The Natural Laboratory is a series of pod-casts, videos, audio-slide shows, and other multimedia presentations produced by Pacific Coast Science and Learning Center Science Communication Interns exploring science from Bay Area National Parks.
Once abundant along the entire west coast of North America, sea otters were hunted to the brink of extinction. A small population has recovered off the coast of central California, yet they have failed to expand their range. Cassandra Brooks interviews Tim Tinker and Jim Estes to find out why visitors at Point Reyes will not likely see California sea otters today.
5 minutes, 14 seconds
Credit / Author:
Cassandra Brooks/Pacific Coast Science and Learning Center
Is that a seal or a sea lion? See and hear key differences between these marine mammals, and characteristics that make each unique. Also, get a glimpse of how San Francisco Bay Area National Parks keep track of the seal species that make their homes along our coasts.
The Natural Laboratory Podcast Script: Searching for the Endangered Black Abalone in Northern California
[Introduction] This is the Natural Laboratory, a podcast exploring science for Bay Area National Parks. I'm Cassandra Brooks [intro music] Black Abalone is one of seven abalone species found in California's intertidal waters. This small abalone, with a smooth dark shell, has succumbed to the same fate as most abalones: overfishing. Commercial fisheries for Black Abalones began in 1968 and by the 1990s landings plummeted to zero. But fishing wasn't the only culprit. Black Abalones have gotten sick, really sick with withering syndrome. This disease, caused by a bacterial infection, halts the abalone's production of digestive enzymes. No longer able to digest food, the abalone must consume its own body mass. The disease was first recognized in the mid 1980s and has since decimated Black Abalone populations by up to 99% in some regions. As a result, Black Abalones have been classified as critically endangered by the IUCN. Thus far, Southern California populations have been especially hard hit by withering syndrome. Yet little is known about the status of Northern populations.
[Interview with Darren Fong] Darren Fong: We got a request from the federal agency, National Marine Fisheries Service for information about the status and trends of Black Abalone in our park. We actually had no information to provide them because we never did any surveys for that species within our park. Cassandra Brooks: That's Darren Fong, Aquatic Ecologist with the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. Per request, Fong set out with interns Amy Henry and Kari Eckdahl looking for Black Abalones in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and Point Reyes National Seashore. Here's Amy Henry.
[Interview with Amy Henry] Amy Henry: Well no large-scale survey has been done of Black Abalone north of San Francisco Bay before or even in the Bay Area. Black Abalone have never been particularly common in this area, but no one has ever been out and surveyed these sites before. So although we know that they are rare, we don't know how rare. The data and information that we are collecting is going to provide information for future studies, for the studies of these endangered species, and will lead to better legislation and how to protect them. CB: So far, they've found Black Abalones, but not very many of them and none with withering foot syndrome. But these surveys are just the first step. CB: Part of their challenge is getting down to the rocky and sometimes treacherous intertidal, where the abalones live. AH: So the sites we've been surveying have been identified using Google Earth and a project a few years back called “The Coastal Biophysical Inventory.” This project identified areas of rocky coastline where abalone could possible live. So basically all we know about a site beforehand is that it is rocky. We interviewed Park Rangers from the local area to find out about the best trails to get down to sites. Sometimes this requires a rope to climb down crumbly steep cliffs, sometimes we get there and it doesn't look like good abalone habitat at all and we are sorely disappointed. AH: We're also working at very early in the morning hours. The timing of our surveys have to be going with the low tides, and they have to be negative tides, below zero tides. Some of these occur at 4:30 in the morning. We have woken up at 3 am before and taken a hike out in the dark with flashlights where we think there are spooky creatures behind every turn. CB: To Amy and Kari all the early mornings and scrambling over cliffs have been worth it.
[Conclusion] AH: The park service really has a mission that you can get behind. You can really support and know that the work you are doing is for the benefit of all the citizens of America and California and to protect it for future generations. Even for our small little piece of protecting Black Abalone, is a really beautiful creature that I never appreciated before, never knew much about before. And hopefully because of our work, we will be able to show it to our children in the future and say we had a piece in protecting this animal from going extinct.
CB: With the Pacific Coast Science and Learning Center, I'm Cassandra Brooks.
Cassandra Brooks interviews Ivano Aiello, a geological oceanographer at Moss Landing Marine Laboratories, about how we burn ancient life to power our civilization and some of the issues that result from fossil fuel pollution.
4 minutes, 41 seconds
Credit / Author:
Cassandra Brooks/Pacific Coast Science and Learning Center
The Natural Laboratory Podcast Script: Burning Ancient Life: The Geology of an Oil Reserve
[Introduction] This is the Natural Laboratory, a podcast exploring science for Bay Area National Parks. I’m Cassandra Brooks. [intro music] Phytoplankton form the base of the ocean’s food chains transferring energy from the sun to sustain the global ocean. These tiny floating plants account for half of the photosynthetic activity on Earth. They also generate the majority of our fossil fuels.
[Interview with Ivano Aiello] Ivano Aiello: Ninety-five percent of oil is marine algae, marine plankton. Cassandra Brooks: Ninety-five percent? IA: Yeah. I mean the vast majority of oil comes from marine plankton. CB: That’s Ivano Aiello, a geological oceanographer at Moss Landing Marine Laboratories in Monterey Bay, California. According to Ivano, plankton populations bloom, then die and drift to the seafloor. Slowly, they accumulate, getting compressed and buried under sediments, and so long as they are in low oxygen conditions, the plankton will be preserved. And how long of a time period are we talking about here for all of this to happen? IA: Millions, to hundreds of millions of years, it takes millions of years for oil to form. CB: So even though probably right now there is new oil being formed all the time… IA: We’ll have to wait millions to hundreds of millions of years. The scale of things we are talking about is insane. Our rate of consumption is orders of magnitude faster than anything that has to do with the actual formation of oil. We are exploiting something that moves so slowly, there is no way that it can be regenerated anytime soon. But that’s what we use in our cars something that formed 400 million years ago. So it would be really nice to have this at the gas station so people will say, wait a second, I’m burning this gas in the next two hours and it took 200 million years to form?! CB: And it isn’t even just gas for our cars; our entire western lives depend on petroleum products. Our roads are covered in tar. Petroleum based plastics are all around us—in our phones, computers, cameras, toys, clothes, toothbrushes, and cosmetic bottles. And almost everything we buy at the grocery store is covered in plastic. And while we once found reserves of oil so rich and abundant they came bubbling out of the ground, we now have to probe ever deeper and farther. At this point, we have to use a great deal of oil to drill for more oil. IA: So that’s the problem. When we were working on land mostly, you could poke the ground and oil comes out, that was it. It cost one gallon of oil to drill 100 gallons of oil. Now we are talking about one gallon of oil to drill I don’t know, 10 gallons of oil or 20, so it’s becoming more and more expensive. That’s the problem and when you push the technology offshore, not only do you increase the risks, but also it’s very expensive. An offshore oil rig is a really expensive thing to run. But our thirst for oil is so much, that we are really like drug addicts right now, we are looking for a little drop somewhere. IA: So I gave a lecture after the oil spill… CB: You did? IA: Yeah, on the Deepwater Horizon, so that’s why it was actually neat you asked me to talk to you, because I was reading more about offshore drilling. This is a map from 2006. There are 3,858 oil and gas platform only in the Gulf of Mexico. It’s like covered. CB: No way. IA: Yes, way. I mean look at that. They are just next to each other. So think about when you have a hurricane coming through this thing. It’s insane. I don’t know…Our society is a fossil fuel based society. Our civilization in the last several hundreds years since the beginning of the industrial revolution has been completely dependent on fossil fuels. But that’s why we’ve had this amazing increase in technology in the last few hundred years and also life quality. Unfortunately, it allows us to travel, allows us to make clothing and containers, everything, everything. But it’s a limited resource.
[Conclusion] Here in 2011, we are at a crossroads; those tiny plankton sinking and compressing over millions of years can’t support our appetite for energy. As humans, we have incredible ingenuity, which is why we’ve been so efficient at using up our oil reserves. As we look to the future, perhaps it’s time to apply that same ingenuity to cutting energy consumption and employing alternative energies, ones that don’t depend on ancient ocean plants. With the Pacific Coast Science and Learning Center, I’m Cassandra Brooks.
More than a hundred thousand marine species build their bodies using calcium carbonate. This incredible diversity of life evolved over millions of years, as animals figured out ways to pull calcium and carbonate ions from the water to build shells and skeletons. But all of this is changing. Our addiction to fossil fuels and the billions of tons of carbon dioxide we're pumping into the atmosphere each year may be undoing millions of years of evolution in a geological blink of time.
8 minutes, 47 seconds
Credit / Author:
Cassandra Brooks/Pacific Coast Science and Learning Center
The Natural Laboratory Podcast Script: Ocean Acidification: Where will all the seashells go?
Introduction This is the Natural Laboratory, a podcast exploring science for Bay Area National Parks. I'm Cassandra Brooks. More than a hundred thousand marine species build their bodies using calcium carbonate, including snails, oysters, sea stars, coral, and plenty of planktonic animals. This incredible diversity of life evolved over millions of years, as animals figured out ways to pull calcium and carbonate ions from the water to build shells and skeletons so robust that they remain intact long after the animals perish. But all of this is changing. Our addiction to fossil fuels and the billions of tons of carbon dioxide [CO2] we're pumping into the atmosphere each year may be undoing millions of years of evolution in a geological blink of time.
Ann Russell Interview Ann Russell: Geochemists and oceanographers have known for a long time that when CO2 dissolves in water, it forms an acid. Cassandra Brooks: That's Ann Russell, an ocean geochemist at the University of California, Davis who studies ocean acidification in Tomales Bay, just east of Point Reyes National Seashore. I spent a day in the field with her to learn more [photo of Ann from field]. Almost one third of global carbon dioxide is absorbed by the oceans, says Ann. This excess CO2 reacts with seawater, freeing hydrogen ions, which lowers the pH and makes the water more acidic. Living in more acidic waters is bad enough for shell building animals, but CO2 adds another problem. Animals need both calcium and carbonate to build their skeletons. But the extra hydrogen ions in the high CO2 water bind carbonate, reducing the amount available for animals to build their shells. So what might this mean for the future of calcifying organisms?? [Music and video of sand dollar dissolving] AR: Just to bring in some of the geological perspective on this—18,000 years ago during the last glacial maximum, atmospheric CO2 was 200, 200 parts per million then it rose at the end of the glacial period. CB: But it only rose to 280 ppm, Ann says, and the increase happened over an 8,000 year period. Since the industrial revolution, atmospheric carbon dioxide has now spiked to more than 390 parts per million. That's an increase of 110 ppm in only 250 years. AR: So they're faced with much more rapid change than has ever been seen in the geologic record, ever. We don't have a geologic analogue for the rate of change going on right now.
Terry Swyer Interview CB: Given how fast the ocean's chemistry is changing, it's no surprise that we're beginning to see widespread effects in many calcifying animals, including those we like to eat. Oyster hatcheries in the Pacific c Northwest have recently experienced massive larval die off s. When scientists measured local seawater, they found that during certain times of the year, the waters were corrosive enough to be the culprit. Terry Sawyer: It's fairly insidious, as far as the effects, if you're talking about degradation of shell because of the lack of ability to bind the calcium carbonate, which is what our bivalves use to build their homes. CB: That's Terry Sawyer, one of the owners of Hog Island Oyster Company in Marshall, California. Terry said that young oysters are particularly vulnerable to ocean acidification. Their thin shells dissolve much faster and they struggle to make their transition from planktonic larvae to settling out on the seafloor. In general, more acidic waters simply stress the animals out. TS: So what are we seeing, you ask. Let's say in the past five, let's go even ten years, we're seeing disease, a lot of disease issues. Why are they becoming more susceptible to disease? Maybe there's an introduction of that disease from another shellfi sh growing regions, maybe there is transport going on, maybe there is stress, that's where we go into the OA. CB: OA or ocean acidification. Hatcheries and oyster growers are actively discussing mitigation strategies, like only pumping in seawater during low CO2 periods or installing seawater treatment systems.
Andrew Dickson Interview CB: These strategies might work in the short term, but would prove ever more difficult as atmospheric CO2 levels continue to rise. And they're sure to continue rising—even if we stopped all CO2 emissions tomorrow, the oceans won't quickly return to pre-industrial levels. Andrew Dickson: That's one of the biggest concerns—if we add CO2 to the oceans and then we just stopped how long would it take. CB: That's Andrew Dickson, a chemical oceanographer with the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. AD: Well one picture is that it would keep going up a little bit, because the CO2 in the atmosphere has not all yet dissolved in the ocean. But after awhile it would start coming down. Unfortunately, after awhile is tens of thousands of years. We're putting it in over a few hundred years and if we leave it to purely natural processes of our planet to take us back to where it would, I don't like to use the word, perhaps “prefer” to be, the general chemistry, it's going to take tens of thousands of years. CB: Do you have any visions in your mind of what the future ocean''s going to look like in light of these changes? [pause] Visions, nightmares, dreams…? AD: Visions, nightmares, dreams, I don't know. Clearly it's going to change the possibility for a variety of calcium carbonate organisms in certain environments. The coral reefs—if they grow more slowly, they are always being hit by waves and broken up. So you have to keep growing back. If it's harder for them to grow then they may get to the point they are not growing fast enough to stay the same and they start shrinking. And the coral is a wonderful place, the reason it looks so beautiful with all the fishes and everything is that it provides so much protection for all these different species. It's a whole ecosystem that's kept there in part just because there is this reef. CB: We've touched on some worse case scenarios of animals dissolving, what's the best-case scenario of what we could expect in the future? AD: Probably the best thing would be a combination of things happening at once. We could reduce how much CO2 we're putting in the atmosphere so that we never went to the stage to where it's guaranteed to be bad. Just to where it might not be good. We might be lucky, there could be organisms that have it within their genetic capacity, the ability to adapt to the changed chemistry. That's plausible. Is it likely? We don't know, we really don't know. In addition, there might be some local things we can do that help. For instance we were talking here about helping hatcheries for oyster larvae. Where a very simple dealing with it, don't take high CO2 seawater, that would work. That would work locally, you could almost imagine making changes on a larger scale, over a few square miles even, but I can't imagine making those changes on the whole of the ocean. So it would be a matter of deciding that there were some parts that were more sensitive or more valuable and taking active action to change things.
Conclusion It's hard to imagine that humans are burning so much fossil fuel that we've altered our atmosphere, and now our oceans, faster than has ever happened in the history of the Earth. And it's easy to feel hopeless. But I walked away my conversations feeling that our fate and the fate of our oceans were not yet sealed. We live in an ever-connected world, which affords incredible power to educate and be educated. We have the power to learn about the world around us and to listen to the scientists who are continuously deciphering our impact on it. We have the power to teach our children, to inspire change in our communities, and to support policies that are in favor of a healthy planet. We have the power to make a choice every day about how we live our lives. With the Pacific Coast Science and Learning Center, I'm Cassandra Brooks.
Four species of pinnipeds (seals and sea lions) rest onshore or breed at Point Reyes: the Northern elephant seal (Mirounga angustirostris), the harbor seal (Phoca vitulina), the California sea lion (Zalophus californianus), and the Steller sea lion (Eumetopias jubatus).