The Glowing Waters of the Arabian Sea are Killing off Ocean Life

“The fish are migrating. They can’t get enough air here.” — Saleh al-Mashari, captain of a researcher vessel in the Gulf of Oman

*****

They are an ancient, primordial race of tiny organisms called noctiluca scintillans. And for millenia they have lived undisturbed in the deep waters between Oman and India. But as human fossil fuel burning forced the world to warm, this 1.2 billion year old species was dredged up from the deep.

Growing atmospheric and ocean heat fed the great storms that make up India’s southern monsoon. And as these storms intensified, they churned the waters of the Gulf of Oman, drawing the ancient noctiluca scintillans up from below. As these dinoflaggelates reached the surface they encountered more food in the form of plankton even as they gained access to more sunlight. Meanwhile, the strengthening monsoons seeded surface waters with nutrients flushed down rivers and streams and into the ocean.

(Noctiluca blooms have become a common feature of the Gulf of Oman and the Arabian Sea. They have also recently appeared off New Zealand, Tasmania, and Hong Kong. Such blooms are a result of warmer waters, more intense storms, related increasing rates of soil nutrients flushing into the oceans due to more intense rainfall events, and other conditions consistent with human-caused climate change. Image source: FaHaD.)

In this newly favorable environment, noctiluca subsequently bloomed. Covering the ocean in a green mat by day and an oddly iridescent blue when disturbed by the waves at night.

Phytoplankton are the base of the marine food chain and noctiluca has been voraciously devouring this key nutrient source over a Mexico-sized stretch of ocean water during recent years. As the noctiluca blooms expanded, they emitted toxins and an ammonia smell that some in the region are calling sea stench. And as the great mats died and decayed, they have robbed the surrounding waters of oxygen.

As a result, mass fish kills have been reported and much of the local sea life has fled the region.

March 2, 2017, image from the NASA MODIS satellite,  shows a mass of noctiluca scintillans blooms in the Arabian Sea off the coast of Oman extending past Pakistan to India.  (Image source: NASA and USGS, via AP)

Earth’s environment usually changes slowly, over the course of thousands or tens of thousands of years. In the past, this has given life a chance to adjust. But the human-caused climate change that is spurring the massive noctiluca blooms in the Arabian Sea is bringing on these new conditions over the mere course of a few decades. Thirty years ago, there was no visible trace of noctiluca in the waters of the Gulf of Oman and Arabian Sea. Now, they have come to dominate.

The oceans beneath the noctiluca mats are now increasingly robbed of life. Oxygen levels are plummeting. The fish can’t breathe there. And one wonders if or when a dangerous and deadly follow-on of hydrogen sulfide producing microbes will begin to spread up from the bottom regions of these oxygen starved waters.

Links:

Growing Algae Bloom in the Arabian Sea Tied to Climate Change

FaHaD

Noctiluca Scintillans

NASA

Hydrogen Sulfide in the World’s Warming Waters

Hat tip to Andy in San Diego

Hat tip to Mulga

Advertisements

The Killer Seas Begin — Mass Marine Death off Chile as Ocean Acidification Begins to Take Down Florida’s Reef

We should be very clear. There is no way to save the beautiful and majestic coral reefs of our world without a rapid cessation of fossil fuel burning. And, if we continue burning fossil fuels, we will not only lose the reefs and corals — we will also turn the world’s oceans into a mass extinction engine.

Chile Mass Sea Life Die Off

(Masses of dead sea life wash up onto Chile’s shores after the worst red tide in history for that nation. As we witness the tragic carnage in Chile, we should remember that the red tide there, the mass coral bleaching in the Great Barrier Reef of Australia, and the onset of ocean acidification damage to the Florida Reef are all linked by the same thread — fossil fuel burning and a related heating up of the global climate. Image source: Largest Red Tide in Chilean History.)

Mass Extinction Driven by the Awful Engine of Greed

Killer Seas. That’s what we’re turning the world’s oceans into in our allowing the fossil fuel industry to retain dominance over the world’s energy sources. In allowing them to continue to keep us captive to the burning of high carbon fuels through their corrupting and pervasive political and economic power. We certainly bear some of the blame for apathetically allowing ourselves to be hood-winked and lead about by the noses. But we shouldn’t fault ourselves too much. For the blame mostly rests within the policy-making apparatuses of dominance-based economic systems and in the very few individuals around the world who now hold the keys to that power.

An enforced global injustice set in place by wealthy individuals like the Koch Brothers, Rupert Murdoch and Warren Buffet  — who through a corrupt monetary influence regularly hijack the political process to protect legacy fossil fuel assets and to assault renewable energy industries. Those like the members of the governing board of Exxon Mobile — who have waged a decades-long campaign to misinform the public on the dangers of human-caused climate change. These so-called global elites are the authors of the climate change denial that has now crippled and deeply divided most legislative bodies around the world. The same fossil fuel drug pushers who’ve worked so hard to keep the global economic system addicted to the most damaging and corrupting of energy sources — oil, gas and coal.

These people are the real monsters of the climate crisis. The ones who, often without any kind of visibility or accountability, have done everything they can to ensure that we, the people of an ailing Earth, have less and less power to make the right decisions and to form the kind of political consensus that would actually provide a pathway to leading us out of this worsening global nightmare. And so, whether we individually realize it now or not, we are in the fight of our lives — what is likely to be the most important struggle for justice that the human race has ever undertaken. For as difficult as such a fight will ultimately be — we must fight the fossil fuel interests and win if human civilization and much of life on Earth is to survive.

The Advent of Killer Seas

I don’t usually talk about religion here in this blog. And I’m not what many people would consider to be a religious person. I do not, for example, attend church very often. Nor do I tend to agree with many so-called religious authorities — whom I often see as short-sighted and relying too much on mythical and dogmatic beliefs that are at best failures in logic and at worst the outgrowths of institutional corruption or general backwards-thinking and small-mindedness. But in this particular case — in the case of the killer seas that are starting to plague our world — I cannot help but to often be struck by how one of the deadly sins that the Bible warns of is resulting in so much terrible harm to the Earth, to its creatures, and to her people. And it is impossible to turn away from the clear-sighted and beautifully written moral imperative laid down by the Pope Francis in his Encyclical. A warning that we should all heed and not turn our eyes from.

Nothing is frozen by Miep

(Nothing is Frozen — by Miep. This is what happens when the world loses its ice — Killer Seas. Image source: There are So Many Things Wrong With This.)

For in the book of Revelation, the Bible speaks of a terrible global disaster. One that begins when the seas turn blood-red and a third of all the fish are killed. Many have interpreted this book, this passage, as a kind of inevitable wrath of a literal God coming down from heaven to divide and punish the human race. But I think that this is a false interpretation. A loving, nurturing God is not a God of Wrath. No, that does not ring true to me at all. I think of this passage, this book, instead as a kind of stark warning against the direct and deadly consequences of bad actions. Of what happens to us if we succumb to what the Bible identifies as the sin of greed. For ‘the love of money is the root of all evil.’

The Bible is, after all, a sort of lore of the ancients passed down over hundreds of generations. A book of parables and lessons for how human beings should treat one another in ways that help not only individuals — but the entire race to survive. In this way, the Bible could be seen as an ancient guide for civilization survival. A book that includes numerous passages on how cities and nations can prosper by living in balance with one another and with nature. And one that issues this essential and stark warning to those who do not treat the Earth and her creatures with kindness. For ‘those who destroy the Earth shall be destroyed.’

Well, we’ve already destroyed 2/3 the globe’s predatory fish that humans eat through over-fishing alone. But the kind of ocean-wrecking destruction of callously-over-fishing pales in comparison to what happens when the short-sighted protection of money in the form of ‘legacy fossil fuel assets’ forces the dumping of billions of tons of toxic carbon into the world’s airs and waters. If you do that, then the ocean really does turn blood-red and purple-red. If you do that, you unleash the mass extinction machine that was the killing mechanism in four of the five great die offs in Earth’s deep history. You begin to temp the fates by invoking the names Permian, Triassic, Devonian, and Ordovician. And if you allow the fossil fuel powers to keep on doing it for the sake of their imagined wealth, then you make the oceans so acidic that the skeletons of the fragile and yet ever-so-beautiful and necessary creatures living within the world’s waters dissolve.

Florida’s Coral Reefs Start to Dissolve

Here, we’ve frequently warned of the two-pronged threat posed to global coral reefs as a result of human fossil fuel burning. In the south, as oceans heat up due to fossil fuel emissions, coral bleaching begins to take hold. Becoming more pervasive as temperatures rise into a range between 1 and 2 C above preindustrial averages, by the 2030s about 90 percent of the world’s reefs will fall under threat of ghosting away into whiteness.

This year, we saw some of these stark consequences begin to unfold as the Great Barrier Reef suffered a horrific bleaching event. This kind of event was predicted and expected by ocean researchers. Brave scientists who acted as modern-day prophets in their issuing of warnings to Australian and global governments. Governments which are now, in so many cases, stacked to the gills (due to the corrupting influence of fossil fuel money mentioned earlier) with the political extremists we today call climate change deniers.

The second prong of the threat to global reefs comes in the form of ocean acidification spreading down from the north. Because waters in northern regions of the world are colder, they are able to take in more of the excess greenhouse gasses produced. As more carbon is drawn into these colder waters, their acidity increases to the point that ocean organisms with calcium carbonate skeletons begin to see those skeletons dissolve. And corals are one of many key ocean organisms that possess calcium carbonate skeletal structures.

Carysfort Reef Dissolved Due to Ocean Acidification

(A global ocean acidification front resulting from a rampant burning of fossil fuels is starting to dissolve higher latitude reef systems. The Carysfort Reef — above — has had numerous coral structures completely dismembered due to ocean acidification creeping into this section of the Florida Reef. Image source: Science Daily.)

Until recently, the threat of ocean acidification to reef systems was still thought to be at least a couple of decades off. And many mainstream scientists believed that acidification would not seriously threaten corals until the 2050s. Unfortunately, a new study has found that the United States’ only large reef — stretching from Biscayne Bay to the Looe Key National Marine Sanctuary in the Atlantic Ocean — is now starting to waste away due to ocean acidification. A surprising event that researchers are saying is disturbing, unprecedented, and unexpectedly soon.

According to a recent article in National Geographic:

University of Miami scientists called the collapse of the reef’s limestone framework, a critical habitat for fish, “unprecedented” and “cause for alarm.” “Lots of scientists think that ocean acidification is not going to be a problem until 2050 or 2060,” says Chris Langdon, a marine biology professor at the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science. “This is happening now. We’ve just lost 35 years we thought we had to turn things around.”

In essence, the reef is wasting away. During the Spring and Summer, reef-building corals bloom and produce the calcium carbonate (limestone) structure that is the body of the Florida Reef. During Fall and Winter, however, reef building activity halts and the newly acidified water begins to take limestone away. The study found that the rate of loss now exceeds the rate of gain. The corals aren’t able to keep up, the reef has reached a tipping point, and the limestone structures the corals rely on for life is dissolving.

The Florida Reef is one of the highest Latitude coral reef structures in the world. But if it is starting to succumb to ocean acidification now, it means the progress of the acidification front is presently, during 2016, starting to enter regions the corals inhabit. If fossil fuel burning continues and atmospheric CO2 concentrations — this year peaking at around 408 parts per million at the Mauna Loa Observatory — continue to rise, it won’t be long before a growing portion of the world’s reefs begin to succumb to effects similar to those now destroying the Florida Reef.

And while coral bleaching is a condition that reefs have at least some chance to recover from, acidification is inevitably lethal. Once a certain oceanic carbon concentration is reached, acidification impacts the reef for 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, robbing it of the very skeletal structures necessary for coral survival. And since about 1/4 of all the fish in all the world’s oceans (not just the large, predatory fish we eat) rely on coral reef systems for their own life-giving habitats, the loss of coral reefs would truly be a disaster of biblical proportion.

Hot Pacific Ocean Runs Bloody off the Coast of Chile

Back during March, another lethal ocean condition associated with a warming of the world’s waters began to appear in the ocean zone off the southern coast of Chile. There, a massive algae bloom spread over a region where sea surface temperatures were ranging between 1 and 3 C hotter than normal.

Chile Sea Surface Temperatures

(Abnormally warm sea surface temperatures driven by human forced climate change sparked a the largest red tide ever witnessed off the coast of Chile. The image above shows sea surface temperature anomalies as recorded in late March of 2016 by Earth Nullschool.)

The algae bloom — called a red tide — generated toxic levels of domoic acid that subsequently killed off massive amounts of clams, fish, and even marine mammals. Beaches across Chile were littered with dead sea creatures and Chilean officials are now saying that the current red tide is the worst ever to occur off Chile.

The red tide forced Chilean officials to ground the nation’s fishing fleets — sparking mass riots and protests as thousands of poor fishermen lost access to their means of generating a livelihood. The Chilean government has since offered 150 million dollars in aid to the fishermen. But locals say it’s not enough to make ends meet. The severe blow to the fishing industry, which makes up 0.5 percent of Chile’s GDP, will also negatively effect the Chilean economy. This severe red tide has lasted for months now. But recent reports indicate that the bloom is growing larger as more and more sea life succumbs.

As has been the trend with most major media sources this year, El Nino has been linked by BBC and others to this record red tide. But doing so is short-sighted and fails to take into account the larger context of the global climate picture. Warm ocean waters are well known to generate conditions favorable for red tide development. The warmer waters favor a more rapid rate of algae reproduction and allow algae access to a greater range of food sources. Over the past Century, the world has warmed by more than 1 C above preindustrial levels. And this year is the hottest on record — not due to El Nino, but due to a century-long increase in temperatures exploring a new threshold of extreme global heat.

The seas turn red off Chile

(An algae bloom spurred by global warming is turning the waters off Chile blood-red. Poisonous domoic acid and mass fish and sea life killings resulting from this event are wrecking Chile’s fishing industry, ruining the lives of poor fishermen, and damaging Chile’s economy. Image source: Lethal Red Tide.)

In the Northeast Pacific, this record global heat forced waters there to new extremes — setting off a 2015 record red tide together with a chain of related mass mortality events affecting ocean life. An event that is linked, by ocean warming and climate change, to the largest ever red tide in Chile. One that is also linked, by climate change, to the terrible damage inflicted upon the Great Barrier Reef this year due to coral bleaching. One that is linked to ocean acidification now starting to take down the Florida Reef. And since we are taking a moment to engage in establishing links in a chain of evidence, we can draw one last link from all these events to the ongoing fossil fuel emission that is still being vomited into the world’s airs by an industry that is, itself, nothing more than a means for some of the world’s richest people to continue to increase their amount of individually accumulated wealth.

Ultimately, it’s pretty clear that people all over the world have a crucial choice to make —

What’s more important? The ability of a few people to grow their wealth through the continued burning of fossil fuels? Or the preservation of the vitality of the oceans which all life on Earth ultimately depends upon and the prevention of the warming that will transform the life-giving waters into Killer Seas?

To this point, I’ll leave you with the end-note of the recent National Geographic article on corals succumbing to ocean acidification:

“The only way to prevent that is to prevent the build-up of CO2 in the atmosphere.”

Links:

Ocean Acidification Impacting Reefs in the Florida Keys

Predatory Fish Have Declined by Two-Thirds

A Death of Beauty

The Pope’s Encyclical

Awakening the Horrors of the Ancient Hothouse

Chile’s Red Tide Outbreak Widens

Lethal Red Tide

Hot Pacific Ocean Runs Bloody

Warren Buffet’s Disaster Capitalism

Still Disinforming — Exxon Mobile’s Continued Culpability in Climate Change Denial

Earth Nullschool

There are So Many Things Wrong With This

Hat tip to Colorado Bob

Human Hothouse Spurs Longest Coral Die-Off on Record

The big coral die-off began in the Western Pacific as a massive ocean temperature spike built up during 2014. Back then, ocean heat accumulation had hit a very high ramp. A vicious, century-and-a-half long increase in atmospheric greenhouse gasses re-radiated greater and greater portions of the sun’s energy hitting the Earth — transferring the bulk (about 90 percent) to the world ocean system.

Major Coral Bleaching Event

(A report out today from AGU finds that the world is now experiencing its longest coral die-off event on record. Image source: AGU.)

By 2015, as one of the strongest El Ninos on record began to extend its influence across the globe, a broad region stretching from the Western Pacific, through the Central Pacific and on into the Eastern Pacific and Caribbean were all experiencing mass coral die-offs. Into early 2016, die-off events again expanded taking in Australian waters and sections of the Indian Ocean off East Africa and Western India.

After 20 months of ongoing coral mortality, we are now in the midst of the longest coral die-off event on record — one of only four such events that the world has ever experienced.

The Fourth Major Coral Die-Off

Researchers have long known that corals are sensitive to changes in ocean temperature. A rise in ocean water readings by as little as 1 degree Celsius above average peaks over the period of a month can be enough to set off a life-threatening condition called a coral bleaching event. According to a recent report in AGU:

The bleaching, or whitening, occurs when the corals expel the symbiotic algae that live in their tissues. Without the algae, corals lose a significant source of food and are more vulnerable to disease. In a severe bleaching event, large swaths of reef-building corals die. This causes reefs to erode, destroying fish habitat and exposing previously protected shorelines to the destructive force of ocean waves.

The typical bleaching threshold for most corals tends to be in the range of 29-30 degrees Celsius or about 84-86 degrees Fahrenheit over an extended period. And with the world ocean surface approaching a range near 1 C above 1880s averages, this threshold is hit more and more frequently — putting corals at greater and greater risk.

(World Resources Institute Published the above video in 2012 as a survey of, then current, threats to global coral reef systems. By 2030, heating of the world ocean system, ocean acidification and global warming related dead zones will provide an extreme existential challenge to the world’s beautiful and diverse coral reef systems.)

Prior to the 1980s, widespread coral bleaching events were unheard of. Though isolated events occurred, the world ocean system had not yet warmed enough to put corals at major risk. However, by the 1980s global ocean temperatures had begun to rise into ranges at which peak ocean warming periods could put corals in the firing line for major, globe-spanning die offs.

The first such major, global coral die-off occurred during the, then record, 1982-1983 El Nino. At the time this event was unprecedented. And it held the dubious standing as the only such event until the 1997-1998 Super El Nino set off a similar, though longer-lasting mass die off. By the late 2000s, global ocean temperatures had again risen — hitting marks high enough to enable a weak 2010 El Nino to set off the third mass coral die-off.

The fourth mass die off began in 2014 prior to the most recent super El Nino — which has only exaggerated and lengthened its impact. It is now the longest lasting coral die-off ever recorded. And researchers expect it to continue on through at least much of 2016 and possibly into 2017.

Corals Entering a Period of Killing Heat

As the oceans are predicted to continue warming over the next few decades, corals are expected to come under ever-worsening stress. A recent report by the World Resources Institute (WRI) found that regions experiencing the current mass die-off were 70-90 percent likely to experience similar events at a frequency of once every two years by 2030. And a much larger region was expected to have a 50 to 70 percent risk of experiencing a bleaching event over a two year time-frame.

future_bleaching_web_low-res-preview1

(World Resources Institute in 2012 found that mass coral bleaching and related die-off would occur with extraordinary frequency post 2030. Image source: The World Resources Institute.)

By the 2050s, under business as usual fossil fuel burning, WRI expects that much of the world’s temperate and tropical oceans would experience coral bleaching events bi-annually.

Taking this stark prediction into account we find that the threat to corals over the coming decades will eventually exceed El Nino periodicity and become common during most ocean climate states. The current, likely two year to 30 month, coral die off should serve as a warning for the worse and more frequent hits to corals that will, sadly, be stacking up over the coming decades. Eventually, mass coral die-offs in the continually warming world ocean will become continuous and ubiquitous unless the current trend somehow draws swiftly to a halt.

In addition, given an expanding ocean acidification proceeding southward from the poles and more and more widespread zones of ocean anoxia (areas of water containing very little oxygen), what we are seeing is that threats to coral health are rapidly multiplying due to influences directly related to human-forced climate change.

Links:

El Nino Prolongs Longest Coral Bleaching Event

NOAA: Coral Bleaching Background

World Resources Institute Shows Widespread Coral Bleaching by 2030

The World Resources Institute

Hat Tip to TodaysGuestIs

Hat Tip to DT Lange

 

Is Human Warming Prodding A Sleeping Methane Monster off Oregon’s Coast?

We’ve talked quite a bit about the Arctic Methane Monster — the potential that a rapidly warming Arctic will force the release of disproportionately large volumes of methane from organic material locked in permafrost and in frozen sea bed hydrates composing volumes of this powerful greenhouse gas large enough to significantly increase the pace of human-forced global warming. But if we consider the globe as a whole, the Arctic isn’t the only place where large methane stores lurk — laying in wait for the heat we’ve already added to the world’s oceans and atmosphere to trigger their release. And a new study out of the University of Washington provides yet another indication that the continental shelf off Oregon and Washington may be one of many emerging methane release hot spots.

For all around the world, and beneath the broad, blue expanse of the world’s seas, rest billions and billions of tons of frozen methane hydrate.

A kind of methane and ice combination, frozen hydrate is one of the world’s most effective natural methods of trapping and sequestering carbon. Over long ages, organic material at the bottom of the oceans decompose into hydrocarbons, often breaking down into methane gas. At high pressure and low temperature, this methane gas can be locked away in a frozen water-ice hydrate lattice, which is then often buried beneath the sea bed where it can safely remain for thousands or even millions of years.

Plume2_nolabels_cropped

(Plume of methane bubbles rising from the sea floor off the Oregon Coast. This image shows methane bubbles originating from the sea bed about 515 meters below the surface before dissolving into the water column at about 180 meters depth. Image source: American Geophysical Union.)

Most of these deposits lay well beneath the sea bed or at extreme ocean depths of one mile or greater. And so far, human forced warming hasn’t been great enough to risk the destabilization of most of these deep ocean carbon stores. But some hydrate deposits rest in the shallower waters of continental slope systems and at depths where current warming may now be causing them to destabilize.

Scientists Think Methane Hydrates May be Destabilizing off Oregon

Enter a new study by University of Washington scientists which found “an unusually high number of bubble plumes at the depth where methane hydrate would decompose if seawater has warmed.” The scientists concluded that these bubble plumes were likely evidence of methane hydrate destabilization due to a human forced warming of the water column in the range of about 500 meters of depth.

The warm waters, ironically, come from a region off Siberia where the deep waters have, over recent decades, been heated to unprecedented temperatures. These waters have, in turn, through ocean current exchange, circulated to the off-shore region of Washington and Oregon where they appear to have gone to work destabilizing methane hydrate in the continental slope zone. A paper published during 2014 hypothesized that these warm waters would have an impact on hydrates. And the new paper is the first potential confirmation of these earlier predictions.

In total about 168 methane plumes are now observed to be bubbling out of the sea bed off the Washington and Oregon coasts. Of these, 14 are located in the 500 meter depth range where ocean warming has pushed temperatures to levels at which hydrate could begin to destabilize. University of Washington researchers noted that the number of plumes at this depth range was disproportionately high, which also served as an indirect indicator that human heating may be causing this methane to release.

PlumesMap

(Locations of methane plumes in the continental slope zone off Washington and Oregon. The location of a disproportionate number of these plumes in a zone now featuring a warming water column is an indication that the human-forced heating of ocean currents is starting to drive some methane hydrate structures to destabilize. Image source: AGU.)

Lead author H. Paul Johnson, a University of Washington professor of oceanography noted in AGU:

“So it is not likely to be just emitted from the sediments; this appears to be coming from the decomposition of methane that has been frozen for thousands of years… What we’re seeing is possible confirmation of what we predicted from the water temperatures: Methane hydrate appears to be decomposing and releasing a lot of gas. If you look systematically, the location on the margin where you’re getting the largest number of methane plumes per square meter, it is right at that critical depth of 500 meters.””

Implications For Ocean Health, Carbon Cycle

Most methane released at this depth never reaches the atmosphere. Instead, it either oxidizes to CO2 in the water column or is converted by ocean bacteria. That said, expanding zones of methane release can rob the surrounding ocean of vital oxygen even as it can saturate the water column with carbon — increasing ocean acidification and reducing the local ocean’s ability to draw carbon out of the atmosphere. Such a response can indirectly increase the volume of heat trapping gasses in the atmosphere by reducing the overall rate of ocean carbon uptake. In more extreme cases, methane bubbles reach the surface where they then vent directly into the atmosphere, proportionately adding to the human-produced greenhouse gasses that have already put the world into a regime of rapid warming.

It has been hypothesized that large methane releases from ocean hydrate stores contributed to past hothouse warming events and related mass extinctions like the Permian and the PETM (See A Deadly Climb From Glaciation to Hothouse). But the more immediate consequences of smaller scale releases are related to declining ocean health.

According to AGU and Dr. Johnson, the study author:

Marine microbes convert the methane into carbon dioxide, producing lower-oxygen, more-acidic conditions in the deeper offshore water, which eventually wells up along the coast and surges into coastal waterways. “Current environmental changes in Washington and Oregon are already impacting local biology and fisheries, and these changes would be amplified by the further release of methane,” Johnson said.

Instances of mass sea life die-off have already occurred at a very high frequency off the Washington and Oregon Coasts. And many of these instances have been associated with a combination of low oxygen content in the near and off shore waters, increasing ocean acidification, increasing dangerous algae blooms, and an overall warming ocean system. It’s important to note that ocean acidification, though often cited in the media, is just one of many threats to ocean life and health. In many cases, low oxygen dead zones and large microbial blooms can be even more deadly. And in the most extreme low oxygen regions, the water column can start to fill up with deadly hydrogen sulfide gas — a toxic substance that, at high enough concentrations, kills off pretty much all oxygen-based life (See Hydrogen Sulfide in the World’s Warming Oceans).

During recent years, mass sea life deaths have been linked to a ‘hot blob’ forming in nearby waters (See Mass Whale Death in Northeast Pacific — Hot Blob’s Record Algae Bloom to Blame?). However, indicators of low oxygen in the waters near Washington and Oregon have been growing in frequency since the early 2000s. Though the paper does not state this explicitly — increasing rates of methane release in the off-shore waters due to hydrate destabilization may already be contributing to declining ocean health in the region.

Slope Collapse, Conditions in Context

A final risk associated with methane hydrate destabilization in the continental slope zone is an increased prevalence of potential slope collapse. As methane hydrate releases, it can deform the sea bed structures within slope systems. Such systems become less stable, increasing the potential for large underwater landslides. Not only could these large landslides displace significant volumes of water or even set off tsunamis, slope collapse events also risk uncovering and exposing more hydrate systems to the warming ocean in a kind of amplifying feedback.

In context, the total volume of methane being released into the off-shore environment is currently estimated to be about 0.1 million metric tons each year. That’s about the same rate of hydrocarbon release seen from the Deepwater Horizon blowout. A locally large release but still rather small in size compared to the whopping 10+ billion tons of carbon being dumped into the atmosphere each year through human fossil fuel burning. However, this release is widespread, uncontrolled, un-cappable and, if scientists are correct in their indications of a human warming influence, likely to continue to increase as the oceans warm further.

Links:

Bubble Plumes off Washington and Oregon Suggest Warmer Ocean May be Releasing Frozen Methane

Geochemistry, Geophysics, Geosystems

Warming Oceans May be Spewing Methane off US West Coast

Concern Over Catastrophic Methane Release

Hydrogen Sulfide in the World’s Warming Oceans

Mass Whale Death in Northeast Pacific — Hot Blob’s Record Algae Bloom to Blame?

A Deadly Climb From Glaciation to Hothouse

Hat tip to Humortra

Human CO2 Emissions to Drive Key Ocean Bacteria Haywire, Generate Dead Zones, Wreck Nitrogen Web

Trichodesmium. It’s the bacteria that’s solely responsible for the fixation of nearly 50 percent of nitrogen in the world’s oceans. A very important role for this microscopic critter. For without nitrogen fixation — or the process by which environmental nitrogen is converted to forms usable by organisms — most of life on Earth would not exist.

Now, a new study produced by USC and the Massachusetts-based Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), has found that human carbon emissions are set to drive this essential organism haywire. Forcing evolutionary changes in which the bacteria is unable to regulate its growth. Thus generating population explosions and die-offs that will be very disruptive to the fragile web of life in the world’s oceans.

Trichodesmium_bloom,_SW_Pacific

(A Trichodesmium bloom off New Caledonia. Image source: Earth Observatory.)

Trichodesmium — A Mostly Helpful Bacteria Essential to Ocean Life

Trichodesmium is a form of cyanobacteria. It resides in the near surface zone composing the top 200 meters of the water column. Possessing gas vacuoles, the bacteria is able to float and sink through the water column in order to access the nutrients it needs for growth — nitrogen, iron, and phosphorus. A widespread bacteria, it is often found in warm (20 to 34 C), nutrient-poor waters in the Red Sea, the Indian Ocean, the North and South Atlantic, the Caribbean, near Australia, and in the Northeastern Pacific.

Trichodesmium congregates in blooms which are generally a straw-like color. For centuries, this coloration has generated its common name — sea straw. However, in higher concentrations it can turn waters red. The Red Sea, for example, owes its name to this prolific little bacteria. Trichodesmium blooms generate a strata that support mutualistic communities of sea creatures including bacteria, diatoms, dinoflagellates, protozoa, and copepods. These small organisms, in turn, are fed on by a variety of fish — notably herring and sardines.

But Trichodesmium’s chief role in supporting ocean health is through making nitrogen in the air and water available to living organisms. It does this by turning environmental nitrogen into ammonia as part of its cellular metabolism. This ammonia can then be used for growth by a wide variety of creatures on up the food chain. Trichodesmium is an amazing producer of this biologically available nitrogen — perhaps generating as much as 50 percent of organic nitrogen in the world’s oceans (70 to 80 million metric tons) each year.

Human Fossil Fuel Burning is Projected to Drive Trichodesmium Haywire

But now a new study by USC and WHOI shows that atmospheric CO2 concentrations projected to be reached by the end of the 21st Century in the range of 750 ppm CO2 could force Trichodesmium’s nitrogen fixation rate into overdrive and lock it there indefinitely.

Trichodesium Nitrogen Fixation before and after

(Rate of nitrogen fixation in Trichodesmium at 380 ppm CO2 [black and red], at 750 ppm CO2 [pink, yellow and light blue], and when CO2 levels are returned to 380 ppm after five years of exposure to 750 ppm levels [dark blue]. Image source: Nature.)

The study subjected Trichodesmium to atmospheric CO2 concentrations (750 ppm) projected under a somewhat moderate rate of continued fossil fuel burning scenario by 2100 for five years. After this five year period of exposure, Trichodesmium nitrogen fixation rates nearly doubled (see above graphic). But, even worse, after the Trichodesmium bacteria were returned to the more normal ocean and atmospheric conditions under 380 ppm CO2, the rate of nitrogen fixation remained elevated.

In essence, researchers found that Trichodesmium evolved to fix nitrogen more rapidly under higher ocean acidity and atmospheric CO2 states at 750 ppm levels. But when atmospheric levels returned to 380 ppm and when oceans became less acidic, Trichodesmium’s rate of nitrogen fixation remained locked in high gear. For an organism like Trichodesmium to get stuck in a broken rate of higher metabolism and growth is practically unheard of in evolutionary biology. Organisms typically evolve as a response to environmental stresses. Once those triggers are removed, organisms will typically revert to a near match of previous states. Strangely, this was not the case with Trichodesmium.

David Hutchins, professor at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences and author of the new study described this alteration to Trichodesium as ‘unprecedented’ stating that:

“Losing the ability to regulate your growth rate is not a healthy thing. The last thing you want is to be stuck with these high growth rates when there aren’t enough nutrients to go around. It’s a losing strategy in the struggle to survive.”

Uncontrolled Blooms, Population Crashes, Biotoxin Production, Dead Zones

Nitrogen is a key component of cellar growth. So Trichodesmium nearly doubling its rate of nitrogen fixation means that the bacteria’s rate of production will greatly increase as atmospheric CO2 levels and ocean acidification continue to rise. Under heightened CO2, the bacteria essentially loses its ability to restrain its population.

La-Jolla-Red-Tide.780

(Large algae/bacterial blooms like this red tide off La Jolla, San Diego are causing the expansion of hypoxic and anoxic dead zones throughout the world’s oceans. A new study has found that one of the ocean’s key microbes goes into growth overdrive as atmospheric and ocean CO2 concentrations rise — which would greatly enhance an already dangerous rate of dead zone expansion in the world ocean system. Image source: Commons.)

As a result, researchers warn that Trichodesmium blooms may run out of control under heightening levels of CO2. Such out of control blooms would rapidly remove scarcer nutrients like phosphorous and iron from the water column. Once these resources are exhausted, Trichodesmium would begin to die off en-masse. As with other large scale bacterial die-offs in the ocean, the decaying dead cellular bodies of Trichodesmium would then rob the nearby waters of oxygen — greatly enhancing an already much amplified rate of anoxic dead zone formation. And we know that anoxic waters can rapidly become home to other, far more dangerous, forms of bacterial life. In addition, large concentrations of Trichodesmium are known to produce biotoxins deadly to copepods, fish, and oysters. Humans are also rarely impacted suffering from an often fatal toxicity response called clupeotoxism when the Trichodesmium produced toxins biomagnify in fish that humans eat. Sadly, more large Trichodesium blooms will enhance opportunities for clupeotoxism to appear in human beings.

Exacerbating this problem of heightened Trichodesmium blooms and potential related dead zone formation is the fact that ocean waters are expected to become more stratified as human-forced warming continues. As a result, more of the nutrients that Trichodesmium relies upon will be forced into a thinner layer near the surface — thus heightening the process of bloom, die-off, and dead zone formation.

Final impacts to ocean health come in the form of either widely available nitrogen, (during Trichodesmium bloom periods) which would tend to enhance the proliferation of other microbial life, or regions of nitrogen desertification (during Trichodesmium die-offs). It’s a kind of ocean nitrogen whip-lash that can be very harmful to the health of life in the seas. One that could easily ripple over to land life as well.

No Return to Normal

But perhaps the most shocking finding of the new research was that alterations in Trichodesmium’s rate of growth and nitrogen fixation may well be permanent after the stress of high CO2 and ocean acidification are removed. Hinting that impacts to ocean health from a rapid CO2 spike would be long-lasting and irreparable over anything but very long time-scales. Yet more evidence that the best thing to do is to avoid a major CO2 spike altogether by cutting human carbon emissions to zero as swiftly as possible.

Links:

Irreversibly Increased Nitrogen Fixation in Trichodesmium in Response to High CO2 Concentrations

Climate Change Will Irreversibly Force Key Ocean Bacteria into Overdrive

Trichodesmium

Earth Observatory

Red Tide Algae Bloom off San Diego

Awakening the Horrors of the Ancient Hothouse

Trichodesmium: A Widespread Marine Cyanobacteria with Unusual Nitrogen Fixation Properties

Nitrogen Fixation

Hat Tip to Colorado Bob

Shades of a Canfield Ocean — Hydrogen Sulfide in Oregon’s Purple Waves?

Are we already starting to awaken some of the horrors of the ancient hothouse ocean? Are dangerous, sea and land life killing, strains of primordial hydrogen sulfide producing bacteria starting to show up in the increasingly warm and oxygen-starved waters of the US West Coast? This week’s disturbing new reports of odd-smelling, purple-colored waves appearing along the Oregon coastline are a sign that it may be starting to happen.

Purple Waves

(Purple waves wash over the Oregon beach of Neskowin on August 15. A form of hydrogen sulfide consuming bacteria is known to color water purple. Is this an indicator that the deadly gas is present in Oregon’s waters? Image source: Jeanine Sbisa and Beach Connection.)

A Dangerous Beauty

Oregon beachgoers and ocean researchers alike are flummoxed. There’s something strange in the water. Something that’s coloring the waves of Oregon’s beaches purple even as the off-shore waters are painted greenish-blue. These puzzling purple waves have been washing up along the Oregon Coastline for the better part of a month. And no-one seems to know exactly what’s causing it.

Eyewitness photographer Jeanine Sbisa described the scene at Neskowin:

“The purple was only on the edge of the water. I did not see any patches in the deeper water. ( in fact the deeper water was a beautiful turquoise, instead of the deep blue that it usually is at Winema). Some of the waves were a deep clear purple. Other waves in other segments were a rich foamy lilac color. The colors were amazing. Very beautiful.”

All up and down Oregon’s coastline similar reports have been surfacing. Oregon State Park Ranger Dane Osis photo documented another incident at Fort Stevens State Park near Astoria. And eyewitnesses at some locations have described a ‘funky smell’ issuing from some of the purple-colored waters.

Initial reports have claimed that there’s no evidence the purple waters are harmful. But such assertions may well be premature.

Purple Sulfur Bacteria

At issue is the fact that the waters off Oregon are increasingly warm. They are increasingly low oxygen or even anoxic. Conditions that are prime for the production of some of the world’s nastiest ancient species of microbes. The rotten-eggs smelling hydrogen sulfide producing varieties. The variety that paint the waters green (or turquoise as described by Jeanine Sbisa above) or even an ugly black. And there is one primordial creature in particular that thrives in warm, low-oxygen, funky-smelling water. An organism that’s well known for coloring bodies of water purple — the purple sulfur bacteria.

Purple Canfield Ocean

(Artist’s rendering of what a Canfield Ocean may have looked like. A Canfield Ocean is a deadly hothouse ocean state implicated in 5 of 6 major mass extinction events. And, perhaps, we see a hint of this deadly ocean along the Oregon coast today. Image source: Biogeochemistry.)

In order for blooms of purple sulfur bacteria to form, waters have to be low in oxygen or anoxic. There has to be hydrogen sulfide gas present in the water. And the water has to be relatively warm. This is because the bacteria is warmth-loving, anaerobic, and it uses the sulfur in hydrogen sulfide gas as part of its energy production process.

In the current day, the purple sulfur bacteria is present in anoxic lakes and geothermal vents. But during ancient times and during times of hothouse extinction, the purple sulfur bacteria are thought to have thrived in the world’s oceans — painting them the strange tell-tale purple we see hints of along the Oregon shoreline today. A purple that was the hallmark color of a life-killing hothouse ocean.

In his ground-breaking book “Under a Green Sky,” Dr. Peter Ward vividly describes what a Canfield Ocean may have looked like:

Finally we look out on the surface of the great sea itself, and as far as the eye can see there is a mirrored flatness, an ocean without whitecaps. Yet that is not the biggest surprise. From shore to the horizon, there is but an unending purple colour – a vast, flat, oily purple, not looking at all like water, not looking anything of our world. No fish break its surface, no birds or any other kind of flying creatures dip down looking for food. The purple colour comes from vast concentrations of floating bacteria, for the oceans of Earth have all become covered with a hundred-foot-thick [30m] veneer of purple and green bacterial soup.

The purple sulfur reducing bacteria, though not dangerous themselves, live in a kind of conjoined relationship with the much more deadly hydrogen sulfide producing bacteria. The purple, is therefore, a tell-tale of the more deadly bacteria’s presence. And hydrogen sulfide producing bacteria may well be the most dangerous organism ever to have existed on the planet — largely responsible for almost all the great extinction events in Earth’s deep history. For hydrogen sulfide itself is directly toxic to both land and ocean-based life. Its deadly effects are increased at higher temperatures. And not only is it directly toxic in both water and air, if it enters the upper atmosphere it also destroys the ozone layer.

(Video shot on July 18 [please excuse the colorful language] showing purple waters and dead jellies, barnacles and mussels on another Pacific Ocean beach. Video source: Gezzart.)

Purple waters are a sign that the little organisms that produce this deadly agent may be starting to bloom in an ocean whose health is increasingly ailing. Tiny tell-tales that we’re on a path toward a hothouse Canfield Ocean state. A path we really don’t want to continue along through the ongoing burning of fossil fuels. For that way leads toward another great dying.

*  *  *  *  *

Pigmented Salps — An Indicator of Bio-Magnification?

UPDATE TUESDAY, SEPTEMBER 1: According to reports from Oregon’s Department of Fish and Wildlife, Oregon’s purple waves are being caused by the large-scale spawning of an oxygen dependent jellyfish-like vertebrate called a salp in the near shore zones along the Oregon coastline. The normally clear salps have apparently developed a purple pigmentation which is coloring the waves in this region a strange hew. The findings, though seemingly reassuring, raise more questions than they do answers.

First, salps do not typically spawn in the near-shore region. However, during recent years, near shore salp spawnings have become more common leading to reports of these jellies washing up all along the U.S. Coastline. Phytoplankton and other bacteria are a typical food source for salps and the jellies are mobile enough to follow this food. So large blooms in the near shore ocean could be one reason for salps coming closer to shore.

Second, salps are typically clear — devoid of any pigmentation. So the question here is how are salps picking up this strange purple color? Since salps are filter-feeders known to eat bacteria, it’s possible that a highly pigmented food source or a source laden with purple sulfur bacteria may be resulting in this odd new coloration for salps. So identifying pigmented salps as the source of the purple coloration does not necessarily eliminate the possibility of sulfur reducing bacteria being present in either the near shore or the off shore waters where salps typically reside and feed. Pigmentation, in this case, may be due to salps bio-magnifying the natural pigmentation in their food source. Given the fact that salp coloration is practically unheard of, it’s somewhat puzzling that marine researchers haven’t investigated this particular mystery a bit further.

Third, the region off the Oregon coastline has been increasingly low in oxygen due to a combination of eutriphication, ocean current change, and ocean warming. This fact of declining ocean health in the off-shore Oregon environment is contrary to assertions circulated in some media sources claiming that large salp blooms are a proof that the environment in the bloom region is healthy. Salp blooms follow bacterial and phytoplankton blooms. And such blooms are well known triggers for dead zone formation. Though salps tend to aid in mitigating these blooms, their presence is not necessarily a sign of healthy waters. Conversely, in the case of very large algae blooms, salps presence may indicate just the opposite. Since salps are oxygen-dependent, it’s possible that the near shore environments where wave mixing tends to oxygenate the water is a drawing these vertebrate jellies closer in due to a loss of an off shore environment healthy enough to sustain them.

As with the freak appearance of pink pigmented salps at Manzanita during 2010, the widespread purple waves off Oregon during 2015 remain somewhat of a mystery. The key question as to why salps, that are known to be a clear-bodied species, are picking up a pigmentation very similar to that possessed by purple sulfur bacteria has not been answered.

Links:

Purple Waves Puzzle Oregon Coastal Scientists

Awakening the Horrors of the Ancient Hothouse — Hydrogen Sulfide in the World’s Warming Oceans

Purple Sulfur Bacteria

Canfield Ocean

Under a Green Sky

Biogeochemistry

Hat Tip to Wharf Rat

Mass Whale Death in Northeastern Pacific — Hot Blob’s Record Algae Bloom to Blame?

Something lurking in the Northeastern Pacific is killing off the graceful giants of the world’s oceans. For since May of 2015 30 large whales have been discovered dead — their bloated and decaying bodies washed up on Alaskan shores. It’s an unusual mortality event featuring a death rate of nearly 400 percent above the average. So far, scientists don’t yet have a culprit. But there is a prime suspect and it’s one that’s linked to climate change.

*  *  *  *  *  *

Bears consuming whale carcass

(Bears consume the carcass of a beached finback whale on the Alaskan coastline. Image source: NOAA.)

This month the US government declared an ‘unusual mortality event’ after it was confirmed that 30 large whales including 11 finback whales, 14 humpback whales, one gray whale and four other whales so bad off it that spotters where unable to identify the bodies by type were found dead. For large whales, whose numbers tend to be low due to size, low birth rates, and dietary requirements, that’s a very rapid mortality rate. As a comparison, all of 2014 only featured four large whale deaths in the Gulf of Alaska.

According to an official statement from NOAA:

“NOAA Fisheries scientists and partners are very concerned about the large number of whales stranding in the western Gulf of Alaska in recent months… To date, this brings the large whale strandings for this region to almost three times the historical average.”

Hot Blob’s Record Algae Bloom Suspected

Starting an official investigation of this odd large marine mammal mortality event shows that scientists are somewhat baffled about what could have caused the tragic deaths of these majestic creatures. But the scientists’ investigation is not absent a suspect. For the emergence of extraordinarily warm ocean water in a region where these whales live has been linked to a number of mass sea creature die offs.

This area — an expansive zone of 1 to 5 degree Celsius hotter than average surface waters — has been implicated in the mass death of starfish, in dolphin mortality events, in sea lion mortality and orphaning events, in sea otter deaths, in salmon deaths, and in the mass death of crabs and shellfish (see “Starving Sea Lion Pups and Liquified Starfish” and “Hot Pacific Ocean Runs Bloody“).

Hot Blob

(A combination of factors related to human-caused climate change have forced the Northeastern Pacific into a period of record warmth. First, sea ice recession in the Arctic has enabled the formation of warm ridges in the Jet Stream over this region. Second, ocean waters are globally hotter than they’ve been in at least 135 years. Third, a switch to positive PDO and El Nino in the Pacific has unlocked an unprecedented degree of ocean heat forced into Pacific waters by record strong trade winds throughout the 2000s. As a result, the typical positive PDO signal is amplified. In other words, as Dr. Kevin Trenberth has warned time and again, deep ocean warming is coming back to haunt us. Image source: NOAA/ESRL.)

Abnormally warm waters fertilized by the particulate fallout from fossil fuel based industry and climate change driven wildfires can create a host of problems for sea life. First, the warmer waters contain lower levels of oxygen — which reduces the range in which fish and crustaceans can live. Hotter, lower oxygen and zero oxygen waters also create zones and regions in which toxic microbial life thrive. We’ve talked a lot about the deadly hydrogen sulfide producing bacteria. But the expansive algae blooms of a warming, nutrient enriched ocean surface can produce a host of other toxins. Microcystins, Nodularins, Anatoxin-a, Cylindrospermopsins, Lyngbyatoxin-a, Saxitoxin, Lipopolysaccharides, Aplysiatoxins, BMAA, Hydrogen Sulfide Gas and Domoic Acid are just some of the toxins produced by algae and bacteria that thrive in warming waters, in low oxygen waters, or in waters that have been subject to high nutrient loading from increasing run-off and the fallout of nitrogen and particulates due to fossil fuel burning.

In particular, this year’s record red tide has resulted in an extreme outbreak of the kind of algae that produce the deadly neurotoxin — domoic acid.  And it’s this domoic acid poisoning that many are pointing to as a possible cause of excessive whale deaths.

Whale stranding locations

(Whale stranding locations along an abnormally warm Gulf of Alaska. Strandings may be associated to a global warming-tied blob of hot water in the Northeastern Pacific together with a related red tide algae bloom impacting the region. Image source: NOAA.)

The massive algae bloom impacting regions of the Northeast Pacific threatens whales in a number of ways. First, the whales swim in the algae-filled waters. So the toxin is a part of their environment. It thus becomes unavoidable. The toxin concentrates in the bodies of the tiny sea creatures upon which the whales feed — planktonic life forms that, in their turn, feed on the toxin-laden algae. As domoic acid moves up the food chain, it bio-magnifies — becoming more concentrated. And since whales must consume prodigious volumes of small sea life to survive, the opportunity for biomagnification of toxins in whales is great.

Biomagnification of domoic acid is also a threat to human beings. And it is for this reason that the US Fisheries Services have curtailed the consumption of West Coast shellfish, which can contain high concentrations of domoic acid from 2015’s record red tide.

Conditions in Context — Deadly Waters

Mass whale deaths and strandings along the Alaskan coastline have, over recent weeks, garnered a great deal of attention from the public. However, these strandings and deaths do not occur in isolation. The tragic and freakish mortality events are happening in a region of abnormally hot water. A region of hot water that scientists have linked to human-forced climate change. An area in which numerous other mass sea creature deaths have occurred.

The region features low oxygen waters. Waters infected by deadly microbes that have liquified starfish, crabs, and sea cucumbers. And waters that now feature the largest red tide — a massive bloom of toxic algae — on record. It should be very clear from all these related events occurring within the same region of abnormally hot water that a warming ocean is an increasingly deadly ocean. And if we are to have any hope of halting these events, we should look to cessation of fossil fuel burning and related human forced warming of the Earth System as rapidly as possible.

Links:

NOAA: Alaska Fisheries

NOAA/ESRL

Scientists Baffled by Mass Whale Death

Whales are Mysteriously Dying in Northeastern Pacific

Starving Sea Lion Pups and Liquified Starfish

Hot Pacific Ocean Runs Bloody

Hat Tip to Colorado Bob

Hat Tip to Andy in San Diego

(Please support public, non-special interest based, science like the fantastic efforts conducted by the fisheries and ocean researchers at NOAA.)

 

 

Tumbling Down the Rabbit Hole Toward a Second Great Dying? World Ocean Shows Signs of Coming Extinction.

The last time Earth experienced a Great Dying was during a dangerous transition from glaciation and to hothouse. We’re doing the same thing by burning fossil fuels today. And if we are sensitive to the lessons of our geological past, we’ll put a stop to it soon. Or else doesn’t even begin to characterize this necessary, moral choice.

*    *    *    *    *

The Great Dying of 252 million years ago began, as it does today, with a great burning and release of ancient carbon. The Siberian flood basalts erupted. Spilling lava over ancient coal beds, they dumped carbon into the air at a rate of around 1-2 billion tons per year. Greenhouse gasses built in the atmosphere and the world warmed. Glacier melt and episodes of increasingly violent rainfall over the single land mass — Pangaea — generated an ocean in which large volumes of fresh water pooled at the top. Because fresh water is less dense than salt water, it floats at the surface — creating a layer that is resistant to mixing with water at other levels.

Algae Blooms and Red Tides in the Stratified Ocean

This stratified ocean state began to cut the life-giving thread of the world’s great waters. Reduced mixing meant the great ocean currents slowed. Oxygen transport into the depths declined. Moreover, a constant rain of debris in the form of particulate matter from burning forests and nitrogen oxides from the smoldering coal beds fertilized the ocean surface. Food for algae also came from increasing continental run-off. And a spike in iron loading due to glacial melt added yet more fertilizer. Great microbial blooms covered the world ocean, painting its face neon green, blue, or blood red.

antarctic-algae-bloom-terra

(Stratified Ocean waters hosting massive algae blooms. It’s a combination that can quickly rob ocean waters of oxygen. During the Permian, a transition to stratified and then Canfield Ocean conditions led to the worst mass extinction event in the history of life on Earth. Today, the Southern Ocean’s waters are increasingly stratified due to glacial melt run-off of fresh water. In addition, these waters also host very large algae blooms like the ones seen above in a NASA satellite shot from 2012. Image source: NASA and Live Science.)

Rising CO2 levels increased ocean acidification even as the blooms spread toxins through the waters. When the blooms finally exhausted all the available food in their given region, they died off en masse. And by decay they further robbed the waters of life-giving oxygen. At this point the strains to ocean life became extreme and the first mass deaths began to occur. The stress opened pathways for disease. And the warming, de-oxygenating waters forced migrations to different Latitudinal zones and ocean depths. What life there was that couldn’t move, or couldn’t move fast enough died in place.

Transitioning to a Canfield Ocean

At first, ocean deaths appeared prominently in the bottom regions that saw the most rapid declines in oxygen levels and the swiftest increases in temperatures. For not only did the fresh water at the surface of the world’s oceans prevent mixing — it also prevented the oceans from ventilating heat into the air. Instead, the ocean heat was increasingly trapped at depth. Aiding this process of heat transport into the world’s deeps was a bottom water formation that issued from the hot Equator. There, evaporation at the surface increased saltiness. The heavier, hotter, saltier waters sank — carrying with them the Equatorial surface heat which they then delivered to the ocean bottom.

The hot, low oxygen bottom water became increasingly loaded with methane as the heat activated frozen stores. It created an environment where a nasty little set of primordial, hydrogen sulfide producing, creatures could thrive.  These little microbes cannot live in oxygen rich environments. But warm, anoxic bottom waters are more like the ancient environments from which they emerged. Times long past when the world was ruled by microbes in conditions that were simply deadly to the more complex and cold-loving life forms of later times. To most life, the hydrogen sulfide gas produced by these little monsters is a deadly toxin.

Ancient ocean conditions

(Oxygen, iron and hydrogen sulfide content of the world’s oceans over the past 4 billion years. Ancient oceans were hotter than today. They were rich in iron and densely populated with hydrogen sulfide producing bacteria. They were also anoxic. During hothouse events, oceans can again lapse into these ancient ocean states. Called Canfield Ocean environments and named after Dr. Donald Canfield who discovered them, these states are extremely deadly to ocean life. If they become too deeply entrenched, Canfield Oceans can also transform the global atmosphere, resulting in extinctions of land animals as well. Such an event was thought to be the primary killing mechanism during the Permian Extinction. Image source: Nature.)

The rotten-eggs stinking, hydrogen sulfide filled waters at first did their dirty work in silence at the bottom of the warming world ocean. But, steadily, anoxia progressed upward, providing pathways for the hydrogen sulfide producing bacteria to fill up the oceans. Death expanded from the bottom toward the surface.

In all the great mass extinction events but, possibly, one, this heat-driven filling up of the world ocean with deadly hydrogen sulfide gas during hothouse periods represents the major killing mechanism. The other impacts of hothouse waters — ocean acidification and habitat displacement — do provide killing stresses. But the combined zero oxygen environment filled with a deadly gas generates zones of near absolute death in which few things but microbes and jellyfish can live. In rock strata, the anoxic, zones are marked by regions of black as the hydrogen sulfide producing bacteria-filled waters eventually take on the color of tar. In the lesser extinctions, these black zones are confined to the lower ocean levels. In the greater ones, they rise higher and higher.

During the Great Dying, the oceans brimmed full of the stuff. Black, purple and neon green waters bubbled to the surface to belch their lethal loads of hydrogen sulfide gas into the airs. The gas was deadly toxic to land plants and animals alike. And it eventually wafted into the skies, turning it from blue to green and eating away at the protective ozone layer.

In this terrible way, more than 99 percent of all living things were killed off. Of species, about 95 percent of ocean forms were lost with around 80 percent of the land forms being wiped out.

Early Signs of a New Ocean Extinction

The Great Dying of the Permian Extinction 200 million years ago should be a warning to anyone still enamored with the notion that today’s terrifying fossil fuel burning results in any future that is not horrible, wretched, bleak. Today, we dump 11 billion tons of carbon into the air each year — at least six times faster than during the Great Dying. Today, the great melting glaciers are beginning the painful process of ocean death by spreading out their films of stratifying, iron-loaded fresh water. Today fossil fuel industry, industrial farming and warming all together are fertilizing the ocean surface with nitrous oxides, particulates, phosphates flushed down rivers, and an overall increased runoff due to a multiplication of extreme rainfall events.

(The hot blob in the Pacific Ocean is setting off the largest red tide on record. Just one of many dangerous impacts to sea life due to this large region of abnormally warm water.)

And the impacts are visible to anyone who cares to look. In the Pacific Ocean, a climate change related blob of hot water is resulting in mass ocean creature die offs. Low oxygen waters beneath the blob are wrecking large zones of ocean productivity and risking the proliferation of deadly hydrogen sulfide producing bacteria. The largest red tide on record has spun off the hot blob. Covering waters 40 miles wide and 600 feet deep, it has left piles and piles of dead shellfish rotting on beaches across the North American West Coast.

Across the Continent, the Chesapeake Bay suffers a proliferation of dead zones and greatly reduced productivity. There’s a rising risk that, during coming years, increased warming will deliver a heavy blow to life in the Bay and turn one of the world’s greatest estuaries into a large hydrogen sulfide production zone similar to the Baltic Sea. In the Gulf of Mexico, a similar dead zone emerges near the outlet of the Mississippi. And out in the Atlantic Ocean, mobile dead zones now swirl providing a roving surface hazard to both the deep open waters and to the coastal regions that now sit in the firing line.

In the Arctic, recently ice-freed waters are now the host of massive blue and green Algae blooms.

Barent Algae Bloom July 2015

(Large blue and green algae bloom covering the southern Barents Sea during late July of 2015. Large algae blooms are now a frequent feature of previously ice covered waters in a warming Arctic. Image source: LANCE-MODIS.)

Ever since the mid 2000s a massive algae bloom like the one pictured above has dominated the Barents Sea during summer time. Often running as deep as 400 feet, this sprawling mat can rapidly deplete northern waters of vitalizing oxygen and result in mass fish kills. Waters around Greenland, in the East Siberian Sea, the Chukchi, and the Beaufort have also hosted large, and potentially ocean-health threatening algae blooms.

And, in the polynyas and open waters off a melting Antarctica, massive algae blooms are also starting to form. Some of the blooms are so dense they emit a nasty rotten-eggs smell — a sign that sulfide producing bacteria may already be active in some of these waters. Fed by iron from melting glaciers, these immense blooms represent rapid explosions of life that can equally rapidly deplete waters of nutrients and then oxygen as they die off.

The blooms and the related expanding, low oxygen dead zones now range the entire world ocean. And where we see the red, the neon green, the cloudy light blue what we see are the signs of another ocean extinction in the making. An extinction that is likely building faster than at any time in the geological past. But we may still be able to avoid another great dying. The amount of carbon we’ve emitted into the world’s airs is immense, but it is still but a fraction of the carbon explosion that resulted in the Permian die-off. It is still a tiny fraction of the carbon that remains in the ground. The carbon that could be burned but shouldn’t. And a rapid cessation of fossil fuel burning now should, hopefully, be enough to prevent another hothouse spurred great dying in the oceans and upon the lands.

As for continued burning of fossil fuels — that results in ever greater risk of unleashing the horrors of the ancient hothouse. A set of now stirring monsters that we should carefully allow to fall back into slumber — leaving them to rest in dreams of the great long ago where they belong.

Links:

A Deadly Climb From Glaciation to Hothouse: Why the Permian-Triassic Extinction is Relevant to Current Warming

Antarctic Glaciers are Loading the Southern Ocean Up With Iron (Not the Good News Some Are Making it Out to Be)

Large Algae Blooms off Antarctica

Under A Green Sky

Awakening the Horrors of the Ancient Hothouse

Canfield Oceans

Nature

K-T Extinction — Impact or Hothouse Caused?

Climate Change Happening Faster Than Scientists Predicted

How Global Warming Sets off Extreme Weather

Hot Pacific Ocean Runs Bloody

Pacific Algae Bloom is The Biggest Red Tide We’ve Ever Seen

Chesapeake Bay Dead Zones

The Atlantic Ocean’s Whirlpool Dead Zones

LANCE-MODIS

Hot Pacific Ocean Runs Bloody — Blob Now Features Record Red Tide

Red Tide. It’s what happens when massive algae blooms cover vast regions of ocean.

The biological density of the blooms is so great that they can paint the waters affected a shade of brown or red. A bloody color indicative of clouds of dangerous microbes just beneath the surface. And today, a massive Red Tide — perhaps the largest ever recorded — now stretches from California to Alaska along a vast stretch of the North American West Coast already reeling under the ongoing and dangerous impact of a massive ocean heating event that researchers have called ‘The Blob.’

Red Tide

(A Red Tide can paint the ocean in bloody shades as seen in the image above. It’s also bad news for many marine species — first due to production of deadly biotoxins and second due to its ability to rob ocean waters of oxygen as the bloom dies off and decays. Image source: Wind’s Sustainability Blog.)

A Red Tide has numerous impacts to both marine life and human industry. Microbes within the tide produce biotoxins that are deadly to marine species. Domoic acid, PSP and DSP are all toxins that have been identified during the current Red Tide event. The toxins primarily affect fish and marine mammals — risking mass fish and dolphin, sea lion, seal, otter, and whale deaths during widespread blooms. The toxins concentrate as they move up the food chain, making them most dangerous to top predators. Primary effects of the most lethal toxins are convulsions and paralysis. Other toxins cause nausea, cramps and diarrhea.

Human beings are also at risk and for this reason crab and shellfish fisheries all up and down the US West Coast are being closed. Impacts are so widespread marine ecologists like Vera Trainer, manager of the Marine Microbes and Toxins Programs at the Northwest Fisheries Science Center in Seattle, are calling the event unpredented:

“The fact that we’re seeing multiple toxins at the same time, we’re seeing high levels of domoic acid, and we’re seeing a coastwide bloom — those are indications that this is unprecedented.”

Global Warming, Hot Blob — Prime Suspects

Scientists currently suspect extreme Northeastern Pacific Ocean heat led to the sudden appearance of Red Tide this week — a combination of warm and nutrient rich waters are well known to be the key ingredients for Red Tide formation. Ingredients that are increasingly prevalent due to human fossil fuel burning. Ingredients that are increasingly evident in the Northeastern Pacific. In short the burning of fossil fuels both warms the atmosphere and ocean even as it seeds the surface water with nitrogen. The warm water is a preferred environment for the microbes that form the Red Tide and the nitrogen — both as a constant rain from the sky due to fossil fuel emission and as effluent from streams due to farm runoff — essentially fertilizes the bloom.

It is for these reasons that many scientists suspect the hot Blob of water in the Northeastern Pacific has played a role in the formation of the current unprecedented Red Tide.

image

(The Northeastern Pacific hot Blob now features a dangerous Red Tide — perhaps the largest and most toxin laden Red Tide ever seen. Image source: Earth Nullschool.)

Warming the world ocean through human carbon emissions is thus a very dangerous consequence. Now, more and more regions are featuring hot zones that are increasingly deadly to sea life. This region of the Northeast Pacific in particular has seen a number of instances of mass ocean creature death due to impacts associated with warming waters. The recent Red Tide being the last of a long chain including a mass starfish die-off, fish kills, bird kills, and marine mammal deaths and disruption — including a winter and spring emergence of crowds of starving sea lion pups along California beaches.

Next Step — Anoxia, Possible Hydrogen Sulfide Issue

This particular Red Tide is still in its early stages. It could last for weeks. But as it reaches its last days, the mass production of microbial life will rob the ocean surface of the nutrients necessary to sustain it. As this happens, the microbes will experience a sudden die-off. The mass of dead microbes will then sink and decay. This decay will further rob already de-oxygenated waters, particularly off Washington and Seattle, of still more oxygen. So the final act of this particular Red Tide will be to make a bad ocean water oxygen situation in many of the affected regions even worse (in the worst case potentially setting some zones up for an ugly deep water hydrogen sulfide production).

Links:

Toxic Algae Bloom May be the Largest Ever

Huge Bloom of Toxic Algae Hits US West Coast

NOAA (Please Support!)

Sea Lion Sickness

Awakening the Horrors of the Ancient Hothouse — Hydrogen Sulfide in the World’s Warming Oceans

Starving Sea Lion Pups and Liquified Starfish How Human Warming is Turning The Eastern Pacific Into a Death Trap for Marine Species

Hat Tip to Andy in San Diego

Steaming Equatorial Pacific Sees Winds Blowing Toward Monster El Nino

Last year, we raised a warning that the 2014-2015 El Nino could develop into a monster event. And, unfortunately, there is some indication that conditions may well be continuing in that direction.

*   *   *   *

All across the broad belt of the Equatorial Pacific, sea surface temperatures are running in the hot-to-extraordinarily hot range. Starting just north and east of New Guinea, 1 C + above average temperature anomalies run uninterrupted to a zone near the date line where they encounter a hot pool in the range of +2.6 to +3.1 C above average. Running eastward, these high heat anomalies gradually taper off to +1.4 to +1.7 C along a 5,000 mile stretch before they again spike to +3 to +4 C above average just off the west coast of South America.

A massive zone of above average sea surface temperatures encompassing almost the entire width of the Equatorial Pacific:

image

(Pacific Ocean showing extreme heat anomalies across most regions. Image source: Earth Nullschool.)

Hot equatorial waters in a Pacific Ocean that, from Arctic north to Austral south, from East Asian shores to the west coasts of the Americas is a morass of record high temperatures. An ocean zone featuring few and dwindling pools of lower than average readings. Oceans undergoing rising rates of heat-related sea creature die offs in waters that, when they warm, lose vital oxygen and host toxin-producing microbes that thrive in hot water.

It’s a freakishly hot Pacific. A strange ocean. One that we aren’t quite accustomed to. One in the grips of what is already a moderate strength El Nino. An El Nino that, combined with an extraordinary human greenhouse gas heat forcing, has pushed global surface temperatures into record high range for 2014 and the first three months of 2015 thus far. An El Nino which is now threatening a new leap to monster status.

For a powerful Kelvin Wave is presently lending heat to equatorial surface waters after receiving a boost from gale force westerly winds associated with the strongest Madden Julian Oscillation on record this past March. An raging equatorial heat engine that is now drawing yet more energy from a second set of strong westerlies developing this week.

image

(Strong westerlies emerging in the Western Pacific on May 6 may provide yet another boost to the 2014-2015 El Nino. Image source: Earth Nullschool.)

In the above GFS summary, we find sustained winds in the range of 30 mph with gale force gusts in a region along and just north of the Equator near New Guinea. The winds are in association with a developing cyclone, one that models indicate will reach strong Typhoon status later this week. The westerlies stretch westward along the back of New Guinea and on toward the Philippines. There, they receive a boost from another cyclone — Tropical Storm Noul.

The result is a brisk set of westerlies running against the trades along hundreds of miles of open ocean. The kind of event with the potential to further strengthen an El Nino that is already at respectable intensity.

This week’s CFSv2 NOAA forecast models continued to indicate an extreme strength El Nino by later this year. Weighted models are now showing seasonal anomalies in the Nino 3.4 zone peaking out at +2.3 C. Weighted monthly models are showing peaks in the range of +2.5 C above average for Nino 3.4. And unweighted models are showing peak averages that now exceed +3.1 C. This is a jump from last week’s CFSv2 forecast. Another set in a continued trend for higher intensity.

Monster El Nino forecast

(NOAA’s forecast models show potential for extreme El Nino starting in June and extending into January. Image source: NOAA.)

Should such an event emerge it would truly be a monster. Something far worse than even the Super El Nino of 1998.

An extraordinary El Nino of this kind would have far-reaching climate and weather related impacts. It would push global temperatures into ever more dangerous ranges. It would strain global carbon sinks. And it would worsen drought and/or set off heavy precipitation events in various, already vulnerable regions of the globe. With model forecasts continuing to hit higher values, with so much available heat to fuel El Nino ranging the Pacific, and with strong westerlies continuing to reinforce the current El Nino, this is a situation that bears very serious continued monitoring.

Links:

Monster El Nino Emerging From the Depths

NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center

Earth Nullschool

March Shows Strongest Madden Julian Oscillation on Record

Starving Sea Lion Pups and Liquified Starfish

 

 

 

 

Ocean Dead Zones Swirl Off Africa, Threatening Coastlines with Mass Fish Kills

The world ocean is now a region of expanding oxygen-deprived dead zones.

It’s an upshot of a human-warmed ocean system filled with high nutrient run-off from mass, industrialized farming, rising atmospheric nitrogen levels, and increasing dust from wildfires, dust storms, and industrial aerosol emissions. Warming seas hold less oxygen in solution. And the nutrient seeding feeds giant algae blooms that, when they die and decompose, further rob ocean waters of oxygen. Combined, the two are an extreme hazard to ocean health — symptoms of a dangerous transition to stratified, or worse, Canfield Ocean states.

Coastal Dead Zones -- No Fish Left

(Geographical extent of more than 405 coastal dead zones worldwide. New dead zones discovered by scientists are now traversing mid-ocean regions. Image source: No Fish Left.)

In total, more than 405 dead zones now occupy mostly coastal waters worldwide. Covering an area of 95,000 square miles and expanding, these anoxic regions threaten marine species directly through suffocation or indirectly through the growth of toxin-producing bacteria which thrive in low-oxygen environments.

Mobile, Anoxic Underwater Cyclones

Now, according to new research published in Biogeosciences, it appears that some of these dead zones have gone mobile.

The report finds zones of very low oxygen covering swirls of surface water 100-150 kilometers in diameter and stretching to about 100 meters in depth. The zones churn like whirlpools or eddies. Encapsulated in their own current of water with oxygen levels low enough to induce fish kills, these ‘dead pools’ have been discovered swirling off the coast of Africa in recent satellite photos.

The ‘dead pools’ form as strong ocean eddies break off from West African ocean currents. The eddies create mixing environments near the surface which fuels algae blooms (seen as the light blue coloration in the image below). Large algae blooms are trapped in the eddy and as the algae die, they rob the water column of oxygen. The flows of the eddy form as a kind of wall to mixing with higher oxygen surrounding waters. As a result, the oxygen readings within the dead pool plummets.

Dead Pool Eddy 2

(Newly discovered ocean dead pools like the one shown above are propagating off the coast of West Africa. These eddies are mobile dead zones of low oxygen water. A new phenomena, they represent a unique threat to ocean health in addition to the 405 other, mostly stationary, dead zones in the world’s coastal waters. Image source: Biogeosciences.)

According to lead-author Johannes Karstensen, a researcher at GEOMAR, the Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research Kiel, in Kiel, Germany:

“The fast rotation of the eddies makes it very difficult to exchange oxygen across the boundary between the rotating current and the surrounding ocean. Moreover, the circulation creates a very shallow layer – of a few tens of meters – on top of the swirling water that supports intense plant growth. From our measurements, we estimated that the oxygen consumption within the eddies is some five times larger than in normal ocean conditions.”

Researchers found levels in these swirls to be less than 0.3 millilitres of oxygen per litre of seawater or about 1/100th the oxygen content of surrounding ocean. These are readings low enough to produce mass fish kills and to support production of toxin-producing bacteria harmful to oxygen dependent life.

Azores Downrange of Dead Pools

The zones were observed moving through the Tropical North Atlantic west of Africa. They propagated toward the north and west, finally petering out about 100 kilometers north of the Azores. This puts that East Atlantic archipelago directly in the line of fire of these new, low-oxygen eddies. A cause for concern. If one of these eddies were to enter the Azores the result could be a massive fish die off around the island chain.

Karstensen notes:

“…it is not unlikely that an open-ocean dead zone will hit the islands at some point. This could cause the coast to be flooded with low-oxygen water, which may put severe stress on the coastal ecosystems and may even provoke fish kills and the die-off of other marine life.”

Observations of these dead pools seems to indicate they are a new event. A possible result of nutrient enrichment of the surface waters in West African currents due to increased run-off or surface water nitrogen and dust seeding. As extreme rainfall events related to climate change wash more sediment down rivers and into the oceans, as more nitrogen compounds and particulate matter hit the atmosphere due to fossil fuel emissions, wildfire burning, and dust storms, and as sea level rise starts to flood nutrient-rich low lying areas, it is possible that the Tropical Atlantic dead pools represent an emerging ocean state that will grow more prevalent as time moves forward.

(UPDATED — 2037 EST, 5 May, 2015)

Links:

Dead Zones Moving West

Dead Zones Found in Atlantic Open Waters

VIMS: Dead Zones

No Fish Left

Ocean Dead Zones

Through the Looking Glass of the Great Dying

Hat Tip to Colorado Bob

Hat Tip to DT Lange

Hat Tip to Jeremy Beck

It’s All About Fresh Water — Rapid Sea Level Rise Points To Massive Glacial Melt in Antarctica

It’s all about fresh water. In this case, massive freshwater outflows from the vast glaciers covering Antarctica.

This week, a new scientific report published in the Journal Nature found that from 1992 through 2012 freshwater outflow from Antarctica’s massive glaciers exceeded 400 gigatons each year. An immense flood of cold, fresh water. One that helped push sea levels rapidly higher around the Antarctic continent.

But with glacial melt on the rise and with mountains of ice now inexorably sliding seaward, these freshwater flows may just be the start of even more powerful outbursts to come. And such prospective future events have far-ranging implications for sea level rise, global weather, sea ice, human-caused climate change, and world ocean health.

Flood of Fresh Water Drives More Sea Level Rise Than Expected

The researchers discovered the tell-tale signature of this vast freshwater flood through chemical analysis of the seas surrounding Antarctica. The analysis pointed to a broad and expanding fresh water layer over-riding a warmer, saltier current issuing in from the Southern Ocean.

Since fresh water is less dense than salt water, the freshwater layer expands at the ocean surface causing sea levels to rise more rapidly. Meanwhile, the heating of the deep ocean surrounding Antarctica is thought to result in additional thermal expansion of the water column.

The researchers note:

On the basis of the model simulations, we conclude that this sea-level rise is almost entirely related to steric adjustment [changes that effect atomic spacing], rather than changes in local ocean mass, with a halosteric [salt based] rise in the upper ocean and thermosteric [heat based] contributions at depth. We estimate that an excess freshwater input of 430 ± 230 Gt yr−1 is required to explain the observed sea-level rise. We conclude that accelerating discharge from the Antarctic Ice Sheet has had a pronounced and widespread impact on the adjacent subpolar seas over the past two decades.

Antarctic Sea level Trend

(Rate of sea level rise in the seas surrounding Antarctica since 1992. Aggregate sea level rise is indicated in black. Individual seas data is broken out by color. Image source: Nature.)

Previously, increased rates of sea level rise surrounding Antarctica were thought to have been set off by increasing winds around the continent. The winds were thought to push more water up against the ice faces forming a kind of perpetual, low-grade storm surge. But the current finding provides strong evidence that the source of the sea level rise is due to less dense fresh water over-topping saltier waters flowing in from the Southern Ocean combined with increasing heat along the Antarctic sea bed. And, notably, this is not the first study to find increasing freshwater flows spilling into the Southern Ocean. Last year, a KNMI expedition uncovered similar results.

More Evidence of Large-Scale Melt

The study comes on the back of other recent findings showing that warm water invasion at Antarctic glacier bases had led to more rapid than expected melt and destabilization. In May, two NASA studies showed that a broad section of West Antarctica had destabilized and was sliding at an ever more rapid pace toward the ocean (see reports here and here). These findings held stark implications for global sea level rise as large ice regions of Greenland and West Antarctica, containing enough water to raise seas at least 15 feet, are likely already in a state of irreversible collapse.

 

Regional Anomaly Sea level Antarctic

(Sea level rise anomaly of the region surrounding Antarctica compared with the rest of the Southern Ocean. Red indicates faster than normal sea level rise. Blue indicates slower than normal sea level rise. Image source: Nature.)

This intensifying glacial melt and associated freshwater cap expanding out from the pole has implications — not just for sea level rise, but for sea ice, weather, and world ocean system health.

Impacts For Sea Ice

Large outflows of glacial fresh water may well be involved in the recent observed expansion of sea ice in the zone surrounding Antarctica (see recent related study). Fresh water serves as an insulative cap on the ocean surface preventing warm water from entering the top layer from below. The warm, salty water, in the Antarctic instead pools near the bottom or at the base of the great ice sheets.

Fresh water also freezes at a higher temperature than salt water. So sea ice in an expanding freshwater zone around Antarctica would have naturally higher resiliency even to the rising temperatures now occurring due to human-caused warming. Eventually, however, human heat forcing would overwhelm the ice, but not before a period of related, localized negative feedbacks.

The Iceberg Cooling Effect

The fresh water is a haven for sunlight-reflecting sea ice. It is interspersed with ice bergs from the glacial discharge and the large ice bergs cool the surrounding air. The fresh water layer prevents warm water upwelling from the warm, deep waters surrounding Antarctica. And the leading edge of the fresh water would drive salt-water down-welling along its advancing front. This would push warmer waters toward the ocean bottom, resulting in a kind of heat sink. And this is exactly the kind of dynamic that appears to be ongoing in the Southern Ocean now. These combined impacts are what is known as the ice berg cooling effect associated with large-scale glacial outbursts known as Heinrich Events. And we may well be in the process of setting off one of these geological scale nightmares.

20121230_iceberg_cooling_effect_Hansen_Sato

(Iceberg cooling effect under a mid-range warming scenario when global climate models were set to include the effects of large freshwater outflows from polar glaciers at a fast enough rate to raise seas by 60 cm through 2060 and 144 cm through 2080 [left frames]. Note the cooler zones in the Southern Ocean and North Atlantic adjacent to Greenland. Right frames include mid range emissions/warming scenarios and IPCC projected rates of sea level rise. It is worth noting that the amplifying effects of potential additional ghg release from the global climate system, particularly from Arctic and world ocean carbon stores, are not included in these simulations. Image source: Hansen and Sato.)

For global weather, such events have major implications. Regional cooling in the zone of freshwater outflow would juxtapose regional warming in the southern hemisphere meridional zones. This temperature differential would increase with the strength of the fresh water outflow and the rising intensity of the human-driven warming. The result would be a powerfully intensified storm track. Both the intensified storm track and increased atmospheric moisture loading due to human warming would result in much more powerful weather events than we are currently used to and the potential for catastrophic storms would drastically increase.

Amplifying Feedbacks and a Blow to World Ocean Health

Lastly, the expanding flood of fresh water would result in an increasing stratification of the world ocean system. This stratification would drive warm, salty water toward the ocean bottom and deplete already low oxygen reserves in that region. In addition, the extra heat is more likely to destabilize deep-sea clathrates — releasing methane which will speed in the oxygen depletion of the abyssal waters even as it tips the world ocean system to stop storing carbon and to begin releasing it. A combined feedback that is both an ocean killer and an amplifier to the already extraordinarily powerful human heat forcing mechanism.

Links:

Rapid Sea Level Rise Along Antarctic Margins Due to Increasing Glacial Discharge

Important Role For Ocean Warming and Enhanced Ice Shelf Melt in Sea Ice Expansion

Update on Greenland Ice Sheet Mass Loss: Exponential?

Grim News From NASA: West Antarctica’s Entire Flank is Collapsing

Nature: Human-Destabilized Antarctica Capable of Glacial Outbursts Contributing to Up to 14 Feet of Sea Level Rise Per Century

 

Awakening the Horrors of the Ancient Hothouse — Hydrogen Sulfide in the World’s Warming Oceans

“Dead Cthulu waits dreaming…” H.P. Lovecraft

In the 1930s, pulp horror writer H.P. Lovecraft penned tales of ancient monsters called Old Ones that, if awakened, would emerge to devour the world. One of these horrors, Cthulu, lay in death’s sleep in his house called R’lyeh at the bottom of the Baltic Sea (Charles Stross) awaiting some impetus to disturb him from necrotic slumber (ironically, the Baltic sea bed contains one of the world’s highest concentrations of the deadly hydrogen-sulfide producing bacteria that are a focus of this article).

Namibia Hydrogen Sulfide Emission 2007

(2007 Hydrogen Sulfide emission off the coast of Namibia. Such emissions tend to color the surface water green and, in extreme cases, black. Image source: Earth Observatory)

In the imaginary world of H.P. Lovecraft, terrible lore of these horrific Old Ones, among which, Cthulu was the worst, lay stored in ancient tomes. To learn of these mysteries was to risk madness. For the Old Ones were too awful for the human mind to conceive without succumbing to a hopeless darkness.

In researching the terrors that could emerge in a world destabilized by human warming, I am often reminded that human imagination is not without a sense of dramatic irony. But in this case, the irony invoked is that human imagining, in fiction, seems to sometimes possess a broader perception of potential real world risks and their implications for human thought, than the far more defined warning signal coming from the sciences.

Cthulu, in this case, may as well be a metaphor for one of the worst of the world’s ancient climate horrors — the oceanic production of hydrogen sulfide gas that occurred from time to time, during various hothouse events. A production implicated in many of the worst mass extinction events ever to mar the history of life on Earth.

Hydrogen Sulfide — Bi-product of Bacterial Metabolism in the Ancient Oceans

In understanding this ancient horror, we must first take a look at some of the world’s oldest and smallest creatures. Primordial bacteria.

About 3.5 billion years ago, the Earth was a hot, toxic place, bombarded by solar radiation. It was still cooling down after its initial formation. The oceans had spilled out over its surface, but the continents had yet to emerge. Atmospheric levels of CO2 were high and oxygen was virtually nonexistent.

676px-Dvulgaris_micrograph

(Desulfovibrio vulgaris, one of the most well-researched hydrogen sulfide producing bacteria. Image source: Commons)

But, in this world, small microbial organisms thrived. Deprived of oxygen, which is the now typical means of respiration for non plant organisms, the microbes required other sources for their simple cellular metabolism. Sulphate was common in the world’s emerging oceans and reacted well with hydrogen, which was also very common. The result was the emergence of some of the oldest known living organisms — the sulphate reducing bacteria.

Suphate reducing bacteria combined sulphate and hydrogen to produce hydrogen sulfide gas or H2S.

As a result, ancient oceans were cauldrons bubbling over with hydrogen sulfide which was the biproduct of these primordial organisms’ respiration in much the same way that oxygen is a biproduct of plant respiration and CO2 is a biproduct of animal respiration. Such an ocean state, called a Canfield Ocean by today’s scientists, was the common state for the world’s oceans until the emergence of more complex life around 2.5 billion years ago. By about 600 million years ago, the Canfield Ocean state only very rarely came into being and when it did, mass death tended to rapidly follow.

Changes Came With the Emergence of Oxygen

As the Earth system matured and new organisms came into being, CO2 reducing photosynthetic life emerged and began to produce an abundance of oxygen. Toxic to the ancient organisms, the abundance of oxygen pushed the sulphate reducing bacteria into the world’s low-oxygen corners. The deep ocean, or anaerobic mud became a haven for these tiny primordial monsters. Never again would they dominate as they once did. But, from time to time, when priomordial ocean states would infrequently emerge during various hot-house phases in Earth’s climate progression, these life forms would explode, producing prodigious volumes of what, to more complex life, was the very toxic hydrogen sulfide gas.

A Toxic, Volatile Gas

Hydrogen sulfide is directly toxic to most plant and animal based life. Its effects in animals are similar to that of hydrogen cyanide in that it eventually results in cardio-pulminary shock and then death. Lower levels of hydrogen sulfide are associated with loss of smell, blindness, respiratory infections, and loss of neurological and nervous system function. At very low levels, hydrogen sulfide is non toxic and is even produced in cells to perform various functions. Human lethality begins at around 600 parts per million. Smaller mammals with higher respiration rates begin to show lethality at around 450 ppm. Doses in the range of 10-20 parts per million have been known to cause eye irritation and damage over long periods of exposure. Levels over 50 ppm are generally considered harmful if exposure occurs for long durations. Doses between the irritation dose (10 ppm) and the lethality dose (600 ppm) over extended periods are shown to cause the eye damage and degenerative nerve and lung changes listed above.

In the environment, hydrogen sulfide causes numerous other damaging impacts. The gas reacts with hydroxyl and oxygen over the course of about 1 to 3 days to produce sulfur dioxide. Aside from providing a mechanism to draw down local oxygen levels, the sulfur dioxide product can end in the stratosphere where it substantially degrades the protective ozone layer.

Though hydrogen sulfide is slightly heavier than air, tending to pool at lower elevations, it is light enough to be born aloft by winds to various layers of the atmosphere and its even lighter sulfur dioxide products are quite a bit more mobile. At high enough atmospheric concentrations, both it and its sulfur products could begin to seriously degrade the Earth’s protective ozone layer. And evidence exists in the geological record of such events occurring on at least a couple of occasions during the last 250 million years. Notably, during the Permian extinction event, large numbers of fossils have been found with the characteristic UV damage that would occur in a world in which the ozone layer had been greatly degraded.

At high enough concentrations, hydrogen sulfide is volatile enough to burn. A 4.3 percent concentration is immediately combustible, producing a bluish flame. This extraordinarily high concentration would be almost immediately lethal to humans if inhaled and usually only presents a fire risk at highly concentrated sources.

In the current day, high concentrations of hydrogen sulfide gas are often associated with natural gas extraction. Natural gas, by volume, can contain as much as 90 percent hydrogen sulfide. The hydrogen sulfide, in this case, occurs due to catalytic reaction of the hydrocarbon with certain minerals present in the Earth. Though not produced by the same mechanisms as oceanic hydrogen sulfide, the gas in this form is just as dangerous and is a constant concern to workers of the oil and gas industry. Notably, risks of hydrogen sulfide exposure, leaks, and release into the environment have greatly increased with the widespread adoption of hydro-fracking practices that use high pressure liquids to rupture tight gas deposits and chaotically release the substance for its collection at one of the US’s 1 million well sites.

In general, the volatility, danger, and toxicity of the gas is difficult to overestimate. Notably, its lethality resulted in its use as a chemical weapon during World War I.

Culprit of Past Mass Extinctions

High concentrations of hydrogen sulfide, resulting both from its production in a Canfield type ocean state and, possibly, through its release in large methane pulses from the sea bed during catastrophic warming events, has been implicated in numerous mass extinction events both on land and in the ocean. Notably, the Permian-Triassic extinction, the Triassic-Jurassic extinction, and the PETM extinction in the deep oceans all show signs related to ocean anoxia and varying levels of hydrogen sulfide gas production. Earlier mass extinctions such as the Devonian and Ordovician extinctions were also likely caused by anoxia and related hydrogen sulfide production. Lesser extinctions in which ocean anoxia also probably played a part include  the Ireviken, Mulde, Lau, Toarcian and Cenomanian-Turonian events.

Prominent researchers such as Ward and Kump propose that hydrogen sulfide production by sulfate reducing bacteria is a primary extinction mechanism in stratified and anoxic oceans due to their inevitable multiplication in these environments which are, to them, far more favorable than oxygen-rich mixed oceans. In a Canfield Ocean world, large, episodic releases of hydrogen sulfide gas would cause local mass poisonings of land dwelling animals, especially of those living near large ocean-linked bodies of water. The ocean itself would be brimming full and spilling over with this nasty substance. This condition would be highly toxic to most life, requiring extreme adaptation to survive in naturally occurring havens.

Separate depletion of atmospheric oxygen through both the plant killing mechanism of hydrogen sulfide gas and its long-term reaction with oxygen would also make life far more difficult to terrestrial creatures. Finally, the massive amounts of sulfur dioxide produced in such a world would combine with the hydrogen sulfide pulsing into the atmosphere to create an ongoing, long-term degradation of the ozone layer, further harming surface dwelling plants and animals.

During the Permian Extinction, such conditions, together with other impacts of a global hothouse featuring a massive flood basalt, are thought to have wiped out more than 70% of terrestrial organisms and a total of more than 95% of all life on Earth.

Occurrence in Current Seas

Expanding Ocean Anoxia Hydrogen Sulfide in the Baltic Sea

(Expanding bottom anoxia, hypoxia and hydrogen sulfide production since 1960 in the bottom zone of the Baltic Sea. Red indicates region experiencing low or no oxygen content. Black indicates areas where H2S gas is detected. Image source: Baltic Sea Trends)

The world’s oceans, according to recent research, are rapidly becoming more stratified and less oxygen-rich. The result is that mixing between various layers of the ocean is beginning to shut down reducing oxygen content in the deep ocean and spurring the expansion of numerous oceanic dead zones.

Over the past 150 years, the Pacific Ocean was observed to become more stratified at a pace ten times that seen during the end of the last ice age about 12,000 years ago. Such a rapid pace of stratification is putting severe stress on the world’s oceans with numerous regions showing the effects of low oxygen (hypoxia) and some regions succumbing to increasingly anoxic states.

These low oxygen events have been associated with multiplying oceanic dead zones. Very large dead zones have been observed in the Pacific, specifically off the coast of Oregon. Other major dead zones continue to be observed at the mouth of major river systems, such as within the Gulf of Mexico, where the appearance of massive related toxic algae blooms is now an almost annual event. In general, almost all ocean dead zones are expanding leading to the dramatic reduction in habitat size of numerous fish species. And even the most cursory research provides ample evidence that ocean hypoxia is expanding concurrently with a rapidly expanding ocean stratification.

When combined with the jarring effects of rapid ocean warming and expanding acidification, it becomes plainly obvious to almost any ocean ecologist that the world’s ocean system is suffering the heavy bombardment of a new mass extinction event.

It is this kind of low or no oxygen environment that is a prime breeding ground for hydrogen sulfide producing bacteria. In numerous places around the world, such as off the coast of Namibia, in the Black Sea, in the Baltic Sea, in the Gulf of Mexico, in the Chesapeake Bay, and off the coast of Oregon, large and expanding zones of hydrogen sulfide have been observed in deep water environments. In some regions, this hydrogen sulfide occasionally penetrates to the surface layer resulting in major fish kills and a concordant rotten egg smell.

Off the Oregon coast, in perhaps one of the most extreme examples of ongoing ocean hypoxia, one of the world’s largest and most oxygen-starved dead zones continues to expand. The oxygen levels in this region are so low that local fisherman often bring back horrific tales of baby bottom dwelling creatures such as crabs and octopus climbing anchor ropes to escape the dangers of their oxygen-starved environment. In another, possibly related event, masses of starfish perished during 2013 and 2014 as they, over the course of a few weeks, turned to goo. The fact that this sci-fi esque mass death of starfish occurred near one of the world’s largest dead zones should not be lost on those concerned for world ocean health.

But perhaps even more concerning is the fact that this region off the Oregon coast is producing substantial volumes of hydrogen sulfide gas. Volumes high enough in concentration to occasionally cross the ocean-air boundary.

Oregon possesses numerous features that would aid in the transport of this gas to the surface. Primarily, the near Oregon ocean system frequently features strong up-welling currents. These currents can push bottom waters through stratified layers and cause them to contact the surface. If these oxygen starved bottom waters contain hydrogen sulfide gas, as they increasingly do, this harmful gas can be transported into the local atmosphere through mixing.

Such events, thus far, have been limited. However, since the Oregon dead zone’s discovery in 2001, its expansion has been both deeply concerning and well documented, showing a rapid and dangerous growth over the 13 years since its emergence. Despite the documented expansion of deep water hydrogen sulfide in numerous oceanic regions, the only other ocean zone on Earth observed to emit hydrogen sulfide gas to the atmosphere is in the region of coastal Namibia.

In Namibia, huge volumes of organic compounds fall into the sea after being flushed down ocean terminating streams and rivers. These organic compounds rain down into the deep ocean directly off Nambia’s coasts. There, the ocean bottom hosts both an anoxic environment and masses of hydrogen sulfide producing bacteria. As a result, toxic hydrogen sulfide gas periodically erupts from the ocean and into the atmosphere there.

The Very Real Threat That is Oceanic Hydrogen Sulfide Gas Production

There are few limiters to oceanic hydrogen sulfide production in the world’s increasingly stratified and oxygen starved oceans. Sulphate, which the bacteria require for respiration, is one of the most common ocean elements. In the current ocean, it is present in volumes greater than those seen during the Permian Extinction when these tiny monsters are thought to have done their worst.

Iron and manganese in the world ocean system aids in the development of less permeable boundary layers that help keep a lid on deep ocean concentrations of hydrogen sulfide. However, even in the anemic circulation of stratified and Canfield oceans, upwelling will bring the gas to the surface in certain regions. In addition, as the oceans contain greater and greater volumes of the toxic gas, it will push closer and closer to the surface, rendering metals that help reinforce the boundary layer a practically useless prophylactic (such high metal concentrations currently prevent hydrogen sulfide from penetrating the surface layer in the Black and Baltic Seas as well as in the Chesapeake Bay).

In addition, modern industrial farming practices provide extra nutrients upon which these dangerous microbes can feed. High levels of hydrogen sulfide in the deeper regions of the Chesapeake Bay, for example, owes its existence, in part, to massive farm run-off into the Bay and the dumping of mass volumes of nutrients upon which the sulphate reducing bacteria can feed.

It is important to note that we observe heightened levels of hydrogen sulfide gas in the world ocean system now. As hypoxia and anoxia progress with the human-caused warming of the oceans, and as glacial melt interrupts and alters the now strong ocean currents and related mixing, it is certain that hydrogen sulfide production in the deep ocean will continue to increase resulting in elevating levels of harm to ocean dwelling animals and ever more numerous instances of hydrogen sulfide gas contact with coastal and surface waters.

Dead Cthulu Rises

In the context of increasing ocean hypoxia and stratification, we might do well to remember that we are tiny, weak beings at the mercy of great natural forces which we can barely conceive or understand. Forces that we have unwittingly, callously and ignorantly set into motion.

*   *   *   *   *

Long ago, when I was a ten year old child, I was fortunate enough to meet an amazingly kind, adventurous and inquisitive man. The man, whom I will call Rick to keep safe his identity, was a bit of a local paramour in ocean and bay research. He was constantly in contact with both the ocean and adjacent Chesapeake bays, ever venturing out to explore and to conduct research on marine life. In later years, he would be the impetus behind annual summer marine science camps hosted by the Virginia Institutes of Marine Science, Norfolk Academy, and Old Dominion University. But this was later. Now, Rick was helping an elementary school student present on the issue of our then expanding understanding of marine science.

Living so close to the bay and ocean, I was intimately in contact with the living boundary of land and sea. In the more demanding and less stimulating forum that was public education, I seldom had the opportunity to indulge my passion for the oceans. But at age 10 I was given the opportunity to give a broad marine science presentation for my classmates. As part of my project, I constructed posters and models depicting the current state of world ocean research. I graphically illustrated the various known zones of the bathysphere, the light and life filled ones and the more mysterious and far less well understood depths. But Rick was the centerpiece of my presentation. He was my keynote. And he energetically answered all my own and fellow students’ questions, speaking in the kind and intriguing manner that would later draw so many into his charismatic orbit.

In later years, I would attend Rick’s summer marine science camps on two different occasions. In both cases, I observed what appeared to be an increasing concern about both the health of the Chesapeake Bay and the neighboring oceans. In later years, Rick’s attitude, once so full of optimism, bordered on cynicism. The world he loved so deeply was experiencing death on a scale that horrified him. And he harbored a deep sense of betrayal that we weren’t doing more to stop the senseless slaughter of so many of the living things he saw as both beautiful and wondrous.

In the mid 2000s, Rick committed suicide. To me, one of the great ocean pioneers of my developmental years had passed away by taking his own life. And I couldn’t help but wonder if the horrible ways in which the oceans that he so loved were changing was just too much for him. If the commercialization and cheapening of all the things he held most dear along with their subsequent damaging and putting at great risk of terrible harm had robbed his life of beauty and purpose.

Rick was, if anything, a very intelligent and sensitive man. He knew what was happening to the Bay and ocean on a personal level. When the Bay was harmed it was as if it hurt Rick too.

Rick also knew how temperature changes affected the depths. For he was on the front line studying it. He was hauling up the fish and the water samples. He was doing the measuring with his own hands.

Was the awakening of terrible Cthulu, in the form of hypoxia, anoxia and deadly hydrogen sulfide producing bacteria, too much for Rick to continue bearing mute witness? Did his pleas to those working in the marine science community fall only on deaf ears? Was it just too much for this sensitive, feeling, and intelligent man to bear?

*   *   *   *   *

If Rick taught me anything it was that our lives and the life of the ocean are deeply connected. One cannot remain healthy without the other. In contrast to this basic understanding, the damage our continued industrial emission of greenhouse gasses is doing to the world ocean system is a horrific travesty. And the damage we have already caused, have already done to those most sensitive creatures among us, have already set in play for future decades and centuries, is tremendous.

The ocean suffocates, bleeding deadly hydrogen sulfide gas. Cthulu rises from his ancient house in the depths. And yet we still continue down the wretched path in pursuit of more terrible things to come.

Links:

The Earth Observatory

Baltic Sea Trends

Commons

Through the Looking Glass of the Great Dying

Sulphate Reducing Bacteria

Impact From the Deep

Toxicological Profile for Hydrogen Sulfide

Positive Reinforcement, H2S and the Permo-Triassic Extinction

Massive Release of Hydrogen Sulfide to the Surface Ocean and Atmosphere During Intervals of Ocean Anoxia

Expanding Ocean Dead Zones are Shrinking Marlin, Tuna, and Billfish Habitats

Dead Zone Causing Wave of Death off Oregon Coast

Information about Hydrogen Sulfide in the Baltic Sea

Residence time for Hydrogen Sulfide in the Atmosphere

Dramatic Expansion of Ocean Dead Zones

Under a Green Sky

Through The Looking Glass of The Great Dying: New Study Finds Ocean Stratification Proceeded Rapidly Over Past 150 Years

During the terrible mass extinction event at the Permian-Triassic boundary about 250 million years ago nearly all life on Earth was snuffed out. The event, which geologists have dubbed “The Great Dying,” occurred during a period of rapid warming on the tail end of a long period of glaciation (see A Deadly Climb From Glaciation to Hothouse: Why the Permian-Triassic Extinction is Pertinent to Human Warming). According to reports by Dr. Peter Ward, a prominent geologist specializing in causes of previous mass extinctions, the Permian extinction was composed of three smaller extinction events occurring over the course of about 50,000 to 80,000 years which together wiped out 96% of all marine species and 70% of all land species. Ward’s book “Under a Green Sky,” in my view, together with Hansen’s seminal “Storms of My Grandchildren” provide an excellent if terrible rough allegory of the climate beast we seem to be in the process of awakening.

A2 model run

(NCAR A2 model run shows global surface temperatures near those last seen during the PETM and Permian/Triassic extinction events by 2090 under a middle-range fossil fuel emissions scenario. A2 does include some added emissions via amplifying feedbacks from massive polar methane or CO2 stores along with other Earth Systems feedbacks. It is worth nothing that the P/T extinction occurred at the end of a glacial period while the PETM did not and was notably less pronounced. It also worth noting that global average temperatures are currently about .2 C above those seen in the 1990s.)

As noted above, Ward’s work focused on causes and what he found at numerous dig sites around the world was evidence of a ‘Great Dying’ that began at the ocean floor, proceeded upward from the depths, and eventually came to transcend the ocean boundary and inflict a similar, if less pronounced, lethality upon terrestrial organisms. The mechanism Ward proposed for the worst extinction in Earth’s geological memory involved how oceans and, in particular, living creatures in the oceans, respond to rapid warming. Ward found that during periods of high heat called hothouse states, oceans first became anoxic and stratified and then, during the worst events, transitioned to a deadly primordial state called a Canfield Ocean.

A stratified ocean is one in which the layers become inverted and do not mix. Warm water is avected toward the ocean bottom and a cooler layer on top keeps that warm layer in place. The warmer water beneath is oxygen poor and this results in more anaerobic microbes living in the deep ocean. Overall, global ocean warming also contributes to an anoxic state. Many of these microbes produce toxins that are deadly to oxygen dependent organisms. As they multiplied, the combined low oxygen/high toxicity environment created a layer of death that slowly rose up through the world ocean system.

The primary lethal agent Ward proposed for this action was hydrogen sulfide gas. This deadly gas, which has an effect similar to that of cyanide gas, is produced in prodigious quantities by an anaerobic bacteria whose remnants lurk in the world’s deep oceans. In lower quantities they turn the water pink or purple, in greater quantities — black. Oxygen is toxic to these primordial bacteria. And so, in the mixed oceans of the Holocene all the way back to the PETM boundary layer, these little monsters were kept in check by a relatively high oxygen content. But start to shut down ocean mixing, start to make the oceans more stratified and less oxygen rich and you begin to let these dragons of our past out of their ancient cages. And once they get on the move, these creatures of Earth’s deep history can do extreme and severe harm.

Ward hypothesized that these ancient organisms and the gas they produced eventually came to fill the oceans and then spill out into the atmosphere.

An anoxic, stratified ocean full of anaerobic organisms and out-gassing hydrogen sulfide to the atmosphere is a primordial sea state known as a Canfield Ocean. And Ward found that such hot, toxic waters were the lethal agent that most likely snuffed out nearly all life 250 million years ago.

A Climate Hockey Stick for the World Ocean System: Oceans Show Marked and Rapid Stratification Over the Past 150 Years

Peter Ward’s tone was nothing if not fearful in his book ‘Under a Green Sky.’ He wrote with the wisdom of a man who has come face to face with terrible limits time and time again. He wrote with the wisdom of a man shocked by some of the hardest truths of our world. He also made a plea — could scientists and experts of different fields please work together to give humanity a better measure of the risks he saw to be plainly visible.

Chief among these risks, according to Ward, included a rapidly warming planet. Ward found that both extreme high heat conditions as well as a relatively rapid pace of warming, in geological terms, increased the speed of transition to stratified ocean and Canfield Ocean states. Ward acknowledged that high rates of water runoff from continents likely contributed to anoxia. Recent studies have also indicated that rapid glacial melt combined with rapid global heating may contribute to a an increasingly stratified and anoxic ocean system.

Now, a new study of deep ocean corals entitled Increasing subtropical North Pacific Ocean nitrogen fixation since the Little Ice Age and conducted by researchers at the University of Santa Cruz and published in Nature has discovered proxy evidence that ocean stratification over the past 150 years advanced at the most rapid pace in at least the last 12,000 years. The study analyzed the sediment composition of coral growth layers to determine changes in ocean states since the 1850s. As the corals sucked up the dead bodies of micro-organisms over the past 1,000 years, the researchers were able to analyze what was happening to the cyanobacteria at the base of the food web.

What they found was that the bacteria increased their rate of nitrogen fixation by about 17 to 27 percent over the past 150 year period. And that this pace of change was ten times more rapid than that observed at the end of the Pliestocene and beginning of the Holocene 12,000 years ago.

Nitrogen Proxy Records and Their Relationship to Climate Change

(The Ocean’s Hockey Stick? Nitrogen Proxy Levels and Their Relationship to Climate Change.)

Increasing nitrogen fixation is an indicator of ocean stratification because cyanobacteria species under stress evolve to fix higher amounts of nitrogen from the surface transfer boundary with the air if particulate nitrogen levels in their environment drop. In a healthy, mixed ocean environment, nitrogen from various sources (terrestrial, run-off, etc), is readily traded between ocean layers due to the mixing action of ocean currents. In cooler oceans, more nitrogen is also held in suspension. But as oceans become warmer and more stratified, a loss of mixing and solubility results in lower nitrogen levels.

The researchers believe that this increase in nitrogen fixation is a clear indication that the region of the Pacific they observed is rapidly becoming more stratified and that this rate of increase is probably an order of magnitude faster than what occurred during the last major transition at the end of the last ice age.

“In comparison to other transitions in the paleoceanographic record, it’s gigantic,” Lead author Sherwood noted. “It’s comparable to the change observed at the transition between the Pleistocene and Holocene Epochs, except that it happens an order of magnitude faster.”

A separate study analyzing the nitrogen content of sea bird bones also provided proxy indication of a shift among cyanobacteria toward greater rates of nitrogen fixation, providing some additional confirmation for the increased ocean stratification observation. (An excellent article providing a more in depth exploration of these studies is available here.)

These studies combine with numerous observations of declining ocean health, increasing ocean hypoxia and anoxia, and an increasing number of observed mechanisms that may result in a more and more stratified ocean state as human warming intensifies to increase concern that the worst fears of Dr. Peter Ward and colleagues may be in the process of realization. (See: Dead Dolphins,  Climate Change Devastating Ocean Fishermen, and Mass Starfish Die-off for more indicators of failing ocean health.)

Concerned Journalists and Terrified Ecologists

Put into various contexts, the current state of climate and environmental health does channel our worst fears that the Permian Extinction event may well be in for a human-caused repeat. The current estimated background extinction rate of 100-250 species per day is possibly the most rapid in all of geological history. The current CO2 level, near 400 parts per million, is higher than at any time during which human beings walked the Earth. The pace of greenhouse gas emissions is at least six times faster than at any time in the geological record. And the current, very large, forcing provided by humans does not yet include a probable powerful and unpredictable response from the Earth’s natural systems.

As Ecologist Guy McPherson notes — Nature Bats Last. And we should not be comforted by this notion. Because Nature carries the biggest stick of all. A consequence hanging over our heads that grows larger and more dangerous with each passing year during which our insults to her continue.

Among the pessimists regarding the end consequences of human caused climate change and related pollution, ecologists are the worst of the bunch. This is likely due to the fact that ecologists are very intimately involved in the study of how communities of organisms succeed or fail in natural settings. Among all groups of scientists, they are perhaps the ones most intimately familiar with the way in which all living things are connected to both one another and to the natural world. Ecologists know all too well that small shifts can mean huge changes to biodiversity, the rate of death among living beings, and the distribution of species in a given environment. But the changes humans inflict are not small in the least. They roughly ripple through the natural world in ways that ecologists know all too well have never before been seen.

Dr. McPherson is such an ecologist and one with such great conscience and concern that he, years ago, abandoned most of the luxuries of modern civilization to live in a fashion that produced the least harm possible. Not that this action has resulted in more optimism on his part. In fact, Guy is one of a growing group of people who believe that no action is likely to save humankind. That our insults to the natural world have already grown too great.

McPherson notes:

“We’ve never been here as a species and the implications are truly dire and profound for our species and the rest of the living planet.”

In this observation, Guy is probably right. But I sincerely hope that his and my own worst fears do not emerge.

It was Guy’s ongoing tracking of various dangerous alterations to world climate systems and assertion that human extinction may well be nigh that drew the attention of prominent journalist Dahr Jamail. Jamail recently penned the article: “The Great Dying Redux: Shocking Parallels Between Ancient Mass Extinction and Climate Change.

Reading professor emeritus Guy McPherson’s blog was enough to convince Mr. Jamail of the risk that current warming could result in an extinction event to rival that of the Great Dying so long ago. Mr. Jamail notes:

It is possible that, on top of the vast quantities of carbon dioxide from fossil fuels that continue to enter the atmosphere in record amounts yearly, an increased release of methane could signal the beginning of the sort of process that led to the Great Dying. Some scientists fear that the situation is already so serious and so many self-reinforcing feedback loops are already in play that we are in the process of causing our own extinction. Worse yet, some are convinced that it could happen far more quickly than generally believed possible — even in the course of just the next few decades.

And so we come full circle. Rapid human warming leads to troubling ocean changes that hint at those feared to have resulted in mass extinctions during the Permian-Triassic boundary event. And the very rapid human warming puts at risk the catastrophically rapid release of Arctic methane which would certainly consign Earth to a rapid jump from a glacial to a hothouse state and potentially produce the kind of Canfield Oceans Dr. Ward fears. It is a deadly transition for which we have growing evidence with almost each passing day, one that McPherson and others fear could truly make an end to us and to so many other living creatures on this world.

So many scientists, so much valid reason to be dreadfully concerned, and yet we continue on the path toward a great burning never before seen in Earth’s history…

Links (Read them!):

A Deadly Climb From Glaciation to Hothouse: Why the Permian-Triassic Extinction is Pertinent to Human Warming

Increasing subtropical North Pacific Ocean nitrogen fixation since the Little Ice Age

The Great Dying Redux: Shocking Parallels Between Ancient Mass Extinction and Climate Change.

Deep Sea Corals Record Dramatic Long-Term Shift in Pacific Ocean Ecosystem

Nature Bats Last

Colorado Bob’s Climate Feed

Dead Dolphins

Mass Starfish Die-off

Climate Change Devastating Ocean Fishermen

NCAR A2 Model Run

Hat Tip to David Goldstein

Radio Ecoshock Interview: Record Floods, ENSO, Methane Release, and Slope Collapse

ecoshockradio_header

Last week, I discussed the issues of recent record floods, record ocean temperatures despite the negative Pacific Decadal Oscillation, methane release, slope collapse and ocean stratification along with other environmental and ecological issues surrounding our ongoing climate change crisis with Alex Smith at Radio Ecoshock. The program became available online late Tuesday and will be airing on various radio stations around the US this week. You can click on the image above to listen to my 30 minute interview or you can listen to the entire 60 minute program which also includes an interview with Oxford marine biologist Dr. Alex Rogers here.

The professionally produced program will air on 71 radio stations over the coming week and will be continuously available online at Radio Ecoshock. This is, perhaps, one of the best interviews I’ve conducted and Alex Smith is a fantastic host providing fantastically insightful questions and analysis. So, if you have the time, I wholeheartedly suggest you listen to the entire program.

Those familiar with my blog will probably be well acquainted with the topics discussed. In addition, Dr. Rogers provides an excellent analysis of his recently published State of the Oceans 2013 report which is available here. In it Dr. Rogers explores ongoing threats to the world ocean system resulting from human activity and carbon emissions to include ocean acidification, increasing instances of ocean anoxia (both in the deep ocean and near coastlines), as well as the ongoing impacts caused by over-fishing. Rogers also hints at the growing problem of ocean stratification which combines with a warming ocean system to greatly increase anoxia.

State of the Oceans

(Link to 2013 State of the Oceans report here)

Perhaps most alarming is his explanation that fish species such as marlin are already altering their migration patterns due to changes in ocean water oxygen content — an ominous sign that we are already moving to a more stratified ocean state.

For reference, the following blogs will be helpful to those listening:

August 2013: Hottest Ocean Temperatures on Record Defy ENSO, Spur Continental Deluges

Growth Shock and our Climate Change Choices: Mitigation, Adaptation or Harm

A Requiem for Flooded Cities: Russian Flood Disaster Worsens, Amur River to Hit 30 Feet

I Have A Confession to Make: We Are In Trouble

The Methane Monster Grows New Teeth: Sea Level Rise Found to Cause Methane Release, Tsunamis, Slope Collapse

A Song of Flood and Fire

A Deadly Climb From Glaciation to Hothouse, Why the Permian Extinction is Pertinent to Human Warming

Climate Monsters We Want to Keep in the Closet: Heinrich Events, Superstorms, and Warming the Deep Ocean

Worst Heatwave in 140 Years Turns Deadly After Scorching China for More than a Month; Forecast Predicts No Relief

Heatwaves — they’re a regular risk of summer. But this year has seen a rash of particularly vicious and anomalous instances. As the Arctic baked under numerous heatwaves in which temperatures shattered the 90 degree (Fahrenheit) mark, as the US experienced some of its worst southwestern heat ever recorded, as the UK experienced record summer heat and wildfires, and as Spain sweltered as temperatures soared above 40 degrees C (above 104 F), China was experiencing its own version of a global warming amplified scorcher.

The worst heatwave in 140 years smothered about 1/3 of China, a sprawling area covering about 3 million square miles. At the heat epicenter, Shanghai, a region inhabited by 23 million people, saw daytime temperatures above 35 degrees C (95 F) for more than 25 days during July of 2013. On July 26th, Shanghai experienced an all-time record high of 106 degrees Fahrenheit (42 C), a level not reached since record keeping began in 1873.

Shanghai also reported ten deaths and far more numerous heat injuries for the month, as the hot weather intensified this Wednesday, while dozens of deaths have been reported over a large, scorched area of south-coastal China.

Throughout this week, China has been issuing its second highest national heat alert. This level requires the establishment of a 24 hour emergency operations center in order to provide emergency response and support capabilities for the hardest hit areas. The highest alert level is so extreme that China has never used it. Unfortunately, as the human-caused warming trend continues, it seems ever more likely that such a high heat category will have to be put in use.

Those living in Hangzhou, a region located about 100 miles to the southwest of Shanghai, may have already thought officials should have used such a marker as temperatures soared to above 104 degrees Fahrenheit (40 degrees C), for six out of seven days over the past week. Meanwhile, Xiaoshan saw a new all-time record high temperature of 108 degrees Fahrenheit (42.2 degrees C) on Tuesday. The coastal city of Ningbo saw temperatures hit 109 degrees F on July 26th, the highest temperature ever recorded for a coastal city in all of South-East Asia.

In what has become a kind of macabre ritual in widening areas of the world affected by extreme heat, Chinese residents laid out shrimp and eggs to fry over scorching road surfaces. More ominously, the extreme heat threatened crops even as it baked rivers and lakes setting off massive fish kills from heat and anoxia. In some regions, the fish kills were so extreme that an estimated 60 percent of all fish were lost (normal summer heat may result in 5-10 percent fish losses in affected regions).

In order to protect crops and fish, China has engaged in a cloud seeding effort in hopes of spurring rainfall over scorched areas while it is urging localities and fish farmers to pump new water into ponds and rivers to enhance oxygen levels and reduce fish losses.

Heat dome, coastal flow, very high wet bulb temperatures

Coastal region of China hardest hit by heat wave.

Coastal region of China hardest hit by heat wave.

(Image source: Lance-Modis)

A dome of hot, moist air has persisted over this region for nearly a month now. Though rainfall and even flooding events have occurred due to a flow of Pacific moisture over the area and the occasional onrush of tropical cyclones, these rainfall events have done little to alleviate a combination of oppressive heat and humidity.

Flows off the ocean would normally help to somewhat alleviate the heat, but an area of typically hot summer water is now showing readings 1-2 degrees Celsius above average. This broad region of hotter than normal surface ocean waters off China now show temperatures higher than 30 degrees Celsius (86 degrees Fahrenheit). Windflows issuing off these extraordinarily hot ocean surface areas are not very helpful in cooling the baking land. Worse still, the heat dome conditions — stifling airflow, concentrating heat and locking in place a layer of heat amplifying haze and smog — have persisted for much of the past month. This combination of less effective ocean cooling and heat dome conditions has resulted in a terribly severe heatwave for this coastal region.

Coastal heatwaves are particularly oppressive and potentially lethal due to the fact that humidity tends to remain higher than in more arid regions. A wet bulb temperature above 35 degrees Celsius (95 Fahrenheit) is considered lethal for human beings. Those living in Southeast Asia are well used to living under sweltering conditions of high heat and humidity. But as temperatures approach this human threshold (25 C + wet bulb temperature), even those acclimated are at increased risk. So both extreme heat and high humidity likely contributed to the sad and tragic dozens of instances in which lives were lost during this particular event.

The forecast for Shanghai next week calls for continuing record heatwave conditions with high temperatures ranging from 99 to 102 degrees (Fahrenheit) from Sunday through Saturday. With humidity levels near 50% this means wet bulb temperatures will approach 29-30 degrees Celsius during the hottest portions of the day. This continuation of a scorching summer heat wave will result in high risk of both heat injury and loss of life for those living in this sweltering region. With little to no relief in the forecast, this section of China is likely to remain under the fire of human-caused heating as August advances.

Links:

People Crops and Fish Suffer in China’s Heat Wave

Dozens of Deaths Blamed on China’s Heat Wave

Heat Wave Blamed for Huge Pile of Dead Fish

%d bloggers like this: