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Most potential effects of climate change - considerable changes in air and sea temperature, sea level rise, increased flooding and desertification, and so on - are now so well established that the topic has recently been turned into a major summer blockbuster. That was Hollywood of course, which the Webster's American Dictionary defines as 'exaggeration with intent to thrill'. Yet, global warming is certainly real, and considerable research is being carried out to try and better grasp its likely consequences. That research has turned up some interesting results, published in Science last month.

Global warming and coral reefs: like pinstripe pants and a plaid shirt

The main greenhouse gas is of course carbon dioxide, or CO2. Like rainforests on land, the oceans are an enormous 'sink' for the gas. Nearly half of the extra CO2 produced since the Industrial Revolution has ended up in the sea. For those of us on land, that's great news, right? In some ways yes, as the oceans are acting as a buffer to the effects of global warming. In reality though, that's long term, as in thousands-of-years long term. For sea creatures it may be quite the opposite. By the end of next century, rising levels of CO2 in the atmosphere may halve the rate at which organisms such as corals, plankton and shellfish (bivalve mollusks) grow. This happens because increased CO2 levels in the sea make it more acidic, dissolving the calcium carbonate that the creatures use to make their skeletons and shells. This problem impacts the ecosystem immediately, and will only get worse over time. The effects of these changes on the wider ecosystem are unknown, but are likely to be significant because these organisms make up the foundation of the marine food web or provide shelter and protection for countless other species.

Is no place safe?

If I'd have seen a chance to bet on the deep sea being the only place on the planet that would not be affected by global warming, I'd have put half my monthly salary on it. Thankfully I saw no such bet, and as a result am now 6 cents better off. Changes in the atmosphere do affect the deep sea. Scientists have found that the prevalence of sea cucumbers - close relatives of starfish and sea urchins - at 13,000 feet off California varies depending on how much food is falling through the waters above. And these rainfalls of food depend on atmospheric climate events like El Nino and global warming.

For more info on these studies see Acid Seas and No Cucumbers.

August 19, 2004: After a rockin' and rollin' night on the ship, the morning news is a surprise to nobody. Today's dive is cancelled. Winds are over 30 knots and the seas are rife with 10-plus foot waves, beyond the safety margins to safely launch and recover the ALVIN. Sadly, the "Caldera of Doom" on Ely Seamount will remain unexplored.

This was the last scheduled dive of the cruise, so after some final multi-beam mapping of the area, we'll begin the long 4 day transit south.

The underwater exploration part of the cruise has effectively come to an end. But the information collected will yield many more discoveries. I'm very appreciative of being involved in this exciting research. Being able to observe deep-sea corals in their natural habitat has been a wonderful opportunity, so much more meaningful than numbers on a spreadsheet or dots on a map.

I'd like to thank Catalina Martinez, NOAA Office of Exploration, chief scientist Tom Shirley and principle investigators Randy Keller, Amy Baco-Taylor and Peter Etnoyer, the crew of Alvin and the Atlantis, and everyone else involved in the 2004 Gulf of Alaska Seamount Exploration. All your efforts have brought mankind closer to understanding the mysteries of the sea.

For the oceans,

Jon Warrenchuk
Marine Biologist
Oceana

August 18, 2004: The previous evening's multi-beam mapping revealed an interesting structure on the adjacent Ely Seamount: a volcanic crater on the summit. The P.I.'s decide to dedicate the last dive of the cruise tomorrow to exploring this structure.

There's bound to be something of interest for both the geologists and the biologists on this unique seamount feature. The crater is sensationally dubbed "the Caldera of Doom". Why? Probably because we watched Indiana Jones on DVD the night before.

August 17, 2004:The Atlantis is holding its position 800 meters over the summit of Giacomini Seamount, the last seamount we'll be exploring on this expedition.

Tom Shirley and Peter Etnoyer are cruising the flank of the seamount in Alvin while collecting samples for their research. Towards the end of every dive, the scientists in the sub call in the science report to the bridge. That way, those of us on the ship can get ready to process the collected samples when they return to the surface. The science report is reported around the ship: 7 corals, 3 seastars, 5 rocks, 4 "slurp" samples, 1 fish.

Fish? Hmmm. We haven't had a fish yet in our samples. I'm curious as to what it could be. A roughscale grenadier? A bignose skate? Shortspine thornyhead?

When the sub is retrieved and the samples are on deck, we find out. It's a snailfish! Whoa, stand back, those babies can take your leg off! Just kidding. It's only about 3.5 inches long, a real cutie.

The snailfishes are a diverse group of fish in the North Pacific (there's probably several dozen species). Snailfish have a pelvic fin that's modified into an adhesive disk used to stick onto things. This particular little dude was hanging out on a bamboo coral. All very interesting. Now into the alcohol jar with you!

The New York Times had a huge story about mercury yesterday. I can hardly do better than the title -- "E.P.A. Says Mercury Taints Fish Across U.S.":

WASHINGTON, Aug. 24 - The head of the Environmental Protection Agency said on Tuesday that fish in virtually all of the nation's lakes and rivers were contaminated with mercury, a highly toxic metal that poses health risks for pregnant women and young children.

This warning was limited to fish caught recreationally in fresh water, but you can't escape mercury by exchanging fish from your neighborhood lake for fish from your neighborhood grocery store; the highly toxic metal taints fish caught around the globe, not just in the U.S.

In fact, total EPA fish contamination advisories are up 10% from 2002. Nevertheless, the Agency continues to weaken regulations for major mercury sources. This latest warning should motivate the public to demand real reductions in mercury emissions -- now.

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