to take account of the synergies and trade-offs in and between areas such as food, water and energy security, maintenance of biodiversity and ecosystem services, sustainable urbanisation, social inclusion and livelihoods, protection of seas and oceans, and sustainable consumption and production."  

 What's on stage -  three?  

Our blue planet through the eyes of Venus
Monetary value is key to have built a global network of exchange of goods and services. Maximising monetary value is the main driver in our societies to reduce process inefficiency. It locked appealingly simple and worked convincingly if applied to local problems, as long as side effects could be externalised, following the "the solution to pollution is dilution" - approach; but that got stuck as "your solution is my pollution". There is the end to dilution. Thus, simplicity of optimised single value driven choices does not work any more; wider, multivalue concepts are needed.

Thus, value and action:

“Recognition of the monetary and non-monetary values of public goods such as ecosystem services, education, health and global common resources such as the oceans and the atmosphere. These must be properly factored into management and decision-making frameworks at the national and sub-national levels to ensure that economic activities do not impose external costs on the global commons. Corrective measures that internalize costs and minimize the impacts on the commons need to be identified and implemented through regulatory and market-based mechanisms.”

“Our highly interconnected global society has the potential to innovate rapidly. The international scientific community must rapidly reorganize to focus on global sustainability solutions. We must develop a new strategy for creating and rapidly translating knowledge into action, which will form part of a new contract between science and society, with commitments from both sides.”

One, two,  three  - go!

We acknowledge that humanity's activities form now a planet-scale geological process, starting the Anthropocene. WE will keep it functioning - for our survival in the pressure cooker. Global stewardship will take care of the globe and its commons, of  reason based choices favouring social inclusion, knowledge and participation.

[*] link added into quote; [text in italic is quoted from declaration]