Mysterious disease turning sea stars to goo

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    Tissue is disintegrating within this sea star affected by sea star wasting syndrome. (MELISSA MINER)

A mysterious disease that has turned hundreds of starfish into limp lumps of goo along both the East and West coasts in recent months could potentially induce a cascade of other ecological effects in tidal systems, researchers say.

The disease known as sea star wasting syndrome begins as a small lesion, and eventually results in the loss of limbs and ultimate disintegration and death of the leggy animal. The cause of the disease remains unknown to researchers, who have not been able to determine if it is related to a bacterial infection, a virus or a combination of effects worsened by environmental stressors, such as increased water temperature.

The syndrome has afflicted sea star populations on the West Coast in the past, and in those instances, populations eventually bounced back, Smithsonian invertebrate zoologist Christopher Mah told LiveScience. But this current episode appears more severe than previous cases, killing up to 95 percent of some populations consisting of hundreds of individuals, The Associated Press reported.


‘We’ve never seen it at this scale up and down the coast.’

– Pete Raimondi, a professor of ecology at the University of California Santa Cruz


“We’ve never seen it at this scale up and down the coast,” Pete Raimondi, a professor of ecology at the University of California Santa Cruz involved in tracking the disease, said in a statement on Nov. 5.

Rippling effects of die-off
Since June, researchers have seen the disease spread from as far as British Columbia, Canada, down through California and, within the past year, from Maine through New Jersey. The scientists tracking the disease find this simultaneous bicoastal infection especially alarming.

“There is no direct route to get from Providence to Seattle,” Gary Wessel, a molecular biologist at Brown University who is working to identify the agent causing the disease, told LiveScience. “So we don’t know how the pathogen would be doing this.” [The 5 Most Mysterious Animal Die-Offs]

Researchers do not think the disease has spread to other marine animals, but other animals will still feel the impact of the starfish decimation, Mah said. Starfish are one of the most common animals in coastal tide pools and other shallow nearshore ecosystems, and some species, such as the West Coast’s ochre sea star (Pisaster ochraceus) and sunflower sea star (Pycnopodia helianthoides) the largest sea star on Earth are considered keystone species. This means that, without them, the structure of their ecosystems crumbles, as would an arch without the support of its top-center keystone.

The ripple effects of the decline would likely vary from region to region, but could potentially be drastic, Mah said. In the past, a decline in ochre sea star populations along the West Coast led to the massive proliferation of musselsat the expense of other animals, because the sea star had been the mussel’s top predator. Sea stars also feed on the larvae of many invertebrates or animals without a backbone, including various mollusks and sea slugs which helps keep adult populations in check. Without sea star predation, more larvae will grow to adulthood and certain populations could balloon, though to what extent remains unclear, Mah said.

“A change in community structure can always have unpredictable effects,” Mah said.

Off-kilter ecosystems
In addition to ecological changes, the loss of sea stars could induce changes in abiotic (nonliving) environmental conditions, such as aeration of seafloor sediment and nutrient supply in the water column. That’s because critters eaten by sea stars help regulate these conditions. Worms, for example, aerate sediment and clams suck up nutrients that might otherwise fertilize large mats of smothering algae. An off-kilter ecosystem could alter the distribution of these environmental contributions. [Marine Marvels: Spectacular Photos of Sea Creatures]

Still, Mah emphasized that scientists are only beginning to understand what, exactly, the disease is and how many sea stars have already been affected by it, so any projections regarding its ripple effects remain speculative at this point.

“I think it’s important not to jump off the handle and make rash assumptions about catastrophic environmental effects,” Mah said. “We don’t have any data that that is the case yet.”

And, paradoxically, Mah pointed out that since marine ecologists still have a lot to learn about sea star ecology in general, the animal’s absence could offer a valuable opportunity to tease out its effect on the ecosystem.

“This could be a blip in the ecology of this animal, or maybe it is something else,” Mah said. “But we definitely need to find out, because the sea stars are important indicator species, and if they begin to die off, then that could be a sign that something else bad is happening in the environment.”

Researchers at UC Santa Cruz’s Long Marine Lab and others involved in tracking the disease have encouraged the public to document any cases of goopy sea stars they come across by uploading images into the citizen-scientist website iNaturalist. This will help the researchers determine the geographic extent of the disease, and potentially track the direction it is spreading in real time.

Copyright 2013 LiveScience, a TechMediaNetwork company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Designers Imagine Storm-Proof Coastlines

Your World Tomorrow

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  • Story: Penn Design Coastal Flooding

Superstorm Sandy was the second-costliest natural disaster in U.S. history at $70 billion. And now there are 10 teams working to make sure that kind of economic and physical devastation never happens again.

As part of the Hurricane Sandy rebuilding task force called Rebuild by Design, designers this week unveiled innovative plans that could help change the New Jersey and New York coasts forever.

Some designs would drastically alter the appearance of the coast, while others would be implemented into the natural environment, virtually unseen.

All designs would provide some defense against the roaring sea as she barrels toward on-land infrastructure during future epic storms.

“We need to think differently this time around, making sure the region is resilient enough to rebound from future storms,” said Rebuild by Design on its website.

The designers were challenged to find a solution that would address the structural and environmental vulnerabilities that Hurricane Sandy exposed on communities throughout the low-lying regions of the Jersey Shore and New York Harbor.

The teams submitted those initial ideas earlier this week and will now work on refining them into design solutions that can be implemented and funded.

By mid-2014, an expert jury will pick winning solutions to be potentially funded through disaster recovery grants from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and other private and public funding.

Those chosen will be a part of the greatest push to innovate shore protection in the Northeast since the region’s beaches were naturally formed millions of years ago.

Out-of-the-Box Ideas

Having transformed permeable surfaces into impermeable concrete jungles, modern cities have become virtually ineffective at capturing, storing and even slowing water during floods. Manhattan’s Financial District was a clear case study of this, with tunnels, basements and car garages acting as virtual sewers.

One team, led by the architectural giant Bjarke Ingels Group, proposed a system of levees, berms and barriers that would double as public parks and be hidden in the natural environment. To protect lower Manhattan and Brooklyn, it proposes elevated land, attractive waterfront landscapes and other water-based resilience measures that would protect while simultaneously beautifying the land.

Another team led by Scape/Landscape Architecture believes large-scale artificial reefs would do the trick by helping to break down waves before they reach land.

“Our layered strategy introduces protective breakwaters and interior tidal flats that can dissipate wave energy and slow the water, while rebuilding sustainable oyster population within the Harbor,” the group writes in its proposal.

Another group, known as the Unabridged Coastal Collective, is looking much farther into the future, unveiling a slew of ideas that would change the face of coastal landscapes as water levels continue to rise and storms eat away at beaches.

Predicting that much of Long Island’s Rockville barrier island will be under water by 2080, it envisions residents and visitors traveling there via water taxis or elevated public transportation. Once there, they’ll fine a community of stilted buildings.

The PennDesign team proposes tall buildings be built in densely-populated urban areas in such a way that they act as levees to low-lying regions.

It also envisions inflatable tunnels and floodable retrofits, and is calling for reshaped and armored creek beds along the five-mile coast of Staten Island’s East Shore. On New Jersey’s barrier islands, it is proposing floodable and mobile freight homes.

The Long Battle

The Sandy task force is far from the first attempt to tackle rising seas. The effort has proven not just a difficult one but an expensive one, too –yet pressures are nevertheless building as melting ice caps continue to increase water levels globally.

Millions of dollars have already been spent in the Northeast over the last decade on dredging beaches, which essentially involves a giant vacuum sucking sand from the seabed and depositing it on beaches in an effort to extend them.

Dune replenishment projects have also proven effective, however they tend to be temporary. In a recent analysis of a so-called 100-year storm event, Stockton College’s Coastal Research Center said long stretches of New Jersey’s dune system would be “catastrophically inundated” in their current state. A 100-year storm is one that is predicted to strike only once in every 100 years.

Perhaps U.S. designers and scientists can learn from overseas attempts — many that have been brewing for decades — to protect their own terrain.

In Venice, construction began a decade ago on a system of 78 giant metal flap gates that would normally rest flat on the seabed but be blasted with compressed air so as to block rushing waters when they get to dangerous levels.

The $7.3 billion project, known officially as the Experimental Electromechanical Module, or “Moses” for short due to its ability to part the sea, was tested for the first time in earlier this month.

However Moses, which would ultimately be implemented on more than a mile of seabed, intended to block at least three inlets, has hit major roadblocks. The project, was initially expected to go into production in 2014, has been pushed back to at least 2016.

The Dutch, meanwhile, have spent considerably more than $7 billion and 50 years on their project dubbed Delta Works that is comprised of barriers and dams designed to protect populated areas near river mouths. However, the project is expected to take several more years, and cost billions of more dollars, for completion.

Perhaps one of the most effective solutions has been London’s 520-meter Thames Barrier. Located downriver, it is one of the world’s largest movable flood barriers, acting as a mobile levee that protects 125 square kilometers (78 miles) of London from dangerous storm surges.

The Thames also has hundreds of other industrial and minor floodgates to protect the at-risk residential properties along its banks.

However, even that success story has its issues. As tides continue to rise at unprecedented levels, there is fear that the U.K.’s busiest city could be at risk if the barrier, put into operation in 1982, is not soon upgraded.


Follow Jennifer Booton on Twitter at @Jbooton

Japan’s ‘toxic’ monster creeping towards US
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    A NOAA model from Sept. 23 shows that a vast though disperse field of debris from a tsunami that struck Japan in 2011 is likely still dispersed north of the Main Hawaiian Islands and east of Midway Atoll. (NOAA)

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    The 5 Gyres Institute, which monitors plastic pollution out at sea, said it found an abandoned boat, a tire, and a traditional Japanese tatami matt floating in the Pacific — all part of the massive debris field from the tsunami. (5GYRES.ORG)

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    The 5 Gyres Institute, which monitors plastic pollution out at sea, said it found an abandoned boat, a tire, and a traditional Japanese tatami matt floating in the Pacific — all part of the massive debris field from the tsunami. (5GYRES.ORG)

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    A giant dock from Japan that recently washed ashore in Oregon — carried across the Pacific after being torn loose by the tsunami. (NOAA)

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    An aerial view of debris from the 8.9 magnitude earthquake and subsequent tsunami that struck northern Japan. (U.S. NAVY)

An enormous debris field is creeping toward the U.S. in the wake of the massive earthquake and tsunami that shook Japan in 2011, killing nearly 16,000 people and launching 1.5 million tons of floating objects into the sea.

That most concentrated part of the junk field is easily broader than Texas and centered approximately 1,700 miles off the Pacific coast, between California and Hawaii, although the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) hasn’t published more precise estimates. The agency estimates that the trash overall is scattered across an area in the ocean about three times the size of the continental United States.

The debris ranges from pulverized particles to entire docks that washed over from Japan, to intact boats, motorcycles, soccer balls, traditional Japanese flooring, and even some Japanese sea creatures never seen on the U.S. West Coast. “High windage” items reached the Pacific Northwest as early as winter 2011. Smaller debris is “sailing” here on the tides — NOAA estimates that the widely scattered detritus may show up intermittently along shorelines for a long period of time, over the next year or more.

In addition to physical junk, a wave of slightly radioactive water released from the broken Japanese Fukushima nuclear reactor is predicted to reach shore in 2014 — but scientists point out that it is so diluted that it is harmless.


‘We’re finding that all kinds of Japanese organisms are growing on the debris.’

– John Chapman of the Marine Science Center at Oregon State University


In one of the more dramatic photos of debris, two rooftops and an upside-down boat can be seen floating in the ocean. In another, a giant dock from Japan washed ashore in Oregon.

Even more interesting may be what’s living on the dock.

“At first we were only thinking about objects like the floating docks, but now we’re finding that all kinds of Japanese organisms are growing on the debris,” John Chapman of the Marine Science Center at Oregon State University told

“We’ve found over 165 non-native species so far,” he added. “One type of insect, and almost all the others are marine organisms … we found the European blue mussel, which was introduced to Asia long ago, and then it grew on a lot of these things that are coming across the Pacific … we’d never seen it here, and we don’t particularly want it here,” he said, arguing that it could be “invasive” and displace current marine life.

Many other creatures have been found, too.

“In the debris we found the Northeastern sea star … as well as a type of brown algae that’s used to make miso soup. We’d never seen it here before.”

Chapman added that the migrant creatures took scientists completely by surprise.

“We thought, ‘the Pacific can’t be crossed by living organisms from Japan’ … and we were wrong, very wrong,” he said, adding that while a journey across the Pacific typically kills whatever clings to it, there were just so many pieces of debris launched by the tsunami that some were bound to take paths favorable to whatever organisms were on it.

“It wasn’t just the humans that were thrown around, it was these other things on the shore as well,” he said.

And he expects to see more creatures, because lot of debris is still out floating in the Pacific, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and to people who have been out to look for it.

“We found an abandoned boat, a tire, and a tatami matt — that’s traditional Japanese flooring made of woven reeds,” Stiv Wilson of the 5 Gyres Institute, which monitors plastic pollution out at sea, told Gyres was on an expedition to the “North Pacific Garbage Patch,” an area with few ocean currents where tons of plastic garbage accumulates, and that’s where he found the Japanese debris.

“We found a fishing vessel that was barely above water. It had Japanese characters on it and was made of fiberglass. On the front of the boat we found a rope that was ripped, so the tsunami wave probably hit it and tore it from dock. Then the wave must have hit it against something else, because the stern and the motor were missing.”

Gyres said he and his team also brought a Geiger counter with them to measure radiation.

“We didn’t find anything irradiated, we were getting inconsequential readings. I think there’s a little fearmongering about it.”

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration agrees, and reports on its site: “Radiation experts agree that it is highly unlikely that any tsunami-generated marine debris will hold harmful levels of radiation from the Fukushima nuclear emergency.

Some debris in West Coast has been tested by the states, including items known to be from the tsunami, and no radioactive contamination above normal was found.”

That’s fortunate, as fisherman report seeing more debris lately.

“We have been seeing more and more,” Glen Spain, Northwest regional director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, told

“The major hazards of this stuff is that it can carry invasive species, like the pier that washed up. And the bigger stuff can be a navigational hazard.”

The next wave of debris will likely hit shores soon, Chapman noted.

“With winter and spring winds — that’s when it generally shows up. We’re going into that season again soon,” he said.

The author of the piece can be reached or on twitter at @maximlott.

Oil companies, environmentalists oppose fed rules for removing sunken oil rigs
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    Scientists say the oil rigs, whether in operation or scuttled, help form artificial reefs that boost fish populations. (All photos courtesy Meridian Ocean Services) (2012 KENNETH NEVOR)

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Oil companies and environmental groups may spar over off-shore drilling, but there’s one thing they can agree on: Leaving scuttled rigs on the ocean floor creates a rich environment for coral, endangered species and other marine life.

The Gulf of Mexico – home to approximately 3,600 offshore oil and gas platforms – is set to lose a third of those structures in the next five years, which many claim will destroy almost 2,000 acres of coral reef habitat and the seven billion invertebrates that thrive on or near the platforms. Such organisms include federally protected species, like scleractinian corals, octocorals, hydrozoans and gorgonians.

Despite an unlikely consensus that the decommissioned rigs create prolific ecosystems, a law enacted more than 30 years ago requires that many of these platforms be ripped from the ocean floor – in turn destroying a habitat used by countless organisms for feeding, spawning, mating and maturation.


“Every time they pull these rigs up, they destroy endangered species and all kinds of snapper.”

– Paul Cozic, director of Hell Divers’ Spearfishing Club


Pressure to remove the old rigs comes on two fronts. A 1970s federal law, enacted before the benefits of leaving them on the ocean floor were understood, called for companies to remove them. Though still in effect, subsequent state rulings that cited the boon to marine life that the rigs can provide conflicted with it. The older law was not strictly enforced until the aftermath of hurricanes Katrina and Rita, which left hundreds of rigs damaged and unusable. Even then, it appears to be in conflict with state laws, federal programs and even scientific consensus.

Oil companies also find it in their interest to remove some of the rigs – despite the estimated cost of $3 million – because they can be held liable in perpetuity for navigational hazards caused by the sunken wreckage.

“Rigs-to-Reefs,” a nationwide program developed in the mid-1980s by the former Minerals Management Service – now the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement under the U.S. Department of the Interior – advocates for some decommissioned offshore oil and petroleum rigs to become artificial reefs for the vast organisms that inhabit the ocean floor.

“The program is beneficial to all parties involved,” said Nat Spencer, a principal at Meridian Ocean Services, a U.S.-based subsea contractor currently conducting reef survey in the gulf with a Saab Seaeye Falcon DR remotely operated vehicle.

“The oil companies save decommissioning costs, the states increases their tax revenue through sport fishing, and the environmentalists see increased or steady fish populations on the platforms as well as a steady stream of annual recorded data about those populations,” Spencer told “It’s a misconception that the rigs are left over the capped wells. The platforms are all severed from their original bases, then relocated to new areas which are separate from the original drilling locations.”

Environmental groups, like EcoRigs, a non-profit group based in southern Louisiana, say the issue of removing the rigs is a complex one.

Steve Kolian, the group’s founder, told that the 1970’s law conflicts with legislation enacted in the 1980’s and 90’s that protects marine organisms – like the 1979 Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, which was amended in 1996 to protect marine organisms and reef communities from destruction. That act prevents protected organisms such as scleractinian corals, hydrozoans, octocorals and gorgonians from being removed from the structure they live on.

“In the 1970’s, they made the platform removal regulations but they had no idea that there were all those protected species on there,” said Kolian. “It conflicts with the later laws that protect marine organisms.”

Kolian said a common misperception is that the oil well and platform are connected. The wells are required to be capped by pumping them with concrete once they are no longer in commission. The platforms, meanwhile, are “just metal structures,” according to Kolian.

“The platforms are not guilty of producing green house gas or spilling and all those other things associated with the oil industry,” he said.

Sen. David Vitter, R-La., who serves on the Environment and Public Works Committee, introduced legislation in May that would increase the use of decommissioned Gulf platforms as artificial reefs, as part of the Rigs to Reefs program.

“We in the Gulf Coast are familiar with how idle rigs can develop into fertile marine habitats, home to some of the best fishing in the world,” Vitter said in a statement Wednesday to “These artificial reefs are incredibly important to the growth and sustainability of the economy and environment in the Gulf.”

Vitter argues that his bill, if enacted, known as The Artificial Reef Promotion Act, will bring the decades-old Rigs-to-Reefs program “into the 21st century.” The act requires that 20 new reef planning areas be created after a year of enactment, including six off each of the coasts of Texas and Louisiana, three off the coasts of Mississippi and Alabama, and five off of the coast of Florida.

Critics of the Rigs-to-Reef program argue that a rusting steel rig may be detrimental to the environment and say more scientific research is needed to assess the long-term impact on aquatic life. And some commercial fisheries claim artificial reefs damage their fishing nets and also pose a navigational hazard.

Adding to the complexity of the issue, is the requirement that oil companies spend money to maintain the rig for as long as it sits on the ocean floor.

“Once you put that oil rig there, you’re responsible for it forever. So there is a benefit to the oil company to get it removed,” said Paul Cozic, director of Hell Divers’ Spearfishing Club, which advocates a moratorium on the removal of oil rigs.

“Every time they pull these rigs up, they destroy endangered species and all kinds of snapper,” Cozic said. “People travel all over the world to see the type of coral and marine life that’s on these rigs.”

Elon Musk buys 007’s submersible Lotus, plans to make it work
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Elon Musk’s next car is a submarine.

The PayPal/Tesla/SpaceX founder has confessed to being the anonymous bidder that recently won the Lotus Elise-based submarine featured in the James Bond film “The Spy Who Loved Me” at auction for nearly $1 million, according to

The car was the star of one of the most memorable scenes in movie history, where 007 drives it off a pier and into the water then turns it into a submarine at the press of a button.

Musk says he remembers the car fondly from his youth in South Africa and was “disappointed to learn it can’t actually transform.” Six versions of the vehicle were built for the film, each one with a different role. While this one — nicknamed “Wet Nellie” — was a functioning submarine, it wasn’t engineered to drive.

The car itself is a bit of a mystery. It disappeared after production ended on the 1977 film, only to be discovered in a storage locker on New York’s Long Island in 1989, the contents of which had been purchased in a blind auction when the rent went unpaid. It has been cosmetically restored since, but isn’t operational. That’s something Musk plans to change.

“What I’m going to do is upgrade it with a Tesla electric powertrain and try to make it transform for real,” he told Jalopnik.

Musk has been portrayed in popular culture as both a real-life Iron Man and Bond-style super villain. We’re guessing this latest move won’t do anything to change that perception.

Perhaps that’s his master plan, after all.

Read: License to thrill – the top 5 James Bond cars Researchers test ‘underwater Internet’
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    Doctoral candidates with the University of Buffalo drop two 40-pound sensors into the water to test out an “underwater Internet” using sonar rather than radio waves. (DOUGLAS LEVERE / UNIVERSITY OF BUFFALO)

Sharks will soon be taking selfies and fish will be #swimming.

And the concept of “surfing” the Internet is about to get really strange.

Researchers from the University of Buffalo in New York are working on an underwater Wi-Fi system, a sort of deep sea Internet using sound waves rather than radio waves.

The team claims this technology could aid in tsunami detection, help offshore oil detection, aid pollution monitoring and more.

“A submerged wireless network will give us an unprecedented ability to collect and analyze data from our oceans in real time,” said Tommaso Melodia, associate professor of electrical engineering at the University of Buffalo and the project’s lead researcher. “Making this information available to anyone with a smartphone or computer, especially when a tsunami or other type of disaster occurs, could help save lives.”

Melodia and his students will present a paper on the underwater Internet at the 8th annual International Conference on Underwater Networks & Systems in mid-November in Taiwan.

He tested the system recently in Lake Erie, a few miles south of downtown Buffalo. Hovannes Kulhandjian and Zahed Hossain, both doctoral candidates in his lab, dropped two 40-pound sensors into the water. Kulhandjian typed a command into a laptop. Seconds later, a series of high-pitched chirps ricocheted off a nearby concrete wall, an indication that the test worked.

A deep-sea Internet has many applications, the researchers argue, including linking together buoy networks that detect tsunamis to deliver a more reliable warning system. It may also help collect oceanographic data and monitoring pollution.

“We could even use it to monitor fish and marine mammals, and find out how to best protect them from shipping traffic and other dangers,” Melodia said. “An Internet underwater has so many possibilities.”

Arctic sea ice up 60 percent in 2013
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    NASA satelite images show the changing Artic sea ice coverage. from August 2012 (left) to August 2013 (right) — a growth of about a million square miles. (NASA)

About a million more square miles of ocean are covered in ice in 2013 than in 2012, a whopping 60 percent increase — and a dramatic deviation from predictions of an “ice-free Arctic in 2013,” the Daily Mail noted.

Arctic sea ice averaged 2.35 million square miles in August 2013, as compared to the low point of 1.32 million square miles recorded on Sept. 16, 2012, according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center. A chart published Sept. 8 by NSIDC shows the dramatic rise this year, putting total ice cover within two standard deviations of the 30-year average.

Noting the year over year surge, one scientist even argued that “global cooling” was here.

“We are already in a cooling trend, which I think will continue for the next 15 years at least. There is no doubt the warming of the 1980s and 1990s has stopped,” Anastasios Tsonis of the University of Wisconsin told London’s Mail on Sunday.

The surge in Arctic ice is a dramatic change from last year’s record-setting lows, which fueled dire predictions of an imminent ice-free summer. A 2007 BBC report said the Arctic could be ice free in 2013 — a theory NASA still echoes today.

“[An ice-free Arctic is] definitely coming, and coming sooner than we previously expected,“ Walt Meier, a glaciologist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md, told LiveScience last month. “We’re looking at when as opposed to if.”

Noting the growth in ice, the Snow and Ice Data Center said that coverage was still well below the 30-year average. And the year over year growth in ice is “largely irrelevant,” argued The Guardian, noting that more ice is to be expected after the record low a year ago.

“We should not often expect to observe records in consecutive years. 2012 shattered the previous record low sea ice extent; hence ‘regression towards the mean’ told us that 2013 would likely have a higher minimum extent,” wrote Dana Nuccitelli.

Meanwhile, global surface temperatures have been relatively flat over the past decade and a half, according to data from the U.K.’s weather-watching Met Office.

A leaked draft of the next major climate report from the U.N. cites numerous causes to explain the slowdown in warming: greater-than-expected ash from volcanoes, a decline in heat from the sun, more heat being absorbed by the deep oceans, and so on.

Climate skeptics have spent months debating the weather pattern, some citing it as evidence that global warming itself has decelerated or even stopped.

“The absence of any significant change in the global annual average temperature over the past 16 years has become one of the most discussed topics in climate science,” wrote David Whitehouse of the Global Warming Policy Foundation in June. “It has certainly focused the debate about the relative importance of greenhouse gas forcing of the climate versus natural variability.”

Read more:

Largest volcano on Earth found under Pacific Ocean

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    A 3D map of Tamu Massif, the world’s biggest volcano. (William Sager)

The world’s largest volcano lurks beneath the Pacific Ocean, researchers announced in the journal Nature Geoscience.

Called the Tamu Massif, the enormous mound dwarfs the previous record holder, Hawaii’s Mauna Loa, and is only 25 percent smaller than Olympus Mons on Mars, the biggest volcano in Earth’s solar system, said William Sager, lead study author and a geologist at the University of Houston.

“We think this is a class of volcano that hasn’t been recognized before,” Sager said. “The slopes are very shallow. If you were standing on this thing, you would have a difficult time telling which way was downhill.”



The entirety of Tamu Massif is bigger than the British Isles or New Mexico.

Tamu is 400 miles wide and 2.5 miles tall.

The world’s biggest volcano has been hidden because it sits on thin oceanic crust, which can’t support its weight. Its top is about 6,500 feet below the ocean surface.


Tamu is 400 miles wide but only about 2.5 miles tall. It erupted for a few million years during the early Cretaceous period, about 144 million years ago, and has been extinct since then, the researchers report. [50 Amazing Volcano Facts]

Explaining ocean plateaus
Like other massive volcanoes, Tamu Massif seems to have a central cone that spewed lava down its broad, gentle slopes. The evidence comes from seismic surveys and lava samples painstakingly collected over several years of surveys by research ships. The seismic waves show lava flows dipping away from the summit of the volcano. There appears to be a series of calderas at the summit, similar in shape to the elongated and merged craters atop Mauna Loa, Sager said.

Until now, geologists thought Tamu Massif was simply part of an oceanic plateau called Shatsky Rise in the northwest Pacific Ocean. Oceanic plateaus are massive piles of lava whose origins are still a matter of active scientific debate. Some researchers think plumes of magma from deep in the mantle punch through the crust, flooding the surface with lava. Others suggest pre-existing weaknesses in the crust, such as tectonic-plate boundaries, provide passageways for magma from the mantle, the layer beneath the crust. Shatsky Rise formed atop a triple junction, where three plates pulled apart.

Tamu Massif’s new status as a single volcano could help constrain models of how oceanic plateaus form, Sager said. “For anyone who wants to explain oceanic plateaus, we have new constraints,” he told LiveScience. “They have to be able to explain this volcano forming in one spot and deliver this kind of magma supply in a short time.”

Sager said other, bigger volcanoes could be awaiting discovery at other oceanic plateaus, such as Ontong Java Plateau, located north of the Solomon Islands in the southwest Pacific Ocean. “Structures that are under the ocean are really hard to study,” he said.

Floating volcano
Oceanic plateaus are the biggest piles of lava on Earth. The outpourings have been linked to mass extinctions and climate change. The volume of Tamu Massif alone is about 600,000 cubic miles. The entire volcano is bigger than the British Isles or New Mexico.

Despite Tamu’s huge size, the ship surveys showed little evidence the volcano’s top ever poked above the sea. The world’s biggest volcano has been hidden because it sits on thin oceanic crust (or lithosphere), which can’t support its weight. Its top is about 6,500 feet below the ocean surface today.

“In the case of Shatsky Rise, it formed on virtually zero thickness lithosphere, so it’s in isostatic balance,” Sager said. “It’s basically floating all the time, so the bulk of Tamu Massif is down in the mantle. The Hawaiian volcanoes erupted onto thick lithosphere, so it’s like they have a raft to hold on to. They get up on top and push it down. And with Olympus Mons, it’s like it formed on a two-by-four.”

Sager and his colleagues have studied Shatsky Rise for decades, seeking to solve the puzzle of oceanic plateaus. About 20 years ago, they named Tamu Massif after Texas A&M University, Sager’s former employer, he said.

Copyright 2013 LiveScience, a TechMediaNetwork company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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Mystery surrounds rise in dolphin deaths along East Coast

Associated Press
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    Aug. 1, 2013: From right, Virginia Aquarium Stranding Response Team members Krystal Rodrique of Virginia Beach, Va. and intern Liz Schell of Durango, Co. load a deceased male dolphin onto a metal stretcher on Ocean View Beach in Norfolk, Va. (AP)

NORFOLK, Va. –  Officials are trying to determine the cause of a sharp increase in dolphin deaths in Virginia and other East Coast states.

Five beached dolphins were found in Virginia alone on Thursday. In July, nearly four dozen dead dolphins were found, mostly in Norfolk and along the southern part of the Chesapeake Bay. That’s up from the typical six or seven usually picked up in July by the Virginia Aquarium Stranding Response Team.

“We’ve had a steady number coming in at the beginning of the summer, and starting last week, the numbers spiked,” Susan Barco, research coordinator for the Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center, told The Virginian-Pilot ( “We’re just trying to keep our head above water.”

Delaware and Maryland also have seen an uptick in dolphin deaths. According to The Press of Atlantic City, 10 dead dolphins were picked up in Delaware between June and early July, when in a typical year only five or six are recorded. In Maryland, authorities said a spike had been noticed but exact numbers of deaths were not known.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has sent inquiries to stranding centers along the East Coast to determine whether spikes have been seen elsewhere.

In New Jersey, initial necropsy results have pointed to pneumonia, but Maggie Mooney-Seus, spokeswoman for NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service, was not ready to connect Virginia’s die-off to what may be affecting dolphins in other states.

“We don’t know at this point what has caused the upswing,” she said. “Virginia is higher than New Jersey, but we don’t know anything particular because we’re still collecting data.”

Virginia’s stranding team says the elevated numbers are reminiscent off the mass deaths that occurred in 1987, when more than 750 carcasses washed ashore from New Jersey to Florida. A few years later, morbillivirus — similar to measles — was determined to be the culprit, as dolphins exhibited symptoms associated with measles and pneumonia.

“It’s eerily familiar,” Barco said of the recent strandings. “That is one virus we’re looking for now.”

In Virginia this year, the response team has collected the remains of 87 dolphins. The team typically picks up around 60 dolphins in an entire year.

On Thursday, Krystle Rodrique, a volunteer with the stranding team, and Liz Schell, an intern, worked to dig up the tail of a dead dolphin as waves crashed in, hampering their efforts. The team documents where the animals were found and takes photos.

Rodrique cradled the corpse, setting it down lightly on a wooden deck. Despite her gloves, the smell — a mix of pet store and rotting fish — will remain on her hands.

“You get used to the smell, but I never can really get it off my hands,” she said. “I try to scrub them over and over again.”

The sooner workers find the dolphins, the better chance they have of figuring out what is causing the deaths.

Barco said teams haven’t seen any physical trauma that would indicate entanglements or sonar damage, as midfrequency naval sonar has been linked in the past to whale and dolphin deaths. Ted Brown, a spokesman for the Navy’s Fleet Forces Command in Norfolk, said “there has been no change or increase in sonar use that could be related” to the recent surge.

Barco said her team of 60 volunteers, eight staff members and six interns are logging extra hours and have postponed its annual dolphin count in order to keep up with the deaths. The program is funded by grants, donations and contracts, and she says it’s short on time and money.

“I just put in for overtime that we can’t afford to pay. We don’t have a lab like some places do, so we’re working out of a tent,” Barco said. “This event is going to stretch us.”

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Volkswagen builds the worst shark cage ever

If the “you’re doing it wrong” meme needs an official vehicle, this is it.

To promote its ongoing sponsorship of Discovery Channel’s annual Shark Week, which kicks off on Aug. 4th, Volkswagen has built a shark cage based on one of its vehicles…the Beetle Convertible.

Last year, it put together a much more functional submersible craft designed after the Beetle coupe, which has been modified this time around by getting its top chopped off.

Yes, the electrically propelled submersible actually works and a video series featuring marine biologist Luke Tipple taking it for an Subaquatic Road Trip will be posted online.

We guess that’s assuming he doesn’t make a wrong turn into the local drive-in at feeding time.

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