Researches find plastic pollution at the sea surface of Arctic waters

Northern gannet (Morus bassanus) are using old fishing nets as nesting material in their nesting colony at the island Helgoland (North Sea / Germany), Credit: Image courtesy of Alfred Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research
Northern gannet (Morus bassanus) are using old fishing nets as nesting material in their nesting colony at the island Helgoland (North Sea / Germany),
Credit: Image courtesy of Alfred Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research

From the Alfred Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research via Science Daily:

In a new study, researchers from the Alfred Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research (AWI) show for the first time that marine litter can even be found at the sea surface of Arctic waters. Though it remains unclear how the litter made it so far north, it is likely to pose new problems for local marine life, the authors report on the online portal of the scientific journal Polar Biology. Plastic has already been reported from stomachs of resident seabirds and Greenland sharks.

Plastic waste finds its way into the ocean, and from there to the farthest reaches of the planet — even as far as the Arctic. This was confirmed in one of the first litter surveys conducted north of the Arctic Circle, carried out by an international research team from the Alfred Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research (AWI) and Belgium’s Laboratory for Polar Ecology. The researchers presented their results in an article released on the online portal of the journal Polar Biology.

In order to gauge the level of pollution, the researchers took advantage of an expedition that brought the research icebreaker Polarstern to the Fram Strait, the area between East Greenland and Svalbard. In July 2012, AWI biologist Dr Melanie Bergmann and her team searched for litter floating on the sea surface from the ship’s bridge and by helicopter, maintaining a “litter watch” for a combined distance of 5,600 kilometres. “We found a total of 31 pieces of litter,” reports Bergmann.

Although this number may sound low, it confirms that there is indeed litter floating in the remote Arctic Ocean. “Since we conducted our surveys from the bridge, 18 metres above sea level, and from a helicopter, we were only able to spot the larger pieces of litter. Therefore, our numbers are probably an underestimate,” the marine biologist explains. It is well-known that, with time, plastic breaks down into small fragments at sea, which can only be detected properly by analysis of net tows.

The plastic litter reported from the Fram Strait could be leaking from a sixth garbage patch, which may be forming in the Barents Sea according to computer models. Such accumulation zones are created when large amounts of floating plastic debris are caught by ocean currents and concentrate in the centre of gyre systems.

We currently know of five garbage patches worldwide; the sixth patch in the Barents Sea is most likely in the early stages of formation. Bergmann believes it may be fed by the densely populated coastal regions of Northern Europe. “It is conceivable that part of that litter then drifts even farther to the north and northwest, and reaches the Fram Strait,” states the AWI biologist, adding, “Another cause for litter in the Arctic could be the retreat of the Arctic sea ice. As a result more and more cruise liners and fish trawlers are operating further north, following the cod. Most likely, litter from the ships intentionally or accidentally ends up in the waters of the Arctic. We expect this trend to continue.”

In a previous study, Melanie Bergmann analysed photographs from the deep Arctic seafloor for signs of plastic, glass and other types of litter. Her conclusion: in the time frame of ten years the amount of litter in the deep sea has doubled with densities in a similar range to those from southern Europe. In fact, the litter density on the deep seafloor of the Fram Strait is 10 to 100 times higher than at the sea surface. “On the deep Arctic seafloor, we found an average of 2.2 to 18.4 pieces of litter per kilometre of our route. This indicates that the deep seafloor may be the ultimate sink for marine litter,” Bergmann suggests.

The litter floating in the Arctic is particularly detrimental to seabirds, which feed at the sea surface. A recent study from the nearby Isfjorden fjord on Spitsbergen showed that 88 percent of the northern fulmars examined had swallowed plastic. These birds spend their entire life at sea. Even Greenland sharks are swallowing plastic litter: researchers found plastic litter in the stomachs of up to eight percent of the sharks caught south of Greenland.

Bergmann notes that the litter data for her latest study were collected in the course of a study on marine mammals and seabirds on board of RV Polarstern: “We just took advantage of these surveys to count marine litter.” Scientists refer to chances such as this one, where valuable scientific data is gathered during expeditions of a different purpose, as “ships of opportunity.” “Since it’s reasonably easy to count litter from a ship in motion, it makes sense to use ‘ships of opportunity’ more often in the future to help us to learn more about the global distribution of floating litter, especially in remote areas. This could be done during patrol flights and voyages with research ships, cruise ships, coast guard, merchant and fishing vessels,” adds Bergmann.

Report: The Great Divide screening at the Ruth Powell Hutchins Water Center at CMU

Great Divide
From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Jim Spehar):

I suppose it could have been the free beer.

Why else would around 300 Mesa County residents show up at 6 p.m. last Saturday, catch the county’s slowest elevator and sit for an hour and a half on hard chairs in one of Colorado Mesa University’s ballrooms?

Perhaps that little red ticket for one can of Palisade Brewing Company’s finest was a stroke of genius on the part of CMU’s Water Center, which organized the showing of a new water film, “The Great Divide.”

Or perhaps it was concern about water issues along the Colorado River which filled the room. From headwaters high in the northern Colorado Rockies to its southernmost point, where most years there’s barely a trickle into the Sea of Cortez, water availability from the Colorado River has been the subject of much discussion as recent droughts compelled us to think about shortages.

Jim Havey’s film and the accompanying book by Havey and Stephen Grace offer a thorough history of water development in Colorado and a comprehensive analysis of issues that’ll impact those of us who rely on its water for years to come.

Let’s consider some thoughts from those interviewed for the film and book.

“I think a river would simply say: ‘What I want to be is healthy. I would like to be able to sustain you…but I can’t do it unless you all do what you do thoughtfully.”
— Amy Beatie, Colorado Water Trust

“We’re going to have to sustain ourselves, our grandchildren, and theirs with the same basic water supply, aggravated by the effects of climate change, that the Ancestral Pueblans had at their disposal. Now that’s a sobering thought, isn’t it?”
— Gregory Hobbs, former Colorado Supreme Court justice

What Beatie and Hobbs imply is a need to thoughtfully plan future water use in a state that’s expected to double in population by 2050. The CEO of Denver Water worries about that too.

“If we grow the next five million people in Colorado the way we grew the last five million people, that may not be a sustainable model. And we need to have a much deeper conversation about the connection between land use and water.”
— Jim Lochhead, Denver Water

One representative of outdoor interests agrees with Lochhead, a former Western Slope water lawyer and ex-head of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources.

“…There might be enough water for everybody for a long time to come. But we can’t have unlimited growth and achieve that. There’s got to be a tipping point.”
— Kurt Klancke, Trout Unlimited

No one in the film or book argued against the idea that climate change will require adaptability and a sense of urgency on the part of nearly 40 million people in the southwest who depend on the Colorado River.

“If the computer models that our field really relies on give some sense of what the future is most likely to be, then 2012, as ugly as it was here, starts being statistically quite a common occurrence as soon as 30-45 years from now. And that’s just a generation. It’s not that far away.”
— Nolan Doesken,
 Colorado State Climatologist

The need to plan for the sort of svhortages Doesken and other anticipate ignores traditional battle lines. It also implies some give and take between sometimes competing uses.

“If we’re going to have a healthy river…if we’re going to have a quality of life along the river…we’re going to have to reduce our consumptive use of the river. That’s going to have to come from conservation by the cities. And it’s going to have to come from reductions in agricultural use.”
— Eric Kuhn, Colorado River District

“What we need to do is design our environment to reflect the desert environment and not try to re-create the eastern environment that came to Denver back in the 1800s and 1900s. And not just Denver, but Grand Junction as well,” he says.

One thing is certain. Sooner rather than later we’ll all be paying more, using less and wondering how to deal with inevitable shortfalls in our water supplies. That’s when we’ll find out if we can meet our looming water crisis head on, blessed with facts and a willingness to address the problem proactively and collaboratively.

Jim Spehar represented western Colorado municipalities for eight years on the Colorado Water Congress Board of Directors. Comments are welcome at speharjim@gmail.com

@USACEOmaha: Bear Creek Reservoir to be lowered for inspection and repair

Following heavy rains which fell mid-September [2013] in Colorado, the pool elevation at the Bear Creek reservoir rose several feet. At 4 a.m., Sept. 15, the reservoir pool elevation surpassed its previous record elevation of 5587.1 feet, and peaked at a pool elevation of 5607.9 ft on Sept. 22, shown here. Bear Creek Dam did what it was designed to do by catching the runoff and reducing flooding risks to the hundreds of homes located downstream.
Following heavy rains which fell mid-September [2013] in Colorado, the pool elevation at the Bear Creek reservoir rose several feet. At 4 a.m., Sept. 15, the reservoir pool elevation surpassed its previous record elevation of 5587.1 feet, and peaked at a pool elevation of 5607.9 ft on Sept. 22, shown here. Bear Creek Dam did what it was designed to do by catching the runoff and reducing flooding risks to the hundreds of homes located downstream.

From the US Army Corps of Engineers Omaha District (Kathryn Seefus/Eileen Williamson):

Bear Creek Reservoir near Lakewood, Colorado, will be lowered 5 feet from the normal operating pool elevation of 5,558 feet to allow for inspection and repair work at Bear Creek Dam.

Starting Friday, October 23, releases will be around 50 cubic feet per second (cfs) which fall within channel capacity and are significantly less than the maximum summer release of 500 cfs. The drawdown is expected to take about a week.

During the first three weeks of November, no release will be made from Bear Creek Dam to accommodate planned maintenance, survey, and inspection activities at the outlet works facilities of Bear Creek Dam. Valve repair work will also be conducted in response to damage documented following recent flooding. Beginning the last week of November, normal operations will resume and the lake will continue to refill.

USACE has coordinated this inspection and repair work with the State of Colorado.
Pool elevation graphs for the Tri-Lakes including Bear Creek Reservoir can be found online at: http://www.nwo.usace.army.mil/Missions/DamandLakeProjects/TriLakesProjects.aspx

Pool elevation data for these and other USACE-operated dams, updated hourly, can be tracked online at:
http://www.nwd-mr.usace.army.mil/rcc/plots/plots.html#omaha_plots

Uravan: Confluence (Dolores and San Miguel rivers) Cleanup October 24, 2015 — Sheep Mountain Alliance

From the Sheep Mountain Alliance:

doloressanmiguelsheepmountainalliance

Here’s an opportunity to get outdoors, meet people, and help the environment. On Saturday, October 24, from 10:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m., join SMA as we clean up the confluence of the San Miguel and Dolores Rivers just west of Uravan, Colorado.

We’ll team up with members of the San Miguel Watershed Coalition and others. Email Leigh Robertson leigh@sheepmountainalliance.org if you’d like more information or if you’d like to sign up.

Bumble bees turn generalist to survive #climatechange on high peaks — The Mountain Town News

From The Mountain Town News (Allen Best):

Pennsylvania Mountain rises to 13,006 feet in the Mosquito Range of Colorado. From the summit, you can look down on the old mining towns of Leadville and Fairplay as well as a mining operation on a nearby mountain.

The above-treeline slopes of Pennsylvania Mountain, however, have remained pristine, distant from pesticides and other human influences.

A bumble bee does its thing with a flower on Pennsylvania Mountain. Photo/Christine Carlson
A bumble bee does its thing with a flower on Pennsylvania Mountain. Photo/Christine Carlson

Or so researchers studying wildflowers and bumble bees thought. Then they noticed something that surprised them. The bumble bees above timberline were different than they were in the past. Historically, alpine bumble bees comprised 95 to 99 percent of bumble bees on the above-treeline slopes of Pennsylvania Mountain as well as two other sites in Colorado’s Front Range. Now they share the habitat with lowland species, but even more surprisingly, the tongues of the alpine species are shorter than in the past.

These bumble bees were part of what scientists call an ecological partnership, or a mutualism. For long-tongued bees, with tongues up to half the length of their bodies, they were able to efficiently forage and pollinate the long-tubed wildflowers of Indian paintbrush, monkshood, and other alpine species. Both partners benefited from this specialization. The flowers get pollinated and the bees get nectar.

To find out why tongues of bees had shrunk, they pursued several hypotheses through field research on the three mountains during the summers from 2008 through 2014.

They have concluded that the high-altitude bees have been adjusting to warming temperatures. In their research summary, published in the Sept. 25 issue of the journal Science, they point to a decline in wildflowers as the base cause. With fewer of the already more-rare long-tubed wildflowers available, the bumble bees adapted to the broader menu of more abundant shorter-tubed wildflowers. To adapt, the bees developed shorter tongues over the space of 40 years. The bees reproduce annually.

Scientists not involved with the study described it as important. “Very powerful,” said Koos Biesmeijer, an ecologist at the Naturalis Biodiversity Center in Leiden, the Netherlands. That the changes occurred in just 40 years “is a really significant finding,” he told Science. He said this suggests that bee populations can adapt to effects created by warming temperatures.

Jennifer C. Geib, a biologist at Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C., and one of the study authors, told Mountain Town News that she had been traveling to Colorado to study the plants on Pennsylvania Mountain since she was a graduate student in 2003. Her study was about how the abundance of bumblebee pollinators benefitted the plants.

In 2012, she, her former adviser Dr. Candace Galen, and Dr. Nicole Miller-Struttmann of SUNY-Old Westbury, formed a collaboration to compare alpine plant-pollinator interactions in modern times to those of the past. That’s when the anomaly was discovered. The short-tongued bumble bees were much higher on the slopes than was expected.

A researcher does the hard work of science amid the wondrous setting of Pennsylvania Mountain. Photo/Christine Carlson
A researcher does the hard work of science amid the wondrous setting of Pennsylvania Mountain. Photo/Christine Carlson

Geib says the current study would have been impossible had it not been for researchers in the 1960s and 1970s who had taken measurements, providing baselines for comparison.

One important comparison is temperature change. The paper reports that summer minimum temperatures have increased about two degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) on Pennsylvania Mountain since 1960. But some plants like it cooler. The changes have not favored them. From 1960 to 1985, temperatures associated with reduced flowering occurred 12 percent of the years on Pennsylvania Mountain, but 48 percent of the years since 1985.

Warming summer minimum temperatures in the last 56 years have also been recorded on two other mountains in Colorado’s Front Range, Niwot Ridge and Mt. Evans, which were used in the study from 2012 to 2014.

Alpine flowers don’t grow as well when nighttime temperatures stay above 37.85 degrees Fahrenheit (3.25 degrees Celsius).

This loss of wildflowers wasn’t universal on the mountain. Toward the summit, flowers still did well. By definition, however, there’s less land near mountain summits. On Pennsylvania Mountain, total food resources for alpine bumble bees have fallen 60 percent since the 1970s.

Measuring and more measuring, that’s what scientists do. Photo/Christine Carlson
Measuring and more measuring, that’s what scientists do. Photo/Christine Carlson

Bumble bees adapted by developing tongues that are on average nearly 25 percent shorter. As bees reproduce every year, this adaptation has occurred over the span of 40 generations. With fewer of the long-tubed wildflowers to draw nectar from, they improved their odds by having a broader menu.

Geib routinely arrives in Colorado in mid-June, hiking every morning above treeline to study bumble bees and the wildflowers until thunder clouds chase her down the slopes in the afternoons. She stays two months.

The effect of this new tongue length cannot be registered quickly on the wildflowers because they have long lives, 50 and even 100 years.

Does this mean that the wildflowers above treeline will forevermore be more scarce? Not necessarily, says Geib. Climate change models predict increasing warmth, decreasing soil moisture, and decreased snowpack.

“But if this doesn’t hold true, then the plants should be able to recover. If that happens, then instead of this being a change, it would just be a hiccup.”

Photos courtesy of the <a href="http://www.savetheland.org/pennsylvania-mtn"Mountain Area Land Trust.

#Drought news: Topsoil moisture very short to short on the #Colorado High Plains

Click here to go to the US Drought Monitor website. Here’s an excerpt:

Summary

Dry weather dominated much of the country, favoring summer crop harvesting and winter wheat planting. However, topsoil moisture shortages hampered wheat emergence and establishment in a variety of regions, including portions of the Plains, lower Midwest, and interior Northwest. Meanwhile, significant short-term drought continued to grip the South, primarily from the southeastern Great Plains to the Mississippi Delta. In addition to concerns about recently planted winter wheat, Southern drought issues included stress on pastures and late-maturing summer crops; an elevated risk of wildfires; and diminishing surface-water supplies. In stark contrast, dry weather in South Carolina and environs favored flood-recovery efforts. Starting on October 16-17, widespread freezes ended the Midwestern growing season—as much as 1 to 2 weeks later than the normal first freeze in some locations. On October 18-19, freezes into the mid-Atlantic region and interior Southeast were roughly on schedule, or even a little earlier than normal. Elsewhere, a period of record-setting Western warmth preceded the arrival of a slow-moving storm system. Showers overspread California by October 15 and over the next several days reached into the Great Basin, Southwest, and Intermountain West. The Western precipitation caused local flooding, but replenished topsoil moisture, benefited rangeland and pastures, and provided limited relief from long-term drought. Significant rain began to overspread the south-central U.S. on October 21, a day after the drought-monitoring period ended, and will be reflected in next week’s U.S. Drought Monitor…

Great Plains

Mostly minor expansion of abnormal dryness (D0) and moderate drought (D1) was noted across the northern and central Plains. Conditions were not as dry as those being experienced farther south, but some impact on winter grain emergence has been reported. In Colorado, most (95%) of the winter wheat had been planted by October 18, but emergence (60%) lagged the 5-year average by 12 percentage points. On the same date, topsoil moisture was 59% very short to short in Kansas and 50% very short to short in Colorado…

West

Precipitation began to overspread central and southern California on October 15 and eventually reached into many other areas of the western U.S. However, extremely dry conditions persisted in much of Oregon and Washington, hampering winter crop establishment. By October 18, winter wheat emergence was at least 10 percentage points behind the 5-year average pace in Oregon (18% emerged) and Washington (62%). California led the nation with both topsoil and subsoil moisture rated 90% very short to short. Approximately two-thirds of the rangeland and pastures were rated very poor to poor in Oregon (67%) and California (65%). Finally, significant water-supply shortages—owing to the multi-year drought—were noted in Arizona, California, Nevada, and New Mexico. In the Northwest, statewide reservoir storage was also below average in Oregon, and Washington. On September 30, California’s statewide reservoir storage was 54% of the historical average for this time of year—and the second-lowest on record behind 1977.

During the drought-monitoring period, precipitation became heavy enough to result in some very minor improvements in the long-term drought depiction, primarily in Arizona and Nevada. Further refinements may be needed next week as assessments continue, especially since the storm was still in progress on October 20…

Looking Ahead

During the next 5 days, a slow-moving storm system will provide significant drought relief but possibly cause flash flooding in the south-central U.S. Five-day rainfall totals could reach at least 2 to 5 inches on the southern High Plains; 2 to 6 inches in the western Gulf Coast region; and 3 to 7 inches across the southeastern Plains. Showers will also overspread the northern and central Plains, although totals from Nebraska to the Dakotas will be mostly an inch or less. Scattered showers will also reach the Ohio Valley and the Midwest, but mostly dry weather will prevail through the weekend in the southern Atlantic States and the Far West. Outside of the storm system’s primary impact area (e.g. the south-central U.S.), warm weather will prevail nearly nationwide.

The NWS 6- to 10-day outlook for October 27 – 31 calls for the likelihood of warmer-than-normal weather across Florida, Alaska, and from the Pacific Coast to the northern and central Plains and the upper Midwest. Meanwhile, near- to below-normal temperatures can be expected across much of the South, East, and lower Midwest. The last 5 days of October should feature near- to above-normal precipitation across the majority of the U.S., with the greatest likelihood of wet weather occurring across the lower Southeast. In contrast, drier-than-normal conditions should occur in western Alaska and from the northern Plains into the upper Great Lakes region.

#ElNino: Global Temperatures Smash September Record by Widest Margin in History — Slate

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From Future Tense (Eric Holthaus):

Powered by a huge El Niño and decades of fossil fuel burning, last month’s global temperatures were truly exceptional, according to new data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

September 2015 broke the monthly global temperature record by the widest margin of any month since 1880, when records begin. The magnitude of this month’s record, combined with the fact that seven months so far this year are now the hottest in history—including the last five in a row—means 2015 is now virtually certain to wind up as Earth’s hottest year ever measured.

Stories on these broken records increasingly sound like—wait for it—a broken record, so we’re writing fewer of them at Slate unless something truly exceptional happens. This month definitely qualifies.

El Niños like this one have the ability to shift weather patterns on a global basis and in general send a surge of extra heat into the atmosphere from the warmer-than-normal tropical Pacific Ocean. So far, the 2015 El Niño has been neck and neck with the all-time strongest event ever measured, back in 1997. One of my weather textbooks in college was titled The Climate Event of the Century in reference to that El Niño. It’s something you don’t really expect to see again in your lifetime.

There’s good reason to believe this year’s El Niño will keep strengthening, at least in the near term, with a litany of impacts worldwide. Several notable effects have already been recorded, in addition to the unprecedented spike in global temperatures:

  • So far this year there have been 21 tropical cyclones of category 4 or 5 strength north of the equator—a new all-time record. Twenty of these have been in the Pacific, where El Niño tends to create exceptionally favorable conditions. The Washington Post’s Jason Samenow described it as “the most extreme tropical cyclone season on record in the Northern Hemisphere.”
  • Last week, a torrential rainstorm the National Weather Service described as a thousand-year rainfall event created a horrific mudslide that buried California highways, trapping hundreds of cars. Those near the scene described it as a “wall of mud.” No one was seriously hurt.
  • Earlier this month, much of Australia dealt with a brutal spring heat wave that likely reduced farmers’ yields. Australia is typically one of the countries hit hardest by El Niño.
  • In Indonesia, a huge burst of peatland wildfires has blanketed cities across the region with dense smoke for weeks, producing more daily carbon dioxide emissions than the entire United States. Also, new research shows a spike in dengue fever outbreaks in Southeast Asia during particularly strong El Niño years.
  • A rare and venomous yellow-bellied sea snake was recently spotted on a beach in California, the furthest north sighting ever recorded, thanks to the warm water. But don’t worry, it’s probably nothing.