Roiling in the Deep

It’s World Oceans Day and here are 10 things scientists know about what’s happening under the sea that they didn’t a year ago

Strange things are happening in the ocean.
Strange things are happening in the ocean. Photo courtesy of Flickr user TimboDon

You may soon, if you haven’t already, be making your first visit to the beach since last summer. A lot has happened out in the ocean since then, although most of us probably haven’t been paying much attention. Truth is, the sea doesn’t get a whole lot of press, unless a tsunami or shark attack happens.

But, like I said, a lot of unusual things are going on in the ocean these days. Scientists have been doing some innovative research to a get handle on where all this is headed, but they are truly in uncharted waters. As marine biologist Callum Roberts wrote in Newsweek, “With an ever-accelerating tide of human impact, the oceans have changed more in the last 30 years than in all of human history before. In most places, the seas have lost upwards of 75 percent of their megafauna—large animals such as whales, dolphins, sharks, rays, and turtles—as fishing and hunting spread in waves across the face of the planet.”

Since today is World Oceans Day, here’s a rundown of 10 things we now know about the sea that we didn’t a year ago.

1. The oceans are getting more acidic every day. In fact, according to researchers at Columbia University, acidification is occurring at a rate faster than any time in the last 300 million years, a period that includes four mass extinctions. As the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere increases, oceans absorb it, and it turns into a carbon acid. And that is putting sea creatures at risk, particularly coral, oysters and salmon.

2. The “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” is even greater. The latest on that massive swirl of plastic particles in the North Pacific? It’s way bigger than scientists thought. They’ve known that it’s roughly the size of Texas. But in a new study researchers collected samples from the below the surface, in some cases 100 feet down, and they’ve concluded that the size of the mass may have been underestimated by 2.5 to 27 times. Another study found that small insects known as sea skaters have taken to laying their eggs on the plastic and that that could end up harming crabs that feed on them.

3. Coming soon: Deep sea mining. Advances in robotics, computer mapping and underwater drilling are stirring up interest in mining metals and minerals under the ocean floor. For mining companies, the prospect of finding rich veins of high-quality copper is particularly enticing. Also, later this month three Chinese scientists in a submersible will dive into the Marianas Trench, the deepest place on Earth–which is seen as a prelude to gearing up an underwater mining industry.
4. The Arctic meltdown could make harsh winters more likely. Yes, it’s counter-intuitive, but yet another study, this one by researchers at Cornell, reinforces the theory that warmer water in the Arctic sets off a climatic chain reaction that can result in brutal winters, like last year in Europe, or relentless snowfalls, like those that buried America’s East Coast in February, 2010.

5. Sea life needs to swim farther to survive climate change. After analyzing 50 years of global temperature changes, scientists at the University of Queensland concluded that both the velocity of climate change and the shift in seasonal temperatures will be higher at sea than on land at certain latitudes. And that means that if sea creatures can’t adapt to the rising temperatures, they may have to migrate hundreds of miles if they hope to survive.

6. Looks like tough times ahead for leatherback turtles. They’ve been around for more than 100 million years but some scientists believe leatherback turtles, the largest sea turtles in the world, may not make it through the rest of this century. They’re already threatened by the warmer and drier climate that accompanies El Nino cycles in their nesting grounds in Costa Rica, and scientists are predicting a climate that’s 5 degrees warmer and 25 percent drier on the country’s Pacific coast in coming decades.

7. And not such a happy future for the Great Barrier Reef, either. Industrial development in Australia is a growing threat to the Great Barrier Reef, so much so that it may be designated a world heritage site “in danger” later this year. Australia is experiencing an investment boom from Asia, with over $400 billion worth of projects on the horizon, including coal and natural gas plants and development of new ports.

8. Fukushima radiation is showing up in tuna caught off the California coast. A new study published in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences says that bluefin tuna caught off America’s West Coast are carrying radiation from the nuclear power plant in Fukushima badly damaged in a tsunami last year. Fortunately, the radiation is not at levels that would be harmful to humans.

9. Melting of ice sheets caused an ancient global flood. Analysis of coral reefs near Tahiti has linked the collapse of massive ice sheets more than 14,000 years ago to a global flood when sea levels around the world rose an average of 46 feet, at a rate 10 times more quickly than they are now. Scientists hope to create a computer model of the mega-flood, which will help them make better predictions of coastal flooding from our modern-day meltdown.

10. And yet, some creatures still find a way to survive. Scientists have known for awhile that microbes have survived for millions of years in the mud of the ocean bottom. But they couldn’t figure out how they stayed alive. Now they know. After probing sediment at the bottom of the Pacific with oxygen sensors, researchers from Denmark found the bacteria are consuming oxygen at extremely slow rates, and that what they’re consuming is organic matter that’s been trapped with them since dinosaurs walked the Earth. Yes, they’ve been chowing on the same meal for millions of years.

Video bonus: It’s hard to find a better ambassador for the sea than Sylvia Earle, who’s been exploring the deep for more than 40 years. Here’s her TED talk from a few years ago, but it’s more relevant than ever. And as a Bonus Bonus, here’s a video slideshow of some of the stranger creatures you’ll ever see, all living under the sea.

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