Forget 2100

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What will the world look like in the year 2100? If we can avoid nuclear winter and robot overlords, then the question is really about climate change. The answers might have to do with global temperatures, sea level rise, ocean acidification, species extinction or collapse, drought, or storm intensity--just to name a few--but the time frame that we have in mind is on the scale of 50-100 years. A lot of the projections look something like this:


Well, the graphs that you see might look a little more technical than this one, but the basic idea is to figure out the trend line. That is, how will the average conditions change over a long period of time. 

These calculations are useful, and scientists can often do them with reasonably high certainty. But this type of graph makes a certain imprint in our minds of what climate change looks like. As a consequence, we often focus on that distant horizon--the year 2100. You often hear about acting on climate change for the benefit of our children or grandchildren.

The problem with that smooth, gradual line is that it misses all of the bumps and wiggles along the way. Those ups and downs are the variance around the line, and they look something like this:


Along the way to that unsettling 2100 future are sharp increases that occur over short time periods. This is the climate change that we'll have to deal with, and it will come much sooner than 2100.
The rapid warming in the Gulf of Maine is an instructive case. Warming over the past decade has been almost 10 times as fast as the background warming rate and faster than 99.9% of the rest of the ocean. We're essentially going through one of those bumps/wiggles on our way to 2100. Rapid warming has turned the ecosystem on its head, an now we're dealing with lots of commercial species struggling to keep a foothold (e.g. Atlantic cod, northern shrimp), and other arrivals showing up in droves (e.g. green crabs).
The Gulf of Maine may be one of the first to go through a bump/wiggle like this, but it won't be the last. In many places around the world, we'll find that the road to 2100 is not a gradual slope, but a roller coaster ride. For those who are thinking about ways to prepare for and adapt to changing climate, take your eyes off the year 2100. Rapid changes that occur over 1-10 year time scales will arrive much sooner, and that is what we'll be forced to respond to. 

Again, assuming we can avoid the robot overlords.

Nick Record, signing off

Solving Fermi's Paradox

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Do space aliens exist? Is there life on other worlds? Or are we alone in the universe? And what about the Ewok microbiome? Today's column on microbial oceanography addresses this tantalizing question, and whether we might some day have an answer. This is part n of an infinity-part series on microbial oceanography.

One orienting idea in the search for extra terrestrial life is Fermi's Paradox. In 1950, the physicist Enrico Fermi estimated the number of planets that should have intelligent life. Even with some very conservative assumptions, the galaxy should be crawling (or slithering?) with life. So, as the paradox provocatively asks, "Where is everybody?"

Lots of brainy people have answers to this paradox, and the answers are always suspiciously a reflection of their views on humanity. In a recent interview, NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden said that alien communications are all encrypted. More cynically, Stephen Hawking has offered up the idea that when intelligent life does arise, perhaps it quickly destroys itself. General Douglas MacArthur said that humanity would soon have to unite in a war against people from other planets. If you asked Jerry Seinfeld, he'd probably say that aliens are too absorbed in the trivial details of everyday life to bother with visiting Earth.

If all of these experts can weigh in, there must be a place in the conversation for the microbial oceanographer. Of course, I can't speak for all microbial oceanographers (most of them think I'm crazy), but since so few have spoken on this issue, I'm going to set the bar. Let's start with the basics: water is essential for life. If we start from that premise and look for water in our solar system, we find that most of it is buried in underground oceans. Something like ~95% of the solar system's oceans are hidden by thick crusts (See figure.) These oceans could be teeming with life--probably microbial, but possibly intelligent--with no idea that there is a sun or other planets or a funny 1990s sitcom called Seinfeld. In our quest for life on other worlds, we might not be able to just sit back and listen. If my theory is right, we'll need to actually visit these places. We'll need to send a drilling team, much like in the timeless film classic Armageddon, and when we make first contact, we'll want to make sure someone on that team is a microbial oceanographer.


-Nick Record, signing off

Microbial Oceanography will Save the World

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This is part 1 of an infinity-part series on microbial oceanography.

It's the 21st century. The year 2000 has come and gone, and we're barreling forward past the "early aughts" into the middle of the century. According to sci-fi lore, by now we should have hoverboards, a cure for the common cold, and/or hyper-intelligent computers orbiting Jupiter's moons. We have already achieved some of those foreseen technologies (e.g. videoconferencing), and we have come up with some unforeseen technologies too (e.g. the Furby). Despite our technological advances, humanity confronts great challenges this century, from water shortages to transnational crime. Meanwhile, there is one strange fact that sci-fi writers did not foresee: fighting on the front lines against the threats to humankind is the intrepid Microbial Oceanographer.

"What a sec... the intrepid who?"

Okay, so maybe "microbial oceanographer" isn't a household term. Maybe there aren't hordes of ten-year-olds aspiring to grow up to be microbial oceanographers. Maybe, as is often the case, nobody has any idea what I'm talking about. To clarify, a microbial oceanographer studies and maps the microbes (microscopic life) in the ocean (big salty body of water that covers Earth). And from epidemics to climate change, the knowledge uncovered by studying marine microbes is critical for confronting humankind's impending threats.

Intrigued? Stay tuned for part 2 of my infinity-part series, Microbial Oceanography will Save the World.

And here, for no special reason, is a photo of a ctenophore.


-Nick Record, signing off

Salp watch 2014

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Welcome to Salp Watch 2014. Lots of salp sightings this fall near the coast. Here's one we pulled up in a bucket during a GNATS cruise across the Gulf of Maine in September.


It looks like Thalia democratica. The bloom was so dense you could see it off the bow for miles and miles.

In October, a group from the New England Aquarium reported huge salp blooms in the Bay of Fundy:

And around the same time I got this email:

"Yesterday out lobstering there was an incredible abundance of what I think were salps in the water near the surface. They were ladder like creatures about 4-6 inches long. In some areas there were dozens in a square meter (rough estimate). This picture doesn't do it justice but if you look at the lower right hand corner you can see a couple of them. The VHF chatter was all about how guys were having to clean their raw water intakes because they were getting clogged with jellies."


We have a salp model up and running at Bigelow now, and I hope to set this in forecasting mode for the bloom next fall (which is when our Maine salps bloom).

Nick Record, signing off

What if 1950 happened today?

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I've been thinking a lot about temperatures in the Gulf of Maine.  While recent temperatures have been very warm, and 2012 was extraordinary, we have only recently encountered conditions warmer than 1950:
Note that this time series (and the others below) have been smoothed using a two year running mean.  This removes the high-frequency signal, including damping out big events like 2012. In fact, 2013 is now the peak year in the Gulf of Maine, and it is almost exactly the same temperature as 1950.

The causes of the 1950 event (actually, a warm period from 1945-1955) are interesting, but in some ways, they're not important.  The Gulf of Maine, and the northwest Atlantic in general, is one of the most variable parts of the ocean:
This means that we can think of 1950 as giving us a glimpse of just how far we could get away from mean conditions. To do this, we need to know the mean conditions, in this case,  the global mean sea surface temperature:
You'll notice that the warming is pretty steady when averaged over the globe.  In 1950, the mean SST was 0.4° cooler than today.  If you view the Gulf of Maine relative to the rest of the ocean, you see that 1950 was even more extraordinary:
This gives us one way to think about how warm the Gulf of Maine could get.  If 1950 were to happen today, we would get an anomaly almost 0.5° above the 2013 average (line marked "max now"):
Climate models suggest that the mean temperature of the ocean is likely to rise by 3°C in latter part of the century ("mean future").  If 1950 were to happen in that climate, then we would have some very extraordinary temperatures ("max future"). 

By this same logic, we are just as likely to get a cold event of the same magnitude as 1950 as we are to get a warm event.  If we were to get one today, it would be about the same as the minimum temperature in the mid 1960s.  Every year, those temperatures become less and less likely, and in the future, a 1960s-like cold period would look a lot like our recent "warm" period.

Invasion of the jellyfish!

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It seems like I'm the only one along the coast of Maine not to have seen a jellyfish this year.  That's probably more a comment on my lack of contact with the ocean because, by all reports, there are tons of jellyfish along the coast of Maine this year.

Everyone on the coast is talking about jellies, and it seems that Nick and I are what pass for jellyfish experts.  Perhaps someday we'll get a massive Calanus outbreak, but until then, it's really fun to have people talking about the ocean.  Although we don't know a whole lot of what a normal jellyfish year looks like, it's pretty clear that this year is unusual.  I think it's noteworthy that this summer is warm and that the reports started coming in when we had a big jump in temperature in early June.  The other year with lots of jellyfish chatter was 2012.  Still, lots of work is needed to really put this story together.

If you need your Nick and Andy fix, check us out in the Portland Press Herland and on the radio at MPBN.  Until I get to the ocean to get some real underwater jellyfish pics, here's one of me dressed as a jellyfish:

photo by Petri Touhimaa, GMRI

Crash course in ABC

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On July 3rd and 4th, the Australian Statistical Conference put on a free satellite workshop at the University of New South Wales, which introduced Approximate Bayesian Computation (ABC) to anyone interested. Having some familiarity with Bayesian statistics and a strong curiosity for ABC, I decided it was worth my 4th of July to attend. 

The first day of the workshop provided a crash course in ABC methods, while the second day consisted of lectures on ABC applications to research. It turns out that approximate Bayesian analysis is useful when the likelihood function is computationally intractable and when likelihood-based inference models are unavailable. ABC is a non-parametric Bayesian method where pseudo data is generated by a candidate \theta parameter. The summary statistics from the two data sets are compared and if they are similar, then \theta is acceptable for the real data. We use this procedure to estimate the posterior distribution of the parameters of a model. This gets more complicated with dimensionality, but I'll leave that to the Bayesian experts for now. Wikipedia has a decent explanation on this for those who are interested. 

ABC is a fairly new statistical frontier that dates back to only the 1980s. It started as a niche idea in population genetics and is now gaining momentum in mainstream statistics. Although ABC still feels a bit weird and awkward to me, my gut intuition is that these methods will become useful when modeling other natural systems too. 

G'Day from Sydney

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I'm reporting to you live from the middle of the equatorial Pacific, well sort of.  Just a few hours ago I was sitting on a plane and realized that I was indeed flying above what might be a developing El Niño. You may have noticed El Niño receiving a lot of attention in the news lately. Scientists seem to be keyed in on the equatorial Pacific, and perhaps for a good reason. Sea surface temperatures appear to be warming in a classical El Niño-like fashion. The last significant El Niño occurred in 1997/98 and it's speculated that we're long overdue for another "big one." 

Scannell Flight.jpgYou may also be wondering why I'm flying over the middle of the Pacific. My travels are owed to a NSF East-Asia and Pacific Summer Institutes fellowship, which takes me to Australia for 8-weeks to work alongside climatologists and oceanographers at the University of New South Wales, Climate Change Research Centre. From kangaroos to the animals trying to kill me, I will attempt to keep you updated with my latest discoveries in the land down under.

Cheers for now-

I'd like to thank the academy...

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I'm in Portland, Jr. this week at the Joint Aquatic Sciences Meeting.  I'm here to accept the Yentsch-Schindler Early Career Award from ASLO, the Association for the Sciences of Limnologists and Oceanographers.  It's an amazing to receive this award, especially because my nomination was led by the intrepid and always well-coifed Fred Maps and my advisor Chuck Greene.  Unfortunately the salinity of this meeting is so low that none of my close colleagues (including Fred & Chuck) are here.  In lieu of that, I hope you'll indulge me (and I hope you'll check out Hillary's post, which I just bumped, on her recent cruise) in a quick round of acknowledgements:


First, I wouldn't be where I am without the support of my wonderful family. I can't believe that you put up with my increasingly whacky travel schedule and my even whackier notions that rants about climate change or reviews of the latest Matlab release are appropriate dinner conversation.  You are an endless source of inspiration and support, and I love you all very much.

Second, thank you to the institutions that have supported me throughout my career.  Cornell, UMaine, and GMRI has each influenced me in their own unique and sometimes nonlinear ways.  Although I didn't include their logos, I'm extremely grateful to NSF, NOAA, NASA, and the Lenfest Ocean Program for funding my work.  Please don't stop!

Finally, I have been very lucky to have always found colleagues who inspire and challenge me.  Chuck and Bruce at Cornell helped me figure out that I could really do this.  Then, Dan, Pete, Nick, and Fred (aka the Ecosystem Modeling Lab and Fraternity) helped establish the tone for the lab: geeky and creative, with a touch of irreverence.   Walt, Sigrid, Kathy, and Carrie, and more recently Dom, Katie, and Elise brought a fishier vibe. Kathy and Hillary are now bringing in real work on climate change, and Karen is continuing the tradition of irreverent copepodology.  Science is a tough business, with lots of ups and downs.  Since we clearly don't do this for the money, I'm thankful to get to work with people who are fun and creative and who are passionate about this very weird and wonderful endeavor.

Making observations at sea

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I've been an EML'er for exactly a year now, starting with my meager beginnings as an intern last May. This past year has been a fast pace transition. After graduating from the University of Maine in May of 2013 with a bachelor's in marine science, I essentially began working towards a master's in oceanography a week later. From that point on, I quickly evolved into a climate modeler and statistics geek. Now that the academic year is over, I can reflect back on my experiences as a first year graduate student and look forward to what the future may hold.

One such experience occurred during a recent (May 1-12) research cruise aboard the R/V Knorr. This cruise sailed between Woods Hole and Bermuda following a direct, linear path called Line W. The Line W field program is a long-term climate observing system put in place by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) in 2003. It consists of a moored array of 6 buoys extending over the shelf break. The goal of the program is to gather hydrographic data to better understand the baseline conditions of the Deep Western Boundary Current and Gulf Stream.

Line W is named after the late physical oceanographer, Valentine Worthington, who devoted much of his life and career to understanding the circulation and water mass formation in the North Atlantic Ocean. Like most great things in science, the Line W program recently came to an end due to unobtainable funds. I was fortunate enough to have been a part of its legacy by participating on the final leg of the program.
Scannell1.JPG On this cruise, we took shipboard hydrography measurements at 26 stations along Line W. We lowered a CTD rosette to depths beyond 5,000 meters to measure temperature, salinity and oxygen. An upward and downward facing acoustic Doppler current profiler (ADCP) was attached to the CTD to measure the water current velocity. From the CTD control station within the main lab aboard the Knorr, we fired Niskin bottles at different depths to collect 10-liters of water. A trip down to 5,000 meters can take over 3 hours, so a lot of time was spent waiting in the lab. The CTD and ADCP measurements allowed us to obtain vertical profiles of the Deep Western Boundary Current and Gulf Stream along the location where they intersect Line W. Changes in the global thermohaline circulation are expected to occur due to climate changes at high latitudes, and the past successes of the Line W program have given scientists the ability to document these changes through observational studies.

Yes, observations! During my experience on the Line W cruise, I couldn't help but fixate on the apparent divide between climate modeling and observational oceanography. Models enable us to force a condition, test our theories and make predictions, but perhaps every modeler should connect their virtual reality with hydrographic observations at sea. For me, this is exactly what Line W did.


As I look forward to the future, I am reassured as a modeler that the oceans continue to be explored, measured and observed through long-term field programs like Line W. 

On the Line W cruise, I not only gained a greater appreciation for the data I often take for granted, but I also gained a new admiration for the labor intensive field of observational oceanography.


Hillary Scannell, UMaine/GMRI

Photos provided by WHOI.

Recent Comments

  • Nick Record: Follow up: a series of measurements by Kotori (1976) put read more
  • Nick Record: It's a whale-eat-copepod world out there. read more
  • Andy Pershing: I thought it looked like you'd put on a read more
  • Andy Pershing: Comment emailed from Andrew Allyn: I hope all is well. read more
  • Andy Pershing: Other unusual animals reported this summer and fall: -sperm whales read more
  • Frederic Maps: Seasoned biologists were apparently shocked by the lack of deep-dwelling read more
  • Frederic Maps: It's been several years in a row of record low read more
  • Nick Record: Are these anomalies linked to any particular climate indices? read more
  • Andy Pershing: Southern Europe was very warm this summer. Not being a read more
  • Nick Record: The Med also looks anomalously warm. I wonder what's going read more

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