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Ocean Genome Legacy Newsletter
September 2013
In This Issue
Ocean Warming Goes Beyond the Sea
Measles Menacing Marine Mammals
Coming Soon...
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If you've been following our newsletters, you're familiar with the myriad impacts of climate change and global warming on sea life.  But what does this mean to species that depend on the sea but spend the bulk of their time out of the water?  Sometimes we forget that ecosystems often cross the boundaries between land, sea and air.  Read on below to find out just how much the oceans matter to those of us living above the waterline.


And, as always, follow our expeditions and other news from the marine world on our Facebook and Twitter pages!

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Ocean Warming - Effects on Land and Air

Ocean Surface T
The surface temperature of the world's oceans has steadily been increasing since the late 1800's, warming currently at a rate of +0.20F per decade.
Courtesy EPA's Climate Change Indicators (2012).
Our oceans have been getting steadily warmer for over a century, and they are expected to continue getting warmer-both in the top layer and in deeper waters. While there is some debate over the various causes and mankind's contribution to this trend, the data is clear; even if people stop adding extra greenhouse gases to the atmosphere now, oceans will continue to get warmer for many years as they slowly absorb extra heat from the atmosphere.

If you have been following this newsletter, you are well aware of some of the ways some scientists think that climate change and ocean warming are effecting marine life, from the bleaching of coral reefs, to increasing frequency of large algae blooms in what used to be cool clear coastal waters. But it's not just our reefs and swimming holes that are impacted by climate change.
Atlantic Puffin
This Atlantic puffin (Fratercula arctica) has a mouthful of herring fry - now a rare sight in today's warmer marine environment.
Photo:  Thomas Aarvak

For instance, some research suggests that herring, alewife and other groundfish are now  migrating further north into Canada to escape the warmth of the Gulf of Maine in search of cooler water for spawning and feeding.  This change may be impacting sea birds like Atlantic puffins, which are struggling, with only 31% survival rate of fledgelings on Maine's two largest colonies, dozens of emaciated birds found washed ashore in Massachusetts and Bermuda, and declining health and lower body weight in previously thriving colonies this past winter. These charismatic "clowns of the sea" or "penguins of the north" count on the formerly ubiquitous schools of tiny herring to feed their fledgelings.  Researchers have discovered that, with herring populations reduced in many areas last season, puffins may be turning toward butterfish as a food source for their young.  However, the baby birds' throats are too small to swallow these bigger, rounder fish, and many puffins have ended up choking to death or dying of starvation.

Mangroves play a significant role in harboring young marine life and in preventing erosion. 
Warmer water temperatures and increased greenhouse gas in the atmosphere also mean increased acidity and salinity, which can result in the decline of corals and shellfish, as well as of wetland grasses and mangroves. Without the stabilizing effect of these plants on shorelines, erosion due to rising sea levels (another result of ocean warming) is predicted to be even further exacerbated, potentially causing a variety of shorebirds and reptiles (such as sea turtles) not only to lose their protective cover, but nesting habitats as well.  According to the World Wildlife Fund, more than 35% of the world's mangroves are already gone. The figure is as high as 50% in countries such as India, the Philippines, and Vietnam, while in the Americas they are being cleared at a rate faster than tropical rainforests.

Polar Bear
With the shrinking of the arctic ice cap, this polar bear will soon have no place left to go. 
Photo:  BBC News 
Warmer sea surface temperature is also expected to cause rises in sea level, due to thermal expansion (water expands when heated) and melting of the world's polar ice caps. Because ice and snow reflect a substantial amount of sunlight back out to space, helping keep the planet from getting too warm, less ice means the Earth will absorb more energy from the sun and get even warmer in a juggernaut effect. Many animals, such as polar bears, depend on sea ice for their homes and hunting grounds, and may find themselves stranded and without food. 

Clearly, we can't escape the effects of ocean warming by merely staying out of the water!


Find out more about starving Atlantic puffins in this article from Fox News.

See how jellyfish, like lobsters, are taking advantage of fewer fish predators and warmer waters as they expand beyond the tropics in this article from Environment News Service.

For information on how climate change is impacting coral reefs, mangroves and tropical seagrass ecosystems, take a look at Chapter 10 by Alasdair Edwards in the book Climate Change: Impact on Coastal Habitation,
edited by Dr. D. Eisma.

To see what global warming is doing to polar bears, check out this website posted by the National Wildlife Federation
New Spate of Strandings - This Time With Answers
Bottlenose Stranding 2013
Officials examine a dead bottlenose dolphin that washed ashore on the Long Island, New York shoreline. 
Photo:  Reuters
Last year, OGL reported on a rash of common dolphin (Delphinus delphis) strandings occurring from January through February along the coast of Cape Cod, the cause of which scientists were never able to determine.  This year, there has been a new surge of strandings further south, this time effecting largely bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus), and big enough for NOAA to declare an Unusual Mortality Event (UME); since
July, 357 dolphins have washed ashore from the coast of New York down to North Carolina.  This is the greatest die-off since 1987-88 when 740 dolphins stranded in the same region - and it turns out, for the same reason: the culprit has been identified as cetacean morbillivirus.  Morbillivirus belongs to a family of RNA viruses that cause rinderpest in cattle, distemper in canine species, and measles in humans.  In dolphins, the virus suppresses the immune system, so researchers are seeing "animals that are very thin, animals that have a lot of other diseases and infections," according to Teri Rowles of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Program. Although it appears that this virus is not transferable to humans, people should be cautious and not approach stranded animals because of the other diseases they may carry.

While authorities are highly certain this time of the primary cause of these strandings, they do not have a practical cure and expect the disease to run its course through the population into the spring of 2014.


For more information on the outbreak of morbillivirus in bottlenose dolphins, see this article from CNN U.S. and this one from NBC Science News.  For information about another cetacean UME currently effecting dolphins and whales in the Gulf of Mexico, visit this site at NOAA Fisheries.
Coming Soon...
It's been 2-1/2 years since the earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan caused a massive release of radioactive material into the waters off Japan's northeast coast.  Join us next month as we investigate the impact, from migration to mutation, that this catastrophe has had on marine life... and what changes may still be on the way.
Fukushima Daiichi Plant
Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant, 11 March 2011
Photo:  Science Media Centre


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Dan Distel
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