Just like the neighborhood swimming pool and major league baseball the Gulf of Mexico’s annual hurricane season has opening (June 1) and closing (November 30) dates. Predictions for the season just begun are that it will be “busy” to “active.”
Experts from NOAA and Colorado State University are anticipating 14 to 23 tropical storms in the Gulf of Mexico, including five to ten hurricanes, two or three of them “major” (qualified by sustained winds of 111 mph). Typically there’s a one in three chance that one of the major’s will hit land; this year’s stats put it somewhere between 50 to 75 percent.
In a normal year those numbers would be worrying; this season is complicated by the 40 million gallons of loosed oil – 40 million gallons and still gushing!! – afloat on the Gulf’s surface, lying just below it or spreading in massive plumes down to 500 feet below sea level. The leak sits dead center in the superhighway that in past years has delivered hurricanes like Camille and Katrina deep inland.
The higher numbers are due to warmer-than-usual tropical Atlantic Ocean surface temperatures, which may be complicated by the fact that all that oil in the water is making surface temps even warmer.
“In this ‘untreaded water’ it’s tough to theorize about what would happen,” Joe Bastardi, chief long-range hurricane forecaster with AccuWeather.com told the AP.
Locals are understandably panicked by the thought of all those potential storm waters arriving laden with heavy crude. Hurricane winds would push the oil deeper into estuaries, wetlands and freshwater marshes, its waterspouts sucking up oily water and spreading it inland. Imagine a Katrina-like flood repeating in New Orleans, with its heavy surge waters filled with oil. The worst case? A long-lasting (4-5 day) storm out of the southeast, which could drive the storm surge as much as twenty miles inland.
For the rest of my report on the upcoming hurricane season, go to takepart.com.
It’s been a monstrous week of news and travel, natural disaster and man-made catastrophe, with Earth Day thrown into the midst, and all the increasing hoopla, hypocrisy and hype that comes with it. One result is that the stories out there, the content, that I am most interested in and fervent about, got lots of attention. I couldn’t pick up a paper yesterday or flick through the two hundred channels on the television in my hotel room without seeing good reporting on the environment (though the “smart shopper” on ABC wins a prize for promoting double bagging with plastic to prevent your groceries from leaking in the backseat … probably not the best Earth Day synergy, encouraging people to use more plastic bags …). CNN replayed a bunch of its “Planet in Peril” series; every website in the universe went Green-For-A-Day; the U.S. Congress convened to discuss the threat of ocean acidification (led-off by a great piece of reporting on the subject on “Good Morning America”) and on and on. I’m curious to throw open the blinds on the media world today to see if the same heightened fervor will continue!
Given that it was Earth Day and that I’d been making small pleas that one year it should be dubbed Ocean Day, our writings got a fair amount of attention too, amongst the pile-on. My new favorite website TakePart.com, part of Participant Media’s social-action-driven multi-media kit, has been running daily blogs by me for the past few weeks; yesterday’s was a quick look at the human impact of exploding oil rigs. The Huffington Post helped promote my new OCEANS book, by excerpting an interview with NOAA director Jane Lubchenco, as did Gadling, which continues its “Bowermaster’s Adventures” series, though they focused on “Her Deepness,” Syliva Earle’s contribution. Plus very fun interviews with two of my favorite local radio pals, Joe Donahue at WAMC and Jimmy Buff at WDST.
I wrote for Etsy, a great site — kind of the handmade jewelry, much-hipper equivalent to the Home Shopping Channel — about my affection for all things blue and even the doyenne of good manners, Martha Stewart – on her Earth Day show, which was the best, most original television I saw all day – gave OCEANS a great plug (my only disappointment was that her crew didn’t dig into the vault for some of the video they ran for years of Martha and I sea kayaking off the coast of Newfoundland!).
I went for a swim this morning in deep water in the middle of the South Pacific. Twelve-thousand-feet deep. The sea was lumpy, with six-foot swells running towards Hawaii, a couple thousand miles to the northeast. Using just a mask and snorkel, no fins, peering into the depths I tried to imagine what was below. It gets dark fast just below the surface despite the bright sunlight, which leaves everything to the imagination. That’s the wonder of the ocean; even its most expert fans have very little idea what lies two miles below. When it’s suggested that everything’s been “explored” or “discovered,” I put on a mask and try and see into the deep ocean. There’s a lot down there we have no idea about and I wonder if we ever will.
Photo, Pete McBride
Swimming in a wild ocean without fins is eye opening. A little scary. It made me wonder how long I could last out here on my own and have to admit I got out of the water not feeling superbly confident. An hour, maybe? Bobbing about, treading water, maybe taking a few strokes? It’s not how I would choose to go … but whenever I’m out in it I have to admit to the same thought running through my head. What would it be like to never climb out of the ocean, to truly be lost at sea?
I also thought about just how warm the middle of the ocean feels, empirically speaking. But it’s true, the ocean is warming and there are statistics to back that up. My colleague Alex Nelson sent this note this morning: According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the temperature of the world’s oceans reached a new high in July. The ocean’s surface temperature peaked at 63.1 degrees Fahrenheit, besting the old record — set just the month before.
The implications are enormous. Ocean surface temperatures affect the size and power of hurricanes. This year’s hurricane forecast is optimistic, with Colorado State University predicting 11 named storms, only five of them hurricanes. NOAA expects 9 to 14 storms, providing marginal relief from last season’s anomalous 16 storms.
The greatest impact of this worldwide warming is on the polar ice caps. Last September, for the first time in recorded history the North Pole became an island. Ever-rising water temperatures melted the ice that has always connected the landmass to northern Canada and Russia. The agency also said that, on average, Arctic sea ice covered 3.4 million square miles in July, 12.7 percent below the 1979-2000 average and the third lowest on record – after 2006 and 2007. While this development was an unexpected boon for shipping companies eager to cut down on travel time, it represented a grave manifestation of the effects of global warming. Sea levels have been rising 50% faster than the United Nations predicted in 2007 and are expected to gain at least a full 39 inches by 2100.
The UN is holding a summit in December in Copenhagen to draft a treaty addressing climate change issues. The 180 countries expected to attend will set limits for gas emissions and deforestation in an effort to combat the effects of global warming.
The New York Times editorial page yesterday focused on one of our pet topics and one of the most important of all ocean issues, overfishing. Particularly it cited the goal of the new chief at NOAA, Jane Lubchenco, to coordinate a single U.S. policy at a time when there are twenty different agencies operating under one hundred and forty different laws:
The White House seems prepared to give this issue high priority. George W. Bush, though more sensitive to marine issues than other environmental problems, was slow to offer remedies, the most important being the establishment of three large protected marine reserves in the Pacific. President Obama has engaged the matter early in the game.
Empty nets hauled from the Adriatic Sea
A more immediate measure of the administration’s commitment is the steps it is taking to meet a 2006 Congressional mandate to end overfishing in America’s coastal waters by 2011. The most important of these is an effort led by Jane Lubchenco, a marine biologist who runs the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Her mission is to persuade America’s fishermen to broadly adopt a market-based approach known as “catch shares” to manage their fisheries sustainably.
Under the present system, America’s regional fishing councils, which are run largely by fishermen with federal oversight, set annual catch limits. To meet these quotas, most commercial fleets follow a detailed “days at sea” approach regulating the number of days they may fish, how many fish they may catch and what kind of equipment they may use. The system does not work well. Some people obey the rules, and others don’t. The days-at-sea restrictions often lead to a frantic race to catch as many fish as possible as quickly as possible, which in turn leads to indiscriminate and wasteful fishing.
Ms. Lubchenco’s alternative would give individual fishermen or groups of fishermen fixed shares — a guaranteed percentage — of the annual catch, then let them set the rules. The theory is that share-holding fishermen will have a vested interest in seeing their resource grow, much like shareholders in a company.
Fisheries that use this system — also known as “dedicated access” fisheries — have prospered in places like New Zealand. The dozen or so American fisheries with catch shares, accounting for about one-fifth of the total domestic catch, have also done well.
Ms. Lubchenco has lately been beating the drums for catch shares in New England, whose regional council will shortly take a preliminary vote on the issue. New England’s fishermen could use a change in direction; four-fifths of their commercially important stocks — including cod, pollock and flounder — are in trouble.
The truth is that fisheries almost everywhere could use a change in direction. A well-managed American system would be an example for the world.
In our travels around the world looking at the health of ocean and coastline, we’ve seen some success stories too, particularly in Tasmania where licenses for abalone and crayfish have been reduced in recent years to take pressure off the fishery. We’ve also seen the worst-case-scenarios, like the Adriatic Sea, where Italians, Croatians and a host of international fishing companies have scraped and scoured the bluest-of-all-seas so that there are nearly no fish left.
If you live near a big city, check out the new documentary “End of the Line,” which raises the question of whether or not we are soon to see the last fish caught.
During the past ten years I’ve seen lots of the world’s coastline and everywhere we’ve traveled people who live and depend on the sea talk about the incredible decline of fish stocks … everywhere. From the Adriatic to Tasman seas fishermen – and increasingly governments – are taking heed of the reality that the fish that we know are disappearing. Fast.
Scientists around the globe say that one-third of all fishing stocks have ‘collapsed,’ which means they are ten percent of their maximum and that if our current rate of taking continues, all the fish species that we know will disappear within the next forty years. We witnessed this up-close most specifically when we kayaked the length of the Adriatic, hoping to buy or catch our meals everyday, and it happened just once or twice. The fish are simply gone.
Forward-looking government action is one of the only hopes to reverse our incredibly consumptive habits. A few days ago The North Pacific Fishery Management Council, which administers Alaskan waters, voted unaminously to close nearly 200,000 square miles of ocean to any fishing.
“This will close the Arctic to all commercial fishing,” says Jim Ayers, vice president for Pacific and Arctic affairs at ocean conservation organization Oceana, based in Juneau, who testified before the vote. “This is the beginning of a concept of large protected marine areas.”
These seas—U.S. territorial waters in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas—are not currently fished, but sea ice melt and the northward migration of certain fish species, such as salmon, raises the possibility that they would be in the not too distant future. This vote precludes that possibility unless scientific studies showed that such fishing would not harm Arctic ecosystems or the traditional lifestyle of indigenous populations.
“There is at present too little known about how marine ecosystems function in the Arctic, let alone how they will respond to the dramatic changes in progress, to prescribe safe harvest levels for living marine resources in the U.S. Arctic,” 43 marine scientists said in a letter to the Council chair. “Until the rate and likely duration of sea ice losses as well as the ensuing ecosystem responses are better understood, closing the U.S. Arctic to commercial fishing is a prudent measure.”
The vote requires the National Marine Fisheries Service, part of the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), to issue a report and the Secretary of Commerce is expected to officially seal the deal as early as this fall. The U.S. Department of State noted at the meeting that this kind of decision provided the needed guidance to formulate a national policy for the Arctic. “This gives [the State Department] what they need to engage in conversations with Russia and Canada,” Ayers says. And the Marine Conservation Alliance, a Juneau-based fishing industry group, agrees that the area should be closed.
Although this is good news for fish, it does not mean that the Arctic is free from industrial threats. The Bush administration sold leases for oil and gas exploration in the Chukchi Sea to Shell, and global warming is wreaking havoc by melting sea ice, softening permafrost and even eroding villages and towns. That prompted towns in Alaska like Shishmaref to file a lawsuit requiring a reduction in greenhouse gases to preserve their traditional way of life. Other nations, such as Norway, have already begun fishing in newly opened Arctic waters—meaning the U.S.-controlled zone could be a very small refuge unless the government can persuade the seven other nations with Arctic Ocean claims to follow suit.
But it does represent the first time that a fishery has been protected before it has nearly disappeared. “[Fishing] laws in the U.S. are set up to just go and fish and then deal with the collapse, like what happened in New England,” Ayers says. “This is a chance for the U.S. and other nations to actually stop and think about the Arctic Ocean as different than the Mediterranean, Atlantic or Pacific, where we’ve decimated fisheries and only afterwards worried about saving them.”