Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Search for Air France Flight 447

On June 1, 2009, Air France Flight 447 disappeared over the Atlantic Ocean. The aircraft departed from Rio de Janeiro on 31 May 2009 at 19:03 local time (22:03 UTC), with a scheduled arrival in Paris, France approximately 11 hours later.

The last verbal contact with Flight 447 was at 01:33 UTC, when it was near waypoint INTOL located 565 km (351 mi) off Natal, in Brazil's north-eastern coast.

Although some bodies and debris were found floating on the ocean's surface, the actual plane itself - and/or its black box flight recorder - have never been found. There was no last-minute message from the crew of flight 447, and we have no idea exactly where it disappeared.

This week, a new search begins for the missing plane, using some of the latest high-tech underwater equipment. The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution will operate three unmanned deep-sea probes that, according to NPR:

"...run autonomously from any surface control tether and have the capability to dive down to full ocean depth... They were used in an unsuccessful underwater search for the plane that adventurer Amelia Earhart disappeared in 73 years ago. Each vehicle employs sea floor-scanning sonar, as well as cameras."

Friday, March 26, 2010

BPA from Plastics Pervades our Oceans

From Wired:

A survey of 200 sites in 20 countries around the world has found that bisphenol A, a synthetic compound that mimics estrogen and is linked to developmental disorders, is ubiquitous in Earth’s oceans.

Bisphenol A, or BPA, is found mostly in shatter-proof plastics and epoxy resins. Most people have trace amounts in their bodies, likely absorbed from food containers. Its hormone-mimicking properties make it a potent endocrine system disruptor.

In recent years, scientists have moved from studying BPA’s damaging effects in laboratory animals to linking it to heart disease, sterility and altered childhood development in humans. Many questions still remain about dosage effects and the full nature of those links, but in January the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced that “recent studies provide reason for some concern about the potential effects of BPA on the brain, behavior, and prostate gland of fetuses, infants and children.”

One disturbing possibility is that BPA could bioaccumulate, with animals eating BPA-tainted animals that have eaten BPA-tainted animals, finally reaching high concentrations in top-level ocean predators and the humans who eat them.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Manatee Deaths Skyrocket Due To Cold

From ABC Action News:

TALLAHASEE, FL -- Florida Fish and Wildlife Officials announced Tuesday that due to the prolonged cold temperatures the past three months, 431 manatee deaths have already been documented.

Officials say exposure to low temperatures for a long period of time can cause a condition called "manatee cold-stress syndrome," which can result in death.

Last year the FWC documented 429 manatee deaths, which exceeded the highest number on record until now.

The Fish and Wildlife Research Institute Director said the rate of mortality so far this year is of great concern and that they will focus on determining the long-term implications for the manatee population.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Nanotech Seawater Desalination

Although large-scale, inefficient factory-sized plants to exist to process the salt out of salt water, the idea of cheap and portable system for individual use has always been a pipe dream. Until now.

From Nanowerk:

Freshwater could become the oil of the 21st century – scarce, expensive and fought over. While over 70 per cent of the Earth's surface is covered by water, most of it is unusable for human consumption.

Researchers have now demonstrated a new, efficient and fouling-free desalination process based on the ion concentration polarization (ICP) phenomenon – a fundamental electrochemical transport phenomenon that occurs when an ion current is passed through ion-selective membranes – for direct desalination of sea water.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

5.1 Earthquake Near Easter Island

This just in: a 5.1 earthquake has struck near Easter Island at approximately 04:00:26 UTC, Coordinated Universal Time. (Midnight, EDT.)

The quake has a reported depth of 10 km (6.2 miles) and occurred 380 km (235 miles) West of Hanga Roa, Easter Island. No other information is known at this time.

Easter Island is still recovering from the recent tsunami wave that followed in the wake of the disastrous Chilean quake.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Creatures Survive Under Antarctic Ice Sheet

From the Associated Press:

WASHINGTON — In a surprising discovery about where higher life can thrive, scientists for the first time found a shrimp-like creature and a jellyfish frolicking beneath a massive Antarctic ice sheet.

Six hundred feet below the ice where no light shines, scientists had figured nothing much more than a few microbes could exist.

That's why a NASA team was surprised when they lowered a video camera to get the first long look at the underbelly of an ice sheet in Antarctica. A curious shrimp-like creature came swimming by and then parked itself on the camera's cable. Scientists also pulled up a tentacle they believe came from a foot-long jellyfish.

"We were operating on the presumption that nothing's there," said NASA ice scientist Robert Bindschadler, who will be presenting the initial findings and a video at an American Geophysical Union meeting Wednesday. "It was a shrimp you'd enjoy having on your plate."

"We were just gaga over it," he said of the 3-inch-long, orange critter starring in their two-minute video. Technically, it's not a shrimp. It's a Lyssianasid amphipod, which is distantly related to shrimp.

The video is likely to inspire experts to rethink what they know about life in harsh environments. And it has scientists musing that if shrimp-like creatures can frolic below 600 feet of Antarctic ice in subfreezing dark water, what about other hostile places? What about Europa, a frozen moon of Jupiter?

"They are looking at the equivalent of a drop of water in a swimming pool that you would expect nothing to be living in and they found not one animal but two," said biologist Stacy Kim of the Moss Landing Marine Laboratories in California, who joined the NASA team later. "We have no idea what's going on down there."

Monday, March 15, 2010

Russian Permafrost Leaking Methane

From the Associated Press:

WASHINGTON — Methane is leaking into the atmosphere from unstable permafrost in the Arctic Ocean faster than scientists had thought and could worsen global warming, a study said Thursday.

From 2003 to 2008, an international research team led by University of Alaska-Fairbanks scientists Natalia Shakhova and Igor Semiletov surveyed the waters of the East Siberian Arctic Shelf, which covers more than 772,200 square miles (two million square kilometers) of seafloor in the Arctic Ocean.

"This discovery reveals a large but overlooked source of methane gas escaping from permafrost underwater, rather than on land," the study said.

"More widespread emissions could have dramatic effects on global warming in the future."

Earlier studies in Siberia had focused on methane escaping from thawing permafrost on land.

Scientists have long thought that the permafrost under the East Siberian Arctic Shelf acted as an impermeable barrier that sealed in methane, a powerful greenhouse gas 30 times more potent that carbon dioxide.

But the research team's observations showed that the permafrost submerged on the shelf is perforated and leaking large amounts of methane into the atmosphere.

More than 80 percent of the deep water and more than half of surface water had methane levels around eight times higher than found in normal seawater, according to the study published in the journal Science.

The researchers warned that the release of even a fraction of the methane stored in the shelf could trigger abrupt climate warming.

"Ocean-bottom permafrost contains vast amounts of carbon, and experts are concerned that its release as methane gas would lead to warmer atmospheric temperatures, thus creating a positive-feedback loop that would lead to more methane escaping from the permafrost and more global warming," they said.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Katie Spotz Successfully Rows Across Atlantic

From the Associated Press:

GEORGETOWN, Guyana — A 22-year-old American rower completed a solo journey across the Atlantic Ocean on Sunday, touching a pier in the coffee-brown waters of Guyana to claim a record as the youngest person to accomplish the feat.

Katie Spotz, who spent more than two months alone at sea, hugged her father and brother as 200 people cheered her arrival in this South American capital.

"The hardest part was just the solo part," Spotz said, saying she struggled with boredom and had trouble sleeping inside the cramped, 19-foot (6-meter) row boat.

The athlete from Mentor, Ohio, set out from Dakar, Senegal, on Jan. 3 and endured rough seas during the 2,817-mile (4,533-kilometer) crossing. She traveled without any support boat aside from a Coast Guard vessel that escorted her to Guyana's coast.

She rowed to raise money and awareness for the Blue Planet Run Foundation, a nonprofit whose goal is to bring clean drinking water to the estimated 1 billion people worldwide who lack it.

"The records are just a bonus for Katie. Rowing the Atlantic and raising funds for clean water are the things she really cares about," said her coach Sam Williams...

Some of the most harrowing moments came near the voyage's end. As she approached the continental shelf, waves crashed over the boat and Spotz worried it would capsize. On Saturday, she had to use a fire extinguisher after a piece of tracking equipment caught fire.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Dislodged Iceberg May Disrupt Ocean Currents

Earlier this month, a giant iceberg collided with a portion of the Mertz Glacier in Antarctica, and in so doing broke off an immense "Superberg" that is 48 miles long and about 24 miles wide.

According to Circle of Blue, scientists are concerned about global ocean currents being drastically altered now that the detached iceberg has endangered a major polynya (an ice-free area of water surrounded by sea ice).

It's believed that 25% of Antarctic bottom water originated in the polynya, making it an important factor in the ocean's circulation. If sea ice fills in the polynya, it could slow the ocean bottom currents which are crucial for transferring heat and distributing oxygen. Needless to say, a drastic change such as this could very well have a catastrophic effect on marine ecosystems around the world.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Undersea Bacterial Power Grids

This from Ocean Leadership:

Oxygen-breathing bacteria that live on the ocean bottom have a problem. Those sitting atop the sediment have ready access to oxygen in the water but not to the precious mineral nutrients that lie out of reach a centimeter or so below the ground. Meanwhile, those microbes that live in the sediment can access the nutrients, but they lack oxygen. How do both groups survive?

Microbial ecologist Lars Peter Nielsen of Aarhus University in Denmark figured the surface and subsurface bacteria were somehow exchanging oxygen and nutrients with one another. To find out how, he and colleagues scooped up some mud from the bottom of the 20-meter-deep ocean in Aarhus Bay and other waters near the university and plopped it into a beaker in their lab.

Then the researchers did something they knew would make the bacteria unhappy: They started removing the oxygen from the water. If the bacteria were swapping materials, as Nielsen had suspected, those living below the surface of the mud would have gradually noticed that their oxygen supply was being cut off; they would have registered chemical changes in the sediment that could be detected by sensors. But instead, Nielsen and colleagues witnessed something far more rapid. Almost as soon as the researchers began removing the oxygen, the subsurface bacteria stopped consuming hydrogen sulfide in the mud. More important, this metabolic shutdown was a sign that the buried bacteria almost instantly realized something in the environment far above them had changed. The researchers also detected very rapid pH changes in the water in the beaker.

These responses occurred too quickly for any sort of chemical exchange or molecular process such as osmosis, says Nielsen. The most plausible option, his team reports in the 25 February issue of Nature, is that the bacteria are somehow communicating electrically by transmitting electrons back and forth. How exactly they do this is unclear, but Nielsen suspects the organisms may all be connected to each other via a microscopic electric grid, possibly made from tiny grains of metal, such as iron and manganese, in the sediment.