Category Archives: oceans

Freezing Time, Seaweed, and the Biologic Imaginary

We can all too easily lose sight of the centrality of seaweed plays in coastal habitat–even in Northern California, where seaweed washes up regularly in clumps and beds along the shore. Bull kelp and other marine plants on the sandy beaches of northern California seem otherworldly representatives of a removed marine world, but their proximity is revealed in remote mapping that promises to remap the role of seaweed in coastal ecosystems, and offer a picture of the terrifying prospects of ocean warming and climate change.

The relatively recent contraction of kelp forests across much of the offshore where they long provided such dense habitats may soon start to contract in ways never before experienced. The remapping of kelp forests, and the problems of their contraction of treasured habitat, reveal how much coastal waters demand to be seen not as so separate from the land, but part of a complex ecotone–a region where land and sea interact. Underwater species impact a large ecosystem that provides atmospheric oxygen, integral to coastal biodiversity that imparts a specific character to the California coast, and a sense of where we are–as well as makes it a destination for countless Pacific pelagic, shorebirds, and insects, as well as shellfish and fish. But the decimation of kelp forests, tied to an absence of predators to urchins, but more broadly to the ocean warming of coastal waters, as well as potentially an unprecedented increase in coastal pollution, makes both the mapping of the shrinking of kelp forests and the deciphering of that shrinking pressing problems of mapping, destined to impact a large variety of ocean and land-dwelling species.

The need for such mapping underscores all of our relation to the vital ecosystem of the shores and coastal ocean–even if we too often bracket it from our daily lives. While beached kelp may be present before our eyes, the problems of mapping of kelp forests with any fixity complicates how we process the disappearance of offshore kelp beds in an amazingly rapid timeframe. And the failure of creating an actual image capture registering the extent of kelp forests poses limits our awareness of their diminution off coastal waters. The observations of the shrinking of coastal spread of bull kelp is based on local aerial surveys, over a relatively small span of time, the accelerated roll-back of a once-vital region of biodiversity is both global, and demands to be placed in a long-term historical perspective of the way we have removed the underwater and undersea from our notion of coastal environments and of a biosphere.

Bull kelp forest coverage at four sites on the North Coast of California,from aerial surveys (California Dept. of Fish and Wildlife)

What was first registered in the plummeting of abalone, and the wasting disease of sea stars, afflicting stars from Baja to Alaska in 2013, suggest a condensation of a radical change in near-coastal environments of global proportions, paralleled by the arrival of warm waters that are not conducive to kelp growth, even before El Nino, and before the the arrival of purple urchins whose levels stars controlled, as if the result of cascading effects of a tipping point atmospheric change.

The quite sudden growth on the ocean floor of “sea urchin barrens,” where the near coastal waters are cleared of seaweeds and kelp, is a global problem. As global oceans absorb warmth of increased global warming, near-shore environments are particularly susceptible to species changes that create large disequilibria–from the bloom of phytoplankton to the rise of purple sea urchins and the dearth of shellfish–that stand to change coastal oceans. Yet the same creatures are often ones that fall of outside of our maps, even if the presence and scale of massive kelp beds and submerged forests are hard to map. And even if we see a shrinking of the large undersea submerged beds of kelp off coastal California, it is hard to have clear metrics of their shrinking over time or past extent–or of intervening in their reduction, which we seem forced to watch as inland spectators.

NASA Earth Observatory., image by Mke Taylor (NASA) using USGS data

Indeed, if the presence of coastal seaweed, and the distinctive kelp forest of California’s coastal ocean seems the distinguishing feature of its rich coastal ecology, the holdfasts of kelp forests that are grazed down by sea urchins and other predators are poorly mapped as solely underwater–they are part of the rich set of biological exchanges between the ecotone of where land meets sea, and ocean life is fed by sediment discharge and polluted by coastal communities, as much as they should be mapped as lying offshore, at a remove from the land. Yet the death of beds of kelp that is occurring globally underwater is cause for global alarm.

For from Norway to Japan to but the decline of natural predators of urchins in California has made a rapid rise of urchins on the seafloor along the coast have contributed to a shrinking of once-abundant kelp forests that produce so much of our global atmospheric oxygen. And these hidden underwater changes seem destined to rewrite our globe, as much as climate change, and threaten to change its habitability. Even as large clumps of seaweed are removed by powerful waves, that deposit piles of offshore forests ripped from holdfasts on beaches in northern California, the narrative of large coastal kelp deposits, their relation to climate change and coastal environment demands to be better mapped, as the transition of kelp to barrens afflicts so much of the coastal waters of the Atlantic and Pacific, at so many different latitudes and across such a variety of local cold water ecologies.

While the decline of kelp forests seems as radical as the clear-cutting of redwoods, it is both far more rapid and far more environmentally disruptive, if far less visible to the human eye.For in recent decades, increasingly warming waters and out of whack ecosystems have led to a massive decline of seaweed, decimated by a rise in the sea urchin population to by 10,000 percent off the California coast over only last five years, shrinking kelp forests that stand to catapult us to a future for which we have no map. The long-term decline in sea otters and sea stars, natural predators of the urchins, have removed constraints on urchin growth, which warming waters has encouraged, reducing a historical abundance of kelp in the near coastal waters across California.

This has perhaps been difficult to register due to the problems of mapping seaweed, and indeed registering kelp forests’ decline. The advance of sea urchin populations that have created barrens in coastal waters stands to disrupt and overturn some of the most abundant ecological niches in the global oceans. How has this happened under our eyes, so close tho shore and lying just undersea? We have few real maps of seaweed or kelp, lurking underwater, rather than above land, and leave out kelp from most of our maps, which largely privilege land. But the abundance of kelp that produce most of the global oxygen supply live in underwater ecotones–sensitive places between land and sea, in-between areas of shallow water, abundant sunlight, and blending of land and sea–an intersection, properly understood, between biomes, on which different biological communities depend.

Looking at the offshore seaweed near Santa Cruz, CA, I wondered if the predominantly passive registration of location–onshore registration of sites remotely by satellites, familiar from the harrowing images of the spread of fires, provided a basis to register our states of emergencies that was spectacularly unsuited to the contraction of coastal kelp, despite the huge advances of mapping techniques, and left us without a map to their contraction, or to register the subtle if radical consequences of kelp loss, and the almost as devastatingly rapid progress of their advance as populations of urchins have mowed down underseas kelp beds. For even as we strike alarms for the the decline of global kelp populations and seaweed forests as a result of the warming of offshore temperatures that place the near offshore regions at special risk of atmospheric warming–

Paul Horn, Inside Climate News/Source Wernberg and Staub,
Explaining Ocean Warming (IUCN Report, 2016)

–we lack maps of the place of seaweed and kelp beds in their ecotone, and indeed have no adequate maps of seaweed populations under threat.

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Filed under climate change, Global Warming, oceans, remote observation, seaweed

The Terror of Climate Change: Uncorking Bombs of Streaming Snow in the Atlantic

Even in an era when waking up to weather bulletins provide a basic way of orienting oneself to the world, the arrival of the bomb cyclone in the early morning of January 4, 2018, along the east coast of the United States, commanded a certain degree of surprise.  For those without alerts on their devices, the howling winds that streamed through the streets and rose from rivers provided an atmospheric alert of the arrival of streams of arctic air and snows, creating something called “white-outs” in highways along much of the eastern seaboard that paralyzed traffic and reminded us of the delicate balance over much of our infrastructure.

The effects of the arrival of a low pressure system in the western Atlantic created effects that cascaded across the nation, setting temperatures plummeting and winds spewing snowfall as the extratropical cyclone was displaced off New England, and propelling snow over the east coast from what was an offshore weather disturbance.  While the “bomb cyclone” sounded portentous, the actual explosiveness was perhaps not felt at its eye over the Atlantic–




–as the bomb-like burst of pressure scattered snows through howling winds across much of the coast, but rather in the unbalanced distribution of snowfall across the nation that it so quickly created.  The cyclonic winds of the “weather bomb” could not be localized:  their effect was to set off a burst of precipitation, chilled by arctic airs, remindeding us of the delicate relation between land and sea in an era of climate change, when we are apt to feel the effects of colliding air masses across the country, as far as Tennessee or Ohio.

The bomb created a deep oceanic disturbance in the dissonance of sea-surface and air temperatures, and triggered the increasing imbalances of the distribution of snow across the nation, as if inaugurating an era of the increasingly unequal levels of snowfall, as a bomb that seemed to burst over the Atlantic sent snowfall flying across the east coast–


Thursday am bomb


–in ways that led to a deep disparities of snow and ice levels across much of the country, where much of the nation’s western states were surprisingly free of snow, increasingly rare save in several spots.







The bomb cyclone spread across a broad surface of the eastern seaboard and Gulf of Mexico, as the areas that stand to be open to gas- and oil-speculation suddenly took a far greater hit than was expected, raising questions of the arrival of extreme weather systems as sea-surface temperatures grew:  the kink in the Gulf Stream created a swirl that sucked in arctic air and spread clouds of snowfall across the eastern seaboard as the seas became incredibly stormy, driven by hurricane winds.  The bomb cyclone wasn’t a major disaster, but seems a wake-up call of the charting of minerals stored in the seabed of offshore areas in the Outer Continental Shelf off the United States–the “federal lands” that the government decided since it administers directly it may as well start to lease.


Thursday am bomb.pngPrecipitation Column Rising from Offshore Winds, January 2-4/Ryan Maue

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Filed under energy independence, environmental change, Global Warming, oceans, remotely sensed maps

Mapping Populations in the Open Seas

Eric Carle commemorated the tragic story of the 1992 loss at sea of some 28,800 rubber ducks from a container ship in Day-Glo colors in “Ten Rubber Ducks Overboard.”   But rather than encountering multiple marine creatures in their adventures, the orange rubber children’s bath toys were in fact carried on quite circuitous routes of nautical travel:   after leaving Hong Kong, individual ducks migrated over fifteen years along ocean currents across the polar regions to as far West as the islands of the Hebrides and eastern France, or as far South as Peru’s coast.


Rubber Duckies


We don’t know the exact numbers, but at least several seem to have avoided, happily, the treacherous waters of the Northern Pacific Gyre of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch–which sadly remains the unfortunate fate of so much plastic substances and waste–where a large portion no doubt lie.




Carle took poetic license to reduce the ducks to ten in his 2005 board book, leading them to meet  seagull, geese and whales on their picturesque voyages in the seas.



Whereas Carle offers readers a narrative of charting how the plastic bathtub toys encountered a live flamingo, pelican, sea turtle, seagull, whale and, of course, a group of live ducks, recent maps of ocean populations portray a population that churn beneath one’s feet so rapidly as to challenges a static mapping of the range of its inhabitants–and the changing nature of its populations of the waters, in a range of maps that leave behind the inhabited earth to foreground shifts in the inhabitation of the seas.

Digitized projections narrate the currents of marine biodynamics narrative in a far more three-dimensional fashion than the voyage that Carle charts in charming tissue collage.  Digitized projections of the shifts of ocean use similarly bright colors to visualize the shifts in oceanic populations tied both to global warming and atmospheric pollutants.  They offer dynamic tools to re-imagine the uses of maps, providing a less prosaic narrative of marine residents that the ducks encountered, and give new urgency to the informational (and narrative) content of oceanographic maps–even as they tracked a similar narrative of the scariness of the interaction between the “natural” and man-made.


Carle's Ten Ducks


The dynamic mapping of oceanic populations suggests ways of responding to the shifting climates of oceans–rooted less as bucolic preserves of nature or wildlife, than as spaces actively reshaped by the human presence and industries.

The visualizing the increasing ‘jellification’ of oceans, created by both global warning and the effects of modern industry, has gained increasing attention as the increasingly abundant populations of jellyfish  floating along the currents of ocean waters have begun to be mapped, and the permanence of their presence in the oceans begun to be assessed.  The overcrowding of jellyfish in the ocean waters have led oceanographers to worry about the impending ‘jellification’ of the seas that would only spare the Peruvian coasts, and a veritable swarming of jellyfish not only in China, where they might be eaten, the northeast waters of America, the Mediterranean, and Alaska but around the Antarctic:




The wide blooms of the jellies bode not only bad news for swimmers’ jellyfish injuries, and led to record numbers of those treated for stings–in Barcelona, upwards of 400/day–but to fishing economies, as the proliferation of the stinging blobs that can cope with increased pollution, murky waters and algae blooms more than other ocean inhabitants, and threaten the food supplies of fish in overfished waters, by competing for zooplankton, as well as nets of fishermen.  They flock in large numbers to polluted waters  and overdeveloped shorelines with specific intensity.

Among the prime beneficiaries of global warming, jellyfish blooms lead to the release of toxins to oceanic areas and enclosures of farmed fish, jellyfish invasions are described by oceanographer Josep Maria Gili as a simple message of the oceans to mankind: “Your are destroying me.”  Driven by currents and carried in the ballast water of tankers and container ships, jellyfish not only displace local populations, but face reduced predators, including, potentially, the monster jellyfish Nemopilema nomurai, with its six-foot bell diameter.




Despite considerable worries that there is actually more plastic than plankton in the ocean, suggesting less mutually convivial relations between synthetic objects and marine life than Eric Carle would have:  indeed, oceanic gyres where plastic products tend to be trapped–and some of the ducks no doubt resulted–swirling around in a region twice the size of the state of Texas, that might in time form a destination of disaster-tourism of its own.  In the gyre, plastic refuse often outnumbers marine plankton by an astounding and terrifying factor of six to one.




As much as mapping the distribution of plastics in the ocean, ‘mapping’ plankton populations provides a snapshot of varied distributions of these microscopic inhabitants of the ocean’s expanse.  The mapping of the larger plankton populations congregated on the poles, and pteropods in the most crowded seas–as well as huge “dead zones” where oceanic plankton recedes–in a complex mosaic of local ecosystems, evident in the computer-generated MAREDAT distribution of photosynthetic plankton, and showing the abundance of zooplankton, that do not use photosynthesis, in comparison to photosynthesizing phytoplankton, and a range of plankton varieties:



A smaller-grained image of a phytoplankton distribution creates a wonderfully iridescent map of plankton’s oceanic presence in this global distribution of chlorophyll producers–until one can read its legend, or grasp the low levels of populations in areas of the deepest blues, near to the equator.





This spectral map of plankton distributions conceals the  shifts with seasonal variation, but one can see in these images of plankton populations (based on data generated by NASA’s MODIS instrument) that the distribution of these mostly oxygen-producing microorganisms has higher presence in colder climes, removed from most human effects, where their higher quantities are registered as yellow–in contrast to the absence of dark blues.   (The entire plankton atlas database is available online.)  The shifts of phytoplankton is marked by a seasonal ebb and flow, however, almost echoing a tidal chart, whose annual flux is tracked in speeded-up time in this digitized “map” based on satellite registrations, in this holistic time-stop graphic of the oceans’ smallest inhabitants.



The above visualization echoes the distribution of sea-surface chlorophyll, now averaged out from between 1998 and 2006, to reveal the rise of large “dead-zones” poor in plankton in the oceans, which bode poorly for waters furthest from land:

sea surface chlorophyll


Regionally, plankton favor colder waters, but its growth is stimulated and nourished, as this map of levels of chlorophyl worldwide in  September, 1988, which shows the autumn northern sun nourishing a band of chlorophyl plankton, when southern seas are just begun to bloom:



The result is a visualization in which, even in a flat projection, one can see land and earth alike teeming with life, as a SeaWiFS instrument scans the world’s oceans for phytoplankton even as it scans the earth’s surface to look for plant life, by measuring the global circulation of carbon in order to track photosynthesis on land and sea like:


NAS MAPS PLANKTONNASA Scientific Visualization Studio (2001)–SeaWiFS (Stuart A. Snodgrass)

In this synthetic global view, the dark blue areas of low plankton are similar to the aridity of orange deserts, which also provide no chlorophyll–or oxygen–to the atmosphere.

Somewhat similar seasonal variations are nicely revealed in relatively recent visualizations charting their monthly distributions in the Mediterranean, whose warmer waters of the summer (from May to October) especially diminished the plankton populations in its southern edge, closer to the equator, when the north African coast seems to lose its populations, only to be replenished by January, in a set of images that reveal the variability and resilience of local populations:


chlorophyll med


The increased limits of oceanic zooplankton suggests the shifting nature of the oceans, and their close relationship to our atmosphere.





But it does not measure their variability–or the specificity of distinct plankton populations that far off waters and streams hold, and their lack of discrimination weakens the effective understandings of oceanic biodiversity they communicate.  New tools for visualizing these unseen micro-populations that generate so much oxygen on our planet were developed to visualize specific plankton distributions, first prepared for San Francisco’s Exploratorium, based on plankton variety, producing a map of greater discriminating power.  The user-friendly map “Living Liquids” was planned by Jennifer Frazier with a computer scientist and help from the MIT’s Darwin Project and the Center for Visualization Interface and Design Group at UC Davis, to create a map of plankton distributions that visitors to the Exploratorium could explore.  Living Liquids began from a fluid base-map of varied regional phytoplankton distributions that focussed viewers’ attention on the oceans as a site of rich chromatic and ecological variations, without discriminating between them, to encourage exploration:


Plankton Visualization

Plankton Legend

The images of such large expanses of declining populations of plankton paint an unpretty picture of our oceans, that parallels the fear of jellification of ocean seas, but also allows us to “see” a richly variegated image of where plankton live–and what type of plankton live where–that provide a clearer holistic image of oceanic populations, using an interactive touch-screen to zoom in on close ups to reveal and explore qualitative diversity within the distribution of local plankton populations with more immediacy than a four- or five-color map allows, creating an illusion of being able to scoop up a handful of water at any place and view it under a microscope, switching registers of visual investigation and exploration.

Plankton View 4

Plankton Viewer 8

Plankton Viewer 6

The complex visualization of the nature of micropopulations is dramatically distinct from a static map; its actively  readable surface is a tool of independent investigation in itself.

Local maps of ocean populations also provide crucial tools to frame an exploration of causes for the local variability in such microscopic micro-organisms that examine the specific impact of local industrial change on the living landscape of the sea.  If not three-dimensional, such maps chart a nuanced picture of the biodynamics of marine diversity than the static maps of marine life, and powerful tools to register shifting temporal distributions and densities in the boundaries of specific oceanic populations.

To select but one example of oceanic maps of the impact of human life on biodiversity, let’s start from the dangerously low oxygen levels in the Gulf of Mexico–caused in part by marine pollution.  The massive changes in the Gulf’s waters afflict both deep sea populations and phytoplankton alike, has created a “dead zone” of diminished distributions that by 2009 increased worries that pollution–largely caused by fertilizer run-off that augments the presence of nitrogen in the waters and create algae blossoms–and may eventually lead to a local ecosystem collapse.  (The so-called “dead zone” came to occupy an area larger than the state of New Jersey, before ocean currents changed its shape.)  Similar “dead zones” threaten to expand near the habited shore world-wide, increased by global warming.



Yet concerns for the growth of oxygen-deprived regions worldwide, paralleling oceanic jellification, create conditions for the abandonment of waters by fish and shrimp alike in “hypoxic” regions, whose number has doubled every ten years since the 1960s, with huge economic consequences for regions as the Gulf of Mexico, whose hypoxic conditions are colorfully mapped by red below during the previous year:




Which brings us back, almost full-circle, to the rise of global populations of jellyfish, and maps onto a change in the population of the open seas.

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Filed under chlorophyl plankton blooms, hypoxic regions, Interactive Maps, jellification, Living Liquids, mapping hypoxic regions, mapping jelly fish, mapping sea surface populations, marine biodynamics, Marine mapping, oceans, oxygen-deprivation, phytoplankton, plankton maps, rubber ducks