Sperm whales are the particular focus of this study. The population of sperm whales in the Southern Ocean (the waters around Antarctica) is thought to be about 12,000. (There are more sperm whales in the world, but the study looked at Southern Ocean sperm whales.) Those 12,000 whales are thought to put about 200,000 metric tons of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year. That’s about the same amount that 40,000 passenger cars contribute each year. Destroy those polluting whales, right?
Wrong! See, it turns out that these sperm whales are also responsible for the removal of 400,000 metric tons of CO2 each year, making up for the amount they produce two times over. Their secret is this: they poop iron.
They don’t only poop iron, but sperm whales poop a lot of iron—each whale is thought to defecate about 50 metric tons of iron each year. That’s over 300 pounds a day! Obviously the whales aren’t pooping out solid iron ingots, though. It’s mixed in with their liquid feces. And that’s important.
The whales themselves don’t remove those 400,000 tons of CO2. They’re removed by phytoplankton. Phytoplankton are microscopic organisms that, like plants, use sunlight and CO2 to build their bodies. And they feed on iron.
The whales have lots of iron in their diets, because of the large amounts of fish and squid they eat. So the iron-rich whale poop is an ideal nutrient for phytoplankton. When the phytoplankton dies, the carbon they contain falls to the bottom of the ocean instead of being released back into the atmosphere. Where more carbon is trapped than is released back into the atmosphere, it’s called a “carbon sink,” and that’s what whale poop and phytoplankton create in the Southern Ocean.
Other parts of the ocean may naturally contain more iron for phytoplankton, but the Southern Ocean is poor in the nutrient, and the microorganisms rely on an iron cycle that the whales apparently play a large part in. More whales, greater carbon sink. Fewer whales, less whale poop, more atmospheric carbon.
Coincidentally, the International Whaling Commission will be meeting next week, to discuss regulations on how many whales can be harvested from the oceans each year. It’s a complicated world, isn’t it?
*I thought about making the headline “Whale poop is ‘green’” but… yuck.
Courtesy Smithsonian Ocean Portal
Today marks the 100th birthday of the late, great ocean explorer and visionary Jacques Cousteau. How many remember watching “The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau” on TV—either as a kid or with their kids? For many of us in the 1960s and 70s, a Cousteau TV special was a major event that brought the whole family together. His programs were how we first came to love and appreciate the marine world and see the effects of human actions. Cousteau was truly ahead of his time, and his conservation ethic is needed more than ever as we tackle problems like climate change, overfishing, pollution, and—of course—the devastating oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
We can draw inspiration from his example and take steps to help the ocean. Some of the most important actions you can take involve making changes in your own home, driveway, and workplace. The newly launched Smithsonian Ocean Portal is an award-winning website designed to help people connect with the ocean and “Find Their Blue.” More than 20 organizations have joined forces to build this site as a way to inspire and engage more people in ocean science and issues. Why not start today, as a birthday gift to Cousteau?
Tell us how he inspired you and learn more about sharks and squids, coral reefs, the deep ocean, the Gulf oil spill, and much more. Dive in and explore!
Colleen Marzec, Managing Producer
Smithsonian Ocean Portal
Courtesy limonadaSeveral species of snakes seem to be in decline according to a study published in the journal Biology Letters. The most abrupt change took place right around 1998 and scientists are stumped as to what happened at that particular time that could have caused such a worldwide drop in snake population. Some of you may be happy to hear this news since snakes aren’t very highly regarded by most humans. But the slithery reptiles are one of the top predators of their kind, and scientists fear a diminished population would no doubt upset the ecological balance.
Seventeen populations of snake comprised of eight different species were in the study, and in most cases it didn’t seem to matter where on Earth they were located.
"Two-thirds of the monitored populations collapsed, and none have shown any sign of recovery over nearly a decade since the crash,” the researchers reported. The most affected species were opportunistic foragers - the proverbial “snakes in the grass” that wait in hiding for unsuspecting prey to pass by. The more active hunters showed less of a decline. Only one “sit and wait” forager species bucked the trend – the tiger snake (Notechis scutatus) which lives on a small island off the coast of Australia, showed little change in its population over the period of study. The researchers think the isolation of its location could be a factor.
“It surprised us when we realized what we were looking at," said team leader Chris Reading of the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology in Great Britain. Researchers from several other countries were also involved in the study, and although they haven’t pinpointed what was going on in 1998 to trigger such a decline –it could be environmental or climate related or disease, or something completely unknown at the moment. But since it affected snake populations around the globe they suggest that it’s probably from a single cause.
I was just sent this link with some amazing photos of the BP oil spill.
They certainly provide a vibrant visual sense of the disaster.
One website, DeepWaterHorizonResponse.com, combines information from multiple official sources.
Courtesy ARTiFactor Social media techniques are being applied in response to the 2010 BP oil spill disaster. The site is being maintained by British Petroleum, Transocean, the U.S. Coast Guard, the National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, and the U.S. Department of Interior.
Front and center is a Flickr slideshow hosted by U.S. Coast Guard Eighth District External Affairs. In the right column is a list of "latest information" links to news items and also PDFs and Word documents describing dispersants, booms and skimmers, and many "how to ..." tasks like reporting oil soaked wildlife or submitting claims for damages.
I wish to thank ReadWriteWeb for pointing me toward this site.
The site allows you to register for updates. It also provides numbers to call for oiled wildlife, to report oil spill related damage, to report oiled shoreline, to request volunteer information or to submit alternative response technology, services or products.
Courtesy planetschwaI only say that because the Count doesn’t seem to have a lot of ambitions beyond counting, which he loves, and because I think vampires and vampire puppets live a really long time, and whoever takes the job I have in mind will need lots of time. Because there’s plenty of counting to be done. Lots and lots.
Everyone is census–crazy these days, marine biologists included. Scientists are working on a Census of Marine Life—an attempt to classify and quantify all the life in the world’s oceans. Counting all the whales and mermaids and fish and things would be hard enough, but most of the life in the sea is much smaller than that, and it has to be counted too. So the Census of Marine Life has four departments focusing on the itty-bitties of the sea; microbes, zooplankton, larvae, and “burrowers in the sea bed” (like little worms and things.)
More than 2,000 scientists have worked on the census over the course of the last ten years. More than 5,000 new forms of marine life have been discovered, and researchers think there may still be several times that number still waiting to be found. The research is also changing the view of the deepest parts of the ocean from a harsh, and nearly lifeless wasteland to the sort of vibrant, living seascape you’d want to send your kids to on an educational field trip (if they didn’t drown and get crushed by the extreme pressure). Thousands of species can live in a very small area, with huge numbers of individuals—one sample found over half a million worms in a square yard of deep-sea mud. 500,000 worms! That’s like the Count’s dream!
Their sheer numbers are what make these organisms so significant to the global ecosystem. Ocean microbes, for instance, often too small to be seen by the naked eye, are estimated to have a population of about one nonillion. A nonillion, as the article puts it, is “1,000 times 1 billion, times 1 billion, times 1 billion.” Or, as I put it, it is 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000. Or, as the Count will put it, “One microbe! Two microbes! Three microbes! Four microbes!” Anyway… That number of microbes weighs about the same as 240 billion African elephants, and each microbe in that mass is decomposing organic material, or creating waste, or photosynthesizing, or getting eaten by other organisms… It’s a highly complex and totally massive system, and life on the planet depends on it, so as strange (or hopeless) as counting it may seem at first, it’s an important job.
It's not every day that I agree with the NYTimes' John Tierney. But today, I do. He offers up seven rules for a new breed of environmentalist: the "Turq."
"No, that’s not a misspelling. The word is derived from Turquoise, which is Stewart Brand’s term for a new breed of environmentalist combining traditional green with a shade of blue, as in blue-sky open-minded thinking. A Turq, he hopes, will be an environmentalist guided by science, not nostalgia or technophobia."
Check out the rules. Are you a Turq? Does any of Tierney's advice surprise you?
Courtesy Cornelia Kopp
Jon Foley, of the University of Minnesota's Institute on the Environment, has similar advice. "There are no silver bullets," he says. "But there is silver buckshot."
Human activities, rather than nature, are now the driving force of change on the planet. And experts say that there will be nine billion of us on the planet by 2050. Making sure that we all have the chance to survive and thrive will require a lot of innovation, and a lot of blue-sky thinking. Who's up for the challenge?
Look what's happening down at the nanoscale! Affordable hydrogen power just got a step closer.
Mississippi River peaks Wed. March 24, 2010 at Harriet Island Saint Paul, MN.
Water affects every aspect of our lives, yet nearly one billion people around the world don't have clean drinking water, and 2.6 billion still lack basic sanitation. World Water Day, celebrated annually on March 22, was established by the United Nations in 1992 and focuses attention on the world's water crisis, as well as the solutions to address it. waterday.org