May 2 – Islands In The Stream

Today’s Factismal: The Gulf Stream was “discovered” 231 years ago today.

What constitutes being “discovered”? Is is when someone, somewhere, first thinks of something? Or is it when the first bits of evidence that it might actually exist are found? Or is it that “Eureka!” moment when all of the pieces finally fall into place? Well, for scientists, the answer is “none of the above”. For us, something gets discovered when it first gets published. That’s why Brontosaurus lost its name and why Newton never got along with Leibniz; the “wrong” person published first.

And as far as the English were concerned, Benjamin Franklin was the wrong perons. Even though he was America’s first and foremost citizen scientist, the English didn’t like him and refused to listen to many of his ideas simply because they refused to trust any  group that would throw perfectly good English Tea into an American harbor. Unfortunately for the English, that intransigence would come back to bite them in the wallet.

That’s because Benjamin Franklin discovered a faster and safer way to move ships from Europe to America. Then as now, time was money. By using Franklin’s discovery, the American ship captains were able to save one and make the other while English captains refused to listen to the upstart. So what was this amazing discovery? Franklin charted Gulf Stream.

Benjamin Franklin's chart of the Gulf Stream

Benjamin Franklin’s chart of the Gulf Stream

What originally spurred Franklin’s curiosity was a complaint from his boss in England. Ships sailing from Cornwall to New York took much longer to arrive than ships sailing from London to Rhode Island, and his boss wanted to know why. So Franklin went to his brother-in-law, who was a whaler from Nantucket, and asked him. The answer, his brother explained, was because the ships sailing from London rode with a current that flowed from Europe to America while those sailing from Cornwall went against a current that flowed from America to Europe. The whalers knew about the current because it was also rich in fish and whales. This inspired Franklin and he named the putative current the “Gulf Stream” in 1762. For thirteen years, Franklin worked with his brother-in-law and other sea captains to produce a map of the current, which they then published in 1775, just one year before America would declare its independence. But, with typical British intransigence, the English sea captains decided to ignore the “Yankee map”.

Franklin’s interest in teh Gulf Stream lasted for his entire life. On every trip back and forth to Europe, he took careful measurements of everything from location to water temperature, salinity, color, and wildlife. During the last few trips, Franklin even brought along a weighted barrel fitted with valves so that he could capture water from several fathoms below the surface for measurement. He finally compiled all of his results and published them on May 2, 1785, putting the final flourish on work that had begun 23 years earlier.

But Franklin couldn’t have accomplished his work without the contributions of the ship captains who helped him chart the current. Today, scientists are attempting to learn more about severe weather using Doppler radar. And they need your help to refine their data, just as Franklin needed the ship captains. All you need to do is look outside the next time it rains or snows and tell the scientists at the PING network what conditions look like on the ground. To help, go to the PING project:

July 23 – The Great Carrier Reef

Today’s Factismal: The world’s largest artificial reef is an old aircraft carrier sunk off the Florida coast.

Quick! What’s 911 ft long, 150 ft wide, 150 ft tall, and 70 ft under water? It is the USS Oriskany, also known as the Great Carrier Reef and the USS Orisanky. Once an aircraft carrier and the pride of the US Navy, she is now the world’s largest artificial reef and an on-going experiment in how reefs form.

A view through the superstructure of the Great Carrier Reef (Image courtesy MBT Divers)

A view through the superstructure of the Great Carrier Reef
(Image courtesy MBT Divers)

Sinking things to make a reef isn’t a new idea. The Persians did it 3,000 years ago in order to keep pirates out of their port. The Japanese did it 400 years ago in order to grow kelp for sushi. And the Americans did it two centuries ago in order to get more fish. What is new is using massive structures such as aircraft carriers, automobiles, and even bridges, as the base of the reef.

reefOnce sunken, the structure does three things. First, it deflects the bottom currents, sending them and their nutrient-rich water up to the sunny surface where they feed plankton. That then leads to a population explosion of the tiny little krill and other critters who then provide a banquet for small fish which are eaten by bigger fish.

Second, the structure provides hidey holes for the fish. Groupers, eels, and barracuda lurk in the shadows, hoping for a tasty morsel to swim by, while sardines and minnows span in the crevices, seeking safe places to hide their eggs. All told, reefs provide a habitat for about 25% of the world’s species of fish.

The third thing that artificial reefs do is provide a framework for coral, sponges, and other reef-building animals to live on. By giving the baby coral polyps many different places to rest at different depths in the water, the artificial reefs are able to bootstrap the reef building process. Instead of taking centuries for the basal reef builders to provide a substrate that is then taken over by the secondary reef critters, an artificial reef can have it all happening simultaneously.

If you’d like to learn more about coral reefs and how they form oases in the oceans, then head on over to the Coral Reef Monitoring Program!

January 16 – Seed Pearls Of Change

Today’s factismal: The oysters in Chesapeake Bay once filtered all the water in the bay in four days; today it takes them a year.

Oysters are amazing animals. They filter feed by sucking in dirty water, passing it over their gills, and then noshing on the sediment and floating debris that gets trapped in their mucus. As they do so, they clarify the water and make it suitable for other critters to live in. At one time, there were so many oysters in Chesapeake Bay (located by Baltimore) that they could clean all of the water in the bay in just four days. Unfortunately, over the past century, the number of oysters in the bay have decreased due to over harvesting (people like to eat oysters as much as oysters like to eat crud), pollution, and changes in the water chemistry.

An oyster shares its tank with a horseshoe crab (My camera)

An oyster shares its tank with a horseshoe crab
(My camera)

How can a change in water chemistry affect an oyster? By making it harder to grow a shell. Oysters create shells (and pearls) out of calcium carbonate (CaCO3) that is dissolved in the water as calcium ions (Ca++) and carbonate ions (CO3–). But when carbon dioxide (CO2) dissolves in water it forms carbonic acid (H2CO3) which dissolves calcium carbonate; as a result, the shells of the oysters are thinner, more brittle, and take more energy to build. (This is also the cause behind coral bleaching.) And that leads to what is known in the oyster business as “lazy larva syndrome”. The young oysters have to spend so much energy building their shells that they have little left for eating or swimming. At the end of a year, oysters that grow up in a more acidic ocean are smaller and don’t reproduce well.

Bleached coral (My camera)

Bleached coral
(My camera)

The interesting thing is that it takes only a small change in ocean chemistry to create a big change in the number of lazy larvae. Thus far, the oceans have changed from a pH of 8.25 to 8.14; almost all of that change is due to increases in atmospheric CO2.  And the other interesting thing about this is that it isn’t just oysters that are affected; the change in ocean pH has led to more coral bleaching and slower growth of bony fish like tuna. So what is a citizen scientist to do?

Other than making sure your tires are inflated properly, perhaps the most powerful thing you can do is help the folks at Ventus as they map out all of the sources of CO2 in the world starting with the power plants. They hope that by producing an hour by hour map of how much CO2 is produced, we can identify easy places to cut back on CO2 without cutting back on our standard of living. If you’d like to help (or just see what they’ve found so far), then blow on over to:

January 8 – Blue Water

Today’s factismal: Plastic trash floating in the ocean weighs as much as 1,350 blue whales.

If you look around yourself, odds are you’ll see some plastic nearby. You’ll see plastic in the keyboard of your computer or wrapping your groceries or making the bottles that hold your medicine; plastic is fantastically useful and ubiquitous. But the problem with our use of plastic is that all too often it doesn’t get recycled the way it should. Instead of being tossed into the recycling bin, it gets tossed into the water which means that it ends up in the ocean.

This bird was rescued from an abandoned net that was floating in the Bay of Fundy (My camera)

This bird was rescued from an abandoned net that was floating in the Bay of Fundy
(My camera)

Scientists now estimate that there are more than five trillion pieces of plastic trash in the ocean; that’s more than seven hundred pieces of trash for every person on Earth! All told, that plastic trash weighs some 269,000 tons or about as much as 1,350 blue whales! Those pieces of trash range in size from small beads used in “exfoliating” scrubs and body washes to giant fishing nets used to catch tuna and cod. And though some of that plastic creates new hiding places and habitats for small fish and other critters, most of it just causes problems. The beads can fill up animals’ stomachs, preventing them from eating (which is why most manufacturers no longer use them). Small bottles can trap birds and crustaceans that were looking for their next meal. And nets can catch and drown marine mammals such as dolphins and other small whales. And all of it can grab onto other stuff floating in the ocean to form “plastiglomerates” that dirty up our shorelines and threaten the nesting habitats of sea turtles worldwide!

The mother sea turtle had to crawl over piles of plastic to lay her eggs (My camera)

The mother sea turtle had to crawl over piles of plastic to lay her eggs
(My camera)

So what can a concerned citizen scientist do about it? The first and easiest thing to do is recycle. That plastic can be recycled dozens or even hundreds of times and in some states you may even make money from it! The next thing to do is report it to a group like COASST (Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey Team); they are looking for people like you to report the sea birds and plastic trash that they find:
Or you could always send a sample of sea water to the Ocean Microplastics project. They hope to collect and compare water samples from around the world to help scientists understand what is happening to the small pieces of plastic in the ocean:

August 15 – Sharknado 2

Today’s factismal: A “sharknado” could actually happen.

If there’s one thing that everyone agreed on last month, it was that the sequel to Sharknado was one of the dumbest things ever to air. From its cheesy title (Sharknado 2: The Second One) to its over-the-top run at the gold medal in the hamlimpics, the movie was so bad that it jumped past good and went into “my brain is down and I can’t get up!”. But what many people may not have realized is that there is a slim thread of truth hiding in the bloated mass of over-acting and cheesy special effects that was Sharknado. You see, we really could have sharks flying through the air.

The poster kind of says it all, doesn't it? (Image courtesy SyFy)

The poster kind of says it all, doesn’t it?
(Image courtesy SyFy)

If you doubt me, then go ask the people of Lajamanu, Australia, about what happened on February 25 and 26 in 2010. Live fish were flung through the air and fell all over the town, not once but twice. Actually, if you count the times this happened in 2004 and 1974, the town has been filled with flung fish four times! So what causes a fishnado? The simple answer is that nobody knows for sure. But many meteorologists think that what happens is that a tornado either forms over or crosses a lake that just happens to have fish swimming near the surface. The surface water, complete with fish, gets caught up in the waterspout and everything falls to the ground once it hits dry land and the tornado dies.

So if a tornado happened to cross a body of water and if it just happened to have a lot of small sharks (not adult Great Whites, something more like a foot-long dogfish) and if the tornado just happened to make its way back onto land before dying out, then you might get a sharknado. Maybe.

If you’d like to help meteorologists keep an eye out for the next sharknado, or even a bit of more prosaic (but far more likely) severe weather, then why not join Skywarn? They need folks like you to keep a weather eye out and help them identify and track severe weather. If you’d like to join, head on over to:

July 30 – Zoning In

Today’s factismal: This year’s Gulf of Mexico Dead Zone is half as big as last year’s!

Just when you thought that there was no good news on the environmental front, we get this: the 2014 “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico is just half as big as last year’s! Of course, that means that it still covers an area the size of Delaware (roughly 5,000 square miles) and still wreaks massive havoc on fish stocks, crawfish, and shrimp, but at least it is headed in the right direction. This isn’t the first time that we’ve had a small dead zone (it was just 2,800 square miles in 2011) but it does indicate that remedial measures along the Mississippi are having an effect.

But why should what happens in Ohio, Illinois, Arkansas, and 28 other states have an effect on the Gulf of Mexico? It all happens because of the fertilizer. The Mississippi and its tributaries gathers run off from farms in 31 states; quite often, that run off includes fertilizer and top soil. Those two nutrients wash all the way down into the Gulf of Mexico where it forms a thin lens over the denser, saltier ocean water. This had the effect of ringing the dinner bell for algae and phytoplankton (those autotrophs we were just discussing) and they respond by gorging themselves on the nutrients and running off to make little baby algae and phytoplankton; it becomes what a biologist calls a “bloom” and swimmers call “yucky”.

Water from the Mississippi and other rivers carries nutrients into the Gulf, creating dead zones (red) (Image courtesy MMM)

Water from the Mississippi and other rivers carries nutrients into the Gulf, creating dead zones (red)
(Image courtesy LUMC)

The process doesn’t stop there. All that blooming phytoplankton brings in hungry little critters like krill and copepods. These critters feast on the phytoplankton and algae and excrete used autotroph that drops to the ocean flooor where it feeds colonies of bacteria (sorry, Sponge Bob!).  And that’s where the trouble starts, because the bacteria use up so much oxygen when they eat the slimy scat that nothing else can live in the ocean column above them; they create a “dead zone” devoid of oxygen.

How to create a dead zone (Image courtesy Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium)

How to create a dead zone
(Image courtesy Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium)

This isn’t a new problem; according to sediment cores, there’s been a summertime dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico for more than a century. But the size of the dead zone has changed over the years. During drought years, the dead zone shrinks because less fertilizer is washed to the ocean. And during wet years, the dead zone gets bigger. But this year’s dead zone, like last year’s, is making the researchers go “hmm…” That’s because both years the dead zone was much smaller than predicted. And that’s what makes this exciting science!

In English class, getting the wrong answer two times in a row means that you’ll have to repeat the semester. But in science, when something stops working (such as a prediction methods that gave good results before) what it means is that you’re on the brink of discovering something new.  But big discoveries need big data – and that’s where you come in! The marine biologists at the National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science would love to have you help them monitor the number and types of phytoplankton in the water near where you live. They’ve set up the Phytoplankton Monitoring Project, where you can volunteer to do a plankton tow (more fun than it sounds) and enter your results. They are particularly interested in getting groups of Girl Scouts or Boy Scouts to adopt an area and take samples twice a month. To learn more, float on over to:

July 27 – I sea you!

Today’s factismal: Seabirds have a specialized gland that removes salt from their blood and pumps it out their noses.

If you ever see a seabird and it looks like it has a runny nose, don’t worry that it has the avian flu. Instead, take a closer look because you are seeing the bird’s salt gland in action. As you might guess from the name, the salt gland removes excess salt from the bird’s blood stream and pour it out the nose as a stream of incredibly salty water.

A dominican gull with its salt glands on display (My camera)

A dominican gull with its salt glands on display
(My camera)

But why does a seabird need a salt gland? For the same reason that turtles, sharks, and other critters that spend most of their time at sea do: because the ocean is very salty. That salt water makes its way into the bird’s food and into its drink which means that the bird ends up eating a lot more salt than it needs (sort of like the average teenager). This is not good for the bird’s kidneys which means that it would live a very short life if it weren’t able to get rid of the salt.And that’s why birds (and other critters) with salt glands do so well in their environment.

A brown pelican showing off its salt glands (My camera)

A brown pelican showing off its salt glands
(My camera)

Of course, no matter how well-adapted a critter is, eventually it dies. Most sea birds die at sea, where they are food for the fishes that were once their food. But some die on the beach where they become food for thought. By tracking the number of seabird deaths and the number of each species that are seen, scientists can use the seabirds as an early-warning system for environment changes, from pollution to freak storms to red tides to new diseases. But there’s an awful lot of coastline and only so many scientists, which is where you come in.

A herring gull in the sunset (My camera)

A herring gull in the sunset
(My camera)

The Seabird Ecological Assessment Network, or SEANET for short, is looking for some citizen scientists on the East Coast who are willing to report where and when they saw a dead seabird – or even a live one! If you’d like to help, then head over to their website: