Category Archives: What The Oceans Do For Us

Deep sea sediments gives insight into plutonium-244 origin

We can learn a lot about the history of our planet from ocean exploration.  As it turns out, we can also learn about processes beyond our solar system.  Supernova (star) explosions are large, violent processes.  Current theory suggest that supernovae distribute elements essential to life, such as potassium and iron, and heavy elements, such as the radioactive element plutonium-244, throughout space, with some eventually settling on the sea floor.  However, research recently published in Nature Communications suggests that recent heavy element production may not originate from standard supernovae.

Continue reading Deep sea sediments gives insight into plutonium-244 origin

What the oceans do for us: Medicine

Humans are not infallible.  We get sick, we get injured.  Humans are a clever bunch though, and since prehistoric times we have used medicine to try and heal our ailments.  Medical science has made huge leaps and bounds, providing treatments and vaccinations, surgical procedures, and physical and psychological therapies that have allowed people to survive – and thrive – injuries and illnesses which would have once been fatal.  Medical science never stops evolving, learning, and searching for more ways to keep us in tip-top condition.  That search includes delving beneath the ocean waves.  Here’s just a couple of open access examples of how medical science has been furthered by studying ocean creatures: Continue reading What the oceans do for us: Medicine

What the oceans do for us: Carbon Storage

We’ve all heard the news.  We have been – and continue to – pump too much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.  Just like its ‘naturally produced’ counterpart, not all of the human-generated carbon dioxide stays in the atmosphere.  In particular, plants on the land are what we call a carbon sink.  They take up the carbon dioxide and use it for photosynthesis (which also produces oxygen as a waste product – hurrah for plants!).  Plants do a pretty nifty job but holding an estimated 85% of the active carbon on the planet and 25% of annual human carbon dioxide emissions, the oceans are also an extremely important carbon sink.

Continue reading What the oceans do for us: Carbon Storage

Marine conservation and the human equation

People are as much a part of this planet as any other species.  We are ecosystem engineers, modifying and creating new environments to suit our needs.  We are incredibly adaptable, and our ability to make tools – both simple and technologically complex – has allowed us to prosper and rise above many of the restrictions that limit other species.  This doesn’t mean we can now act completely in isolation from the rest of the world.  Many of our activities have altered ecosystems in ways that mean they are less likely to meet our current and future needs.  Conservation efforts are attempting to remedy many of the problems we have created, but conservation isn’t just about nature – it’s about people too.

Nathan Bennett has been actively researching the links between the environment and human societies for many years.  His work takes a perspective that historically has often been forgotten in conservation management; what about humans.  This isn’t about developing opportunities of industry – it’s about conservation initiatives that look to sustain environment and communities together.  This week he has shared three of his papers on his blog – one from 2013 and two from this year.  Thanks to Nathan, all three are now open access…all three very much worth a read.  Here’s a brief overview of each paper to whet your appetite.

The trouble with marine protected areas
So here’s the deal.  We can find an area of the ocean that is becoming heavily degraded because of human activities.  To try to reduce the damage and allow recovery we can place a boundary around that area and place restrictions on the sorts of activities that take place inside.  But what of those people whose activities have been displaced?  We aren’t just talking about recreational fishers here.  In some circumstances, communities which are heavily dependent on the marine environment can be affected.  In this paper, Nathan and his colleague Phil Dearden surveyed coastal resource dependent communities living on the Andaman Coast of Thailand – an area which boasts 17 National Marine Parks.  The perspective of these people makes for grim reading.  They saw little benefit in the parks for their community, they felt that fishing and harvesting was negatively impacted by the parks, and they felt little incentive to support let alone participate in conservation efforts.  What needs to happen, writes Nathan and Phil, is for managers to start including socio-economic development considerations within protected area management planning.  This won’t just be better for the communities, but better for marine conservation.

It’s not just about how vulnerable you are, it’s what you can do to adapt
We’re back to the Andaman Coast of Thailand again, this time to consider their vulnerability and ability to adapt to climate change.  There are a whole host of different factors that can affect a community’s ability to adapt to climate change – and indeed any other sort of stressor.  Some of these are biophysical – climate change related impacts such as coral bleaching, or increasing number of storms, as well as environmental impacts such as marine pollution and overfishing.  Some of the factors are economic – like increasing costs of fuel, social – like increasing immigration, and some are related to governance, like corruption, policies, or illegal fishing.  Nathan and the team wanted to find out how communities felt about stressors.  They surveyed 237 households across 7 coastal communities to ascertain which of the 36 stressors identified in the region were considered having highest impact on the communities.  The results were a bit of a mixed bag, and despite the communities being just 10 km apart, differed between each community.  There were a few common factors though.  Many of the stressors were heavily intertwined.  Climate change impacts like more extreme storms and changes to rainfall were rated highly in the stress-rankings.  Economic factors – particularly rising costs – also came out as a major concern among all the communities.  Interestingly somewhat in contrast to the study above, marine protected areas were not really felt to be causing too much trouble.  What about overfishing?  Not a concern either… but then again the fish populations declined long ago, so overfishing isn’t really an immediate concern any more.  The thing about these sorts of stressors is that they aren’t really something that the community can deal with themselves.  They are part of wider regional and global problems.  From an adaptation perspective, this raises a number of issues.  There is not a ‘one adaptation plan to fit all’, but there are common factors that need to be looked at beyond the communities themselves.  Equally important, if we want to help communities to adapt, we cannot treat one stressor as separate from another.  A more integrated approach is vital for the success of any adaptation plan.

The eco-social economy:  How conservation can aid social and economic development
In this final paper the focus is turned to the Northwest Territories Canada and the Lutsel K’e Dene First Nation.  There have been plans afoot for their traditional territory…plans for a national park/protected area.  This is an old idea, and one that back in 1969 when the Government of Canada (Federal Government) tried to implement met with the opposition of the local people, who were successful in preventing the creation of a park.  In 2006, the First Nation and the Government of Canada signed a Memorandum of Understanding to look at implementing a park on those very same territories.  So what happened?  This new proposal has come from the local people themselves – a bottom up rather than top-down approach to conservation.  Through this collaborative process the park is taking an eco-social perspective to conservation.  Here, people aren’t just seen as the cause of degradation, but are seen as part of the ecosystem, impacted by the degradation.  The national park is not yet set up but is moving forward.  When it is, it is hoped that the park won’t just protect nature and the Lutsel K’e Dene First Nation culture, but work to meet social and economic development goals.

If you want to follow more of Nathan’s work head over to his blog  There is a follow option which will automatically update you of any new posts.  Now there’s some emails worth getting.

Image:  The Lutsel K’e Dene on  Great Slave Lake, Northwest Territories, Canada.  Credit:  Leslie Philipp/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

What the oceans do for us: Powering our needs in the future

Figuring out how we are going to keep generating energy is a political nightmare, and technologically challenging.  There are all sorts of issues with fossil fuels, and renewable energy solutions are (at the moment) generally a little more costly to get up and running.  There are also some issues over energy-delivery reliability.  These aren’t insurmountable problems, and slowly but surely people around the globe and thinking of new – and sometimes old solutions to producing more sustainable and less polluting energy.  Solutions like harnessing the power of the ocean.

Tides occur from the rotation of the Earth around the sun, and moon around the Earth.  Each orbiting body exerts a gravitational force that pulls the ocean around.  Have a look at a great 2-minute video explaining how it works (though some parts of the world have more than two tides a day!).  There are two important things about the tides that make them intriguing from an energy point of view.  First tides exert energy.  Second tides are predictable – we already know what the tides are going to do for the next few years.  So if we can capture that energy efficiently we could power our fancy electronic gizmos with tidal power.  This isn’t a new concept as such.  Many of you will have seen images or even visited old mills next to streams and rivers with a big wooden wheel sitting in the water.  Those wheels are pushed by the water movement, and in turn that wheel turns some cogs which grinds up some wheat which throws out flour. Continue reading What the oceans do for us: Powering our needs in the future

What the oceans do for us: One phytoplankton’s waste….

Beautiful image isn’t it.  This is a phytoplankton bloom – basically a truck load of phytoplankton all grouped in one area.  Phytoplankton are the tiniest of the tiny plants.  Consisting of just a single cell, they spend their life drifting around the oceans (and indeed freshwater too).  You may have heard some of the names of the most common kinds of phytoplankton – like diatoms, dinoflagellates, and coccolithophores.  Just like plants on the land, phytoplankton need sunlight, nutrients like nitrates and phosphates, and carbon dioxide.  Just like plants on the land, phytoplankton photosynthesise.

Photosynthesis in the terrestrial environment goes a little something like this.  The leaves of plants are green because they contain chlorophyll.  This chlorophyll is really good at absorbing sunlight.  This energy is combined with carbon dioxide (also absorbed through their leaves) and water (which primarily comes from the roots) which results in a chemical reaction that gives the plant glucose (sugar) and oxygen.  For our phytoplankton the process is remarkably similar, but the phytoplankton don’t have leaves – or roots.  Instead they absorb all the bits they need directly through their cell wall.  The glucose produced by photosynthesis is used up by the phytoplankton, but the oxygen…well that’s what is known as a waste product.  That’s good news for you, me, and life on Earth.  Oxygen may only make up ~21% of the atmosphere but if it were to disappear tomorrow we would be up the proverbial creek, and a paddle wouldn’t help us even if we did have one.  The jury is still out on just how much oxygen these tiny plants contribute to the atmosphere – NASA estimates 50 – 85%.  Even at the lower end of the scale that’s still a hefty amount.  There have been a number of studies looking at the photosynthesis of phytoplankton.  Here’s just a couple of open access papers:

Late Cambrian oxygen

Back in 2011, Matthew Saltzman from Ohio State University and colleagues published a paper looking at some huge changes in atmospheric oxygen content during the Cambrian period.  Apparently at around the time of the mass extinctions, oxygen declined dramatically, but picked up again.  The most likely source of this oxygen?  Yup phytoplankton.

Variation is everywhere
The amount of oxygen produced by phytoplankton isn’t constant.  It can change depending on where you are, and what time of year it is.  Dr Sarma from Nagoya University and colleagues studied oxygen production in Sagami Bay in Japan between May and October 2002.  They found that the August was peak oxygen time, whilst October saw the least amount.

More carbon dioxide = more oxygen? Not quite
With us lot buys pumping more and more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, you might think that for phytoplankton this isn’t so bad.  After all carbon dioxide is vital for photosynthesis – and we like photosynthesis because it gives us oxygen.  Well its not quite that simple.  In 2013 Dr Kim from Chonnam National University  and colleagues took a look at how predicted future climates might impact coastal phytoplankton photosynthesis.

Image:  Taken by the European Space Agency, ESA Envisat in December 2011.  This phytoplankton bloom is about 600 km off the east coast of the Falkland Islands, which lies in the southern part of the Atlantic Ocean.

Sea of miracles: industrial uses for ocean biodiversity

 We are constantly on the search for ideas on how to improve our current technologies, like those used in agriculture or in medicine.  Searches can lead us to looking into the natural environment, revealing an array of compounds that can prove extremely useful.

Elizabeth Evans-Illidge from the Australian Institute of Marine Science argues that the oceans are an enormous source of compounds that have a wide range of uses – and we have only just began scratching the surface.

Elizabeth notes that protecting our marine ecosystems in their entirety is vital for ensuring that the myriad species (and their potentially useful compounds) are available for biodiscovery – the search for natural-based compounds that have potential applications.  She also argues that we need to take a good look at the legal and jurisdictional issues that may be hampering biodiscovery.

If you fancy reading a little more on biodiscovery (and subsequently bioprospecting – when we go back to gather more of the organisms) you can have a look at this FAO workshop paper

Image: Marine organisms have helped produce a number of medicinal technologies including bone grafts from coral skeletons.  Courtesy of NOAA