For nearly thirteen years, Mark Sabbatini has served as the sole publisher, editor, and reporter of IcePeople, a paper covering Svalbard, a remote Norwegian archipelago in the High Arctic, for a global audience. Earlier in his career, Sabbatini worked at newspapers including the Los Angeles Times and the Antarctic Sun. In 2008, he visited Svalbard […]
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A thousand feet above the winter landscape, a golden eagle is on the hunt.
Riding the wind, the bird careens over scrubby contours and rolling hillsides. It's late April and the days are growing longer. The snow melted weeks ago, revealing the dormant vegetation beneath. Suddenly, the eagle spots a shock of white on the brown landscape. The bird swoops, extending its talons toward the bounding white blob.
Here, on the dark earth, the snowshoe hare meets an untimely end.
Across the world's temperate regions, climate change is toying with the survival strategies of winter-adapted animals. Twenty-one species, from lemmings to ptarmigans, cope with the changing of the seasons by molting from brown to white, and back again. This transformation allows the animal to avoid easy detection by predators, such as birds of prey, foxes and lynx, during the harsh winter.
Molting is triggered by changes in air temperature, as well as a baked-in biological response to the predictable change in day length, known as the photoperiod, that occurs at the same time every fall and spring. But snow cover is diminishing due to climate change, with snows arriving later in the fall and melting earlier in the spring. This has created a phenological mismatch for at least half of the species that rely on winter camouflage to make it through the season. Rather than disappearing into their surroundings, their ill-adapted coats are making them stand out—often with fatal consequences.
Such climate-change induced phenological mismatches have been the subject of robust study in recent decades when it comes to hibernation, spring green-up, and migration. But research on the consequences of climate change for winter camouflage is still in its infancy.
In North America and Europe, a growing contingent of researchers is exploring what the future may hold for these vulnerable white beacons as the world grows warmer and snow cover declines.
Snowshoe hare (Credit: Scott Mills Lab, University of Montana)
(Credit: Scott Mills Lab, University of Montana)
(Credit: Scott Mills Lab, University of Montana)
Survival of snowshoe hares
Of all the winter-white species, the snowshoe hare, Lepus americanus, is the best understood when it comes to camouflage mismatch. That's largely thanks to Marketa Zimova, a biologist and post-doctoral student at the University of Michigan who has dedicated nearly a decade to studying the coloring of the animals.
Snowshoe hares can be found across Canada and in more than a dozen U.S. states, with their range extending as far south as the Sangre de Cristo mountains in New Mexico.
Between 85 and 100 percent of snowshoe hare mortality is already related to predation. To fend off would-be predators, hares stay completely still, refusing to hide or flee until they have no other choice. But when considering a lack of camouflage, this survival strategy is ill-fitting; the hares simply contrast too greatly with the bare, brown ground to go unnoticed.
In a 2016 analysis of snowshoe hares in Montana, Zimova and her colleagues found that weekly survival rates decreased by up to 7 percent in snowshoe hares with mismatched coats. By mid-century, snowpack duration in the state is forecasted to shorten by up to 35 days, and by up to 69 days by 2100.
In turn, this color mismatch will only worsen, creating a four- to eight-fold increase in the number of days when the hares are out of sync with their environment.
It's possible the animals could alter their behavior by sticking to areas with dense understory or rocks, but so far it doesn't appear the rabbits have made any changes to their daily regimen.
Without such behavioral adaptation, Zimova predicts the hare's population growth rate could decrease by up to a quarter by the end of the century in Montana, leading to steady population decline of about 12 percent per year. Other researchers studying Wisconsin's snowshoe hares found that weekly survival rates decreased by 12 percent in mismatched animals and that the hare's range is shifting northwards by about 5.5 miles per decade.
Snowshoe hard in Alaska. (Credit: JLS Photography - Alaska)
In a study of mountain hares, Lepus timidus, in Norway, researchers reviewing one 12-year period from 2003 to 2014 also found that the abundance of mountain hares decreased in years when snow cover was short-lived and the loss was even greater in areas with lots of predators.
From east to west, things don't look good for the milk-white hares.
However, Zimova and her colleagues are exploring the potential for another crucial adaptation strategy—the hare's ability to adjust the timing of when it switches to brown or white.
"The availability of light is the main trigger, and that starts this whole cascade of shedding and growing a new coat," she explained to EHN. "But the fine-tuning of it—how quickly or slowly that happens—can be adjusted based on temperature and snow cover."
In early studies, Zimova didn't believe that the hares had much control over when molting occurred. But more recent investigations revealed that the hares have more plasticity than originally thought.
Zimova has found that if the air temperature is really cold in March or April, the hare's reversion to brown will be delayed—similar to how a plant might hold off on flowering.
"But there's still a limit to how much it can be tweaked—about three weeks. It's not enough to avoid the mismatch altogether in years with really low snow cover," she said.
Can you spot the willow ptarmigan? (Credit: Markku Gavrilov)
The potential loss of “a beautiful, original bird”
Winter camouflage isn't limited to mammals; some birds also swap out their brown plumage as cold weather arrives.
The willow ptarmigan, or willow grouse, Lagopus lagopus, makes its home in the birch forests and tundra of Europe, Canada, Alaska, and Siberia. In Finland, the willow ptarmigan is found in the Arctic and sub-Arctic, but also in the country's central and southern boreal forests where they often dwell near mires and bogs.
Since the 1960s, this southerly population of willow ptarmigan has been declining, often tracking closely with the human drainage and afforestation of peatlands. But scientists suspect that a mismatch in camouflage may also be contributing to the bird's demise in more recent decades.
In a study published earlier this year in Scientific Reports, researchers at the Natural Resources Institute Finland dug through 21 years of willow ptarmigan census data, predator abundance data, and local daily snow depth measurements to see if they could unearth a phenological camouflage mismatch contributing to the bird's decline.
Snow typically arrives in October and November and disappears by May in Finland. They found that "there was a quite clear result that the decline of the species was strongest at the sites where, and during the specific years when the preceding April was most snow-free," Markus Melin, lead author of the study, told EHN.
The willow ptarmigan, or willow grouse, Lagopus lagopus, makes its home in the birch forests and tundra of Europe, Canada, Alaska, and Siberia. (Credit: Victor)
According to their analysis, each snow-free day in April caused a population decline of 3.1 percent. Comparatively, a lack of snow in the autumn did not have the same severe repercussions for the birds.
"In the autumn, the birds are more mobile," said Melin. "But in springtime, the females are settling into their nesting sites which makes them more vulnerable. And the males are more careless because they're getting ready to breed."
The stark white birds against the dark ground, therefore, are an easy target for predatory goshawks which dine on the ptarmigans in abundance. During snow-free years, Melin noted scientists found an excessive amount of ptarmigan bones and feathers in goshawk nests.
Saving the southern willow ptarmigan will be tricky. Finland should continue its conservation efforts that restore peatlands, asserted Melin, as the birds are efficient breeders and have been found to breed in these restored areas.
The loss of snow cover, however, is predicted to worsen. In southern and central Finland, "all projections point to more and more snow-free seasons," said Melin, which would likely mean the loss of "a beautiful, original bird."
Weasels “are waiting for months for the first snow”
In northern ecosystems, weasels play the role of both predator and prey. These slinky animals will feed on small rodents, like mice and voles, as well as birds, frogs, fish, and eggs. But they're also hunted by foxes, pine martens, and birds of prey.
There are three species in the mustelidae family that molt between the seasons: long-tailed weasel, least weasel, and stoat.
In Poland's Białowieża Forest, scientists have been studying the least weasel, Mustela nivalis, which occurs in two varieties: one subspecies that stays brown year-long, and another that adopts winter white camouflage.
Even under normal circumstances, between 80 and 90 percent of the population is killed by predators during the winter. The weasels often make up for this loss with high reproductive rates, giving birth to kits twice a year.
But like elsewhere in the world, winter snow cover isn't what it once was. Typically snow arrives in December and lasts through the end of March. "Last winter, there was no almost no snow at all," Karol Zub, a biologist at the Mammal Research Institute of the Polish Academy of Sciences, told EHN. "And the snow that was there was in such a thin layer it didn't cover the weasels; they needed at least five to six centimeters. It was patchy and not a perfect background for camouflage."
Zub and his colleagues have found that the white subspecies has been declining in Białowieża Forest as snow cover decreases. "The problem is that they are turning white at the beginning of November. The air temperatures are similar to what they were 20 years ago so it's still cold. The day is shorter. The signal for molting is the same. But then they are waiting for months for the first snow."
During that time, the weasels are easily hunted by larger animals.
The one thing that might save the weasels from a snowless future would be if air temperatures were to warm in November as well. That would delay the molt, which Zub said is slowly beginning to happen in the forest.
But other researchers wonder if there could be another solution.
In northern ecosystems, weasels play the role of both predator and prey. (Credit: Karol Zub)
The weasels often make up for predation loss with high reproductive rates, giving birth to kits twice a year. (Credit: Karol Zub)
Adaptation by natural selection
At a University of Montana laboratory, scientists are investigating whether winter-white species could adapt via evolutionary rescue—the process whereby evolutionary adaptation occurs fast enough to allow the population to recover before they disappear.
Already, some snowshoe hare populations no longer turn white in winter. "Those are in areas with less snow, or unpredictable snow, in places like Washington and Oregon," said Zimova. "But we don't know when or how these [populations] arose." This is the next critical stage of research.
Jeff Good, an evolutionary biologist and director of the University of Montana lab, is using a genetic approach to understand the potential for adaptive response in hares. He hopes to map out what determines the frequency and the locations of different camouflage strategies. Anecdotally, scientists have observed snowshoe hares in all different color phases on a single day in Montana, suggesting that the animals aren't all molting at the same rate.
Right now, the lab is in the early stages of figuring out the specific genes and genetic changes that determine what makes a hare brown or white during the winter. "The difference between brown and white is encoded in a single gene that involves pigmentation," Good told EHN. "It seems to be a relatively simple switch that determines if you grow out a white coat or a brown coat."
The winter-brown gene is a recessive trait, which means that many winter-white hares have the potential to make a winter-brown hare if they were paired with another winter-white hare that carried the same recessive brown gene. In Montana, less than about 1 percent of the snowshoe hare population stays brown, but Good's genetic testing reveals that the adaptation potential for winter-brown could be greater than what is visible to the naked eye.
Whether or not natural selection works depends on how that winter-brown gene is spread around populations. Even though the variation for winter-brown exists, it might not exist in a sufficient amount for populations to actually respond at a large scale.
In places like Poland's Białowieża Forest, such natural selection could be easier for the least weasel, since one abundant variety already stays brown year-long.
Still, Good thinks it's likely that this winter-brown adaptation will become more prominent as snow cover decreases. The hares that turn white will be killed off in higher numbers, selecting for those that remain brown year-long. However, he cautions that natural selection might not work rapidly enough to respond to loss of snow. But, "it tells us how these populations could possibly adapt."
Gloria Dickie is a journalist based in British Columbia, Canada. Her work appears in The New York Times, National Geographic, The Guardian, Science News, and Scientific American. Follow her on Twitter or read more at www.gloriadickie.com.
Banner photo: Snowshoe hare. (Credit: Scott Mills Lab, University of Montana)
By Gloria Dickie
Published October 12, 2017
On a float house in Ketchikan’s George Inlet, dozens of cylindrical tanks teem with oyster larvae that range from tiny specks to small pebbles. These larvae number around 15 million, and once they’re done growing in the cold Alaskan waters, they’ll be sent to market across the state.
As the Pacific Ocean acidifies—a consequence of carbon emissions—oyster farms off California, Washington State, and British Columbia have struggled to get larvae to grow into seed, the stage when young oysters’ shells have formed. Though scientists are not quite sure why, the water off Southeast Alaska hasn’t seen the same deleterious effects. Now, entrepreneurs and investors are eyeing the state, looking to turn a profit off the short-lived gains of climate change.
Until recently, the major choke point for the Alaskan oyster industry was the limited availability of oyster seed. While adult oysters grow well in the cool Alaskan water, the temperature is too brisk for them to reproduce naturally. Any oyster farmer trying to get into the game had to import larvae or seed from hatcheries farther down the coast.
But over the past five years, scientists and entrepreneurs have been working on developing Alaska’s home-grown oyster seed operations.
OceansAlaska, the state’s first commercial shellfish hatchery, imports oyster larvae and rears them into seed in cylinders circulating with seawater. Nearby, a monitoring system called a Burk-o-Lator, one of only three in the state, constantly measures the acidity of the water. It took a few years for OceansAlaska to work out the kinks, but in 2012 the company began shipping seed to oyster farmers around the state. In the long-term, the organization, which runs as a nonprofit, hopes their efforts will lead others to build larger hatcheries in Alaska to supply seed for all the oyster growers in the region and even beyond.
The push to increase Alaska’s oyster seed operations has coincided with a sudden decline in larvae production down south, where larvae have been hampered by warming water and ocean acidification. In the mid-2000s, increasingly acidic seawater pumped into southern oyster hatcheries began killing billions of larvae, eating away at the young oysters’ shells before they could fully form, and preventing them from developing into seed. The effects of this have rippled through the market. In 2015, for instance, Canadian oyster farmers saw a 70 million seed shortfall.
But the southern oyster farmers’ plight has been Alaska’s boon. Gary Freitag, an agent with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Alaska Sea Grant who’s been working with OceansAlaska to develop the state’s oyster industry, says Alaskan seed has been sold to growers in California and Washington State.
“We sent some seed down to California this year, and they said it’s the best seed they’ve seen in 10 years,” says Freitag. “There’s been a huge need for it in the market, because there’s just not enough seed to go around, period.”
Though some Pacific oysters have shown genetic variability in how they respond to acidified waters, it’s unlikely Pacific oysters will continue to thrive as far south as California as acidification seriously alters the ocean’s chemistry in the coming decades. The question now is how long Alaska’s oyster industry will be able to boom before it busts.
The decline of Arctic ice didn’t set a record this year, with sea ice extent coming in eigth after record-setting 2012. On September 13, at the summer minimum, sea ice covered 4.64 million square kilometers; that’s 1.25 million square kilometers more than 2012.
However, that fact was overshadowed by another: experts say what matters most in the Arctic is the total volume of ice — a combination of thickness and extent. 2017 saw summer volumes among the lowest ever recorded.
The Arctic set still another record that concerns scientists: no other 12-month period (September 2016 to August 2017) has had such persistently low sea ice extent.
The Arctic ice is therefore showing no signs of recovery, scientists say, and its decline is likely continuing to impact the Earth’s weather in unpredictable and destabilizing ways.
After 16 months of consecutive record and near-record lows in late 2016 and early 2017, sea ice extent in the Arctic held fast over the summer thanks to more moderate weather and cooler temperatures. As of September 13, sea ice covered some 4.64 million square kilometers (1.79 million square miles) at its minimum, roughly 1.25 million square kilometers (482,000 square miles) more than record-setting year 2012.
Still, while 2017’s summer melt season didn’t break the record, it falls far below the 1981 to 2010 median extent by over 1.58 million square kilometers (610,000 square miles). Moreover, surface cover isn’t everything when it comes to the state of the Arctic — what experts say matters most is the total volume of ice — a combination of thickness and extent, and 2017 saw summer volumes among the lowest ever recorded.
Some scientists are now saying colloquially that the Arctic Ocean has in recent decades entered the “Thin Ice Age.” Since 1980, the average ice thickness come July has decreased by an estimated 120 centimeters (47 inches).
Notably this July, the average sea ice thickness in the Arctic was equivalent to the lowest on record.
So in spite of a slight rebound in summer extent, the average Arctic sea ice volume was still 47 percent below the 1979 to 2016 mean. That is not only likely bad news for the future of Arctic ice and polar ecosystems, but also for a stable global climate, which is highly influenced, and possibly unbalanced by events up North. Climatologists, for example, postulate that jet stream blocking, an effect hypothetically caused by a warming Arctic, could have stalled Hurricane Harvey over Houston.
This year’s thinner, slushier ice is more vulnerable than the past’s thick, multi-year ice, and it melts out rapidly during a spike in temperature or intense cyclonic activity. That’s why, even at the end of August, scientists at the National Snow and Ice Data Center weren’t quite ready to call how 2017 would shake out compared to previous summers. Last year, they noted, took a sudden nose dive around the same time.
“It was pretty unique going into the  melt season, that we had had so many record low sea ice extents and thickness estimates all suggested we had quite thin ice and low ice volume,” says Julienne Stroeve, senior research scientist with the National Snow and Ice Data Center. “You would tend to think that maybe we’d have another record low, but what this summer has shown is that’s not enough to just have thin ice.”
Indeed, summer weather conditions have a larger impact on summer sea ice cover than the extent of the winter maximum going into the season. At least, that is the case, so far, with the ice record.
“Even if you have really thin ice at the start of the melt season, it’s still not quite thin enough where it wouldn’t matter what the summer weather patterns were,” continues Stroeve. “It’s not been a particularly warm summer in the Arctic; it’s been pretty stormy, lots of cold-core cyclones have come in, and that has helped to limit the ice melt.”
But atmospheric temperatures are not the only temps that matter. Sea surface temperatures were higher than normal in coastal regions, melting the ice from the sides and from below —reducing thickness through heat exchange and wave action.
While total sea ice volume is ultimately a more important climate indicator, circumpolar volume has not been observed as continuously as extent, which has been monitored daily via satellites since 1979. While scientists can cobble together scattered volume observational data points from Navy submarines, buoy moorings, field measurements, and satellites, these are limited in number in both space and time.
Rather, to determine reductions in volume over time, scientists have input what observations they have into varied numerical models which estimate sea ice volume over several decades. One of these modeling programs has estimated that sea ice volume declined by 4,291 cubic kilometers (1,029 cubic miles) between the end of the summers of 2003 and 2012.
Though sea ice extent was holding steady in mid-September, whether or not that will have any impact on this winter’s extent remains hard to say, says Stroeve. Because winters have been getting warmer and warmer, she expects there will still be delays in sea ice formation this autumn — especially in the Chukchi Sea, which melted out early in 2017.
The NOAA National Weather Service Climate Prediction Center states that due to extensive open water this summer, air temperatures over the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas and along the North Slope of Alaska will likely be far above average through autumn.
And while summer sea ice extent didn’t hit any record lows this year, it didn’t exactly bounce back either. “We [didn’t] have a record low, but [2017 is] still among the lowest we’ve recorded,” says Stroeve. According to NSIDC, 2017 came in at the eighth lowest extent since recordkeeping began in 1979. Also, no other 12-month period (September 2016 to August 2017) has had such persistently low sea ice extent.
“We’re not seeing any sort of recovery in the sea ice. Even if we have an average summer like this one — there was nothing remarkable in the air temperatures — but we still were among the lowest. I think that’s where thickness comes into play,” said Stroeve. “We’re not recovering to the conditions we saw in the 1980s or 1990s and that is because the thickness of the ice has gotten to the point where you’re not getting any recovery anymore.”
What seems fairly certain is that, so long as humanity continues piping greenhouse gases at a staggering rate into the atmosphere, Arctic ice volume will continue deteriorating, and the global climate will continue destabilizing. The Arctic, say researchers metaphorically, is increasingly skating on thin ice.
SOLUTIONS | 09.19.17
Fighting for a Foothold
White abalone are both critically endangered and crucial to their coastal ecosystems, so scientists have launched a Hail Mary effort to save them.
Story by Gloria Dickie
Photographs by Kathryn Whitney
Kristin Aquilino pushes open a heavy metal door with a small sign bearing the words, White Abalone Spawning and Culturing in Process. “This is where the magic happens,” says Aquilino, who directs the white abalone captive breeding program here at the UC Davis Bodega Marine Laboratory, an expansive research facility situated on a windy, jagged stretch of coastline in northern California. It’s shortly after 7 a.m., and she and her team have already been at work for several hours.
Today is Spawning Day—the one time each year when white abalone can be coaxed to release their sperm and eggs, giving researchers the chance to rear the next generation. Each of the 14 brood stock in their care, including the only wild-born white abalone female in captivity, sits in its own bucket, bathing in a hydrogen peroxide solution that, after a few hours, should stimulate the mollusk to spawn. “There’s a lot on the line,” Aquilino explains. With white abalone (Haliotis sorenseni) failing to reproduce in the wild, this program is essential to the species’ survival. But she doesn’t have high hopes for the new wild female, which released eggs out of stress when divers collected her in Southern California a few weeks earlier. “My guess is she’s done.”
White abalone once numbered in the millions, from Point Conception, near Santa Barbara, California to Punta Abreojos, Mexico, more than 1,200 kilometers (800 miles) to the south. Today, only about 2,000 isolated survivors remain along California’s coast, where the species is considered to be functionally extinct. No two individuals live near enough—within 2 meters (6 feet) of one another—for their sperm and eggs to meet when released into the water. As white abalone numbers have fallen, other creatures have proliferated in their wake. Urchins now overgraze the fragile kelp forests that protect coastlines from eroding into the sea. Despite conservation efforts, abalone numbers have continued to drop in recent decades. Researchers have been left with no choice but to try to breed the animals in captivity and release them into the wilds of the California Coast in a last-ditch effort to save the species—and the habitat they shore up.
Just after 9:00 a.m., an hour earlier than anticipated, there’s a sudden flurry of activity as technicians cluster around one of the white buckets. Wild abalone 312 is spawning. “You go girl!” yips Aquilino, as a cloud of brown eggs shoots out of one of the respiratory pores on her shell—an orifice through which the animals both breathe and release eggs or sperm. Given the unlikelihood that this abalone lived near a male in the wild, Aquilino says this could be the first time she’s had a chance to reproduce in decades. “That’s a very long dry spell,” Aquilino says, especially for an animal with a lifespan of 35 to 40 years. Ten minutes later, in 309’s bucket, a cloud of milky abalone ejaculate plumes, and technicians swiftly elbow their way in with pipettes to collect the sperm. In a matter of minutes, Aquilino is inside a refrigerated fertilization room and singularly focused, mixing the fresh sperm and eggs in precise ratios. “It’s like Match.com with 309 and 312,” she says, injecting a dropper-full of sperm into a pitcher of eggs.
After more than a decade of trial-and-error, white abalone are finally hitting their stride in captivity. By day’s end, the wild female will have spawned some 700,000 viable eggs—introducing new genes into the captive population for the first time in 14 years. In total, the team estimated they had created 8 million embryos—20,000 of which they expect to make it to the adult stage. That’s in addition to the tens of thousands of juveniles researchers have already reared in their nursery.
As scientists prepare to release the first captive-bred individuals into the wild in the next year or so, much remains unknown about the ecological role of the marine invertebrate and the rising threats to their long-term recovery: a mysterious disease brought on by warm waters, the predators that exploit naive captive-raised abalone, and the yet-to-be-determined impacts of climate change. Indeed, the coast is hardly clear for abalone in California.
In the wild, white abalone typically live a hundred feet or more below the surface, so researchers often use remotely-operated submersible vehicles to study them. As a result, research on the basics of abalone biology and ecology has been slow, and scientists were largely unaware of the rapid decline of abalone populations until it was almost too late.
“Abalone’s ultimate downfall is that they’re delicious,” says Jenny Hofmeister, a marine scientist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. White abalone, highly prized by markets in Asia and restaurants in stateside Chinatowns, are said to be tastier than the red, black, pink, or green abalone species. In the 1970s, California opened up a commercial fishery for white abalone, and divers gathered the animals by the hundreds of thousands. As white abalone became rarer in the wild, the price per pound jumped from $2.50 in 1981 to $7 in 1993—roughly double the value of other abalone species. Before long, the abalone that remained on the seafloor were too few and far between to reproduce.
Fearing extinction, the California Department of Fish and Game banned commercial fishing of white abalone in 1996 and of all abalone species in 1997. Today, the only fishery that remains is for recreational fishing of red abalone in northern California, where their densities are still sustainable. But that hasn’t stopped white abalone from showing up in fishermen’s hauls. Today, a single white abalone can sell for hundreds of dollars—a temptation some divers are unable to resist. Aquilino says she’s heard people describe it as “finding a $100 bill on the ocean floor.”
Based on surveys conducted in the 1990s showing that white abalone populations had declined by 99 percent in southern California in just two decades, the species was designated as a candidate for listing under the Endangered Species Act. Petitions from the Center for Biological Diversity and the Marine Conservation Biology Institute eventually led to the white abalone being listed in 2001—the first marine invertebrate to receive federal protection. In the years that followed, scientists and the government mounted a valiant effort to bring the animal back from the brink, but white abalone numbers continued to drop. Between 2002 and 2011, some of the sparse, wild California populations declined by an additional 78 percent.
“Something knocked them out,” says Buzz Owen, 82, a retired commercial fisherman and avid abalone researcher who first described hybridization among various species. “But there were multiple things at work.”
On top of illegal harvests, a disease called Withering Foot Syndrome first showed up near the Channel Islands off the southern California Coast in 1986, and by the 1990s it had spread to waters near the mainland. Once infected, abalone stop eating. The abalone is then forced to consume its own body mass, causing the foot muscle to wither and lose its life-giving grip on the rocky seafloor. The deadly disease affects every abalone species in California, but white abalone are particularly hard hit.
Even more troubling, the emergence of Withering Foot Syndrome is temperature-dependent. A white abalone in a lab, under optimal conditions, can be infected with the pathogen and not experience any symptoms. But as soon as the water temperature warms to between 18 and 20 degrees Celsius (64 and 68 degrees Fahrenheit), the disease kicks in, killing the mollusk within months.
In the wild, white abalone occupy deep waters that are normally cool enough to keep them healthy. But between 2014 and 2016, El Niño and an anomalous mass of warm water meteorologists call “The Blob” pushed temperatures in the eastern Pacific Ocean two degrees Celsius above normal. This warmed every monitored white abalone site in southern California, some of them past the 18-degree threshold. Climate change is expected to routinely bring warmer water temperatures to some stretches of white abalone habitat, potentially eliminating their thermal protection in these areas altogether.
To make matters worse, rising ocean temperatures are also wreaking havoc on the animals’ habitat and food sources. Kelp forests need temperatures between 5 and 20 degrees Celsius (41 and 68 degrees Fahrenheit) to thrive. When water temperatures increase, the amount of dissolved inorganic nitrogen drops, and kelp abundance begins to fall as well.
A Brief History of White Abalone
Thanks to over-harvesting, reproductive failure, and infections, white abalone has gone from abundant to endangered in just half a century. But science has been staging an intervention in hopes of improving the species' odds of survival. Click on the green circles to learn more.
19601970198019902000201020201968White abalone harvest takes off in CaliforniaAt its peak, 144,000 pounds of white abalone is harvested in a year1978White abalone harvest plummets; a mere 3,600 pounds are harvested this year1997California prohibits commercial and recreational fishing of white abaloneWhite abalone numbers at a monitoring site in Tanner Bank, California continue to fall despite protections2002-201419722001White abalone is federally listed as an endangered species
When I meet Jim Moore inside the California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Shellfish Health Lab, the invertebrate pathologist is peering through a microscope, examining dyed tissue samples taken from captive white abalone. He’s hoping that by documenting the process of necrosis—what an abalone’s tissues do after the animal dies—he’ll be able to sort out the difference between changes caused by pathogenic disease and those that happen naturally after death. “It’s difficult for us to figure out when an abalone is really dead—often once [researchers] realize, it’s been dead for a while,” he says. This makes it hard to know if an infection took hold before the animal died (perhaps causing death) or after.
To keep Withering Foot Syndrome at bay in the nursery, Moore gives the animals a bath in an antibiotic called oxytetracycline and treats them with UV radiation as soon as they arrive. Researchers can douse the animals once more before stocking them in the wild, to protect them from the disease for a few more months, but without continual treatment the abalone are likely to become infected.
In a stroke of evolutionary good fortune, a bacterial phage, or hyper-parasite, emerged a few years ago, fighting off the syndrome in wild populations of black abalone, as well as on red abalone farms in central California. In black abalone, for example, researchers found the phage reduced the infection load in targeted tissue by roughly half. The phage has since spread and is protecting abalone populations throughout their range, wherever the pathogen is found. Moore says researchers have no clue where it came from or how it arrived, but “the enemy of your enemy is your friend,” he says. The phage has shown mixed results to date in saving white abalone, but considering its enigmatic nature, there’s hope that the phage, or another variant, may turn out to provide some level of protection.
Progress has also been made in keeping illegal harvest to a minimum. To pin down poachers, Erin Meredith, senior wildlife forensic specialist for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Wildlife Forensic Laboratory, helped to develop a genetic test to distinguish between red, black, pink, green, flat and white species. Now, when enforcement officers come across suspected abalone poachers in the field, they can take tissue samples from the mollusks and send them to a lab for species identification. Meredith’s test also enables officers to analyze items used in potential poaching activities, such as the suspect’s dive gloves, wetsuits and pry knives—anything that may have come into contact with the abalone. And it’s working. Earlier this year, Meredith received her first case involving potentially poached white abalone in southern California.
The challenge that remains is figuring out how and where to return the captive-bred abalone to the wild once researchers receive federal approval to release them—possibly within the next year. Even if scientists manage to protect abalone from poachers and disease, predators threaten to undo all the gains achieved so far.
The 22-foot Boston Whaler dubbed Kelpfish rolls in the choppy waters off San Diego as pelicans dive like sharpshooters around the boat, snapping up fish and gulping them down quivering gullets that reverberate with each flop. Sea lions and porpoises swim by, taking advantage of the ocean’s bounty. On the horizon, a California Department of Fish and Wildlife enforcement officer patrols the protected waters, on the lookout for possible poachers. But today, most of the action is happening far beneath the waves.
After 45 minutes, a stream of fizzing bubbles rises to the water’s surface, signaling the return of divers Jenny Hofmeister and Arturo Ramirez. The two waterlogged black shapes emerge from a cloud of tuna crabs and weedy kelp and haul themselves from the cool water along with mesh bags filled with a collection of sea creatures. After a quick swig of ginger tea to warm up, Hofmeister begins sifting through her scavenged treasures: an empty cowrie shell; five Kellet’s whelks; a starfish; and a half-dozen red abalone shells, their occupants long-since eaten.
Over the past week, Hofmeister and a team of divers from the Bodega Marine Laboratory have been performing predator surveys in a range of stocked habitat plots along the California coastline. Last year, to test the waters, the team released 3,200 farm-raised red abalone in Long Beach—a process they call outplanting. “We saw a very quick and immediate increase in octopus right next to our abalone a few days after we put them out there,” Hofmeister says. “We call it ‘ringing the dinner bell’.”
Octopuses are abalone’s most voracious predators in deep water, but crabs, lobsters, and fish will target them, too. Captive-bred abalone released into the wild, researchers theorize, are stressed in their new environment and haven’t developed fast-acting fear responses yet. The abalone’s first lines of defense are passive: camouflage and a hard shell. If pursued by a slow-moving predator, like a starfish or predatory snail, abalone can retreat, if only at a literal snail’s pace. When faster-moving threats approach, abalone can engage their mollusk death grip, clamping down on a rock and holding on for dear life. But studies show that farm-raised abalone don’t clamp down fast enough. And even if they do, some predators, like octopuses, are able to bore through their shells.
Hofmeister pulls out her waterproof chart and begins performing casual necropsies on each of the red abalone shells she’s collected. “Damage to the shell can give us an indicator of what ate it,” she says, picking up a tiny green and gray shell with chips along the edge. “This was probably a crab or a lobster, because they’ll use their sharp claws to flip the abalone off the rock.” Octopus kills, she continues, can be identified by the pin-prick-sized hole it makes through the middle of the abalone shell with its rasping tongue to reach the main muscle, where the octopus injects a paralyzing toxin. This allows the octopus to pry the abalone off the rock and devour it. “There is not much we can do to increase the armor of the abalone,” Hofmeister says. "If we can find a way to deter octopus, that might be our best bet.”
So far, about 700 of the 7,200 outplanted red abalone from the trial have been accounted for across nine sites in coastal Los Angeles and San Diego, 400 of them dead and 300 alive. The site Hofmeister is monitoring today seems to be showing better survival rates than other locations as well as fewer predators. As she packages each abalone shell in a small plastic bag, another dive team swings by in their boat and passes over a white plastic bucket containing a California two-spot octopus (Octopus bimaculoides) collected at one of their survey plots.
“A lot of my research is addressing how we can outsmart the octopus,” says Hofmeister as she hoists the slimy, red mollusk from the water in the bucket, already stained with the animal’s defensive ink. She empties the toxic contents over the side of the boat as the octopus suctions tightly to her hand. Because octopuses use their tentacles to “taste” their way along the seafloor, Hofmeister wonders if it would be feasible to coat the abalone’s shell with an unpalatable concoction to deter predators. She explains, “We want a coating that doesn’t hurt the abalone, but if an octopus touches it, he’s like ‘Nope!’” Alternatively, if researchers find areas that octopuses steer clear of—a patch of sandy terrain or rocky relief too unpleasant to traverse—these might be good spots to release white abalone.
Hofmeister pulls out her measuring stick and takes a read of the size of the octopus’s mantle. Then she checks for any physical damage; tentacle R2 is missing its tip, but it will regrow. Last, she sexes the octopus and estimates her to be six months old. By year’s end, she’ll double in size. “Don’t ink, don’t ink, don’t ink,” Hofmeister mutters as she returns the animal back to the bucket of water.
By mid-afternoon, our boat is harbor-bound, speeding over dark blue waters. The clouds that hung low throughout the morning have dissipated, and the mansions of San Diego loom large above the shoreline. Mitt Romney has a $12 million beachfront vacation home here, not far from John McCain’s $1 million luxury condo.
One of the biggest challenges of white abalone restoration is getting people to care about an animal that so closely resembles a rock. Abalone are the antithesis of charismatic megafauna. Still, Aquilino is on a mission to make the world see these creatures as both “cute” and vital to the ocean’s health. If people can look past the animals’ hard exterior, they may invest more in saving abalone, which play a critical role in maintaining the nation’s kelp forests and the coastlines these ecosystems hold together.
In this part of southern California, where white abalone have all but disappeared, sea urchin populations have exploded over the past 20 years, forming so-called “urchin barrens.” With no abalone around to compete for habitat and vital resources, urchins move out of subtidal cracks and crevices to mow down kelp and the ecosystems the plants support. In California, it’s these kelp forests that protect coastlines from wave action. “They absorb a lot of the ocean’s energy,” explains Hofmeister. As sea levels rise, waves will likely be able to travel farther inland, even during calm conditions, eroding away land. Storm surges bring larger waves, and with them, the potential to cause catastrophic damage. “Without kelp forests, Romney’s house is going to be gone,” she says.
According to a 2013 study in Nature, if protective nearshore habitats such as kelp forests were lost, we would see a doubling of the number of poor families, elderly people, and property value exposed to coastal hazards like flooding and sea level rise by 2100. And without abalone, kelp forests’ days may be numbered. It’s not just a matter of getting people to acknowledge that abalone are cute; the mollusks provide tangible, measurable economic benefits in the form of coastal protection.
“The kelp forest is an ecosystem that supports a lot of different species,” explains Hofmeister. Remove one of those species, and the whole ecosystem can crumble. When sea otters disappeared in the Aleutian Archipelago in southeast Alaska, for example, urchins exploded and ate all the kelp until the forest disappeared, and with it many of the species it supported, such as seals, sharks, and sea lions. But when sea otters were extirpated in southern California, where other species that preyed on the urchins still existed, the forests remained resilient. “The more biodiverse an ecosystem is, the more resilient it is to change,” Hofmeister says. “Diversity saved the kelp forests then, and diversity is what is going save the kelp forests now.”
Header: A white abalone at the Bodega Marine Lab. Photograph by John Burgess/The Press Democrat
The Bodega Marine Lab in Horseshoe Cove.
The Shellfish Health Lab.
A dyed sample of diseased abalone tissue.
Homes overlooking the waters of San Diego. Photograph by Gloria Dickie.
Footer: The rocky coast of Northern California.
Two bankrupt solar panel manufacturers are asking the U.S. government for tariffs on imports, imports U.S. solar installers rely on. It's already having an impact.
BY GLORIA DICKIE, INSIDECLIMATE NEWS
AUG 14, 2017
Solar installers argue that the economic harm from protectionism would far outweigh the benefits, especially as tax incentives are phased out. Credit: Alex Wong/Getty Images
Would an intervention by Washington to save this industry end up destroying it? That's the question confronting the solar industry as the U.S. International Trade Commission meets this week on a petition to protect domestic manufacturers with tariffs on solar panel imports and price supports.
The commission will hear competing views at a meeting on August 15 and has said it will make a preliminary ruling in late September on whether the petitioners, a pair of domestic manufacturers that have filed for bankruptcy, have been so badly injured by imports that they need relief.
The case is unusually complex, and it's hard to know what relief the ITC and, ultimately, the Trump administration may impose. (As Bloomberg News noted in June, Trump's instincts are to protect domestic manufacturers, and he is more fond of the coal industry than of solar.)
The trade petition was filed after Suniva, which had been taken over by a foreign firm, filed this year for bankruptcy; it was joined by SolarWorld, another foreign-controlled and bankrupt company.
Most of the rest of the domestic solar industry—including some other manufacturers but mainly those who install and finance solar gear and can thrive on cheap systems from abroad—is lined up against the petition. Their business has been booming as costs have steadily declined, making it easier for consumers, businesses and power companies to shift from fossil-fuel electricity.
Hundreds of workers from the industry are expected to attend the hearing, pressing the case that the economic harm from protectionism would far outweigh the benefits.
Jobs and an Industry in Jeopardy
On Friday, a bipartisan group of senators sent an open letter to the ITC urging the commission to reject the petition.
"Increasing costs will stop solar growth dead in its tracks, threatening tens of thousands of American workers in the solar industry and jeopardizing billions of dollars in investment in communities across the country," the senators wrote.
Opponents cite a recent study by Greentech Media that found that the protective relief sought by the petition "would strike a devastating blow to the U.S. solar market, erasing two-thirds of installations expected to come online over the next five years." In rebuttal, the petitioners turned to analysts who issued a report claiming much the opposite: that relief would result in a "net gain in employment of at least between 114,796 and 144,298 jobs for the U.S. solar industry" over the next five years.
Forecasts for the growth of solar electricity have never been very reliable. They are especially difficult now. Congress passed a law that over the next few years will phase out most of the tax subsidies that make it cheaper to install solar power. That would be happening just as the temporary tariffs and price supports kick in if Suniva and SolarWorld win their case.
Among the unpredictable factors: the rapid pace of innovation and the intense competition in the global marketplace, the economies of scale that develop as solar power becomes ever cheaper, and policies around the world supporting solar. It all makes a big difference in a world trying to head off climate change caused by fossil fuel emissions of greenhouse gases.
Although the U.S. hardly dominates the global solar marketplace—China is a much bigger supplier of equipment, and its installed solar capacity is growing much faster than America's—any big change in solar incentives or penalties in the U.S. will be felt.
Tariff Fears Are Already Having an Impact
For the first half of 2017, solar module prices were declining in the United States, but now there are reports that prices have been increasing—by as much as 20 percent, in some cases—due to fears of a tariff. For solar farm developers that provide energy for big companies and utilities, panels account for as much as half of their project costs.
"We're already seeing that people are hedging their bets by buying modules ahead and stockpiling them because they're worried if tariffs are put in place, prices for domestic installers will go up dramatically," said Robert Margolis, a senior energy analyst at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.
"We could see a double whammy of higher prices and declining subsidies, which could have a pretty serious effect on U.S. solar deployment," said Dan Reicher, executive director of Stanford University's Steyer-Taylor Center for Energy Policy and Finance. "We don't know how the commission is going to rule, so it's hard to speculate about the actual impacts on carbon reduction goals and energy efficiency. But higher solar technology costs can only give a leg up to other technologies."
His center's recent report, The New Solar System, set forth the case for American manufacturers to build more "first factories" near laboratories whenever a new solar technology is developed; increase investment in large solar goods that are costly to ship overseas; and be granted more substantial government support for research and development.
Opponents say the fate suffered by Suniva and SolarWorld was the result of insufficient production capacities and a "series of damaging business decisions that had absolutely nothing to do with imports," according to a brief from the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA).
"They did not make a product that could compete at the utility scale, where 80 percent of solar market growth has been, effectively icing themselves out of the biggest and fastest growing part of the market," said Abigail Ross Hopper, CEO of the SEIA. "On the residential solar side, they didn't align themselves with some of the biggest residential developers."
"We're talking about a fairly new energy source that is competing with other renewable energy sources, such as wind and natural gas, as well as the traditional ones, like oil," said Paul Nathanson, a spokesperson for the Energy Trade Action Coalition, a group recently created to formally oppose the petition.
"This nascent industry will be devastated by cost increases to solar energy. The end result is people will turn to alternatives," he said. "This couldn't happen at a worse time for the industry."
On William Barents’s second Arctic expedition in 1595, the Dutch navigator’s crew had a deadly encounter. While searching for diamonds on an islet near Russia’s Vaygach Island three months into the journey, two of his sailors were resting in a wind-protected depression when “a great leane beare came sodainly stealing out, and caught one of them fast by the necke.” The bear killed and devoured both men, despite the crew’s attempt to drive the animal away The incident, recounted in Dutch officer Gerrit de Veer’s diary, became the first account of a polar bear attacking humans in recorded history.
More than 400 years later, humans now live and work in the Arctic in unprecedented numbers. At the same time, as sea ice diminishes in the Arctic Ocean, polar bears are spending more time on land. This change in behavior has wildlife managers worried that attacks could become more common in the far reaches of the North. No one, however, had been tracking the clashes between polar bears and humans.
So, in 2009, following reports from northern communities that bears were spending more time near towns and showing aggressive behavior, the five nations with polar bear populations issued a directive to create a record of human-bear conflicts. Wildlife managers in Canada, Greenland, Norway, Russia, and the United States produced a digital database that tracked injurious or fatal attacks between 1870 and 2014. Their goal was to reveal trends that could help prevent future injuries.
Once the Polar Bear-Human Information Management System (PBHIMS) was complete, researchers analyzed the 73 confirmed historical attacks in which 20 people were killed and 63 injured to see if the circumstances of attacks were changing by decade. They found that nutritionally stressed adult male polar bears were the mostly likely to attack, while defensive attacks by females to protect cubs were rare. The majority of attacks happened at field camps and in towns—a departure from the majority of grizzly and black bear attacks that occur in wilderness areas. And in 38 percent of attacks, human food attractants were present. No attacks occurred near natural attractants, such as whale bone piles.
“The concern is that this is something that will only continue to increase,” says Todd Atwood, a United States Geological Survey wildlife biologist and coauthor of the study that appeared in Wildlife Society Bulletin this month. “The conditions are ripe for human-bear conflict.” In addition to a growing open water season forcing polar bears ashore for longer durations, declining sea ice has also opened up the Arctic to more recreational and industrial human activity, including oil and gas development.
When Atwood and his colleagues looked at whether attacks were increasing or decreasing between 1960 and 2009, no clear trend emerged. But between 2010 and 2014, when the extent of sea ice reached record lows, the greatest number of attacks took place. Moreover, since 2000, 88 percent of attacks have occurred between July and December, when sea ice is at its lowest.
Atwood hopes that wildlife managers in Arctic communities will use this information to determine conflict hotspots and develop plans to keep bears and people safe. University of Alberta polar bear researcher Andrew Derocher, who is unaffiliated with the study, says the PBHIMS provides much needed data.
“There’s been a real deficit of information,” Derocher says. Though wildlife managers suspected attacks were increasing, there was no way to know how often and where the events were taking place, or what could be done to prevent them.
Given the results of the study, mitigation might include better management of human food attractants, such as garbage, meat caches, and harvested animals, and implementing additional patrol teams to monitor and haze bears near towns. Going forward, countries are expected to document all future attacks in the database.
“It’s a useful contribution,” Derocher says. “Most governments already have these sorts of systems in place [for other animals]—if you look at black bears and grizzly bears, we track those quite well. Polar bears have been lost out in the wilderness because they’re so far away and the incidents are fairly infrequent, but when they occur they’re quite sensational.”
With the populated database, wildlife managers will be able to turn to science, not stories, to help prevent future attacks.
To some, watching sea ice melt — each floe dissolving slowly away into the Arctic Ocean — might seem the cold-weather equivalent of watching paint dry. But for the roughly 1,250 enthusiasts who gather in cyberspace on the Arctic Sea Ice Blog and the Arctic Sea Ice Forum each spring and summer, swapping satellite imagery, scientific intel, carefully plotted graphs, and strongly worded opinions, it can be as riveting as a Stanley Cup shootout.
A sampling: “HOLY SH*T: Fournier Triangulation Reversion Processed Image of the Lincoln Sea Ice reveals substratum of further leads and coastal regions made of pulverized pancake ice heading to Nares and Fram [straits],” wrote VeliAlbertKallio on June 6 in the Ice Forum’s 2017 Melting Season thread, which, at the time of publication, spans a whopping 44 pages.
User jdallen followed: “I find it striking how the ice along all the larger leads that opened up is disintegrating into what almost looks like long channels, 10-20 KM wide of slush reaching deep into the central pack. If it is all disintegrating into sub 100 meter floes, that does portend rapid melting out of those channels and exponentially increasing instability as they do.”
So goes the thread, with mostly ice nerds and citizen scientists — plus some seasoned Arctic researchers — chiming in with analyses riddled with jargon and acronyms baffling to novices, all arguing and offering evidence as to whether 2017 will set another record for low Arctic sea ice extent, or not.
Every now and then, their respected leader, Arctic Sea Ice Blog and Forum administrator and founder, Neven Curlin — who goes by Neven Acropolis on the web, or simply “Neven” — jumps in with this own updates, and sometimes a warning to temper those who offer the most outlandish forecasts.
Neven cautions newbies that predicting Arctic ice melt is notoriously difficult, and that things may not always be as bad as they seem: “I’ve been in contact with David Schroeder and he has confirmed (or rather his model [has confirmed]) that this year (again) there is lesser melt pond formation than in years with record low minimums,” he wrote on June 12.
Fewer melt ponds early on, Schroeder says, might mean less extreme melt by September.
Following the ice
The Arctic melt season typically begins in May, and over the course of the summer months, builds in intensity toward a day — always, so far, during September — when the Arctic sea ice minimum is reached, marking the ice cap’s smallest extent for that year.
Since 2007, Arctic sea ice minimums have been dropping precipitously, and the ice is now declining at a rate of 13.3 percent per decade, relative to the 1981 to 2010 average. According to Arctic Sea Ice News, last year’s sea ice minimum was a near statistical dead heat with the second lowest ice record minimum, set back in 2007, when the Arctic ice covered only 1.60 million square miles (4.155 million square kilometers) in September. The lowest sea ice extent recorded to date came in 2012 when extent (usually defined as the area of ocean where there is 15 percent or more floating sea ice), fell to 1.31 million square miles (3.387 square kilometers).
That’s partially why there’s so much excitement over what will happen this summer — will the sea ice extent continue in a downward spiral? Or will it rebound?
In March, the Arctic sea ice winter maximum extent set a record low for the third straight year, meaning the Arctic is already starting off with less sea ice this spring. Furthermore, online users have noted a strange, unsettling, quality to this year’s ice. In the past, the Arctic was made up of far more thick, multi-year ice. This year’s ice is thin and highly fractured, which ice bloggers point out could make current satellite sea ice extent measurements look far healthier than they actually are — a matter of quality, not quantity.
The argument goes that a battering from below and above by warmer Arctic Ocean and atmospheric temperatures this year could cause this fractured ice mosaic to just melt away by September, or summer storms could come along, as in past years, to smash the weak ice to smithereens.
But some experts believe otherwise, that we might actually be heading toward a better-than-normal sea ice extent come September. The lack of melt ponds in June — always seen in previous record low years — is one indicator scientists like Schroeder point to.
Though some bloggers argue fiercely back that maybe the lack of melt ponds this year is because the ice is just too fractured to hold melt water.
The most seasoned bloggers have learned the hard way that predicting Arctic ice melt accurately — with new weather patterns and phenomena emerging daily — is harder than getting the trifecta at the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes combined. (Though that doesn’t stop them from placing bets: in 2011, blogger Rob Dekker had a $10,000 bet going with blogger William Connolley.)
If you feel certain you know what’s going to happen, then you’re likely new to Neven’s Ice Blog.
Birth of an obsession
Twelve years ago, Neven Curlin, a Dutch translator living in Austria, developed an interest in global warming, skimming through blog after blog. When the first major sea ice extent record was set in 2007, stunning scientists, he began digging deeper, spending hours online discussing events in the Arctic.
In June 2010, the middle of the melt season, he decided to launch his own blog — a modest typepad account that’s changed very little in appearance since its inception. “I wanted to do something myself because I thought sea ice was such an important subject,” he says.
Though sea ice melt doesn’t affect global sea level rise (the ice is already floating atop the ocean and therefore doesn’t cause water to be displaced), disappearing sea ice has huge ramifications for global climate. The high reflectivity (albedo) of the white ice cap helps to keep the polar region cold, as sunlight is returned to space rather than absorbed by the surface. But as the ice melts, and more and more non-reflective blue water replaces ice in summer, the Arctic is warming — and so is the rest of the world.
Armed with only a high school education in physics and mathematics, Neven began resetting his “alpha brain” which benefits from an aptitude for languages, by intently studying weather maps. “Most of the analyses were simply comparing between years,” he says. “And when it comes to scientific papers I usually only read the abstract and discussion.”
Neven’s citizen science blog was an immediate hit among sea ice nerds, skyrocketing him to virtual stardom in the obscure subject. Three years later, Neven founded the Arctic Sea Ice Forum — an offshoot of his blog — to allow for a more vibrant discussion. Last month, the Forum had 2 million page views.
“I thought at some point it’s going to stabilize, but it just keeps growing — even in winter. Arctic sea ice is getting more and more attention,” says Neven.
Is the smart money on melt ponds?
The growing numbers of people attracted to the Blog and Forum may be partly explained by rapid changes in the Arctic, as events there become more extreme and unpredictable.
So what’s really going to happen in 2017? Following Neven’s post about the lack of “melt ponding” this spring, Mongabay reached out to David Schroeder, a sea ice modeler at the Centre for Polar Observation and Modeling, and an avid reader of Neven’s Ice Blog.
Schroeder says that despite the fractured state of the ice, it’s best to remain cautious concerning a new record. Melt ponds form on Arctic sea ice when winter snow sitting atop it melts during late spring, which affects surface albedo by allowing more sunlight to be absorbed rather than reflected and therefore creating a positive feedback loop that exacerbates ice melt.
In 2012, Schroeder, Danny Feltham and Daniela Flocco from England’s University of Reading developed a model to simulate the evolution of melt ponds and their contribution to sea ice melt in hopes of generating greater predictive accuracy regarding the September minimum. Until then, accounting for melt ponds had been difficult as satellite imagery often couldn’t discern between open water and melt ponds atop ice. When the team ran simulations of climate models without accounting for melt ponding, they found that September sea ice volume was predicted to be 40 percent greater
By looking at the positive feedback loops modelers can make a prediction as to what the sea ice state will be in the summer as early as May or June, though unpredictable weather by July will have a pronounced effect on the ice. “There’s a lot of impact from weather in the summer months, but we don’t know beforehand — we cannot predict the weather. However, it’s still possible to make predictions of this positive feedback through melt ponds.”
As already mentioned, this year, researchers are witnessing a substantial lack of melt ponds. Normally, Schroeder explains, melt ponds will first appear near the sea ice edge early in May, but so far, the only area with substantial melt ponding is around the Beaufort Sea, north of Canada.
“It’s a bit of a surprise when you look at what happened with sea ice last winter,” Schroeder says. “We had a very, very mild winter and the lowest sea ice volumes ever according to the PIOMAS [Pan-Arctic Ice Ocean Modeling and Assimilation System] for April. The ice is thinner and therefore more likely to melt earlier, but the weather conditions in May were not so favorable for melting.”
In fact, in many Arctic regions this spring it was colder than prevailing climate conditions over the past 20 years. There was also more snow precipitation on the sea ice, which increased the albedo effect, meaning slower melt.
Predicting the unpredictable
All that being said, it’s still way too early to tell whether 2017 will be spared a record-breaking year, and even the world’s top ice experts have been horribly wrong in the past. Ice modelers, for example, had repeatedly predicted in the past that the Arctic sea ice would stay intact and be safe from climate change until 2050 or later. Then in 2007, and again in 2012, the ice extent minimum fell far below all 18 computer models used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, shocking experts right down to their socks.
So, back to 2017: what might lie ahead? “There are a couple things in favor of a record low year,” notes Neven, pointing to the mild winter and the low PIOMAS ice volumes Schroeder spoke of. But the things that stack up against a record are high terrestrial snow cover and cooler temperatures. “It’s been cold lately. The ice is melting less fast.”
Of course, all this can change in a matter of weeks. As we near July, snow cover will vanish and sea surface temperatures may increase. If the ice is as thin as PIOMAS says — 10 to 20 percent thinner than previous first-year ice — and it stays sunny, Neven believes we have “high chances of seeing a record low.”
It’s also possible that as the ice pack becomes increasingly vulnerable — like the fractured ice flowing out of the Far North right now — weather might not matter as much. Last year, for example, tied roughly with sunny 2007, even though June, July, and August 2016 were cloudy.
On November 20, 2016, Neven took to his blog with a surprise announcement. He wasn’t sharing a new forecast, but rather declared he would be taking a sabbatical.
“I have been struggling with Arctic burnout since 2012,” he wrote. “On the one hand it’s caused by everything that has been and still is going on in the Arctic. The learning curve, the excitement, but most of all the depression that comes with watching this steamroller just plough forward, is taking its toll.” Then, he linked to the Genesis song “It’s Gonna Get Better.”
His post received 171 comments.
Talking with Mongabay, Neven chalked up his temporary absence to a couple factors including the workload (“Even though the ice melts slow, there’s so much information and so many things to watch for.”), and the despair (“On the one hand, it’s exciting if spectacular things happen, but if you sit back and think about the implications and potential consequences, it can be a bit depressing.”)
Last summer, when Andrew Slater died, a young cryosphere scientist whose work Neven had followed closely, it all became too much. “It made me so sad, and I thought maybe it’s time for a break.”
By and large, he has stuck to his planned sabbatical over the past seven months, averaging just two to three posts per month, and allowing his fellow bloggers to take on much of the heavy lifting on the Ice Forum and Blog. But as melt season ramps up, it’s been harder to stay away, he says. And even though he’s blogging less, Neven has stayed active on the Forum.
He is also using his time away to think more optimistically, considering where to take the website in the future. “I don’t want to just describe the train wreck in slow motion — I don’t find that very satisfying,” he concludes. “I’m hoping I’ll get some new ideas… about how to connect what is happening to a more positive outlook. I always like to insert a bit of humor in the blog, too.” Hoping against hope, Neven wants to believe It’s Gonna Get Better.
Health care practitioners and regulators need to address the chemicals in everyday products that are in part spurring the obesity crisis.