Unearthly Floating Objects

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The two-masted schooner was sailing downeast, five miles off Great Wass Island, when its crew hauled a four-foot frame with a long trailing net up out of the water and onto the deck. Despite nearly an hour under tow, the net yielded a mere tablespoon of living matter. It was August 1912, and oceanographer Dr. Henry Bigelow had been towing nets all night, and for many days prior, to take stock of the sea life in the Gulf of Maine. Day after day, each tow had brought with it a rich abundance of animals. But here, at what he labeled Station 33, he was surprised to find only tiny Staurostoma--a whitecross jellyfish.

For the next hundred miles, as he surveyed the waters of the gulf from Grand Manan Island down to Penobscot Bay, the pattern was the same--the oceanographer found a steady stream of jellyfish, and little else. He was mystified, writing:

 "This was quite the contrary to what we expected, as the northeastern corner of the gulf and the Bay of Fundy have always been credited with a rich pelagic life. Our nets did not yield a single young fish along this whole stretch of coast."

...read the rest HERE

The jellyfish are here

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The last two summers have seen massive outbreaks of unearthly jellyfish in coastal Maine. I'm already getting reports this summer of some sizable moon jellyfish aggregations in Midcoast. 

If you see any jellyfish, you can report on our reporting page:

or email me at jellyfish@bigelow.org

I'll have some write-ups soon in the Working Waterfront and Maine Boats, Homes, & Harbors. Stay tuned for that. Meanwhile, here is a map comparing the sightings of whitecross jellyfish from last summer (yellow dots) to a swath of ocean (shaded area) where Dr. Henry Bigelow was shocked by high numbers of whitecross jellyfish in the summer of 1912:


The overlap is noteworthy. At the time, Dr. Bigelow was as surprised on seeing them as we are today, writing:

 "This was quite the contrary to what we expected, as the northeastern corner of the Gulf and the Bay of Fundy have always been credited with a rich pelagic life...our nets did not yield a single young fish along this whole stretch of coast.

Enjoy the summer. More soon.

- Nick Recørd, signing off

Forecasting Heat Waves (Wherein my Honour is Challenged)

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Meteorologists can forecast weather remarkably well out to about a week. Climate scientists can forecast climate out to 50 or 100 years. There's a tantalizing gap between those two time scales--the monthly to yearly forecasting. Why can't we forecast something like heat waves a couple of months in advance?

The answer to this question is complicated, involving intimate ties between space and time, but in breaking news...actually we can. Yes, it turns out, we can forecast heat waves two months out. Well, at least, we can forecast the likelihood of a particular heat wave based on a specific ocean temperature pattern. It's a special case. Here's the summary:

The challenge with forecasting at this time scale is that we don't have general rules or equations to follow, like we do with short-term weather and long-term climate forecasting. We have to work on a case-by-case basis. In a way, everything is a special case. So we have to look for cues. For the specific heat wave pattern in the above article, scientists have found the right collection of cues that seem to be consistent. The GMRI lobster forecast is another good example: April water temperatures turn out to be an excellent cue for where lobsters will be in the summer. So there we have a useful forecast a few months in advance.

Meanwhile, other mid-range forecasts are still tricky, and scientists sometimes disagree. Take this recent article in the Portland Press Herald:

One scientist--the highly acclaimed Dr. Pershing of the Gulf of Maine Research Institute--says that "We're pretty much locked in now to 2012-like conditions." If you think back to 2012, that was the year we had an ocean heat wave 3 degrees above normal that lasted 18 months (continuing into 2013) and covered the northwest North Atlantic. On the other hand, further down in the article, the more obscure Dr. Record says, "It's more likely at this point that we'd have a warm summer and a heat wave than in a typical year, but it isn't guaranteed." 

When scientists disagree like this, you would think we would settle it with a math-off or a phylogeny bee. Typically, though, it's a wager over beer. In this case, Dr. Pershing has wagered a beer that July 2016 will be in the top two warmest July's since 1982. Naturally I have accepted the wager. Hopefully we'll have time to give some odds as the month approaches so that you can look on as I build toward a frenzy of excitement, triumph, and beer consumption, or whither in a spiral of humiliation and beer consumption.

For reference, this figure shows the surface water temperature through the end of March at a mid-coast buoy. The blue line shows the average condition, and the shaded area is the historical range. It's tracking quite warm, but it's a long way to July.

 - Nick Recørd, signing off

My inner nerd speaks

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I just arrived home from another great Ocean Sciences meeting (#OSM16). The plenary speakers were impressive and inspiring, and I've come away with lots of new ideas. One of the slides that caught the attention of my inner nerd was this one, in a talk by Carl Wunsch (thanks to @TOSOceanography for the image):


The slide has a quote by oceanography legend Walter Munk expressing his concern about the rise of computers in ocean science at the expense of field work. 

"But Nick," my inner nerd said, "All you do is computer experiments. You never go to sea anymore." It's true, inner nerd. I started my career much in the spirit of Dr. Munk's quote--clambering at every chance to go to sea, working day and night aboard boats, and shunning my office. Yet as time went on, I spent less and less time at sea, and more time at a computer. This is clear in this figure I put together showing days at sea through the end of my Ph.D. program (the numbers since 2012 are all in the single digits). In a way, I'm a poster child for Dr. Munk's concerns.


"If I may respond," my inner nerd ventured, "what Dr. Munk sees as a concern is actually part of a revolution, not just in science, but in every part of our lives." 

Interesting. Please continue, inner nerd.

"I'm talking about the Compute Revolution. You don't need to look far to see how computation has revolutionized almost every field and reinvented the world we live in, from medicine to politics to literature. As far as the ocean goes, it's enormous and complex, and we're reading in immense amounts of data every second. Without computational experts--people who understand mathematics, code, and big data (nerds like you, Nick)--our science will fall behind. If we really want to understand the ocean, we need to compute."

Bold point, inner nerd, but what about Dr. Munk's argument about losing our seagoing edge?

"If we're losing our edge at sea, then yes, we should work on getting it back. But not at the expense of our computational edge. And besides, think about how much more information we have on the ocean now that we use floats, gliders, buoys, and satellites. It has been like turning on a light in a dark room. We are good at going to sea--we just do it differently, and in a way that requires lots of computing."

Wow, inner nerd. When did you get so preachy?

"Hey, there's nothing wrong with enjoying writing code. It can be interesting, valuable, and even beautiful. And by the way, it's where your best talents are. You can haul CTDs if you want, but you'll make more of a contribution by tapping into your strengths."

I reflected on my inner nerd's comments as I sipped my fifth cup of coffee. I do enjoy going to sea, and it will hopefully remain a part of my work, however it diminishes. Yet Nerdy is right--computational science is what I do best, and it's rewarding. For some people, their strength is harpooning whales with satellite tags and not puking in 10 meter seas. But for those of us who find our home within the Compute Revolution, we shouldn't feel guilty about not going to sea. We have an important contribution too.

Nick Record, signing off

2015 in the Gulf of Maine

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Happy 2016, loyal Seascape reader(s)!  Both Nick and I now have realer jobs than when we started the blog, and our blogging has definitely taken a hit.  We're also shifting our focus to Twitter, where Nick is @SeascapeScience and I'm @Sci_Officer. 

For my first post in a very long time, I wanted to give a summary of temperature trends in the Gulf of Maine.  The rapid  warming in the Gulf of Maine received a lot of attention this year.  Most of it stemmed from our paper in Science linking rapid warming in the Gulf to the collapse of the region's cod fishery.  I'd like to point out that the unique warming in the Gulf was first reported here, although that probably just shows how slow I am at getting real papers written.

2015 was a wild and crazy year, as you can see by the seasonal cycle using OISST data:GOMTScycle_2015_full.jpg
We started with some of the warmest January temperatures, but then February happened. February 2015 was one of the coldest months ever in New England, and temperatures dropped in the Gulf of Maine.  The cooling was strongest along the coast and temperatures remained above average offshore. This resulted in spring temperatures that were close to average over much of the Gulf.

Temperatures bounced back in the summer, and for a few days in August, the temperature in the Gulf actually exceeded the records for those days set in 2012.  We ended the year like we began, with near or above record temperatures.

Adding it all up, 2015 just edged out 2014 for the title of third warmest year since 1982.  



SST Anomaly































Over the last 30 years, the Gulf of Maine has warmed at a rate of 0.054° per year, which is 5 times the global average rate we reported in our paper.  The warming is even stronger over the last 15 years: 0.113° per year.  


If we shift to the ERSST data, we can look at the Gulf of Maine over the last century and more. 


I'm always struck by the very warm conditions that occurred around 1950.  These were associated with a northward shift in the Gulf Stream, similar to what we've seen in recent years.  The difference, is that we are dealing with an overall warmer climate.  Still, only recently have the 5 year (yellow) and 10 year (red) running mean temperatures exceeded those in the 1950s.  Based on this data set, 2015 was the fourth warmest year, exceeded only by 2012, 1949, and 1952.



SST Anomaly































I think 2016 will be another interesting year in our little corner of the ocean.  Outside the El Nino region, our December temperature anomaly was one of the warmest on the globe.  http://science.sciencemag.org/content/350/6262/809.short


NOAA is projecting that this winter will be mild.  If this plays out, we could enter spring with temperatures similar to those in 2012.  Of course, we could also get another February 2015.  Stay tuned.

Forget 2100

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What will the world look like in the year 2100? If we can avoid nuclear winter, robot overlords, or some unforeseen apocalypse, then the question is really about climate change. The answers, of which there are many, have to do with global temperatures, sea level rise, ocean acidification, species extinction or collapse, drought, and storm intensity--just to name a few. These predictions don't always agree, but one commonality is that the time frame 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 that 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 make them with reasonably high certainty. But this type of graph makes a particular 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 those unsettling 2100 conditions are sharp increases (and decreases) 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.

Bouts of rapid warming will occur in different places at different times, and we're already starting to see some of them popping up.  The rapid warming in the Gulf of Maine is an instructive case. Warming of ocean temperatures in this location 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. It's a rate of warming that has been extremely rare among marine ecosystems. This coastal sea has essentially gone through one of those big bumps/wiggles on its way to 2100 conditions. 

The rapid warming has turned the ecosystem on its head. From seahorses in lobster traps to dense swarms of jellyfish, unusual species have become the norm. For many commercial species, the temperature change was too quick for management to keep pace, leading to unforeseen collapses of once reliable stocks, such as Atlantic cod and northern shrimp. The recent paper in Science referenced above reports that the additional unpredicted mortality to cod correlates remarkably well with the fast year-to-year warming. Meanwhile, along the coast, new visitors like the invasive green crab are physically reengineering the system.

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 conditions 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 ~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.

Recent Comments

  • Frederic Maps: You're right on the mark, Nickerd ! But not loosing read more
  • 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

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