Warmer ocean threatens California sea lion population

July 25, 2016
Photos of California sea lions

California sea lion harem at San Miguel Island rookery. Taken by Tony Orr (NOAA)

According to a recent Reuters article, biologists have reported worrying trends in the California sea lion population resulting from a warming ocean. This has seen both lower birth rates, and an alarming increase in young sea lions starving and being stranded on the beaches.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), since January this year, already over 2,000, mostly young sea lions have been found either dead or dying on the southern and central coasts of California.

This is apparently over twice the average number of stranded animals considered normal, yet comes nowhere near the record 4,600 beached sea lions found in 2015, predominantly in the first half of that year. (Of those animals beached in 2015, rescue teams were able to rehabilitate and release 1,300. The rest were already dead when found or died during rehabilitation.)

Rather than seeing this year’s reduction in stranded sea lions as a positive sign, however, NOAA biologists have proposed that this fall may in fact be a consequence of the declining birthrate. Both phenomena are thought to be due to rising ocean temperatures along the Pacific Coast, which has caused increasing scarcity in the sea lion’s food supply of sardines, anchovy and squid.

The California sea lion population has been estimated to be around 300,000; however this was prior to the dramatic rise in beached animals which began in 2013, the overall impact of which has not yet been calculated.

In contrast to other sea lion populations, California sea lions are not yet considered too be a species at risk. Nevertheless, if continued for a decade or more, this trend could pose “pretty dire consequences,” said NOAA’s Jeff Laake. 

According to Laake, “It’s all nutrition-based.” 

Scarcity of food around the island rookeries off Southern California has lead nursing mothers to venture further afield to feed their pups, which in turn has meant young sea lions being left on their own for greater periods of time. 

Normally, the pups fast for several days while their mothers are away, however, with longer to wait, many malnourished pups and juveniles stray from the islands in search of food, before being caught up in currents and washed up on mainland beaches.

The reproductive cycle of these marine mammals has also been severely affected. NOAA figures from the Santa Barbara coast in the Channel Islands show a 40 percent fall in sea lion births between 2014 and 2015. According to Reuters, this is also due to food-related stresses on adult female sea lions. The more energy required to find prey, the harder it is for them to successfully breed or carry their pups to term.

The rise in sea temperatures has been linked to a decline in winds which help bring cooler, nutrition-rich water from the depths of the Pacific up closer to the surface. It is unclear how long these conditions will persist and experts have postulated that this situation may have been exacerbated by the recent El Niño impact. 

In 1983, another El Niño year, California sea lion pup numbers on all rookery islands in the Channel Islands declined between 30 – 71 percent, according to the NOAA, and it took another 6 years before the recorded total born and that survived equalled those recorded in 1982. 

Sources include: Reuters and NOAA


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Japan launches precipitation-measuring satellite in bid to understand world’s weather

February 28, 2014

Following weeks of extreme and highly unpredictable weather all over the world, the launch of a new “precipitation measuring” satellite means we may from now on be more prepared…

Japan has successfully launched a rocket carrying a satellite built to track global rain- and snowfall, according to the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA). The US-built “Global Precipitation Measurement Core Observatory” launched at 3.37am (Japan Standard Time) on Friday 28th February from the Tanegashima Space Center in southern Japan.  The satellite is part of an international initiative to help us better understand the world’s water cycle and its relationship to storms, droughts and climate change, and is designed to help meteorologists more confidently predict extreme weather such as storms and typhoons.

Steve Neeck, NASA’s deputy associate administrator for Earth science flight programs, said of the project:

“Why are we flying GPM? Rain and snowfall affect our daily lives in many ways … The distribution of precipitation … directly affects the availability of fresh water for sustaining life. Extreme precipitation events like hurricanes, blizzards, floods, droughts and landslides have significant socio-economic impacts on our society.”

Indeed, after months of volatile weather, including deadly snowfall in Japan, severe flooding in the UK and a life-threatening Arctic freeze in the US, the promise of a more comprehensive weather observation system could not come at a better time.

The mission to launch the GPM Core satellite has been in place for over a decade. As a continuation of the Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission, which began in November 1997, GPM will, among other uses, improve the resolution of images gathered by the TRMM satellite.

JAXA, the Japanese Space Agency, and NASA, have collaborated on the project and together have invested over $1.2 billion creating the sophisticated technology.

Designed and built at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, the GPM Core satellite weighs more than four tons fully fueled. It hosts two instruments to peer inside storms and through cloud layers from an altitude of more than 250 miles, acting like an X-ray for the clouds.

One of the instruments, the Dual-frequency Precipitation Radar provided by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, will scan the planet to acquire three-dimensional views of rain and snow showers.

The other, NASA’s GPM Microwave Imager, or GMI, built by Ball Aerospace and Technologies Corp. will measure the total precipitation suspended inside clouds and falling to Earth.

“The GMI will sense the total precipitation within all cloudlayers, including, for the first time, light rain and snowfall,” Neeck said. “The DPR will make detailed three-dimensional measurements of precipitation structures and rates as well as particle drop size.”

The information gathered by the Observatory will fill gaps in precipitation data over oceans, remote land masses and other undeveloped regions.

The spacecraft is set to become the centrepiece of a worldwide program to synthesize observations from disparate international satellites into a database of global rainfall and snowfall, which will be accessible every three hours.

Researchers plan to use data from the GPM Core Observatory to calibrate microwave measurements gathered from the network of already-flying international satellite missions (developed by the United States, Japan, France, India and Eumetsat, the European weather satellite agency), creating a uniform dataset scientists can rely on in their work.

“When scientists incorporate data from the international fleet, they can get a snapshot of all precipitation on Earth every three hours” said Gail Skofronick-Jackson, NASA’s deputy GPM project scientist.

In this way, said Riko Oki, JAXA’s lead scientist in the project, the data recorded by GPM Core Observatory “will be to the benefit of all.”

Sources include: space.com; The Japan Times


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Arctic Freeze blasts its way through Eastern USA and Canada…

January 7, 2014

Boiling water freezes in mid-air and lakes become like steaming hot-tubs. The record-breaking cold in the USA is truly a force to be reckoned with…

Over the past 48 hours, the Midwest and North East of the USA has been in the grip of a cold front, the likes of which has not been experienced for decades. The windchill and snow brought by The Polar Vortex, or “Polar Pig”, as it is also been known, has forced temperatures to as low as -50 degrees Celsius, causing power outages, school closures and major travel delays in parts of the United States and Canada.

The city of Indianapolis, capital of Indiana, was issued a RED weather warning making it illegal to drive except in an emergency. Toronto faced cold of up to -24C and Chicago broke records yesterday after temperatures plummeted to -27C. Even the Southern States have suffered. Yesterday, the temperature of Dallas, Texas was -4C, while that of Alaska was (ironically) closer to 1C. Snow storms abounded in St Louis, with up to 16″ of snow, and Atlanta reached -7C.

In some areas around the Midwest and Northern Plains, the cold was considered “life-threatening”. In temperatures like these, frostbite can occur within 10 minutes. The cold has now shifted Eastwards, and last night a code blue alert was issued by the Department of Homeless Services, New York, doubling the number of volunteers on the streets providing relief to those without shelter.

Utility companies added extra energy-generating capacity and repair crews, urging customers to limit power use and warning others that they’re likely to see higher heating bills. Xcel Energy faced such increased demand, it was forced to ask to ask 850 businesses in Minnesota and North Dakota to reduce their reliance on the utility and switch to propane tank supplies so the utility can meet higher demand from other customers. Monthly heating bills and the price of Natural Gas are expected to rise as a result of the bitter chill.

Although weather systems like this are common in the North of Canada, they rarely come as far down as the USA let alone its Southern regions. The unusual Southerly blast is thought to be down to a low pressure build up in the area and subsequent jet stream.

The end may be in sight, however, as flights, including some by company JetBlue, have been resumed, and it is expected that the “sub-zero temperatures and snow will virtually be gone by Wednesday”.

Sources Include: BBC News; USA Today; The Weather Network; The Guardian and The Telegraph.


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Floating wind farms off Fukushima coastline mark a big step in the search for alternative energy sources

November 12, 2013

In the wake of the March 2011 earthquake and ensuing tsunami that devastatedJapan’s Fukushima prefecture, attention has turned increasingly towardsalternative sources of energy, as Japan seeks to downscale its dependency on nuclear energy.

Recent explorations into the world of renewable energy have led researchers towards wind power as a potential alternative, and indeed, a floating wind turbine station set up just off the coast of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant marks an important step in the downscaling operation.

The floating turbines, which lie 20 kilometres away from the coast where the damaged nuclear power plant is located, could become the world’s largest offshore wind farm, capitalising fully on the huge potential Japan has for wind power.

Japan’s offshore winds reportedly have the capacity to produce over 1500 gigawatts of power, a remarkable figure representing over five times the amount of power currently produced by Japan’s existing energy companies.

Takeshi Ishihara, who leads the Fukushima wind farm project alongside his role as a civil engineer at the University of Tokyo, says of the project: “I believe that the Fukushima (wind) project will help the Fukushima region and Japan as a whole move toward more use of renewable energy.” In the wake of the March 2011 disaster, nuclear energy is no longer seen as a dependable source of energy, and as such, wind power is a source of renewable energy that is increasingly seen as vital to Japan’s search for alternative energy sources.

The idea of an offshore wind farm is relatively novel in terms of renewable energy, but its development is an important one, bringing with it several advantages which set it apart from traditional wind turbine towers.

The construction of normal wind towers is usually done from the seafloor upwards; a costly process which becomes exponentially more costly in waters upwards of 50 metres in depth. In the waters off Japan’s coastline, sea levels lie at 50 metres at the bare minimum, increasing up to 200 metres in some areas. Floating wind turbine stations present a solution to this financial problem, as they come complete with their own substation, and are firmly rooted to the seabed by huge steel chains, allowing them to operate efficiently even in the deepest waters.

And as they are located further out from the coastline, these floating wind farm stations will benefit from the faster wind speeds found off the coast. Walt Musial, principal engineer at the National Wind Technology Centre in Colorado, USA, said of the wind stations: “Japan has lots of deep water off the coast, which is a good wind resource. In order to develop that resource it needs to be at the forefront for floating turbine technology.”

Whilst the Fukushima wind farm project does still have some way to go before its completion, facing obstacles both technologically and politically, it nevertheless marks a positive step in Japan’s quest for alternative sources of energy. Sources suggest that reputed companies such as Marubeni, Mitsubishi and Hitachi are keen to pay for the installation of 140 floating wind turbines, pending a successful pilot of the scheme.

Sources include: The Japan Daily Press


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Half-tonne meteorite removed from Russian lake

October 17, 2013

The largest known fragment of the meteorite that exploded over the Russian district of Chelyabinsk earlier this year has been pulled from the lake in which it landed.

After several failed attempts to remove the chunk of rock – which weighs almost 600 kilograms – a team of Russian divers succeeded in hauling the object from Lake Chebarkul in central Russia, eight months after it crashed in February 2013, leaving a 6 metre-wide hole. Scientists are yet to find a larger fragment of the meteorite, which was initially thought to be seventeen metres in diameter and 10,000 tonnes in weight when it burned up over central Russia, injuring over 1000 people and causing over $31 million worth of damages in the process.

This particular chunk of meteorite was found in September, but various factors have delayed the excavation process until now. For starters, the meteorite fragment lay buried under twenty metres of thick mud and sediment, which took ten days to be pumped away. Adverse weather conditions, including storms and zero visibility conditions, hindered the process further.

Now removed from the lake, the fragment has been transferred to the regional natural history museum, where it is being examined and x-rayed in order to determine what type of minerals it is made up of.

Sergey Zamozdra, associate professor of Chelyabinsk State University, has suggested that the fragment is one of the top ten biggest meteorite fragments ever found. And whilst many other fragments have been removed from the lake, very few have been verified as true meteorites. Zamozdra himself is certain that this fragment is part of the February 2013 meteorite, concluding that “The preliminary examination…shows that this is really a fraction of the Chelyabinsk meteorite. It’s got thick burn-off, the rust is clearly seen and it’s got a big number of indents. This chunk is most probably one of the top ten biggest meteorite fragments ever found.”

Sources include BBC News, RT


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IPCC report ‘95% certain’ that mankind is responsible for global warming

September 28, 2013

A new report published this week in Stockholm by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has predicted ‘with 95 per cent certainty’ that greenhouse gas emissions produced by humans are to blame for the Earth’s global warming.

Known as AR5, the report is the product of the collaborative efforts of 840 main authors, selected from 38 of the IPCC’s member countries. The report stands at a massive 3000 pages, and is so extensive that only the initial third, which focuses on the physical sicence of climate change, has been released at present. The final two thirds are scheduled to be published in instalments over the next 14 months, and will look at the impact of climate change, and how to reduce our contribution to global warming.

The main findings of the report, however, are a stark warning to us all. The IPCC’s 95 per cent prediction stands in sharp contrast with previous assessment reports, which lay at 50 per cent in 1995, 66 per cent in 2001 and 90 per cent in 2007. The IPCC’s message could not be clearer: there is now little evidence to convince the members that mankind is not the principal cause of increased levels of the greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide and methane, which are the cause of climate change.

The report also warned that should greenhouse gas emissions continue at current levels, it would cause further warming and changes across the climate system; changes which would require ‘substantial and sustained reductions of greenhouse gas emissions’ to be contained or reduced. Professor Thomas Stocker, an IPCC co-chair, speaking at a news conference in Stockholm, said that climate change “challenges the two primary resources of humans and ecosystems, land and water. In short, it threatens our planet, our only home”.

The publishing of the IPCC’s report has seen climate campaigners harden their stance on climate change, calling for increased action from the UK with regards to emissions reduction.  Any Atkins, executive director of Friends of the Earth UK, said: “Scientists are now as convinced that humans are causing climate disruption as they are that smoking causes cancer – politicians can’t continue to stand idly by while the world goes spinning towards climate catastrophe.

“Tough action is urgently needed to end the planet’s dangerous fossil fuel fixation and to develop the huge job-creating potential of renewable power – with developed nations like Britain taking the lead.”

Sources include BBC News, The Independent


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Tornado strikes Japan as Meterological Agency unveils new warning system

September 4, 2013

As the typhoon season reaches its peak in Japan, local inhabitants of Saitama and Chiba were surprised on Monday afternoon by a freak tornado which injured over 60 people and wrecked over 100 buildings.

The tornado began in Koshigaya, Saitama Prefecture, injuring 63 people and wrecking  buildings before going on a 14-km rampage into neighboring Chiba, local police said. It swept through houses and fields around 2 p.m., knocking down utility poles, peeling off roofs and sending debris into the air. According to local police one man’s skull was fractured by an object sent flying by the tornado. In Koshigaya, seven buildings were destroyed and another 100 severely damaged. About 4,000 households were also left without power by the twister.

Based on police data from the two prefectures, the tornado wreaked havoc along a 13.8-km stretch, touching down in Koshigaya before veering northeast toward the town of Matsubushi and heading to Noda, Chiba Prefecture. In Matsubushi, the roofs of 10 houses were ripped off but no injuries were reported. In Noda, however, the twister damaged 27 cars, the roofs of 68 houses and knocked out power to about 6,200 households.

The Japan Meteorological Agency reported that the tornadoes were likely caused by a thundercloud called a “supercell,” which has generated mega tornadoes in the United States and elsewhere in the past,

Meanwhile, the Agency also announced on Aug. 30 that in a response to an increase in severe weather events they had started a “special warning” (tokubetsu keiho) designation for natural disasters that are very likely to cause heavy damage. As Mr. Mitsuhiko Hatori, director general of the agency, said, a special warning means that a life or death situation is imminent. Once such a warning is issued, the general public and local governments must think that a life-threatening situation is approaching and take necessary action — that is, evacuate quickly to minimize the possibility of disaster-related casualties.

Special warnings will be issued for heavy rains, storms, high tides, high waves, heavy snow and blizzards. But the agency will continue to use the conventional terms “emergency earthquake early warning” (kinkyu jishin sokuho) for an earthquake whose intensity is six or higher on the Japanese scale of seven, “eruption warning” (funka keiho) for a volcanic eruption that requires evacuation and “major tsunami warning” (o-tsunami keiho) for a tsunami that is more than three meters high. The agency said that these conventional terms are on a par with special warnings.

In the case of heavy rains, a special warning will be issued for each municipality when a record heavy rain for the past 50 years is imminent. The agency has set a criterion for issuing a special heavy rain warning by studying past precipitation records, including precipitation for three hours periods and for 48 hour periods, in individual municipalities across the country.

From the rainy season to autumn, people watch for a special heavy rain warning, due to climate change localized heavy rains are occurring more frequently in Japan nowadays. In the past month, record heavy rains hit the Tohoku and Chugoku regions, causing casualties. If the new criteria are applied, these heavy rains have been strong enough to merit the issuance of special warnings. At that time, the agency called on local residents to “immediately take an action that protects your life.” But it turned out that the call came too late for some areas — after the peak of heavy rains passed. The agency now plans to improve the accuracy of its weather forecast so that future special warnings will be issued in a more timely manner.

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