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The Hunt for Red Tides

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Most kindergartners will tell you that the ocean is blue. But seasoned mariners have often marveled at the ocean's many other colors. From the burnt green of Samuel Coleridge's "witch's oil" water to the "white squalls" of Herman Melville, to Homer's "wine-dark sea," each color tells a different story.

What story does it tell, then, when the sea is red?

You might have heard of "red tides." This is a colloquial term for what scientists call "harmful algal blooms" or sometimes just "harmful blooms." Many of them do paint the surface of the ocean a distinct color, ranging from orange to brown, or even golden. In 1770, in one of the earliest recordings of a red tide, Captain James Cook wrote: "The Sea in many places is here cover'd with a kind of a brown scum, such as sailors generally call spawn; upon our first seeing it, it alarm'd us, thinking we were among shoals, but we found the same depth of water where it was as in other places."

Cook was describing the type of algal bloom that has become the focus of research and resource management around the world. Some stain the sea to such an extent that they are visible from outer space, while others leave no visible trace at all. 

In Maine, stories about algal blooms have become more common. Much of the coast was shut down to shellfish harvesting the past two falls after blooms downeast. Scientist were monitoring another algal bloom in Casco Bay last September. 

Here are three stories about harmful blooms that affect everything from the water we drink to the air we breathe.



Beluga rescue

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On a recent trip to Svalbard, I happened to spot a beluga calf become entangled in a net. We called the police, and they executed a very efficient rescue. The video isn't great, but here are some clips. Sorry for the short post. Here is the local news write-up:

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

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.

Another warming-Maine map

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Feeling the chill of the approaching Northeaster? This map will warm your core. It highlights the areas in our neighborhood that are among the fastest warming in the global ocean over the past ten years. You can see that parts of the Gulf of Maine are among the fastest 0.01% of the ocean in terms of rate of warming. 


To put things in context, here are the warming and cooling regions throughout the global ocean. Red areas have warmed over the ten year period, blue areas have cooled.

So if you're chilled to the bone this winter, go for a dip. Just make sure you swim for at least a decade so that you experience the climate signal.

Nick Record, signing off

A dynamical systems link between traits and ecosystems

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Over the past few decades, ocean ecosystem modelers like myself have gone from a Nutrient-Phytoplankton-Zooplankton picture of the ocean that looks like this:
NPZ.jpg one that looks more like this:


The motivation, I would say, has been that the simple paradigm misses important processes, like species life history, or important properties, like diversity and its consequences. (Not to mention the myriad of Z that do not consume P.) The more complex picture, although impressive looking, comes with baggage. Among others, there is also the problem of parameterizing these models. Lots of boxes and arrows means lots of rates and properties to be measured--increasing roughly with the square of the number of species (or state variables).

One approach to simplifying this mess is to organize the ocean according to certain traits. Trait-based perspectives are not new, and I think they might be able to clean up the NNNNPPPPPZZZZZZZZZZ spider web we're tinkering around with these days. For example, we can approximate the distribution of a trait across species with a curve. With some analysis, we can then look at the effect of the shape of this curve on the structure of the community. In the example below, a Gaussian distribution of growth rates (gamma) produces realistic rank-abundance curves in a zooplankton population. Different curves produce different community-level patterns.


This is an idealized analytical model. The real world is messier. Still, as long as we are modeling species by using collections of ecologically important traits, we can use the distributions of those traits to inform the model. 

As a messier example, I'll draw from a more complex copepod model. We included a number of traits, such as activation energies, development times, and diapause strategies (many copepods go into dormancy during certain stages). These traits have been painstakingly tabulated across many species by people who I assume have lots of coffee and live in cold, cloudy places. By drawing from these distributions in a sort of stochastic way, and plugging the model into different parts of the ocean, we get very different communities emerging at different places.


The next image shows preliminary output from a North Atlantic model. These are the results for the diapause trait. Basically, in northern latitudes, species that diapause make up the majority of the population. Closer to the equator, they don't fare well. On the right you can see an image of what the population looks like in terms of the size of the animals, and a distribution of the diapause trait as a function of life stage. In the north, there are large diapausing species with long development times. In the south, the opposite.


If you know the North Atlantic well, you'll recognize that this map is not perfect, and we are still a ways from describing the whole ecosystem this way. Still, by shifting the perspective away from the individual species, and towards properties of the community, we are able to make some more sense out of the NNNNNNPPPPPPPZZZZZZZZZZZZ spider web.

Nick Record, signing off

Hubbell SP (2001) The unified neutral theory of biodiversity and biogeography (MPB-32) (Vol. 32). Princeton University Press.

Record NR, Pershing AJ, Maps F (2013) Emergent copepod communities in an adaptive trait-structured model. Ecol Model

Record NR, Pershing AJ, Maps F (2013) The paradox of "the paradox of the plankton". ICES J. Mar. Sci. 


Over-wintering (or -summering)


Autumn is a nostalgic time. The days grow shorter and the nights grow longer. The narrow angle of the sun casts long shadows, and the dry frigid air sucks the moisture from my breath. It's this time of year when the copepod in me starts to think about packing on fat stores, reducing my metabolic rate, and descending into dormancy for the long winter.

Myself, I've never actually diapaused. But lots of copepods do it--not just in the winter, but in some parts of the ocean, when conditions are unfavorable, some species diapause at other times of year. One thing that I do, however, is fill the dark autumn hours mining databases to answer questions about copepods. For example, check out this map:

(click to enlarge)

Can you guess what it is? You might need to squint. It's a little map I put together showing all of the places (according to the OBIS database) where oceanographers have recorded a species that undergoes diapause. You can see right off the strong bias toward where people have done more sampling (the North Atlantic). You can also see that most of the action is near the poles--but there are a few other interesting spots, such as upwelling regions around Africa and the Arabian Sea, as well as the Black Sea. 

The map isn't quite complete, but all this talk of diapause has made me sleepy.

Nick Record, signing off

RARGOM confirms 2012 was weird

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RARGOM, the Regional Association for Research on the Gulf Of Maine, selected the 2012 ocean heatwave as its topic for this year's annual science meeting.  Due to my obsession with 2012 and inability to duck responsibility, I ended up organizing the meeting.  

The meeting was held on Tuesday in Portsmouth (NH, not England--maybe next year), and we had a huge turnout. I think this speaks to the impact that the 2012 event had on the collective psyche of the Gulf of Maine community.  We had a great series of talks and posters (here's the agenda  and hopefully, we'll get the talks up on the RARGOM website soon), and I think we're starting to get a picture of just how weird things have gotten in the Gulf of Maine. Here are a few themes that stuck out for me:

  • Causes of 2012: According to Ke Chen (WHOI), the 2012 heatwave was caused by the atmosphere and likely related to a strongly positive NAO.  Although 2012 stands out over the long-term history, according to our own Hillary Scannell (UMaine/GMRI), the current climate should produce 2012-like events about once every 10 years.
  • Impact on Calanus: Yes, our old friend Calanus made several appearances at the meeting, but mostly in the context of 2013.  Desiree Tommasi (GFDL), filling in for NOAA's Kevin Friedland who is being held hostage by the government shutdown, reported that they were not able to define a spring phytoplankton bloom for 2013 and that the total abundance of zooplankton caught by NOAA this spring was very, very low.  Jeff Runge's (UMaine/GMRI) found an opposite pattern in the western Gulf of Maine: Calanus was very abundant, but perhaps occurred later in the year.  Heather Koopman (UNCW) said that they had incredibly low Calanus abundances in the Bay of Fundy this year, and that right whales were scarce.Razorbill_iceland.jpg
  • Bad year for birds: The saddest stories from 2012 were about seabirds, especially puffins and razorbills.  Tony Diamond (UNB) and Thomas Robben described a dramatic shift in the distribution of razorbills during the winter of 2012/2013.  Razorbills were found regularly in Florida during the winter and there were many reports of dead razorbills up and down the coast (next time, I'll put Tony and his necropsy photos after lunch).  Tony's hypothesis is that the temperature caused a shift in the distribution of their prey (likely herring).  Puffins were also hit hard, and according to Steve Kress (Audubon/Cornell), the culprit was not a lack of prey, but the wrong kind of prey.  Although they sound tasty, butterfish are terrible food for baby puffins.  The fish are too wide for the babies to swallow (shown in this video), and islands where the adults were finding lots of butterfish had very poor chick survival.  
  • Not just the Gulf of Maine: Catherine Johnson (DFO, BIO) gave a great overview of the impact of the 2012 event on the Canadian shelf.  She describes many of the same impacts, including observations of butterfish and a subtropical fish called a blue runner in Newfoundland.
  • Lobsters and fish: Suzy Arnold from the Island Institute had a poster describing the synthesis from their workshop this summer.  Jenny Sun (GMRI) presented an analysis of the connections between the US and Canadian lobster markets. Kathy Mills (UMaine/GMRI) gave an overview of our 2012 lobster story, including our idea about seasonal predictions.  She is starting to weave this story into a broader vision of how to think about climate adaptation in fisheries.  Building on this view, Jonathan Labaree (GMRI) described how 2012 has made climate impacts a major concern among fishermen.

News and Cruise

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I'm working on a more extensive post on forecasting temperatures and lobsters, but the cod have caught me.  In the meantime, here are a few links to satisfy our reader(s):

1. Here is a time-lapse video that Dom put together from the fall Gulf of Maine cruise on the Cape Hatteras. It's a pretty cool view of life on a research vessel, and I like how he highlights interesting moments by switch from time-lapse to slo-mo.

2. I was interviewed for a couple of stories on warming in the Gulf of Maine.  The WCSH story has a nice video that features my colleague Bob Steneck.  The HuffPo article has some nice quotes by Jeff Runge.  Both Tom Zeller from HuffPo and Don Carrigan from WCSH were amazing to work with.  They had each clearly put in many hours of research before talking to me and both spent at least an hour in the lab.

Huffington Post: Climate Change Impacts Ripple Through Fishing Industry While Ocean Science Lags Behind

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This page is an archive of recent entries in the General category.

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