Monthly Archives

August 2018

Parley SnotBot: Arrival in Gabon

By | Ocean Alliance News, SnotBot | No Comments

Dear Friends,

I have long wanted to visit Gabon, for me it has always been one of those mysterious places that are not en-route to anywhere but always in the back of your mind.  Whenever I think of Gabon it conjures up images of exploration and adventure that I read about as a child. Exotic and full of wildlife (we hope). We wanted to take the Research Vessel Odyssey there in 2004 but the economics would not allow that.  So here we are over 14 years later about to make that dream a reality. And we are going with an affordable, scalable, replicable research program that will give us more data than the much larger Odyssey expedition would have.

I will say that the road to Gabon has not been easy, Gabon has more wildlife preserves than any country in Africa and they have recently been incorporating their marine resources into the park systems, so when we started applying for a research permit there was some confusion as to whom we should apply to.  After two months of trying to get a permit we were advised by one consultant that it would not be possible to get a research permit in 2018. Luckily, we have had great friends in Tim Collins of WCS and Michelle Lee of ANPN who have been very patient guides and have facilitated not only our research permits but also our collaborations with a number of Gabonese institutions.

Because of the remoteness of this location even packing has been a challenge; we can’t take everything, but what will be the crucial item that we will need or might fail in the field?  How many batteries, remote controllers, Petri dishes, spare drones & drone parts should we bring?  Should we take Malaria tablets or sleep under mosquito nets (it turns out both).

What other inoculations do we need?

 

While we have taken SnotBot to three countries already, Gabon is certainly the end of the road less travelled.  Logistics has been a nightmare, in part because communications has been nigh on impossible.  And as if that was not enough, because our permit came through only a month before the expedition was planned to leave, we did not have all the funds we needed for the expedition just two weeks before we left.  Thanks to a great friend of the oceans (and Ocean Alliance), and our partners at Parley for the Oceans the expedition is now fully funded. So, with 12 bags to check in (all carefully packed to the 50-pound maximum) and 8 carry on bags (some of which might have been overweight) we left Boston on Monday night for Gabon.

The Gabonese government have told us that we will be the first research group to work in their newly designated Marine Protected Area, and we have representatives joining us from ANPN, CENAREST and AGEOS.  The BBC will also document our work for a couple of days as part of a four-part series they are shooting called The Equator from the Air.

I have an incredible team going with me, (from left) Chris Zadra, robotic coordinator; Andy Rogan, scientific coordinator; and  Christian Miller (cinematographer extraordinaire).

But this expedition would not have been possible without the incredible support of Britta Akerley (office and data manager), John Atkinson (logistics coordinator), Mark Hayes (CFO) and of course Ann Cortissoz (social media and communications manager). I, of course, extend my deepest thanks to Amy and Dylan for putting up with me when I repeatedly came home with a new logistical complaint.

Port Gentil, we have been told, does not have many of the basic facilities we have relied on in the past, but we were told just a few days ago that orcas were seen attacking humpback whales. The old commercial whaling pilot charts that we used to guide the Odyssey around the world also show sperm whales in these waters, and because the rainforest runs right down into the sea both hippos and elephants can be seen in the surf.  This is why we are here and I can’t wait to share stories of our adventure with you (Sorry but we will not be looking for either elephants or hippos – so please don’t expect those photos!)

We have worked hard for this one, but the biggest surprise to date has been the fact that Port Gentil does not use credit cards – EVERYTHING IS CASH. Excess baggage fee at the airport: CASH. Airport hotel: CASH. The $2,000 deposit on rental car: CASH – since you can only rent a car with CASH.  I am one of those people who does not carry much cash; luckily, I got word of this issue in advance, but even being warned about it, experiencing it is quite a shock. Considering that Port Gentil is and oil town and is probably the most expensive town that we have run a Parley SnotBot expedition from, this is quite a contradiction.

Last but not least, we heard today that our friends from Sea Shepherd were in town, so we stopped by to say hi; they are doing amazing work patrolling Gabonese waters with the Navy and fisheries aboard looking for poachers.

With all of that said, I am hoping that this will be one of the most productive locations we have visited. Since there is so little known about the whale populations here, almost any data that we get will be valuable…. but I am hoping that we hit this proverbial ball out of the ballpark.

From the amazing West African nation of Gabon – I wish you fair winds and a following sea (but bring CASH).

Iain

 

Gloucester, Gabon, and Beyond

By | Ocean Alliance News, SnotBot | No Comments

Dear Friends,

An update on SnotBot: The good news is that things are going well at Ocean Alliance.

TED recently published what I think is one of the best stories on the Parley SnotBot to date.

A few weeks ago a BBC Film crew went to South Woodstock, Vermont, to interview Roger about his life and work. Following that, Annie Minhoff (from NPR’s Science Friday) visited him to do a story. Roger also did a very nice piece earlier this year with the BBC show Witness, called When the World Sang with Whales.

We have been running Parley SnotBot expeditions out to the whales on Stellwagen Banks to test new equipment, protocols and methodologies (note the attached Photogrammetry image).

I did write a general blog at the start of this season which can be found here.  It has been a real pleasure to work directly out of our headquarters. We did manage to collect a Snot sample from a fin whale (see attached) this means that we have successfully collected snot samples from 6 different species of whales.

Fin whale

It is also exciting that the Parley SnotBot now has four distinct scientific legs to stand on: 1. The biological data (snot!), 2. Behavior/photo-ID, 3. Photogrammetry and 4. FLIR/Thermal. We have a new Robotics Program Manager, Chris Zadra, who is helping on all these fronts. On top of that of course is the science communication/educational aspect; after my UN talk this summer a friend said to me that she was very happy that we were helping to make science and learning more accessible globally!

I am very happy to report that we are off to Gabon, West Africa in 12 days. We had planned to visit Gabon with the Voyage of the Odyssey in 2005, when we were just North of the Cape Verde Islands we realized that this would likely cost over $250,000, so we crossed the Atlantic and visited the old whaling grounds called the Twelve Forty Grounds instead.  You can read a blog on the Twelve Forty Grounds that was originally published in May 2005 on the PBS website here.

The whale population in the Gabon region was decimated by commercial whaling, but the whales are thought to be on the rebound. Gabon is not an easy place to get to, and thus its whales have not seen the type of attention that they might see in many areas of the world. To me this is the epitome of a perfect Parley SnotBot location. We plan to work with humpback whales, but sperm whales and right whales have also been seen at this location (so fingers crossed). We will be working with the local conservation authorities ANPN, CENAREST, and Gabon’s Space Agency – AGEOS. Our work in Gabon is going to be documented by the BBC in a show called The Equator from the Air. We will also work with the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). They have a great webpage on Gabon if you want to learn more:https://gabon.wcs.org

Building restoration work continues at the Paint Factory. Prior to hosting the I Am More art show, which drew attention to mental health issues, we laid new concrete floors in buildings A and B. Tobias Richon, our contractor, commented that ‘we are now out of the dirt!’  We are still in discussion with the Economic Development Administration with regards to building/funding a co-work/innovation/maker-space at our site, and we are going through the permitting process to put 136 feet of docks outside of our facility.  Once completed both of these initiatives will constitute significant revenue streams for OA.

Last but not least, Vicky Rowntree and ICB are in the final preparation stages for the 48th annual right whale season in Patagonia!

I could not write a blog without attaching a few of Christian Miller’s amazing photographs. Thank you all again for your interest and support of this work!The next series of blogs will be coming from Gabon, West Africa!!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Iain

 

The Biggest Threat of All

By | Ocean Alliance News, Roger Payne | No Comments

by Roger Payne

It is generally accepted by scientists that the worst threat humanity faces, and has ever faced, is global warming.  So widespread is this assumption that I suspect anyone suggesting a different worst-threat would be dismissed out of hand. Nevertheless, I have long believed that ocean acidification is a worse threat than global warming, simply because the time it will take for ocean acidification to reach a point where it can wreak its maximum havoc is apparently much shorter than the time it will take for global warming to raise the temperature of the earth enough to unleash its worst effects. (Ocean acidification is estimated to require decades to do its worst, whereas Global warming is estimated to require a century or centuries.) The reason for focusing on the oceans is that they are the principle force that stabilizes the conditions on this planet that enable life. So even if you live at the center of this continent, say, in Kansas, and have never even seen the ocean, it’s a fair bet that if the oceans die you will die too, because of the loss of stability in the natural world that surrounds you.

We have all heard that global warming is largely the result of burning fossil fuels and that humans have already caused the greatest increase in carbon dioxide (CO2) in nearly 3 million years (and probably much longer, although that can’t be confirmed until several gaps in the temperature record get filled in).

Global warming is caused by CO2trapping heat, whereas ocean acidification is caused by CO2combining chemically with water to produce carbonic acid—a reaction that produces highly reactive hydrogen ions that combine readily with the very chemicals that shellfish and corals need to make their protective coverings. When ocean acidity is increased it becomes increasingly difficult or impossible for shellfish to secrete their shells and corals to form reefs. However, these structures are what protect molluscs and corals from an ocean’s worth of crafty, awe-inspiring, sometimes microscopic, predators.

Although global warming is caused by CO2trapping heat, and ocean acidification is caused by CO2combining chemically with water to produce carbonic acid, there is a third problem that is caused when the interiors of living cells are exposed to carbonic acid. This problem is called metabolic drag.

A great deal of research in the past 30 years has refined our understanding of the effects of CO2on global warming but research on ocean acidification has been under-funded and lags far behind. However, an even greater hole in our understanding of how the global buildup of CO2affects all life are the consequences of CO2entering live cells and increasing their acidity.

Very recent research shows that the higher the CO2concentration in a cell, the more it affects such important cellular functions as oxygen transport and protein synthesis. Furthermore, in dealing with these effects the organism has to use energy it would otherwise have available for doing, well… everything else it does. The result is a reduction in vigor, which, even if it doesn’t kill a cell outright (or the owner of that cell), makes cells and their owners more susceptible to a long list of stresses that reduce any organism’s fitness (and often kill it following a suitable delay). This process is called metabolic drag.

The worst effect of CO2on humans will not be the flooding of coastal cities caused by melt-water from glaciers and ice caps, or the increase in extreme weather events. Far worse damage will be caused by changes in the courses and strengths of oceanic and atmospheric currents that will move the boundaries of the habitats within which animals and plants can live and crops can grow, poleward by tens, hundreds and in some cases even thousands of miles. Such shifts will take decades to complete during which the cells within all ocean life will be experiencing a kind of chemical chaos from the increased CO2 and carbonic acid inside them.

The warming of this planet, along with the behavioral processes I have described, takes place much more slowly than do the fatal effects of ocean acidification. But acids don’t mess around; even very modest increases in acidity can weaken microscopic plants and zooplankton. That’s because the more acidic the seawater, the more species it kills, and the quicker it does so.

Although zooplankton are tiny, their importance is massive: for they are the food of the small fish, that are food of the larger fish, that are the food for the fish we depend on. So when a plankton species dies, its food chain dies, and the victims may include people who depended on the fish that lived at the top of that plankton’s pyramid.

Unfortunately, even the most important plankton species turn out to be so little-known that almost no one can recognize or name them. An example is the pteropods—a group of planktonic species that are major food sources for many species of ocean fish, as well as for baleen whales. Even their common names: sea butterflies and sea angels, are unfamiliar to most biologists. They are tiny, free-swimming, open-ocean snails and sea slugs, that are present in staggering numbers, worldwide, and at all latitudes. They are usually found less than 500 meters below the surface and are most abundant over continental shelves, where they form dense groups—a behavior that whales exploit to capture them. It is because of the staggering abundance of some of these little-known species that it is sometimes said that they control ocean productivity.

93% of pteropods have shells; the remaining 7% lack them. The shelled species are vulnerable to ocean acidification. Exposure to seawater at acidity levels that the oceans are expected to reach by 2050 dissolve the shells of pteropods completely—which is fatal to them.

We may get used to (become inured to?) global warming, ocean acidification, and metabolic drag, but then, more research soon appears that offers a yet bleaker future, and underlines even more clearly the urgency of the need to act. And sure enough, just this week, a new threat was revealed in a paper by a group in Hawaii that studied the effects of the ultraviolet in sunlight on the more than 8 billion tons of plastics that humanity has produced since we started manufacturing it in the 1950s. (Yes, billion with a “b,” and yes, tons—in fact, metric tons, each of which is 2,200 pounds, not a measly 2000). The group in Hawaii studied the effects on seven kinds of plastics of exposure for several days to UV light, both in air and in water. Their sample included the most abundant plastic polymer: polyethylene (the polymer found in more than a third of all types of plastic). The group analyzed the gases that the plastics released, discovering thereby that the breakdown products of all seven of the plastics they tested produce greenhouse gases (principally methane, which is 30 times more powerful in trapping heat than CO2and persists in the atmosphere for centuries). They also found that the most abundant plastics, the polyethylenes, produce the most greenhouse gases by far.

All of the plastics tested also release ethylene—a gas that is the second most abundant hydrocarbon pollutant in the atmosphere and that is implicated in the creation of Carbon monoxide.

These rather grim results led the authors of the paper to conclude that: “Due to the longevity of plastics and the large amounts of plastic persisting in the environment, questions related to the role of methane and ethylene global budgets should be prioritized and addressed by the scientific community.” That is scientist-speak for… “Uh Oh, World; this looks serious.”

It is surprising that a problem that seems so obvious and was hiding in plain sight has been almost completely ignored until now, but it is always surprising how often that is the case. Furthermore, the contribution of the gases that we now know are released by deteriorating plastics has never yet been included in any climate models.

It is clear that global warming, ocean acidification, and metabolic drag are a triple threat. However, they are a triple threat of which most people are unaware and whose name most people don’t even know.  But knowing a name is not enough; we need to understand what causes them if we are to stop the problem.

It is well to note that global warming, ocean acidification and metabolic drag are not causes, they are symptoms. Their main, underlying cause is the burden that CO2places on all life—the name for which is “the carbon burden.”

So… my concern as to whether ocean acidification or global warming is the bigger threat seems misplaced; both are symptoms of the carbon burden, though ocean acidification may become intolerable soonest. However, we must not lose sight of the fact that the biggest threat that we, along with all life on earth face is not just something called global warming, or ocean acidification or metabolic drag, but the mutually self-reinforcing, combined threat that is the sum of those three threats, a sum that is called the carbon burden. It is the carbon burden that is the biggest threat, but even though it is the biggest threat we face we don’t yet understand its full dimensions.

As Carl Safina put it so well; [ref.]

“It is and always has been about carbon. We need to place carbon back in the center of the equation. From atmosphere to ocean to cell, the carbon burden is the problem… and the more we learn, the more its dimensions appear ever more staggering.”

So how surprising: our greatest threat is not the economy, or congress, or the liberal agenda or the conservative agenda, or the nanny state, or terrorists, or the national debt, or the costs of the perpetual war on terror, or the ebola virus, or whether our president gets to build his wall, or no gun laws, or even, dare I say it… all-out nuclear war. In spite of how ghastly the devastation may be from any of those causes, time is likely, eventually, to reverse the misery they create. No… the main threat is not humans versus humans—us vs them. The worst threat comes when we trigger the mass destruction of the rest of life—the non-human species on which we are utterly dependent. And the most likely way we can achieve that threat is not through violent acts of aggression, but by failure to stop the slow and ponderous but effective imposition of the carbon burden on all life, simply because the carbon burden is such an effective way to devastate life on earth.

If the carbon burden is the greatest threat, what caused it? We caused it. In fact we’re still causing it; it’s our worst own-goal—a self-inflicted wound that we must staunch before we waste any more time or energy or treasure doing anything else. As Pogo, a beguiling cartoon character of the 1950s said; “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

We may be our own worst enemy, but we’re also our best hope. There are many things each of us can do, and if enough of us do them, it can make a difference. — Iain Kerr