Environmental Monitor

From February 2015 to November 2015 I was a freelance science writing intern for Fondriest Environmental's magazine Environmental Monitor, which covers technological advancements in monitoring systems for air and water quality in oceans, lakes, rivers and streams. Here you will find my entire collection of short briefs and longer form features written for the magazine. 

A Small Change In Marsh Planting Methods Can Yield Huge Results

By Cassie Kelly, November 17, 2015

According to forestry science, planting trees and plants farther apart gives less space for competition so that the individual plants can thrive. The same practice is used in conservation efforts of marshes in Florida and the Netherlands. However, after 40 years of limited growth in the area, a scientist at Duke University decided to try something different.

Brian Silliman, associate professor at the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke, made a small configuration change, which yielded huge results. By simply clumping the plants close together, they are able to help each other survive the harsh conditions of the marsh.

The idea isn’t new, according to Silliman. Most of the academic literature states that plants work together better than they do apart in wetlands.

“We have a lot of ecological theory that shows when you have stressful conditions, in many cases, it can lead to the extinction or death,” said Silliman. “But if you form cooperative relations, under stressful conditions, positive interactions become more important than avoiding competition. If you plant two plants next to each other and they have high salinity, they help each other out. If they have to compete, negative interactions will be more intense.”

In the study, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Silliman and his team found that this configuration helps plants grow twice as fast as they had in the past. This is big news for conservation efforts all across the globe.

The next step for Silliman is testing the findings on a larger spatial scale. He is currently working with six major marshes, three of which have the clumped configuration and three of which do not. He’s predicting the same results that his study found, and that the marshes will grow exponentially.

Silliman is also looking at other positive interactions that help restore marshes, such as the presence of predators like otters, sharks and crabs. What he’s noticing is that the more balanced the predator-to-prey ratio is, the more likely it is that the plants will survive. This is because the prey are contributing to the degradation of the marsh.

For example, blue crabs feed on marsh periwinkle snails, which feed on the grasses. So the more blue crabs there are in a marsh, the fewer snails there are, ultimately protecting the marsh.

“No matter how many you plant, if you don’t have the predators there, the plants are going to die,” said Silliman.

The work Silliman and his team are doing is making big strides in conservation efforts.

“It’s becoming more and more of a viable strategy,” said Silliman, “and it has shifted from a strategy to engage the public to looking at it in a business way and generating a bigger yield of the crops that we are interested in.”

Silliman hopes to see this new method put into broader practice so that marshes everywhere can be made more resilient.

Read the original article in Environmental Monitor, here

Study Looks At Probability Of Methane Leakage From Hydraulic Fracturing

By Cassie Kelly, November 9, 2015

Until recently, debates about methane leakage from hydraulic fracturing have only been speculative. But a study from the University of Vermont seeks to change the discussion.

Professor George Pinder and doctoral student Jim Montague, both of the College of Engineering and Mathematics, have published new research in the Water Resources Research journal in October, which looks at how methane is traveling through abandoned mines and leaking out into the atmosphere.

An estimated 70,000 oil and gas wells have been drilled in the state of New York. But only 40,000 have been recorded. With 30,000 existing wells missing, it becomes precarious territory for new hydraulic fracturing operations. And the same issue persists in many states along the east coast.

Montague and Pinder were motivated by the debate, which led to the statewide ban of fracking in New York. They hoped to weigh in on the decision with scientific evidence, but were a little late to the game, as the ban was put in place in June 2015.

They used what they knew about the existing wells including their location and depth based on records dating back to the 1980s. They then made computer models to make large-scale simulations to determine the probability of encountering an existing well and the probability that methane would find its way in.

They were able to determine from these models that the risk of intersecting with an existing well is as high as 3.45 percent. They also determined that methane is able to escape when the well heads of old wells have not been cased properly.

“The method of construction has changed over the years, so over time there are multiple pathways that can form either within casing or the surrounding rock,” said Montague. “So in general when wells are abandoned, they have to be sealed with cement in order to isolate any hydrocarbon-producing formations from the surface. Over time, it’s possible that the concrete cracks or shifts, as well as the cement that is poured between the casing and the rock.”

Montague also adds that some of the existing wells were never cased at all, because proper regulations were not in place when the wells were shut down. When the casing isn’t present or is cracked or broken, the methane has a much easier path to the surface.

As for the debate about liquids reaching the surface, or more importantly, groundwater sources, that is yet to be determined. But Montague said the probability that something like that occurs is slim.

“Basically the rock acts like a sponge and will keep liquids in place, whereas the gas is driven by buoyancy and will naturally migrate upwards,” said Montague.

Montague stresses the importance of understanding this risk for hydraulic fracturing operations for the safety of the surrounding community, but also to prevent release into the atmosphere, which has contributed to climate change.

Because this study is one of the first to look into methane leakage, there is a lot to be determined still, such as the volume of methane that is actually leaking and other environmental risks at play.

“This is the first quantitative study of the impact of this phenomenon,” said Pinder. “Until we did this work, it was one person’s opinion versus another person’s opinion without any concrete numbers to work with.”

Montague and Pinder are eager to expand on the research and are hoping to work with industries and environmental organizations to assess the possible risks associated with their findings.

Read the original article in Environmental Monitor, here

Melting Thwaites Glacier Will Contribute Greatly To Sea Rise

By Cassie Kelly, October 28, 2015

A study from the University of McGill has determined that the Thwaites Glacier, of the Antarctic Ice Sheet, may be the primary contributor to several millimeters of sea level rise over the next couple of centuries.

According to the study, published in the journal Nature, the Thwaites Glacier is “deep rooted” with nearly a kilometer of ice below the surface of the sea. This is due to gravity and steady snowfall atop the ice. But due to the fact that the glacier is a runaway from the larger ice sheet known as the Amundsen Sea Embayment and isn’t grounded like that ice sheet, it is subjected to much more rapid melting.

It’s believed the glacier will melt from below and break quickly toward the top. With a scaled model of the glacier and recent projections for wind circulation in the area, the researchers were able to determine that, as the Thwaites melts, up to 50 millimeters of sea level rise can be expected by 2100 and 150 millimeters of rise by 2200.

Read the original article in Environmental Monitor, here

Study Finds Southern Monsoon Will Shift North Over China

By Cassie Kelly, October 22, 2015

A recent study from the Chinese Academy of Sciences has found that due to the rising temperatures of Earth’s atmosphere, the direction of the East Asian monsoon will change drastically.

According to a release discussing the study, the southern drift of the monsoon will shift direction north over China. The research team examined patterns from the last ice age which occurred some 20,000 years ago by collecting soil samples from China’s Loess Plateau. They looked at plant photosynthetic pathways and created a timeline of how the belt shifted as the climate warmed back then.

Based off the data, they found that the monsoon slowly moved north. But because global warming is heating up the climate so quickly, the shift will likely happen rapidly. They predict that if this happens, it will balance out the extreme weather events happening throughout China, with the droughts in the north and flooding in the south, providing relief to both ends.

Read the original article in Environmental Monitor, here

Scientists Predict Winter Weather Extremes By Looking To Stratosphere

By Cassie Kelly, October 20, 2015

As winter approaches, scientists are looking up to the stratosphere for predicting extreme weather events like the monstrous polar vortex that have hit the U.S. in the past few years.

new study from the University of Reading has determined that forecasts could be twice as accurate by looking at wind patterns in the stratosphere. They can also forecast extreme winter events up to a month before they are expected to occur, which will help cities all across the U.S. prepare for the worst.

The polar night jet stream, about 25 miles above the Earth, blows winds west at up to 90 mph or can drastically shift and send winds east. The scientists looked at weather events matched with the wind patterns over a 30-year time period. They found that weather is influenced when the strength of the winds settles or gets stronger.

Read the original article in Environmental Monitor, here

Diverse Fungi Life Found In Soil Beneath Antarctic Ice

By Cassie Kelly, October 14, 2015

Beneath the ice in Antarctica is a hidden world of microbial life. A new study has found that, if ice continues to melt and uncovers the microbes, new fungi and life will start to form in the soil.

The study, completed by scientists at the British Antarctic Survey and the University Centre in Svalbard, published in the journal Nature Climate Change, looked at the correlation between surface temperatures of the ice and biodiversity of the soil. It is the largest study ever done on soil properties in Antarctica and predicts how the soil will change.

Researchers tested 29 soil samples from all over the Antarctic Peninsula and determined that the more the temperature in an area increased, the more biodiversity the soil had. As the soil becomes more diverse, the nutrients from such fungi combining with uptake in water will make it very viable for plant life as ice disappears.

Read the original article in Environmental Monitor, here

Study Looks At Why Concurrent Droughts And Heat Waves Are Increasing

By Cassie Kelly, September 29, 2015

As we have heard time and time again, carbon dioxide levels are rising and our planet is warming. Droughts and heat waves are blanketing the United States. But, exactly how it’s become warmer, especially in the eastern half of the United States is still being discovered.

A recent study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, from the University of California, Irvine, has revealed that droughts and heat waves are happening concurrently, all across the country. Amir AghaKouchak, an assistant professor at UCI, is particularly curious about why this seems to be the case.

The global average temperature has not increased much compared to the past. But, according to AghaKouchak, when looking at local environments, one can see that the changes are much more drastic.

“The global average does not give us the whole picture,” he said. “We have to look at this problem from multiple dimensions.”

So, he and others focused their research on just the United States. The team compared temperature and precipitation records from 1990 to 2010 and from 1960 to 1980. What they found was that the biggest changes occurred on the East Coast and the Southeastern border of the U.S.

 This graph shows the percent change in concurrent droughts and heatwaves from 1990 to 2010 relative to 1960 to1980 for each grid box. The rows change in heatwave severity and the columns change in heat wave duration. (Credit: UC Irvine)

This graph shows the percent change in concurrent droughts and heatwaves from 1990 to 2010 relative to 1960 to1980 for each grid box. The rows change in heatwave severity and the columns change in heat wave duration. (Credit: UC Irvine)

“In California and Nevada, we are pretty used to heat waves,” said AghaKouchak. “They happen very often, even in historical records. But if you look at changes over past forty years, there are big changes in the eastern United States.”

Droughts and heat waves can cause changes in vegetation, soil moisture, water vapor content in the atmosphere and a whole slew of problems for industries and agriculture, stressing the importance of understanding why they are occurring at such an accelerated rate.

AghaKouchak said they aren’t quite sure why they are occurring at the same time or how long it will persist. In fact, there are many different kinds of exchanges happening together all across the country. Their next step is to look at targeted models to detect all types of concurrent droughts to better understand the phenomenon.

To read the original article in Environmental Monitor, click here

Short-Term Droughts Can Mean Long-Term Struggle For Trees In Southeastern Forests

By Cassie Kelly, September 28, 2015

Researchers at Duke University have found that trees in Southeastern U.S. forests are dying slowly due to dehydration and other factors caused by droughts over many years.

The study is based on records of growth measurements of trees of all ages, sizes and species in the forests, particularly in North Carolina. The researchers tagged trees and monitored and recorded their growth rates for twenty years.

They were able to determine that the trees’ growth rates were largely affected by drought – periods lasting up to a month without precipitation – during growing seasons. They would shut down, shed leaves or dehydrate during these periods in order to survive.

“Growth is the first thing to go,” said Aaron Berdanier, lead author of the study and doctoral student in the school of Environment at Duke. “There are other priorities that need to be taken care of to maintain their condition. If a tree is growing less, that means it doesn’t have surplus energy to devote to getting bigger.”

According to Berdanier, trees are constantly losing water and taking in carbon to do photosynthesis. If they are not able to keep that up, then they will get dehydrated and their growth rates will reach a deficit.

 It can take over ten years for a tree to die from drought implications. (Credit: Duke University)

It can take over ten years for a tree to die from drought implications. (Credit: Duke University)

Scientists used the Palmer Drought Severity Index to identify three periods in the 20-year study with severe drought. The most severe was between 2000 and 2002. What they found was that older trees seemed to stand the test of time a little longer than younger trees, up to ten years longer. They could recover better than smaller trees, possibly because of larger root systems and more storage for water and carbon reserves that smaller trees don’t have.

One of the many ways Berdanier said they could prevent death from happening is by getting rid of the competition.

“One nice thing about this taking up to a decade to happen is that you can intervene to make sure the tree doesn’t die,” said Berdanier. “You could give the tree more space, reducing competition for soil moisture. We found that trees that had lost more of their neighbors did a little bit better.”

Berdanier hopes to expand on the research by monitoring water-use patterns to see how water-use changes during drought. Some trees will shut down immediately, while others continue on, potentially at risk of dehydration. Researchers want to see how this relates to the growth rates and determine what other preventive measures can be taken to conserve the Southeastern forests.

Berdanier expects there will be some shifts in species composition and the ones that can withstand warmer climates will take over. But the biggest takeaway from this study is that forests are all equally vulnerable to drought. Whether they are in drylands like California, or humid, wet conditions in North Carolina, they are at just as much risk.

To read the original article in Environmental Monitor, click here

App Could Alert People To Earthquakes Faster

By Cassie Kelly, September 24, 2015

new app being developed by the University of California Berkeley could make it possible for phones to detect earthquakes and alert people to get away from unstable structures such as buildings or bridges.

The app, called MyShake, ideally will be programmed to relay signals from sensors at locations around the state to phones to alert people of even the tiniest of rumbles. Then users can find safety. Advance alerts could also allow for halting trains entering at-risk tunnels, opening firehouse doors and even sending reports to hospitals. First responders and government agencies would be able to warn the public faster than ever before.

But, the app has some pitfalls. The team developing it said that phones do not have as strong of a signal as seismometers and it will take hundreds of sensors to make them work similarly. Cell phones also can’t tell the difference between an evening jog and a 7.2-magnitude quake. So the team is working on an algorithm that will recognize the difference.

To read the original article in Environmental Monitor, click here

Arctic Ice Cover Hits Fourth Lowest This Melting Season

By Cassie Kelly, September 18, 2015

Arctic ice cover at its minimum in the summertime is at its fourth lowest extent on record, according to a recent NASA satellite analysis. In fact, the 10 lowest minimums have been recorded in the past 11 years.

According to NASA, it was at its lowest extent in 2012, after a large cyclone accelerated its decline. However, this season, it could potentially shrink further as continued heat and late-season ice melt persist.

The ice has become increasingly weak against melt, as it is fragmented and easier to dissolve in the summer. According to scientists, it is less likely to recover this winter. Though it is uncertain what exactly is causing the ice to melt even after the melting season, they believe it may be because of the El Niño at the eastern equatorial Pacific Ocean.

NASA is planning a mission to the Arctic to study the cause of the melting ice cover and to gain insight on what will happen to land and sea ice as the cover changes.

Read the original article in Environmental Monitor, here

Citizen Scientists Log Wyoming Biodiversity With App

By Cassie Kelly, September 18, 2015

A new initiative through the University of Wyoming Biodiversity Institute, Wyoming Geographic Information Science Center and the Wyoming Natural Diversity Database has made it possible for hikers to log wildlife findings on a website so others can access them to learn more about biological diversity, according to a release.

The website (WyoBio) is open to anyone and will be a useful tool for students, teachers and researchers alike who are interested in data about animals, plants and fungi throughout the state. The program is one of many popping up all across the country which refer to their users as “citizen scientists.”

Citizen scientists are expected to collect data, take photos and share a description of their experience on the website. In the year since the website began, there have been over 100 citizen scientist contributors and more than 1,100 observations submitted from people all over the country.

The WyoBio team hopes to create an app so that it can be accessed on the go. They even hope to add a live chat so that one day citizen scientists can ask in real time what they are seeing in nature.

Read the original article in Environmental Monitor, here

University Of California Riverside Takes Measures To Heal Iconic Oak Tree

By Cassie Kelly, September 15, 2015

When you walk through the center of the University of California Riverside’s campus, you will see two large oak trees, often referred to as sister trees. They were planted around the same time that the campus was being developed, some 60 years ago, and have grown into large, shady trees.

But one of them has been experiencing some difficulty and was showing signs of sickness. So with the help of an arborist, Toshio Ishida, assistant director of Landscape and Refuse Services at UCR, took on the challenge of helping the tree before it was too late.

They began by looking at many possible causes of the tree’s decline, including a soil test to see if nematodes might have been a factor, but came up short. The biggest indicator of the tree’s sickness was the north side of the tree. It started to wither around five years ago, and it looked split right down the center up until recently when the other side began to decline as well.

One of the biggest factors in the tree’s decline was construction happening on campus. With all of the traffic and a change in the draining system, the tree had been through a lot. After further testing, Ishida and others found that the soil around the roots was extremely compacted; they had no room to grow.

 Toshio Ishida and Mark Jones discuss the placement of a soil sensor beneath the oak tree. (Credit: University of California, Riverside)

Toshio Ishida and Mark Jones discuss the placement of a soil sensor beneath the oak tree. (Credit: University of California, Riverside)

“We dug holes and did compaction tests and found that from all the traffic and stuff, the soil was very compacted under the root zone of the tree,” said Ishida. “That’s when we started to realize that was part of the problem.”

To fix this, they dug eight trenches from the center of the tree out with an air spade system, a technique that doesn’t damage the roots. The trenches were 2 feet deep and 12 to 18 inches wide. They then filled them with a fertilizer and mulch mix to give the roots nice, airy space to grow.

They also removed all grass growing under the tree so that the roots don’t have to compete for nutrients and water. And now that there is a layer of mulch surrounding it, people tend to avoid stepping on it.

Ishida said he won’t know for at least two growing seasons if the measures they took will help the tree. “Oak trees are very slow, they take a long time to show stress and to show healing,” he said.

But, Ishida said they are hopeful that the tree will return to its former glory.

“Students and faculty have said they are happy to see us try to save it because it is the center of campus,” Ishida said. “It’s a good thing for us to do.”

Read the original article in Environmental Monitor, here

California Lawmakers Consider Funding To Protect Lake Tahoe

By Cassie Kelly, September 8, 2015

Researchers at the University of California have discovered that drought and wildfires in the state have only improved Lake Tahoe’s water quality, leading the waters to be clearer than ever.

According to an article in The Sacramento Bee, the lack of rain this year has prevented dirt from washing into the lake and fires have been far enough away that ash doesn’t find its way in either. But there is still cause for concern. The surface temperatures of the lake are at a record high and if drought continues, wetlands may stop filtering runoff. Furthermore, if the fires get any closer, the lake could be at risk.

The state is taking measures to renew the Lake Tahoe Restoration Act, which expired in 2010. If it passes, $415 million would be allocated to prevent wildfires and restore the lake. However, there is some discussion about a smaller bill from the House that would allocate one-fifth of the funds that the Act does. As for now, it is still up in the air as to which bill will take hold, but either way, state officials agree, something must be done to protect the lake.

Read the original article published in Environmental Monitor, here

Data Show Florida Beach Bacteria Levels Vary By Location

By Cassie Kelly, September 2, 2015

A program known as the Florida Healthy Beaches Program has been monitoring the water quality of various beaches of 34 coastal communities across the state for the past 15 years. The program, which operates on nearly $500,000 in federal funds for monitoring, has found that the quality of the beach seems to depend on its location.

Samples of bacteria, especially enterococci, are taken weekly at beaches and are then recorded. The data since 2000 have shown that beaches in Wakulla, Okaloosa, Franklin and Pasco all have very high advisory protocols, often warning beachgoers that it is not safe to swim.

Enterococci is a bacteria that forms naturally in the intestine, but when consumed, it can cause illness. Large amounts of it on any beach, indicate that there is a problem with waste, whether it be from animals, humans, or runoff from roads. The main drivers of such bacteria are lacks of water flow, breaks in sewage lines and runoff.

Read the original article in Environmental Monitor, here. 

Respiration In Rivers And Streams Contributes More Carbon Than Once Thought

By Cassie Kelly, August 28, 2015

A recent study by scientists at the University of Wyoming quantifies how much carbon dioxide is released from U.S. rivers and streams into the atmosphere, affecting the overall carbon cycle. Researchers at the school relied on existing data and mathematical modeling in the work and are hopeful it will help better determine how changes in land use and climate warming could affect the future amount of carbon in the atmosphere, according to a release.

They looked at two ways in which carbon is released. First, by the surrounding soil of the water and, secondly, the respiration of organisms who live within it. They knew that the soil contributed the most carbon, but were surprised to find that respiration led to a much higher level of carbon released than previously thought.

The goal of this study was to calculate how much carbon is coming from rivers and streams, not because it is a large contributor overall, but because even minor changes can affect climate models. For instance, the larger a stream gets, the more soil becomes exposed to water, which releases more carbon.


Read the original article in Environmental Monitor, here

Invasive Species Range Largely Dependent On Time Since Introduction

By Cassie Kelly, August 27, 2015

A study released by the University of Georgia determines which factor is causing such high numbers of non-native species invasions in marine waters. Invasive species are a global issue, mainly caused by organisms stowing away in ballast tanks of ships that cross the ocean.

According to a release from the university, scientists studied the importance of conditions for the invasive species to succeed in new environments, such as mobility, maximum body size and larvae dispersal, as well as environmental traits such as salinity, temperature and strength of ocean currents.

The study used invertebrate subjects such as crabs and barnacles. By looking at several different records, including when invasive species were introduced, scientists were able to create a model to test which traits, both physical and environmental, predicted the global ranges of each invasive species. Scientists found the amount of time elapsed since each species was introduced was the most important factor. This is because species need time to “fully occupy” the areas they’ve invaded.

Read the original article in Environmental Monitor, here

Recent Study Gives Insight For Offshore Wind Development In Delaware Bay

By Cassie Kelly, August 18, 2015

One of the biggest concerns with wind power is that the amount of energy it produces varies depending on whether or not the wind is blowing. Potential for offshore wind turbines along the eastern coastline is there and, in places like Delaware, new research is giving insight on when and where the wind can be expected.

A recent study by researchers at the University of Delaware collected data using a ferry to measure the sea breeze along the Delaware Bay. Dana Veron, associate professor of geography at the university and lead author of the study, describes the sea breeze as a nice, cool wind that comes off the ocean in the evenings. But what the average beachgoer might not expect is that this gentle breeze can actually change the direction and speed of wind patterns, which can greatly influence those winds used in generating electricity.

The ferry is equipped with two mechanisms for collecting data. The first runs underwater and uses sensors to measure parameters such as temperature, pH and chlorophyll. The second is a weather vane mounted on top of the ferry that takes measurements on air pressure, humidity, and wind speed. There is also a GPS receiver that tells researchers exactly where the ferry is as it makes its way across the bay eight times throughout the day.

In analyzing the ferry measurements, Veron found that the sea breeze, specifically in Delaware Bay, is influenced by tidal phase: whether the ocean is ebbing or flowing. Under certain circumstances, there is a branch of the sea breeze that breaks off and moves directly up the axis of the bay, almost perpendicular to the coast, instead of moving inland. Veron said the tide needs to be ebbing, or within two hours of low tide, for that phenomenon to happen.

 U. Delaware researchers monitor air and water conditions in the Delaware Bay using sampling equipment aboard the Cape May-Lewes Ferry. (Credit: The University of Delaware)

U. Delaware researchers monitor air and water conditions in the Delaware Bay using sampling equipment aboard the Cape May-Lewes Ferry. (Credit: The University of Delaware)

She also found that the breeze along New Jersey’s coast and Delaware’s coast can be very uniform but can be very sporadic at other times. Understanding these findings is critical for predicting wind patterns and Veron is hoping to achieve just that.

“We want to develop this long-term view of what’s happening,” Veron said. “It’s very complicated in terms of geographical shape and what’s happening oceanographically. We are hoping the ferry data will help land us some insight into general characteristics of pattern variability.”

Veron and her team are hopeful that funding for the ferry will continue so that they can build an in-depth database for characteristics of the wind. They also want to develop a website where the community, local weather service and those interested in generating electricity can log in and see a live stream of the conditions on the bay at any given time.

“Building up the big database with the characteristics of the wind variability will be really useful for anyone developing offshore wind in this area,” she said. “We live in a really good region for it and I think that as we move forward and look for ways to increase our renewable energy footprint that offshore wind will be one the important areas to develop.”


Read the original article at Environmental Monitor, here. 

Study Tracks Southern Ocean Microbial Life Competing For Precious nutrients

By Cassie Kelly, August 13, 2015


A study by researchers from the University of Rhode Island and the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Mass., has found that microbial populations in the remote Southern Ocean, specifically near McMurdo Station, are duking it out for precious nutrients.

The Southern Ocean is rich in nitrogen and phosphorous, however, the team found that marine phytoplankton and bacteria species are extremely sensitive to the amount of nutrients available to them, especially iron and vitamin B-12, which are lacking in the area. According to Erin Bertrand, the study’s lead author, they are dependent on even the most minor shifts in these nutrients’ availability over short time periods, down to the hour.

The team found that one species of phytoplankton were malnourished and iron and vitamin B-12 deficient. According to the National Science Foundation, a different group of bacteria, relying on the phytoplankton as food, appear to compete with the malnourished phytoplankton for vitamin B-12. All three groups of microbes compete for iron.

The findings led the team to observe that species’ populations are so sensitive that they are responding in a “boom and bust” pattern. Bertrand says this relationship between nutrient availability and population is critical to the ecosystem’s food cycle.

Read the original article published in Environmental Monitor. 

Study Tracks Giant Internal Waves In The South China Sea

By Cassie Kelly, August 10, 2015

  Overview of Internal Waves in the South China Sea. (Credit: Internal Waves in Straits Experiment)

Overview of Internal Waves in the South China Sea. (Credit: Internal Waves in Straits Experiment)

As you sit on the beach in California and watch the waves roll in, you probably don’t wonder where they began. But those waves could have started in New Zealand or even Antarctica and travelled under the ocean’s surface for thousands of miles before arriving along the coastline. According to Matthew Alford, those waves, known as internal waves, can be taller than skyscrapers.

The waves are extremely difficult to measure and are challenging to predict, but they seal the fate for all kinds of underwater operations, such as submarine missions, scuba diving, fishing and offshore drilling.

A research project looking into the waves was funded by the Office of Naval Research and the Taiwan National Science Council, who gathered a huge international team of scientists to study internal waves in the Luzon Strait of the South China Sea. The program is known as the Internal Waves in Straits Experiment (IWISE), which was a five-year effort to do critical research for tracking the waves, with the goal to create a data set that can be used for predicting them.

The study’s findings, published in the journal Nature, look at when and where the waves start. The team used moorings, underwater vehicles that crawl up and down a moored wire as well as autonomous gliders that sailed through the water to take measurements every time an internal wave rolled through the Luzon.

 The above image shows the two underwater ridges — indicated in green, orange and red — between Taiwan (top) and island of Luzon (bottom). The color scale indicates elevation from lowest (blue) to highest (red). (Credit: Maarten Buijsman / University of Southern Mississippi)

The above image shows the two underwater ridges — indicated in green, orange and red — between Taiwan (top) and island of Luzon (bottom). The color scale indicates elevation from lowest (blue) to highest (red). (Credit: Maarten Buijsman / University of Southern Mississippi)

According to Alford, an affiliate principal oceanographer at the University of Washington and lead author of the study, the Luzon is one of the most challenging places to do research in the world because of the strong current, but it gave them very surprising results. They measured waves that reached 700 meters high, almost the height of two Empire State Buildings stacked on top of each other. To put it into perspective, “if you’re a scuba diver at 100 feet and one of these waves comes along… three minutes later you’re at 600 feet,” explained Alford.

So, understanding how they work is crucial on many different fronts. Naturally, cold, dense water sits on the ocean floor, while warm water rises to the top. But when an internal wave comes in, it brings the densest water to the top. Alford said the waves were over 200 meters high, making for an extremely unstable environment and causing major turbulence.

This level of turbulence can shift climate models dramatically. Alford said if he runs a climate simulation with the same amount of turbulence everywhere, then he will get one answer for sea level rise in 50 to 100 years. But if he includes the locations of internal waves, he gets an entirely different, albeit more accurate, answer.

“The uncertainty between models that include internal waves and turbulence and the ones that don’t is about 35 centimeters, and that is a lot of sea level rise,” said Alford. “Internal waves are one of the big things that stop us from being able to predict climate change.”

In addition to climate change, the team made some interesting observations of marine life in relation to the waves. Alford said the waves are like clockwork when they roll in. With the dense water they are pulling up comes a slew of nutrients from the sea floor. They noticed after each wave, a pod of pilot whales would seem to almost be chasing it, recognizing that the nutrient-rich water made for a great place to forage.

Now that the scientists are one step closer to understanding these monstrous waves and their effects on all facets of the ocean’s ecosystem, they plan to expand further on the research by travelling to the Arctic. They are predicting that the waves might be contributing to ice melt and are eager to take measurements there, as well.


Read the original article published in Environmental Monitor. 

Recession Drove Past Carbon Emissions Drop, Not Natural Gas Production


By Cassie Kelly, July 31, 2015

The use of coal-powered electricity in the U.S. dropped from 50 percent to 37 percent between 2007 and 2012 because of increases in natural gas production, according to TreeHugger. But, contrary to popular belief, carbon emissions dropped because of the recession, not because of natural gas use, according to a study by University of Maryland researchers.


Though the steady switch to natural gas, and renewables, cut emissions, the main driver was a reduction in household consumption, scientists found. In the study, published in Nature Communications, researchers write that consumption and production accounted for more than 75 percent of the emissions decrease, according to a release from the university.

During the recession between 2007 and 2009, there was a cutback of 83 percent. In 2009, as the economy began to recover, there was an increase in consumption and an increase in emissions, proving that how people respond to the economy directly affects amounts of carbon entering the atmosphere.

The study also outlined how alternative energy sources have had very little impact on overall emissions since 2007, which increased between 2013 and 2014. According to the press release, one study author believes that the increase in natural gas production may have made renewables less attractive, contributing to the recent increase.

Read the original article published in Environmental Monitor.