Climate change is making ocean waves more powerful, threatening to erode many coastlines


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Thomas Mortlock, Macquarie University; Itxaso Odériz, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM); Nobuhito Mori, Kyoto University, and Rodolfo Silva, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM)Sea level rise isn’t the only way climate change will devastate the coast. Our research, published today, found it is also making waves more powerful, particularly in the Southern Hemisphere.

We plotted the trajectory of these stronger waves and found the coasts of South Australia and Western Australia, Pacific and Caribbean Islands, East Indonesia and Japan, and South Africa are already experiencing more powerful waves because of global warming.

This will compound the effects of sea level rise, putting low-lying island nations in the Pacific — such as Tuvalu, Kiribati and the Marshall Islands — in further danger, and changing how we manage coasts worldwide.

But it’s not too late to stop the worst effects — that is, if we drastically and urgently cut greenhouse gas emissions.

An energetic ocean

Since the 1970s, the ocean has absorbed more than 90% of the heat gained by the planet. This has a range of impacts, including longer and more frequent marine heatwaves, coral bleaching, and providing an energy source for more powerful storms.

Since at least the 1980s, wave power has increased worldwide as more heat is pumped into the ocean.
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But our focus was on how warming oceans boost wave power. We looked at wave conditions over the past 35 years, and found global wave power has increased since at least the 1980s, mostly concentrated in the Southern Hemisphere, as more energy is being pumped into the oceans in the form of heat.

And a more energetic ocean means larger wave heights and more erosive energy potential for coastlines in some parts of the world than before.




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Ocean waves have shaped Earth’s coastlines for millions of years. So any small, sustained changes in waves can have long-term consequences for coastal ecosystems and the people who rely on them.

Mangroves and salt marshes, for example, are particularly vulnerable to increases in wave energy when combined with sea level rise.

To escape, mangroves and marshes naturally migrate to higher ground. But when these ecosystems back onto urban areas, they have nowhere to go and die out. This process is known as “coastal squeeze”.

These ecosystems often provide a natural buffer to wave attack for low-lying coastal areas. So without these fringing ecosystems, the coastal communities behind them will be exposed to more wave energy and, potentially, higher erosion.

Mangrove forests are among the most imperilled ecosystems as sea levels rise and ocean waves crash harder against the coast.
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So why is this happening?

Ocean waves are generated by winds blowing along the ocean surface. And when the ocean absorbs heat, the sea surface warms, encouraging the warm air over the top of it to rise (this is called convection). This helps spin up atmospheric circulation and winds.

In other words, we come to a cascade of impacts: warmer sea surface temperatures bring about stronger winds, which alter global ocean wave conditions.




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Curious Kids: why are there waves?


Our research shows, in some parts of the world’s oceans, wave power is increasing because of stronger wind energy and the shift of westerly winds towards the poles. This is most noticeable in the tropical regions of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, and the subtropical regions of the Indian Ocean.

But not all changes in wave conditions are driven by ocean warming from human-caused climate change. Some areas of the world’s oceans are still more influenced by natural climate variability — such as El Niño and La Niña — than long-term ocean warming.

In general, it appears changes to wave conditions towards the equator are more driven by ocean warming from human-caused climate change, whereas changes to waves towards the poles remain more impacted by natural climate variability.

Ocean waves are generated by winds blowing across the ocean surface.
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How this could erode the coasts

While the response of coastlines to climate change is a complex interplay of many processes, waves remain the principal driver of change along many of the world’s open, sandy coastlines.

So how might coastlines respond to getting hit by more powerful waves? It generally depends on how much sand there is, and how, exactly, wave power increases.

For example, if there’s an increase in wave height, this may cause increased erosion. But if the waves become longer (a lengthening of the wave period), then this may have the opposite effect, by transporting sand from deeper water to help the coast keep pace with sea level rise.

Sandy beaches, including those around South Australia and Western Australia, may see greater risk of erosion in coming decades as wave power increases.
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For low-lying nations in areas of warming sea surface temperatures around the equator, higher waves – combined with sea level rise – poses an existential problem.

People in these nations may experience both sea level rise and increasing wave power on their coastlines, eroding land further up the beach and damaging property.
These areas should be regarded as coastal climate hotspots, where continued adaption or mitigation funding is needed.

It’s not too late

It’s not surprising for us to find the fingerprints of greenhouse warming in ocean waves and, consequentially, along our coastlines. Our study looked only at historical wave conditions and how these are already being impacted by climate change.

But if warming continues in line with current trends over the coming century, we can expect to see more significant changes in wave conditions along the world’s coasts than uncovered in our backward-looking research.

However, if we can mitigate greenhouse warming in line with the 2℃ Paris agreement, studies indicate we could still keep changes in wave patterns within the bounds of natural climate variability.




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Still, one thing is abundantly clear: the impacts of climate change on waves is not a thing of the future, and is already occurring in large parts of the world’s oceans.

The extent to which these changes continue and the risk this poses to global coastlines will be closely linked to decarbonisation efforts over the coming decades.

This story is part of Oceans 21

Our series on the global ocean opened with five in depth profiles. Look out for new articles on the state of our oceans in the lead up to the UN’s next climate conference, COP26. The series is brought to you by The Conversation’s international network.The Conversation

Thomas Mortlock, Senior Risk Scientist, Risk Frontiers, Adjunct Fellow, Macquarie University; Itxaso Odériz, Research assistant, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM); Nobuhito Mori, Professor, Kyoto University, and Rodolfo Silva, Professor, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM)

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Like the ocean’s ‘gut flora’: we sailed from Antarctica to the equator to learn how bacteria affect ocean health


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Eric Jorden Raes, Dalhousie UniversityAboard an Australian research vessel, the RV Investigator, we sailed for 63 days from Antarctica’s ice edge to the warm equator in the South Pacific and collected 387 water samples.

Our goal? To determine how the genetic code of thousands of different micro-organisms can provide insights into the ocean’s functional diversity — the range of tasks performed by bacteria in the ocean.

Our research was published yesterday in Nature Communications. It showed how bacteria can help us measure shifts in energy production at the base of the food web. These results are important, as they highlight an emerging opportunity to use genetic data for large-scale ecosystem assessments in different marine environments.

In light of our rapidly changing climate, this kind of information is critical, as it will allow us to unpack the complexity of nature step by step. Ultimately, it will help us mitigate human pressures to protect and restore our precious marine ecosystems.

Why should we care about marine bacteria?

The oceans cover 71% of our planet and sustain life on Earth. In the upper 100 meters, the sunlit part of the oceans, microscopic life is abundant. In fact, it’s responsible for producing up to 50% of all the oxygen in the world.

A whale breaches the ocean
Marine bacteria provide the energy and food for the entire marine food web, from tiny crustaceans to whales.
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Much like the link recently established between human health and the human microbiome (“gut flora”), ocean health is largely controlled by its bacterial inhabitants.

But the role of bacteria go beyond oxygen production. Bacteria sustain, inject and control the fluxes of energy, nutrients and organic matter in our oceans. They provide the energy and food for the entire marine food web, from tiny crustaceans to fish larvae, whales and the fish we eat.

These micro-organisms also execute key roles in numerous biogeochemical cycles (the carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, sulphur and iron cycles, to name a few).

So, it’s important to quantify their various tasks and understand how the different bacterial species and their functions respond to environmental changes.

Fundamental questions

Global ocean research initiatives — such as GO-SHIP and GEOTRACES — have been measuring the state of oceans in expeditions like ours for decades. They survey temperature, salinity, nutrients, trace metals (iron, cobalt and more) and other essential ocean variables.

Only recently, however, have these programs begun measuring biological variables, such as bacterial gene data, in their global sampling expeditions.

The author smiles in front of a blue and white ship, with 'Investigator' written on the side.
On board the RV Investigator, we departed Hobart in 2016, beginning our 63-day journey to sample microbes in the South Pacific.
Eric Raes, Author provided

Including bacterial gene data to measure the state of the ocean means we can try to fill critical knowledge gaps about how the diversity of bacteria impacts their various tasks. One hypothesis is whether a greater diversity of bacteria leads to a better resilience in an ecosystem, allowing it to withstand the effects of climate change.

In our paper, we addressed a fundamental question in this global field of marine microbial ecology: what is the relationship between bacterial identity and function? In other words, who is doing what?

What we found

We showed it’s possible to link the genetic code of marine bacteria to the various functions and tasks they execute, and to quantify how these functions changed from Antarctica to the equator.

The functions that changed include taking in carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, bacterial growth, strategies to cope with limited nutrients, and breaking down organic matter.




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Another key finding is that “oceanographic fronts” can act as boundaries within a seemingly uniform ocean, resulting in unique assemblages of bacteria with specific tasks. Oceanographic fronts are distinct water masses defined by, for instance, sharp changes in temperature and salinity. Where the waters meet and mix, there’s high turbulence.

The change we recorded in energy production across the subtropical front, which separates the colder waters from the Southern Ocean from the warmer waters in the tropics, was a clear example of how oceanographic fronts influenced bacterial functions in the ocean.

Dark blue water meets light blue water under a cloudy sky.
An oceanographic front, where it looks like two oceans meet.
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Tracking changes in our ecosystems

As a result of our research, scientists may start using the functional diversity of bacteria as an indicator to track changes in our ecosystems, like canaries in a coal mine.




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So the functional diversity of bacteria can be used to measure how human growth and urbanisation impact coastal areas and estuaries.

For example, we can more accurately and holistically measure the environmental footprint of aquaculture pens, which are known to affect water quality by increasing concentrations of nutrients such as carbon, nitrogen and phosphorus – all favourite elements utilised by bacteria.

Likewise, we can track changes in the environmental services rendered by estuaries, such as their important role in removing excessive nitrogen that enters the waterways due to agriculture run-off and urban waste.

With 44% of the world’s population living along coastlines, the input of nitrogen to marine ecosystems, including estuaries, is predicted to increase, putting a strain on the marine life there.

Ultimately, interrogating the bacterial diversity using gene data, along with the opportunity to predict what this microscopic life is or will be doing in future, will help us better understand nature’s complex interactions that sustain life in our oceans.




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The Conversation


Eric Jorden Raes, Postdoctoral researcher Ocean Frontier Institute, Dalhousie University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Plastic in the ocean kills more threatened albatrosses than we thought


Lauren Roman, Author provided

Richelle Butcher, Massey University; Britta Denise Hardesty, CSIRO, and Lauren Roman, CSIRO

Plastic in the ocean can be deadly for marine wildlife and seabirds around the globe, but our latest study shows single-use plastics are a bigger threat to endangered albatrosses in the southern hemisphere than we previously thought.

You may have heard of the Great Pacific garbage patch in the northern Pacific, but plastic pollution in the southern hemisphere’s oceans has increased by orders of magnitude in recent years.

We examined the causes of death of 107 albatrosses received by wildlife hospitals and pathology services in Australia and New Zealand and found ocean plastic is an underestimated threat.

Plastic drink bottles, disposable utensils and balloons are among the most deadly items.

Albatrosses are some the world’s most imperiled seabirds, with 73% of species threatened with extinction. Most species live in the southern hemisphere.

We estimate plastic ingestion causes up to 17.5% of near-shore albatross deaths in the southern hemisphere and should be considered a substantial threat to albatross populations.




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Magnificent ocean wanderers

Albatrosses spend their entire lives at sea and can live for more than 70 years. They return to land only to reunite with their mate and raise a single chick during the warmer months.

Although the world’s largest flying birds are rarely seen from land, human activities are driving nearly three quarters of albatross species to extinction.

An albatross flying across the ocean.
The great albatrosses are the largest flying birds in the world, circumnavigating the southern oceans in search of food.
Lauren Roman, Author provided

Each year, thousands of albatrosses are caught as unintended bycatch and killed by fishing boats. Introduced rats and mice eat their chicks alive on remote islands and the ocean where they spend their lives is becoming increasingly warmer and filled with plastic.

Young Laysan albatrosses with their bellies full of plastic are not just a tragic tale from the remote northern Pacific. Albatrosses are dying from plastic in the southern oceans, too.

When a Royal albatross recently died in care at Wildbase Hospital after eating a plastic bottle, it was not an isolated incident.

Single-use plastics hit albatrosses close to home

A veterinarian treating a light-mantled albatross
Veterinarian Baukje Lenting treating a light-mantled albatross at The Nest Te Kōhanga at Wellington Zoo.
Wellington Zoo, Author provided

Eighteen of the world’s 22 albatross species live in the southern hemisphere, where plastic is currently considered a lesser threat. But the amount of discarded plastic is increasing every year, mostly leaked from towns and cities and accumulating near the shore.

Single-use items make up most of the trash found on coastlines around the world. Seven of the ten most common items — drink bottles, food wrappers and grocery bags — are made of plastic.

When albatrosses are found struggling near the shore in New Zealand, they are delivered to wildlife hospitals such as Wildbase Hospital and The Nest Te Kōhanga. A recent spate of plastic-linked deaths spurred us to dig a little deeper into the risk of plastic pollution to these magnificent ocean wanderers.

A thousand cuts: plastic and other threats

Of the 107 albatrosses of 12 species we examined, plastic was the cause of death in half of the birds that had ingested it. In the cases we examined, plastic deaths were more common than fisheries-related deaths or oiling.

We compared these cases with data on plastic ingestion and fishery interaction rates from other studies. Based on our findings, we used statistical methods to estimate how many albatrosses were likely to eat plastic and might die from ingesting it, and how these figures compared to other major threats such as fisheries bycatch.

We found that in the near-shore areas of Australia and New Zealand, the ingestion of plastic is likely to cause about 3.4% of albatross deaths. In more polluted near-shore areas, such as those off Brazil, we estimate plastic ingestion causes 17.5% of all albatross deaths.




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Because albatrosses are highly migratory, even those birds that live in less polluted areas are at risk as they wander the global ocean, travelling to polluted waters. Our results suggest the ingestion of plastic is at least of equivalent concern as long-line fishing in near-shore areas.

For threatened and declining albatross species, these rates of additional mortality are a serious concern and could result in further population losses.

Deadly junk food for marine life

Balloon fragments found in the stomach on an endangered albatross
The remains of two balloons in the stomach of an endangered grey-headed albatross.
Lauren Roman, Author provided

Not all types of plastic are equally deadly when eaten. Albatrosses can regurgitate many of the indigestible items they eat.

Soft plastic and rubber items (such as latex balloons), in particular, can be deadly for marine animals because they often become trapped in the gut and cause fatal blockages, leading to a long, slow death by starvation. Plastic is difficult to see with common scanning techniques, and gut blockages often remain undetected.

A plastic bottle found in the stomach of an albatross
A 500ml plastic bottle and balloon fragments were found in the stomach of a southern royal albatross which died in care at Wildbase Hospital.
Stuart Hunter, Author provided

Albatrosses like to eat squid, and inexperienced young birds are especially prone to mistaking balloons and other plastic for food, with potentially lethal consequences.

We recommend that wildlife hospitals, carers and biologists consider gastric obstruction when sick albatrosses are presented. Our publication includes a checklist to help in the detection of gastric blockages.

Global cooperation to reduce leakage of plastic items into the ocean — such as the Basel Convention and the recommendations by the High Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy — are first steps towards preventing unnecessary deaths of marine animals.




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Stronger adherence to multilateral agreements, such as the Agreement on the Conservation of Albatrosses and Petrels which aims to reduce the impact of activities known to kill albatrosses, would help prevent the decline of breeding populations to unsustainably low levels.

If populations fall to critically endangered levels, intensive remediation including the expansion of chick and nest protection programmes, invasive species eradication and seabird translocations, may be required to prevent species extinction.


We would like to acknowledge our New Zealand and Australian colleagues who contributed to this research project. Veterinarians Baukje Lenting and Phil Kowalski care for injured seabirds and other wildlife at The Nest Te Kōhanga at Wellington Zoo. Veterinarian Megan Jolly cares for injured wildlife at Wildbase Hospital and vet pathologist Stuart Hunter provides a nationwide wildlife pathology service at Wildbase pathology at Massey University. David Stewart conducts threatened species research and monitoring at the Queensland state government’s Department of Environment and Science.The Conversation

Richelle Butcher, Veterinary Resident at Wildbase, Massey University; Britta Denise Hardesty, Principal Research Scientist, Oceans and Atmosphere Flagship, CSIRO, and Lauren Roman, Postdoctoral Researcher, Oceans and Atmosphere, CSIRO

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Marine protection falls short of the 2020 target to safeguard 10% of the world’s oceans. A UN treaty and lessons from Antarctica could help



John B. Weller, Author provided

Natasha Blaize Gardiner, University of Canterbury and Cassandra Brooks, University of Colorado Boulder

Two-thirds of the world’s oceans fall outside national jurisdictions – they belong to no one and everyone.

These international waters, known as the high seas, harbour a plethora of natural resources and millions of unique marine species.

But they are being damaged irretrievably. Research shows unsustainable fisheries are one of the greatest threats to marine biodiversity in the high seas.

According to a 2019 global assessment report on biodiversity and ecosystem services, 66% of the world’s oceans are experiencing detrimental and increasing cumulative impacts from human activities.

In the high seas, human activities are regulated by a patchwork of international legal agreements under the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). But this piecemeal approach is failing to safeguard the ecosystems we depend on.




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Empty pledges

A decade ago, world leaders updated an earlier pledge to establish a network of marine protected areas (MPAs) with a mandate to protect 10% of the world’s oceans by 2020.

But MPAs cover only 7.66% of the ocean across the globe. Most protected sites are in national waters where it’s easy to implement and manage protection under the provision of a single country.

In the more remote areas of the high seas, only 1.18% of marine ecosystems have been gifted sanctuary.

The Southern Ocean accounts for a large portion of this meagre percentage, hosting two MPAs. The South Orkney Islands southern shelf MPA covers 94,000 square kilometres, while the Ross Sea region MPA stretches across more than 2 million square kilometres, making it the largest in the world.

Weddell seal pup and mother
Currently, the world’s largest marine protected area is in the Ross Sea region off Antarctica.
Natasha Gardiner, CC BY-ND

The Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) is responsible for this achievement. Unlike other international fisheries management bodies, the commission’s legal convention allows for the closing of marine areas for conservation purposes.

A comparable mandate for MPAs in other areas of the high seas has been nowhere in sight — until now.




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A new ocean treaty

In 2017, the UN started negotiations towards a new comprehensive international treaty for the high seas. The treaty aims to improve the conservation and sustainable use of marine organisms in areas beyond national jurisdiction. It would also implement a global legal mechanism to establish MPAs in international waters.

This innovative international agreement provides an opportunity to work across institutional boundaries towards comprehensive high seas governance and protection. It is crucial to use lessons drawn from existing high seas marine protection initiatives, such as those in the Southern Ocean, to inform the treaty’s development.

The final round of treaty negotiations is pending, delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic, and significant detail within the treaty’s draft text remains undeveloped and open for further debate.

Lessons from Southern Ocean management

CCAMLR comprises 26 member states (including the European Union) and meets annually to make conservation-based decisions by unanimous consensus. In 2002, the commission committed to establishing a representative network of MPAs in Antarctica in alignment with globally agreed targets for the world’s oceans.

The two established MPAs in the high seas are far from an ecologically representative network of protection. In October 2020, the commission continued negotiations for three additional MPAs, which would meet the 10% target for the Southern Ocean, if agreed.

But not a single proposal was agreed. For one of the proposals, the East Antarctic MPA, this marks the eighth year of failed negotiations.

Fisheries interests from a select few nations, combined with complex geopolitics, are thwarting progress towards marine protection in the Antarctic.

Map of marine protected areas around Antarctica.
CCAMLR’s two established MPAs (in grey) are the South Orkney Islands southern shelf MPA and the Ross Sea region MPA. Three proposed MPAs (hashed) include the East Antarctic, Domain 1 and Weddell Sea proposals.
C. Brooks, CC BY-ND

CCAMLR’s progress towards its commitment for a representative MPA network may have ground to a halt, but the commission has gained invaluable knowledge about the challenges in establishing MPAs in international waters. CCAMLR has demonstrated that with an effective convention and legal framework, MPAs in the high seas are possible.

The commission understands the extent to which robust scientific information must inform MPA proposals and how to navigate inevitable trade-offs between conservation and economic interests. Such knowledge is important for the UN treaty process.




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As the high seas treaty moves closer to adoption, it stands to outpace the commission regarding progress towards improved marine conservation. Already, researchers have identified high-priority areas for protection in the high seas, including in Antarctica.

Many species cross the Southern Ocean boundary into other regions. This makes it even more important for CCAMLR to integrate its management across regional fisheries organisations – and the new treaty could facilitate this engagement.

But the window of time is closing with only one round of negotiation left for the UN treaty. Research tells us Antarctic decision-makers need to use the opportunity to ensure the treaty supports marine protection commitments.

Stronger Antarctic leadership is urgently needed to safeguard the Southern Ocean — and beyond.The Conversation

Natasha Blaize Gardiner, PhD Candidate, University of Canterbury and Cassandra Brooks, Assistant Professor Environmental Studies, University of Colorado Boulder

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

China’s Belt and Road mega-plan may devastate the world’s oceans, or help save them



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Mischa Turschwell, Griffith University; Christopher Brown, Griffith University, and Ryan M. Pearson, Griffith University

China’s signature foreign policy, the Belt and Road initiative, has garnered much attention and controversy. Many have voiced fears about how the huge infrastructure project might expand China’s military and political influence across the world. But the environmental damage potentially wrought by the project has received scant attention.

The policy aims to connect China with Europe, East Africa and the rest of Asia, via a massive network of land and maritime routes. It includes building a series of deepwater ports, dubbed a “string of pearls”, to create secure and efficient sea transport.

All up, the cost of investments associated with the project have been estimated at as much as US$8 trillion. But what about the environmental cost?

Coastal development typically damages habitats and species on land and in the sea. So the Belt and Road plan may irreversibly damage the world’s oceans – but it also offers a chance to better protect them.

A map showing sea and land routes planned under the Belt and Road initiative.
A map showing sea and land routes planned under the Belt and Road initiative.
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Controversial deals

China’s President Xi Jinping announced the Belt and Road initiative in 2013. Since then, China has already helped build and operate at least 42 ports in 34 countries, including in Greece, Sri Lanka and Pakistan. As of October this year, 138 countries had signed onto the plan.

The Victorian government joined in 2018, in a move that stirred political controversy. Those tensions have heightened in recent weeks, as the federal government’s relationship with China deteriorates.




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Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews recently reiterated his commitment to the deal, saying: “I think a strong relationship and a strong partnership with China is very, very important.”

However, political leaders signing up to the Belt and Road plan must also consider the potential environmental consequences of the project.

Dan Andrews in Beijing
Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews is committed to the Belt and Road initiative.
Twitter

Bigger ports and more ships

As well as ports, the Belt and Road plan involves roads, rail lines, dams, airfields, pipelines, cargo centres and telecommunications systems. Our research has focused specifically on the planned port development and expansion, and increased shipping traffic. We examined how it would affect coastal habitats (such as seagrass, mangroves, and saltmarsh), coral reefs and threatened marine species.

Port construction can impact species and habitats in several ways. For example, developing a site often requires clearing mangroves and other coastal habitats. This can harm animals and release carbon stored by these productive ecosystems, accelerating climate change. Clearing coastal vegetation can also increase run-off of pollution from land into coastal waters.




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Ongoing dredging to maintain shipping channels stirs up sediment from the seafloor. This sediment smothers sensitive habitats such as seagrass and coral and damages wildlife, including fishery species on which many coastal communities depend.

A rise in shipping traffic associated with trade expansion increases the risk to animals being directly struck by vessels. More ships also means a greater risk of shipping accidents, such as the oil spill in Mauritius in July this year.

Seagrass in the Pacific Ocean
Dredging can cause sediment to smother seagrass.
iStock

Ocean habitat destroyed

Our spatial analysis found construction of new ports, and expansion of existing ports, could lead to a loss of coastal marine habitat equivalent in size to 69,500 football fields.

These impacts were proportionally highest in small countries with relatively small coastal areas – places such as Singapore, Togo, Djibouti and Malta – where a considerable share of coastal marine habitat could be degraded or destroyed.

Habitat loss is particularly concerning for small nations where local livelihoods depend on coastal habitats. For example, mangroves, coral reefs, and seagrass protect coasts from storm surges and sea-level rise, and provide nursery habitat for fish and other marine species.

Our analysis also found more than 400 threatened species, including mammals, could be affected by port infrastructure. More than 200 of these are at risk from an increase in shipping traffic and noise pollution from ships. This sound can travel many kilometres and affect the mating, nursing and feeding of species such as dolphins, manatees and whales.

A manatee
Noise pollution from ships can affect threatened species such as manatees.
Shutterstock

But there are opportunities, too

Despite these environmental concerns, the Belt and Road initiative also offers an opportunity to improve biodiversity conservation, and progress towards environmental targets such as the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.

For example, China could implement a broad, consistent environmental framework that ensures individual infrastructure projects are held to the same high standards.

In Australia, legislation helps prevent damage to wildlife from port activities. For example, go-slow zones minimise the likelihood of vessels striking iconic wildlife such as turtles and dugongs. Similarly, protocols for the transport, handling, and export of mineral concentrates and other potentially hazardous materials minimise the risk of pollutants entering waterways.




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The Belt and Road initiative should require similar environmental protections across all its partner countries, and provide funding to ensure they are enacted.

China has recently sought to boost its environment credentials on the world stage – such as by adopting a target of net-zero carbon emissions by 2060. The global nature of the Belt and Road initiative means China is in a unique position: it can cause widespread damage, or become an international leader on environmental protection.The Conversation

Mischa Turschwell, Research Fellow, Griffith University; Christopher Brown, Senior Lecturer, School of Environment and Science, Griffith University, and Ryan M. Pearson, Research Fellow, Griffith University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Gene editing is revealing how corals respond to warming waters. It could transform how we manage our reefs



Mikaela Nordborg/Australian Institute of Marine Science, Author provided

Dimitri Perrin, Queensland University of Technology; Jacob Bradford, Queensland University of Technology; Line K Bay, Australian Institute of Marine Science, and Phillip Cleves, Carnegie Institution for Science

Genetic engineering has already cemented itself as an invaluable tool for studying gene functions in organisms.

Our new study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, now demonstrates how gene editing can be used to pinpoint genes involved in corals’ ability to withstand heat stress.

A better understanding of such genes will lay the groundwork for experts to predict the natural response of coral populations to climate change. And this could guide efforts to improve coral adaptation, through the selective breeding of naturally heat-tolerant corals.

A threatened national treasure

The Great Barrier Reef is among the world’s most awe-inspiring, unique and economically valuable ecosystems. It spans more than 2,000 kilometres, has more than 600 types of coral, 1,600 types of fish and is of immense cultural significance — especially for Traditional Owners.

But warming ocean waters caused by climate change are leading to the mass bleaching and mortality of corals on the reef, threatening the reef’s long-term survival.




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Many research efforts are focused on how we can prevent the reef’s deterioration by helping it adapt to and recover from the conditions causing it stress.

Understanding the genes and molecular pathways that protect corals from heat stress will be key to achieving these goals.

While hypotheses exist about the roles of particular genes and pathways, rigorous testings of these have been difficult — largely due to a lack of tools to determine gene function in corals.

But over the past decade or so, CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing has emerged as a powerful tool to study gene function in non-model organisms.

CRISPR: a technological marvel

Scientists can use CRISPR to make precise changes to the DNA of a living organisms, by “cutting” its DNA and editing the sequence. This can involve inactivating a specific gene, introducing a new piece of DNA or replacing a piece.

In our 2018 research, we showed it is possible to make precise mutations in the coral genome using CRISPR technology. However, we were unable to determine the functions of our specific target genes.

For our latest research, we used an updated CRISPR method to sufficiently disrupt the Heat Shock Transcription Factor 1, or HSF1, in coral larvae.

Based on this protein-coding gene’s role in model organisms, including closely related sea anemones, we hypothesised it would play an important role in the heat response of corals.

Injection going into coral egg.
We injected CRISPR components into the fertilised eggs of the coral species Acropora millepora to inactivate the HSF1 gene.
Phillip Cleves/Carnegie Institute for Science, CC BY-NC-ND

Past research had also demonstrated HSF1 can influence a large number of heat response genes, acting as a kind of “master switch” to turn them on.

By inactivating this master switch, we expected to see significant changes in the corals’ heat tolerance. Our prediction proved accurate.




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What is CRISPR, the gene editing technology that won the Chemistry Nobel prize?


What we discovered by injecting coral eggs

We spawned corals at the Australian Institute of Marine Science during the annual mass spawning event in November, 2018.

We then injected CRISPR/Cas9 components into fertilised coral eggs to target the HSF1 gene in the common and widespread staghorn coral Acropora millepora.

_Acropora millepora_ coral colony during a mass spawning event.
Acropora millepora colonies can be found widely on the Great Barrier Reef. They reproduce sexually in ‘mass spawning’ events.
Mikaela Nordborg/Australian Institute of Marine Science, Author provided

We were able to demonstrate a strong effect of HSF1 on corals’ heat tolerance. Specifically, when this gene was mutated using CRISPR (and no longer functional) the corals were more vulnerable to heat stress.

Larvae with knocked-out copies of HSF1 died under heat stress when the water temperature was increased from 27℃ to 34℃. In contrast, larvae with the functional gene survived well in the warmer water.

Let’s understand what we already have

It may be tempting now to focus on using gene-editing tools to engineer heat-resistant strains of corals, to fast-track the Great Barrier Reef’s adaptation to warming waters.

However, genetic engineering should first and foremost be used to increase our knowledge of the fundamental biology of corals and other reef organisms, including their response to heat stress.

Not only will this help us more accurately predict the natural response of coral reefs to a changing climate, it will also shed light on the risks and benefits of new management tools for corals, such as selective breeding.

It is our hope these genetic insights will provide a solid foundation for future reef conservation and management efforts.The Conversation

During mass spawning events, corals release little balls that float to the ocean’s surface in a spectacle resembling an upside-down snowstorm.

Dimitri Perrin, Senior Lecturer, Queensland University of Technology; Jacob Bradford, , Queensland University of Technology; Line K Bay, Principal Research Scientist and Team Leader, Australian Institute of Marine Science, and Phillip Cleves, Principal Investigator, Carnegie Institution for Science

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Photos from the field: these magnificent whales are adapting to warming water, but how much can they take?



Olaf Meynecke, Author provided

Olaf Meynecke, Griffith University

Environmental scientists see flora, fauna and phenomena the rest of us rarely do. In this new series, we’ve invited them to share their unique photos from the field.


The start of November marks the end of the whale season in the Southern Hemisphere. As summer approaches, whales that were breeding along the east and west coasts of Australia, Africa and South America will now swim further south to feed around Antarctica.

This annual cycle of whales coming and going has taken place for at least 10,000 years. But rising ocean temperatures from climate change are challenging this process, and my colleagues and I have already seen signs that humpback whales are changing their feeding, migration and breeding patterns to adapt.




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As krill stocks decline and ocean circulation is set to change more drastically, climate change remains an unprecedented threat to whales. The challenge now is to forecast what will happen next to better protect them.

Losing krill is the biggest threat

I’m part of an international team of researchers trying to learn what the next 100 years might look like for humpback whales in the Southern Hemisphere, and how they’ll adapt to changing ocean conditions.

Whales depend on recurring environmental conditions and oceanographic features, such as temperature, circulation, changing seasons and biogeochemical (nutrient) cycles. In particular, these features influence the availability of krill in the Southern Ocean, their biggest food source.

Whales are particularly sensitive to this because they need enormous amounts of food to develop sufficient fat reserves to migrate, give birth and nurse a calf, as they don’t eat during this time.

In fact, models predict declines in krill from climate change could lead to local extinctions of whales by 2100. This includes Pacific populations of blue, fin and southern right whales, as well as fin and humpback whales in the Atlantic and Indian oceans.




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Climate change threatens Antarctic krill and the sea life that depends on it


Still, when it comes to their migration and breeding cycles, recent studies have shown humpback whales can adapt with changes in ocean temperature and circulation at a remarkable level.

Whales can adapt to warming water, but at what cost?

In a long term study from the Northern Hemisphere, scientists found the arrival of humpback whales in some feeding grounds shifted by one day per year over a 27-year period in response to small fluctuations in ocean temperatures.

This led to a one-month shift in arrival time, but a big concern is whether they can continue to time their arrival with their prey in the future when the water gets warmer still.

Likewise, in breeding grounds near Hawaii, the number of mother and calf humpback whale sightings dropped by more than 75% between 2013 and 2018. This coincided with persistent warming in the Alaskan feeding grounds these whales had migrated from.

Collecting humpback whale exhale (“whale snot”)

But humpback whales shifting their distribution and behaviour can cause unexpected human encounters, and cause new challenges that weren’t an issue previously.

Research from earlier this year found humpback whales switched to fish as their main prey when the sea surface temperature in the California current system increased in a heatwave. This has been leading to record numbers of entanglements with gear from coastal fisheries.




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I measure whales with drones to find out if they’re fat enough to breed


And between 2013 and 2016, we documented hundreds of newborn humpback whales in subtropical and temperate shallow bays on the east coast of Australia, 1,000 kilometres further south from their traditional breeding areas off the Great Barrier Reef.

However, since these aren’t designated calving areas, the newborns aren’t well protected from getting tangled in shark nets or colliding with jet skis or cruise ships.

Protecting whales

The Whales and Climate Program is the largest project of its kind, combining hundreds of thousands of humpback whale sightings and advanced modelling techniques. Our aim is to advance whale conservation in response to climate change, and learn how it threatens their recovery after decades of over-exploitation by the whaling industry.

Each whale season between June and October, I sail out to the open ocean. This means I have unique opportunities to see and engage with whales, especially during the breeding season. The following photos show some of our breathtaking encounters, and can remind us of our marine ecosystem’s fragile beauty.

A humpback whale fin

Olaf Meynecke, Author provided
Breaching humpback whale in front of buildings

Olaf Meynecke, Author provided

During one of our boat-based surveys on the Gold Coast, we encountered this acrobatic humpback whale calf, shown in the photos above. We counted 254 breaches in two hours, making it the record holder of most breaches in our 10 years of observation.

To check on whales’ health, we collect and study the air they exhale through their blow hole (“whale snot”), and measure their size at different times of the year. The photo above shows me tagging a whale with CATs suction cup tags, to collect data on short term changes in their movement patterns.

Close up of a humpback whale's mouth

Olaf Meynecke, Author provided

In regions where the whales adapt to ocean changes and, as such, move closer to shore for feeding and shift their breeding grounds, there’s a higher risk of entanglements and other human encounters. This is particularly concerning when they travel outside protected areas.

A newborn humpback whale resting on its mum's head

Olaf Meynecke, Author provided

Look closely and you can see a newborn humpback, just one to three days old, resting on its mother’s head.

In the first days of life, baby humpback whales sink easily and aren’t able to stay on the water surface for long. They need their mothers’ support to stay on the surface to breathe.

Once they’ve gained enough fat from the mothers milk they become positively buoyant (meaning they can float), making it easier for them to breathe.

Photo of a whale underwater

Olaf Meynecke, Author provided

A final note — during one of our land-based whale surveys this year, a keen whale watcher approached us, and we helped him find the whales with our binoculars. I will never forget the joy in his face when he spotted them.

It’s a joy I hope many future generations can experience. To ensure this, we need to understand how we can best protect whales in a changing climate.




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Photos from the field: capturing the grandeur and heartbreak of Tasmania’s giant trees


The Conversation


Olaf Meynecke, Research Fellow in Marine Science, Griffith University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

We estimate there are up to 14 million tonnes of microplastics on the seafloor. It’s worse than we thought



Shutterstock

Britta Denise Hardesty, CSIRO; Chris Wilcox, CSIRO, and Justine Barrett, CSIRO

Nowhere, it seems, is immune from plastic pollution: plastic has been reported in the high Arctic oceans, in the sea ice around Antarctica and even in the world’s deepest waters of the Mariana Trench.

But just how bad is the problem? Our new research provides the first global estimate of microplastics on the seafloor — our research suggests there’s a staggering 8-14 million tonnes of it.

This is up to 35 times more than the estimated weight of plastic pollution on the ocean’s surface.

What’s more, plastic production and pollution is expected to increase in coming years, despite increased media, government and scientific attention on how plastic pollution can harm marine ecosystems, wildlife and human health.

These findings are yet another wake-up call. When the plastic we use in our daily lives reaches even the deepest oceans, it’s more urgent than ever to find ways to clean up our mess before it reaches the ocean, or to stop making so much of it in the first place.

Breaking down larger plastic

Our estimate of microplastics on the seafloor is huge, but it’s still a fraction of the amount of plastic dumped into the ocean. Between 4-8 million tonnes of plastic are thought to enter the sea each and every year.




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Eight million tonnes of plastic are going into the ocean each year


Most of the plastic dumped into the ocean likely ends up on the coasts, not floating around the ocean’s surface or on the seafloor. In fact, three-quarters of the rubbish found along Australia’s coastlines is plastics.

A dead albatross with plastic in its stomach from Midway Atoll
Plastic including toothbrushes, cigarette lighters, bottle caps and other hard plastic fragments are found in the stomachs of many marine species.
Britta Denise Hardesty

The larger pieces of plastic that stay in the ocean can deteriorate and break down from weathering and mechanical forces, such as ocean waves. Eventually, this material turns into microplastics, pieces smaller than 5 millimetres in diameter.

Their tiny size means they can be eaten by a variety of marine wildlife, from plankton to crustaceans and fish. And when microplastics enter the marine food web at low levels, it can move up the food chain as bigger species eat smaller ones.

But the problem isn’t as well documented for microplastics on the seafloor. While plastics, including microplastics, have been found in deep-sea sediments in all ocean basins across the world, samples have been small and scarce. This is where our research comes in.

Collecting samples in the Great Australian Bight

We collected samples using a robotic submarine in a range of sea depths, from 1,655 to 3,062 metres, in the Great Australian Bight, up to 380 kilometres offshore from South Australia. The submarine scooped up 51 samples of sand and sediment from the seafloor and we analysed them in a laboratory.

Sampling of deep sea sediments took place using an underwater robot.
CSIRO, Author provided

We dried the sediment samples, and found between zero and 13.6 plastic particles per gram. This is up to 25 times more microplastics than previous deep-sea studies. And it’s much higher than studies in other regions, including in the Arctic and Indian Oceans.

While our study looked at one general area, we can scale up to calculate a global estimate of microplastics on the seafloor.

Using the estimated size of the entire ocean — 361,132,000 square kilometres — and the average number and size of particles in our sediment samples, we determined the total, global weight as between 8.4 and 14.4 million tonnes. This range takes into account the possible weights of individual microplastics.

How did the plastic get there?

It’s important to note that since our location was remote, far from any urban population centre, this is a conservative estimate. Yet, we were surprised at just how high the microplastic loads were there.

Plastic waste floating in the ocean
Areas with floating rubbish on the ocean’s surface have plastic on the seafloor.
Shutterstock

Few studies have conclusively identified how microplastics travel to their ultimate fate.

Larger pieces of plastic that get broken down to smaller pieces can sink to the seafloor, and ocean currents and the natural movement of sediment along continental shelves can transport them widely.

But not all plastic sinks. A 2016 study suggests interaction with marine organisms is another possible transport method.

Scientists in the US have shown microbial communities, such as bacteria, can inhabit this marine “plastisphere” — a term for the ecosystems that live in plastic environments. The microbes weigh the plastic down so it no longer floats. We also know mussels and other invertebrates may colonise floating plastics, adding weight to make them sink.




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The type of rubbish will also determine whether it gets washed up on the beach or sinks to the seafloor.

For example, in a previous study we found cigarette butts, plastic fragments, bottlecaps and food wrappers are common on land, though rare on the seabed. Meanwhile, we found entangling items such fishing line, ropes and plastic bags are common on the seafloor.

Microplastics at the water's edge
We were surprised at just how high the microplastic loads were in such a remote location.
CSIRO

Interestingly, in our new study we also found the number of plastic fragments on the seafloor was generally higher in areas where there was floating rubbish on the ocean’s surface. This suggests surface “hotspots” may be reflected below.

It’s not clear why just yet, but it could be because of the geology and physical features of the seabed, or because local currents, winds and waves result in accumulating zones on the ocean’s surface and the seabed nearby.

Stop using so much plastic

Knowing how much plastic sinks to the ocean floor is an important addition to our understanding of the plastic pollution crisis. But stemming the rising tide of plastic pollution starts with individuals, communities and governments – we all have a role to play.

Reusing, refusing and recycling are good places to start. Seek alternatives and support programs, such as Clean Up Australia Day, to stop plastic waste from entering our environment in the first place, ensuring it doesn’t then become embedded in our precious oceans.




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The oceans are full of our plastic – here’s what we can do about it


The Conversation


Britta Denise Hardesty, Principal Research Scientist, Oceans and Atmosphere Flagship, CSIRO; Chris Wilcox, Senior Principal Research Scientist, CSIRO, and Justine Barrett, Research assistant, CSIRO

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The ocean is swimming in plastic and it’s getting worse – we need connected global policies now



Fotos593 / shutterstock

Steve Fletcher, University of Portsmouth and Keiron Philip Roberts, University of Portsmouth

It seems you cannot go a day without reading about the impact of plastic in our oceans, and for good reason. The equivalent of a garbage truck of plastic waste enters the sea every minute, and this increases every day. If we do nothing, by 2040 the amount of plastic entering the ocean will triple from 13 million tonnes this year, to 29 million tonnes in 2040. That is 50kg of waste plastic entering the ocean for every metre of coastline.

Add to that almost all the plastic that has entered the ocean is still there since it takes centuries to break down. It is either buried or broken down into smaller pieces and potentially passes up the food chain creating further problems.

Despite this, plastic has also been a saviour. During the COVID-19 pandemic plastic used in face masks, testing kits, screens and to protecting food has enabled countries to come out of lockdown during and support social distancing. We still need to use these items until sustainable and “COVID safe” alternatives are available. But we also need to look to the future to reduce our dependence on plastic and its impact on the environment. With plastic in the ocean being a global problem, we need global agreements and policies to reverse the plastic tide.




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Rubbish is piling up and recycling has stalled – waste systems must adapt


Ambitious policies are needed

Environment ministers of the G20 group of the world’s most economically powerful countries and regions met on September 16 to discuss their immediate challenges, with marine plastic pollution a top priority. A key item for discussion was “safeguarding the planet by fostering collective efforts to protect our global commons”. This means working out how we can continue to use the planet’s resources sustainably without harming the environment.

A global analysis of plastics policies over the past two decades found that typical reactions to marine plastic litter were bans or taxes on individual or groups of plastic items within single countries. So far, 43 countries have introduced a ban, tax or levy on plastic bags. Other plastic packaging or single-use plastic products were banned in at least 25 countries, representing a population of almost 2 billion people in 2018.

But plastic waste doesn’t respect land or ocean borders, with mismanaged plastic waste easily migrating from country to country when leaked into the environment. Policies also need to consider the entire plastics life cycle to stand a chance of being effective. For example, the inclusion of easier to recycle plastics in consumer products sounds positive, but their actual recycling rate depends on effective sorting and collection of plastic waste, and appropriate infrastructure being in place.




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Ultimately, a joined up but adaptable set of rules and guidelines are needed so all plastic producers and users can prevent its leakage across all stages of the plastics life cycle.

The G20 has sought to lead action on marine plastic litter through a 2017 Action Plan on Marine Litter which set out areas of concern and possible policy interventions, and through connections to initiatives such as the UN Environment Programme’s Global Partnership on Marine Litter and most recently the Osaka Blue Ocean Vision. The Osaka vision was agreed under the Japanese G20 presidency in 2019 and commits countries to “reduce additional pollution by marine plastic litter to zero by 2050”. Although an agreement led by the G20, it now has the support of 86 countries.

But even with these agreements in place, plastic entering the ocean will still only reduce by 7% by 2040. We need ambitious new agreements as current and emerging policies do not meet the scale of the challenge.

A consensus is forming that the G20 and other global leaders must focus on a systemic change of the plastics economy. This includes focusing on “designing out” plastics, promoting technical and business innovation, immediately scaling up actions known to reduce marine plastic litter, and transitioning to a circular economy in which materials are fully recovered and reused. These actions have the potential to contribute to the G20’s vision of net-zero plastics entering the ocean by 2050, but only if ambitious actions are taken now.The Conversation

Steve Fletcher, Professor of Ocean Policy and Economy, University of Portsmouth and Keiron Philip Roberts, Research Fellow in Clean Carbon Technologies and Resource Management, University of Portsmouth

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.