Solving the San Francisco plankton mystery

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchLook into the oceans past the sharks, seals and fish and you will find the tiny phytoplankton. These small organisms form the basis of life in the seas but if their populations get to big, they can also choke the life from it by forming large and suffocating algal blooms.

Solving the San Francisco plankton mysteryThe waters of San Francisco Bay have never had big problems with these blooms and if anything, scientists worried that the waters didn’t have enough phytoplankton. All that changed in 1999, when the phytoplankton population started growing. It has doubled in size since.

Now, scientists from the United States Geological Survey (USGS) have found that the blooms are the result of a long chain of ecological changes in the area. The plankton are just players in a large ensemble drama involves clams, mussels, fish, crabs and a cold snap.

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How soil imprisons ancient carbon

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed Research

Deep underground, there lies a sleeping giant that we would do well to avoid waking. The giant is a massive, dormant amount of carbon, and it’s better for us that it remains trapped in the ground rather than circulating in the atmosphere as carbon dioxide.

Soil changes characteristics with depthMany of the most crucial debates of the 21st century will involve reducing the amount of carbon dioxide being pumped into the atmosphere. The many possible solutions include trapping carbon, either in the trunks of trees or in underground vaults. The irony is that a massive amount of carbon is already locked safely away underground.

The world’s soil acts as a carbon prison and it holds more of it than the earth’s atmosphere and all of its living things combined. Over three trillion tonnes of the element are incarcerated in soil and about 80% of this is found at depths of up to 3 metres. At these levels, carbon is very stable and plays no part in the carbon cycle, the process where the element is exchanged between the land, air and sea.

Now, Sebastien Fontaine and other scientists from the French National Institute for Agricultural Research have found that deep soil retains carbon so well because it lacks enough fuel for the microbes that decompose organic matter.

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Did climate change kill off the Neanderthals? Not likely…

The reasons why the Neanderthals died off remain a mystery. One of the major theories says that they were the victims of major climate changes, but new evidence suggests that this is an unlikely scenario.

In an age where climate change driven by our own hand is poised to cause catastrophic changes to human life, it seems fitting to work out if shifting climates also doomed our evolutionary cousins, the Neanderthals.

A Neanderthal hunter - did he fail to compete with humans?The question of why the Neanderthals died out has been the source of fierce debate since the first bones were discovered in the early 19th century. Some scientists turned the finger of blame inwards, suggesting that early humans killed them off, either directly, through violence and the spread of new diseases, or indirectly by gradually out-competing them.

Others have accused changing climates. According to them, Neanderthals were adapted to cold environments and, being less flexible than humans, they were unable to cope with a warming post-Ice Age world.

Now, Chronis Tzedakis from the University of Leeds has found compelling evidence that the Neanderthals extinction was unlikely to have coincided with the extreme shifts in climate at the end of the last Ice Age.

While their findings don’t rule out the climate change model completely, they strongly suggest that it wasn’t a major factor in the Neanderthals’ downfall.

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Megaflood in English Channel separated Britain from France

At a time when severe flooding is still causing problems in the North of England, it’s worth noting that flooding was a key factor in Britain’s past. Hundreds of thousands of years ago, one of the largest floods in Earth’s history turned us into an island and changed the course of our history.

Britain was not always isolated from our continental neighbours. In the Pleistocene era, we were linked to France by a land ridge called the Weald-Artois anticline that extended from Dover, across what are now the Dover Straits.

This ridge of chalk separated the North Sea on one side from the English Channel on the other. For Britain to become an island, something had to have breached the ridge.

 

Britain was once connected to France by a land ridge.

Under the Channel

Now, Sanjeev Gupta and colleagues from Imperial College London have found firm evidence that a huge ‘megaflood’ was responsible. They analysed a hidden series of massive valleys on the floor of the English Channel – vast gouges of bedrock 50 metres deep and tens of kilometres wide.

These valleys were first noticed by geologists in the 1970s but until now, no one really knew what caused them. Gupta decided to find out with the help of some modern technology. He used high-resolution sonar to create a contour map of the Channel floor, and found that this hidden world was remarkably well preserved.

The megaflood sent a million cubic metres of water flowing into the Channel every second.He saw a clear picture of the huge, linear valleys, branching out in a westerly direction. In and among the valleys lay long ridges and grooves running parallel to the channel, V-shaped scours that taper upstream, and streamlined underwater islands up to 10km long.

All in all, these images show that the valleys are geological scars, formed by erosive torrents of water travelling west from the Dover straits. Their size and features are consistent with a massive flood, carving out the land in its wake.

Where did the water come from?

During the Pleistocene, the North Sea was actually a giant lake, closed off at its northern edge by merged ice sheets from Britain and Scandinavia, and at its southern edge by the Weald-Artois ridge.

This lake was fed by both the Thames and the Rhine rivers. That, combined with the melting ice, eventually burst the Weald-Artois barrier, sending the lake’s water surging into the Channel.

Gupta estimated that the flood would have lasted for several months and involved at least two episodes. At its peak, one million cubic metres of water flowed into the Channel every second, a thousand times more than the Victoria Falls.

The megaflood changed both the local geography and the course of British history. It reorganised the drainage of the Thames and Rhine rivers to the Channel rather than the North Sea. And most importantly, it permanently separated Britain from continental Europe.

A megafloor changed the drainage of the Thames and Seine into the Channel rather than the North SeaThe flood made migration into the newborn island more difficult and aside from some early attempts at settlement, Britain was completely devoid of humans for about 100,000 years.

Once humans finally colonised this green and pleasant land, our island status has affected our entire history from our power as a naval empire, to our strategies during the Second World War to our national character.

 

Reference: Gupta, Collier, Palmer-Felgate & Potter. 2007. Catastrophic flooding origin of shelf valley systems in the English Channel. Nature 448: 342-346.

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Top image from original Nature paper.

Bleached corals recover in the wake of hurricanes

Hurricanes can physically cool coral reefs but they can also save them, by cooling the surrounding ocean and reversing the effects of bleaching.

Hurricanes can reverse coral bleaching by cooling surrounding waterIn 2005, corals in the large reef off the coast of Florida were saved by four hurricanes. Tropical storms seem to be unlikely heroes for any living thing. Indeed, coral reefs directly in the way of a hurricane, or even up to 90km from its centre, suffer serious physical damage. But Derek Manzello from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administation has found that corals just outside the storm’s path reap an unexpected benefit.

Hurricanes can significantly cool large stretches of ocean as they pass overhead, by drawing up cooler water from the sea floor. And this cooling effect, sometimes as much as 5°C, provides corals with valuable respite from the effects of climate change.

Rising temperatures, dying corals

As the globe warms, the temperature of its oceans rises and that causes serious problems for corals. Their wellbeing depends on a group of algae called zooxanthellae that live among their limestone homes and provide them with energy from photosynthesis. At high temperatures, the corals eject the majority of these algae, leaving them colourless and starving.

These ‘bleached’ corals are living on borrowed time. If conditions don’t improve, they fail to recover their algae and eventually die. But if the water starts to cool again, they bounce back, and Manzello found that hurricanes can help them to do this.

Together with scientists from the Universities of Miami and the US Virgin Islands, he measured the extent of bleaching in reefs off Florida and the US Virgin Islands over the course of 2005.

Corals bleach when temperatures riseBy September, both reefs were suffering from equal amounts of bleaching. But while the situation continued to worsen in the storm-free Virgin Islands, the advent of four hurricanes in Florida turned the tide in the reefs’ favour.

Hurricanes vs bleaching

The storms – Dennis, Rita, Wilma and the infamous Katrina – each left behind an imprint of cooler water and the seas within 400km of their paths cooled by up to 3.2°C and stayed that way for up to 40 days. Two weeks after the fourth hurricane, Wilma, had passed, the corals had almost completely recovered.

Manzello’s study shows that the benefits of hurricanes on coral reefs can sometimes outweigh the localised physical wear and tear they cause. The question now is whether this is an isolated incident or a common occurrence.

Manzello isn’t sure. Based on the numbers of bleaching events and hurricane landfalls in Florida since the 19th century, the odds of both happening at the same time (as in 2005) is about one in seven. But the actual probability is likely to be higher especially since the same factors that cause bleaching, such as warmer water, also encourage the growth of hurricanes.

Even so, it would be extremely foolish to expect hurricanes to bail corals out completely – only conservation projects and addressing rising temperatures can do that.

Reference: Manzello, Brandt, Smith, Lirma, Hendee & Nemeth. 2007. Hurricanes benefit bleached corals. PNAS doi.10.1073/pnas.0701194104.

Related posts on corals:
Hope for corals – swapping algae improves tolerance to global warming
Corals survive acid oceans by switching to soft-bodied mode

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Icebergs are hotspots for life

Icebergs are hotspots for Antarctic life. The water around them teems with nutrients, plankton and animals – a mobile community dragged along by the drifting ice. Together, they enrich over a third of Antarctic waters.

Icebergs are hotspots for Antarctic life.Say the word iceberg, and most people are likely to free-associate it with ‘Titanic’. Thanks to James Cameron (and, well, history too), the iceberg now has a reputation as an cold murderous force of nature, sinking both ships and Leonardo DiCaprio. But a new study shows that icebergs are not harbingers of death but hotspots of life.

In the late 1980s, about 200,000 icebergs roamed across the Southern Ocean. They range in size from puny ‘growlers’, less than a metre long, to massive blocks of ice, larger than some small countries.

They may be inert frozen lumps, but icebergs are secretly in the business of nutrient-trafficking. As the ice around Antarctica melts in the face of global warming, some parts break free from the parent continent and strike out on their own. As they melt, they release stored minerals into the water around them, and these turn them into mobile homes for a variety of life.

A tale of two icebergs

Kenneth L. Smith Jr, from the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, and other scientists from San Diego discovered the true extent of these icy ecosystems by studying two icebergs floating in the Antarctic Weddell Sea.

Even the smaller of the two, W-86, has a surface area larger than 17 football pitches. The larger one, A-52 was over a thousand times bigger, with a surface area of 300 km2 and extending 230 metres into the freezing waters.

Smith and crew identified the duo through satellite imaging, and tracked them down by boat. Their ship spiralled around the blocks of ice collecting water samples as it went, from a dangerously close distance of a few hundred feet to a safer five miles away.

Hotspots for life

Diatoms cover the underside of icebergs and form a ring of life around them.The skies above the two icebergs were patrolled by seabirds, including Cape petrels and Antarctic fulmars. Below the water, Smith explored the icebergs’ undersides with a remote-operated vehicle and found them teeming with life.

Below W-86, he saw a lattice-like surface, and the ridges of these were home to diatoms (right). These single-celled algae are part of the phytoplankton, microscopic creatures that make their energy from the sun and form the basis of the ocean’s food web. In between these diatom-covered ridges, baby icefish and segmented worms swam among the lattice’s nooks and crannies.

A-52 was even more varied, with large caves extending deep into the iceberg’s core. The team found diatoms here too, along with Antarctic krill (below), small shimp-like animals with a taste for diatoms. Among these were various invertebrates – comb jellies, colonial jellyfish-like animals called siphonophores, and predatory torpedo-shaped worms called chaetognaths.

Further out, the area immediately around the iceberg was void. But just beyond that, the ice was encircled by another halo of phytoplankton. These creatures, along with the diatoms on the ice itself, were thriving on the nutrients released by the melting ice, such as iron.

When Smith exposed diatoms to tiny mineral-rich particles filtered from his collected water samples, they grew slowly and steadily, while other diatoms cultured in normal water did not.

Diatoms fed by meltwater nutrients from icebergs, act as food for krill.These drifting islands of ice were dragging entire communities along with them. As they drift and melt, they release small amounts of important nutrients. That triggers the growth of creatures at the bottom of the food chain and provides the foundations for larger animals like krill and seabirds. A-52 alone enriched a massive ring of water about the size of the Isle of Man.

To estimate the effect of other icebergs, Smith used satellites to count the number of bergs in a sample area. Within this space, the satellites spotted almost a thousand individual icebergs that, together, covered less than 0.5% of the ocean’s surface. But even this small amount was enough to enrich over 39% of the Southern Ocean!

Icebergs and climate change

By providing support for phytoplankton, the icebergs were also inadvertently helping to mitigate the effects of climate change. Just like land plants, phytoplankton make their own energy through photosynthesis. And just like land plants, they absorb carbon dioxide to do so. By eating the phytoplankton and excreting the remains, krill cause carbon to fall down into the ocean depths in a rain of droppings.

So even as their parent continent melts and releases carbon into the atmosphere, icebergs serve to draw planet-warming carbon away from the air and transfer it to the deepest sea. Smith believes that climate modellers need to take this into account to better predict the effects of melting Antarctic ice.

The disappearing ice can reveal underlying rock which absorbs more heat, hastens melting and releases even more trapped carbon – this is known as ‘positive feedback’. But as the ice melts, icebergs break off and these help to suck in carbon from the atmosphere – this is ‘negative feedback’. The next task is to understand how these two processed balance out.

Reference: Smith Jr, Robison, Helly, Kaufmann, Ruhl, Shaw, Twining and Vernet. 2007. Free-drifting icebergs: hot spots of chemical and biological enrichment in the Weddell Sea. Science doi.10.1126/science.1142834.

Other posts on ecology:
Shark-hunting harms animals at bottom of the food chain
The fox and the island – an Aleutian fable
Parasites can change the balance of entire communities
Human nitrogen emissions indirectly capture carbon by fertilising forests

Human nitrogen emissions indirectly capture carbon by fertilising forests

Human activity has greatly increased the levels of active nitrogen in the environment. By acting as a fertiliser and speeding the growth of forests, this extra nitrogen has indirectly locked up more carbon dioxide in the world’s trees.

There is no doubt that of all the elements in the entire periodic table, carbon is currently hogging the limelight. As it cycles through our environment, the policy decisions and economic futures of entire countries hang in the balance.

Industrial exhausts pump huge amounts of nitrogen into the atmosphere.For all its media-whoring, you might be forgiven for forgetting that carbon is not the only element we are belching into the environment. Over the last century, we have greatly overwhelmed the natural nitrogen cycle too.

Nitrogen – the neglected element

Through the manufacture of nitrogen-based fertilisers and the exhausts of our cars, power plants and factories, we have more than doubled the natural levels of active nitrogen in the atmosphere.

Nitrogen is a valuable commodity in many parts of the world, and restricts the growth of local plant life. As such, the recent man-made influx has led to large increases in plant growth. In some cases like algal blooms that choke rivers and lakes, it’s too much of a good thing. But there is a silver lining.

Federico Magnani from the University of Bologna, together with an international team of scientists, have found that the changes in the nitrogen cycle may have been inadvertently fertilising our forests.

Carbon and nitrogen

The world’s forests act as massive carbon sinks, delaying the global warming effects of carbon dioxide by trapping it in prisons of wood and leaves. And larger forests mean more trapped carbon. The temperate forests of the Northern Hemisphere alone could store a massive 600 megatonnes of carbon every year.

The carbon and nitrogen cycles dance around each other in complex ways. When nitrogen levels increase, forests respond by channelling growth from roots to leaves and trunks. These above-ground organs are more enduring than roots and retain sequestered carbon for a longer time. More leaves also means increased photosynthesis, which serves to draw more carbon dioxide in from the air.

The extra nitrogen also delays the decay of leaf litter, further halting the release of organic carbon into the atmosphere.

The world’s forests act as massive carbon stores.Magnani’s colleagues are not the first group to try and look at the interplay between nitrogen levels and carbon capture. But other studies have found it difficult or impossible to account for the effects of nitrogen alone.

Carbon balance

A forest’s carbon balance – the amount of carbon trapped versus the amount released – depends on a variety of factors, including its age, logging, fires, and more. Some of these are easy to account for at a small scale. For example, when logging or fires kill off patches of forest, they become net sources of carbon as they start to regrow.

But after a couple of decades or so, the mature forest turns into a carbon sink, and the amount it stores outweighs the amount it releases. Clearly, a forest’s carbon balance changes as it matures, but real forests consist of patches of vegetation are very different ages.

To look at the overall picture, Magnani’s group took direct measurements of the carbon balance over a long period of time, from a network of forest sites in Western Europe and the USA. This allowed them to account for short-term sources of variation. And by using direct measurements, they have surpassed the models and simulations of previous studies.

The group found that carbon balance corresponds well with nitrogen levels in the area. In fact, the prowess of some forests at carbon capture seem to be overwhelmingly driven by their extra nitrogen boost. Our effects on the nitrogen cycle may have been acting like an unexpected carbon offset scheme.

Practicalities

By fertilising forests, nitrogen emissions could offset carbon emissions.So should we start pumping nitrogen in our forests to trap more carbon dioxide? Certainly, Magnani’s results suggest that small extra amounts of nitrogen can cause unexpectedly large levels of carbon capture. But his view and those of other commentators is a resounding “Not yet”.

There are still many questions left to be answered, particularly about the exact relationship between nitrogen addition and carbon levels. There is some evidence that some temperate forests are suffering from nitrogen saturation. Could adding more nitrogen damage them, or prevent them from returning to a situation where nitrogen is limited and not free-flowing?

And what of the other risks and benefits? The extra wood from the faster-growing trees could find a use as a replacement for concrete, a notoriously eco-unfriendly building material. But additional nitrogen could affect other animals and plants in the local environment. Would biodiversity suffer if certain species monopolise the newfound nitrogen bonuses?

As future research addresses these questions, those involved in forest management would do well to heed the importance of the world’s forests in sequestering carbon dioxide. There are other ways of increasing forest coverage besides mass-fertilisation, and the most obvious one is safeguarding the forests that we already have!

Reference: Magnani, Mencuccini, Borghetti, Berbigier, Berninger, Delzon, Grelle, Hari, Jarvis, Kolari, Kowalski, Lankreijer, Law, Lindroth, Loustau, Manca, Moncrieff, Rayment, Tedeschi, Valentini & Grace. 2007. The human footprint in the carbon cycle of temperate and boreal forests. Nature 447: 848-850.

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