Scientific research doesn’t usually mean being strapped in a harness by the open paratroop doors of a Vietnam-war-era Hercules plane. But that’s the situation I found myself in several years ago, the result of which has just been published in the journal Marine Biodiversity.
As part of the Ocean Cleanup’s Aerial Expedition, I was coordinating a visual survey team assessing the largest accumulation of ocean plastic in the world: the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
When the aircraft’s doors opened in front of me over the Pacific Ocean for the first time, my heart jumped into my throat. Not because I was looking 400m straight down to the wild sea below as it passed at 260km per hour, but because of what I saw.
This was one of the most remote regions of the Pacific Ocean, and the amount of floating plastic nets, ropes, containers and who-knows-what below was mind-boggling.
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is said to be the largest accumulation of ocean plastic in the world. It is located between Hawaii and California, where huge ocean currents meet to form the North Pacific subtropical gyre. An estimated 80,000 tonnes of plastic are floating in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
Our overall project was overseen and led by The Ocean Cleanup’s founder Boyan Slat and then-chief scientist Julia Reisser. We conducted two visual survey flights, each taking an entire day to travel from San Francisco’s Moffett Airfield, survey for around two hours, and travel home. Along with our visual observations, the aircraft was fitted with a range of sensors, including a short-wave infrared imager, a Lidar system (which uses the pulse from lasers to map objects on land or at sea), and a high-resolution camera.
Both visual and technical surveys found whales and dolphins, including sperm and beaked whales and their young calves. This is the first direct evidence of whales and dolphins in the heart of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
Plastics in the ocean are a growing problem for marine life. Many species can mistake plastics for food, consume them accidentally along with their prey or simply eat fish that have themselves eaten plastic.
Both beaked and sperm whales have been recently found with heavy plastic loads in their stomachs. In the Philippines, a dying beaked whale was found with 40kg of plastic in its stomach, and in Indonesia, a dead sperm whale washed ashore with 115 drinking cups, 25 plastic bags, plastic bottles, two flip-flops, and more than 1,000 pieces of string in its stomach.
The danger of ghost nets
The most common debris we were able to identify by eye was discarded or lost fishing nets, often called “ghost nets”. Ghost nets can drift in the ocean for years, trapping animals and causing injuries, starvation and death.
During our observation we saw young calves with their mothers. Calves are especially vulnerable to becoming trapped. With the wide range of ocean plastics in the garbage patch, it is highly likely animals in the area ingest and become tangled in it.
It’s believed the amount of plastics in the ocean could triple over the next decade. It is clear the problem of plastic pollution has no political or geographic boundaries.
The most devastating effects fall on communities in poverty. New research shows the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is rapidly growing, posing a greater threat to wildlife. It reinforces the global movement to reduce, recycle and remove plastics from the environment.
But to really tackle this problem we need creative solutions at every level of society, from communities to industries to governments and international organisations.
To take one possibility, what if we invested in fast-growing, sustainably cultivated bamboo to replace millions of single-use plastics? It could be produced by the very countries most affected by this crisis: poorer and developing nations.
Tropical tuna are one of the few wild animals we still hunt in large numbers, but finding them in the vast Pacific ocean can be tremendously difficult. However, fishers have long known that tuna are attracted to, and will aggregate around, floating objects such as logs.
In the past, people used bamboo rafts to attract tuna, fishing them while they were gathered underneath. Today, the modern equivalent – called fish aggregating devices, or FADs – usually contain high-tech equipment that tell fishers where they are and how many fish have accumulated nearby.
It’s estimated that between 30,000 and 65,000 man-made FADs are deployed annually and drift through the Western and Central Pacific Ocean to be fished on by industrial fishers. Pacific island countries are reporting a growing number of FADs washing up on their beaches, damaging coral reefs and potentially altering the distribution of tuna.
Our research in two papers, one of which was published today in Scientific Reports, looks for the first time at where ocean currents take these FADs and where they wash up on coastlines in the Pacific.
Attracting fish and funds
We do not fully understand why some fish and other marine creatures aggregate around floating objects, but they are a source of attraction for many species. FADs are commonly made of a raft with 30-80m of old ropes or nets hanging below. Modern FADs are attached to high-tech buoys with solar-powered electronics.
The buoys record a FAD’s position as it drifts slowly across the Pacific, scanning the water below to measure tuna numbers with echo-sounders and transmitting this valuable information to fishing vessels by satellite.
Throughout their lifetimes FADs may be exchanged between vessels, recovered and redeployed, or fished and simply left to drift with their buoy to further aggregate tuna. Fishers may then abandon them and remotely deactivate the buoys’ satellite transmission when the FAD leaves the fishing area.
Fishing licence fees can provide up to 98% of government revenue for some Pacific Island countries and territories. These countries balance the need to sustainably manage and harvest one of the only renewable resources they have, while often having a limited capacity to fish at an industrial scale themselves.
FADs help stabilise catch rates and make fishing fleets more profitable, which in turn generate revenue for these nations.
The abandonment or loss of FADs adds to the growing mass of marine debris floating in the ocean, and they increasingly damage coral as they are dragged and get caught on reefs.
Perhaps most importantly, we don’t know how the distribution of FADs affects fishing effort in the region. Given that each fleet and fishing company has their own strategy for using FADs, understanding how the total number of FADs drifting in one area increases the catch of tuna is crucial for sustainably managing these valuable species.
Where do FADs end up?
Our research, published in Environmental Research Communications and Scientific Reports, used a regional FAD tracking program and fishing data submitted by Pacific countries, in combination with numerical ocean models and simulations of virtual FADs, to work out how FADs travel on ocean currents during and after their use.
In general, FADs are first deployed by fishers in the eastern and central Pacific. They then drift west with the prevailing currents into the core industrial tropical tuna fishing zones along the equator.
We found equatorial countries such as Kiribati have a high number of FADs moving through their waters, with a significant amount washing up on their shores. Our research showed these high numbers are primarily due to the locations in which FADs are deployed by fishing companies.
In contrast, Tuvalu, which is situated on the edge of the equatorial current divergence zone, also sees a high density of FADs and beaching. But this appears to be an area that generally aggregates FADs regardless of where they are deployed.
Unsurprisingly, many FADs end up beaching in countries at the western edge of the core fishing grounds, having drifted from different areas of the Pacific as far away as Ecuador. This concentration in the west means reefs along the edge of the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea are particularly vulnerable, with currents apparently forcing FADs towards these coasts more than other countries in the region.
Overall, our studies estimate that between 1,500 and 2,200 FADs drifting through the Western and Central Pacific Ocean wash up on beaches each year. This is likely to be an underestimate, as the tracking devices on many FADs are remotely deactivated as they leave fishing zones.
Using computer simulations, we also found that a significant number of FADs are deployed in the eastern Pacific Ocean, left to drift so they have time to aggregate tuna, and subsequently fished on in the Western and Central Pacific Ocean. This complicates matters as the eastern Pacific is managed by an entirely different fishery Commission with its own set of fisheries management strategies and programmes.
Growing human populations and climate change are increasing pressure on small island nations. FAD fishing is very important to their economic and food security, allowing access to the wealth of the ocean’s abundance.
We need to safeguard these resources, with effective management around the number and location of FAD deployments, more research on their impact on tuna and bycatch populations, the use of biodegradable FADs, or effective recovery programs to remove old FADs from the ocean at the end of their slow journeys across the Pacific.
Some of this waste sinks in the ocean, some is washed up on beaches, and some floats on the ocean surface, transported by currents.
The garbage patches
As plastic materials are extremely durable, floating plastic waste can travel great distances in the ocean. Some floating plastics collect in the centre of subtropical circulating currents known as gyres, between 20 to 40 degrees north and south, to create these garbage patches.
Here, the ocean currents converge at the centre of the gyre and sink. But the floating plastic material remains at the surface, allowing it to concentrate in these regions.
Even less is known about what happens to plastic in the Indian Ocean, although it receives the largest input of plastic material globally.
For example, it has been estimated that up to 90% of the global riverine input of plastic waste originates from Asia. The input of plastics to the Southern Indian Ocean is mainly through Indonesia. The Australian contribution is small.
The Indian Ocean has many unique characteristics compared with the other ocean basins. The most striking factor is the presence of the Asian continental landmass, which results in the absence of a northern ocean basin and generates monsoon winds.
As a result of the former, there is no gyre in the Northern Indian Ocean, and so there is no garbage patch. The latter results in reversing ocean surface currents.
The Indian and Pacific Oceans are connected through the Indonesian Archipelago, which allows for warmer, less salty water to be transported from the Pacific to the Indian via a phenomenon called the Indonesian Throughflow (see graphic, below).
This connection also results in the formation of the Leeuwin Current, a poleward (towards the South Pole) current that flows alongside Australia’s west coast.
As a result, the Southern Indian Ocean has poleward currents on both eastern and western margins of the ocean basin.
Also, the South Indian Counter Current flows eastwards across the entire width of the Southern Indian Ocean, through the centre of the subtropical gyre, from the southern tip of Madagascar to Australia.
The African continent ends at around 35 degrees south, which provides a connection between the southern Indian and Atlantic Oceans.
How to follow that rubbish
In contrast to other ocean basins, the Indian Ocean is under-sampled, with only a few measurements of plastic material available. As technology to remotely track plastics does not yet exist, we need to use indirect ways to determine the fate of plastic in the Indian Ocean.
We used information from more than 22,000 satellite-tracked surface drifting buoys that have been released all over the world’s oceans since 1979. This allowed us to simulate pathways of plastic waste globally, with an emphasis on the Indian Ocean.
We found that unique characteristics of the Southern Indian Ocean transport floating plastics towards the ocean’s western side, where it leaks past South Africa into the South Atlantic Ocean.
Because of the Asian monsoon system, the southeast trade winds in the Southern Indian Ocean are stronger than the trade winds in the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. These strong winds push floating plastic material further to the west in the Southern Indian Ocean than they do in the other oceans.
So the rubbish goes where?
This allows the floating plastic to leak more readily from the Southern Indian Ocean into the South Atlantic Ocean. All these factors contribute to an ill-defined garbage patch in the Southern Indian Ocean.
In the Northern Indian Ocean our simulations showed there may be an accumulation of waste in the Bay of Bengal.
It is also likely that floating plastics will ultimately end up on beaches all around the Indian Ocean, transported by the reversing monsoon winds and currents. Which beaches will be most heavily affected is still unclear, and will probably depend on the monsoon season.
Our study shows that the atmospheric and oceanic attributes of the Indian Ocean are different to other ocean basins and that there may not be a concentrated garbage patch. Therefore the mystery of all the missing plastic is even greater in the Indian Ocean.
When the Pacific Islands Forum is held in Nauru from September 1, one of the main objectives will be signing a wide-ranging security agreement that covers everything from defence and law and order concerns to humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.
The key question heading into the forum is: can the agreement find a balance between the security priorities of Australia and New Zealand and the needs of the Pacific Island nations?
Even though new Prime Minister Scott Morrison is not attending the forum, sending Foreign Minister Marise Payne instead, the Biketawa Plus security agreement remains a key aim for Canberra.
The original Biketawa Declaration was developed as a response to the 2000 coup in Fiji. It has served Australia and the region well, providing a framework for collective action when political tensions and crises occur. However, in the face of rapid change, it looks narrow and dated.
Why act now? The rationale is clear. Much has happened to alter the security landscape in the Pacific since 2000. But despite the commentary in Australia, security in the Pacific is not all about geopolitics. While Australia may be most worried about China’s rising influence in the region, it would be a mistake to think this is the primary preoccupation of Pacific leaders, too.
A focus on climate change as a security issue
One key reason for updating Biketawa is to realign Australia’s security interests with those of Pacific Island countries that have grown more aware of their shared interests and confident in expressing them in international relations. This growing confidence is clear in the lobbying of Pacific nations for climate change action at the United Nations and in Fiji’s role as president of the UN’s COP23 climate talks.
In the absence of direct military threats, the Pacific Island nations are most concerned about security of a different kind. Key issues for the region are sustainable growth along a “blue-green” model, climate change (especially the increasing frequency and intensity of natural disasters and rising sea levels), illegal fishing and over-fishing, non-communicable diseases (NCDs), transnational crime, money laundering and human trafficking.
Some of these security issues can be addressed by redirecting more Australian military forces to the region. Indeed, “disaster diplomacy” has been an effective method of connecting Australia’s security interests with those of Pacific Island nations in the past.
However, other priorities for the Pacific seem to run counter to Australia’s current policies toward the region. For example, the Pacific’s sustainable “blue-green” development agenda seems incompatible with an export-oriented growth model that is often touted by Australia as an “aid for trade” solution to Pacific “problems”.
Climate change adaptation and mitigation must also be elevated to the top of the agenda in Australia’s relations with the region. It is the most pressing problem in the Pacific, but for political and economic reasons, it hasn’t resonated to the same extent with Canberra.
In fact, Australia has recently been identified as the worst-performing country in the world on climate action. This has not gone unnoticed in the Pacific. Fiji’s prime minister, in particular, has been clear in highlighting that Australia’s “selfish” stance on climate change undermines its credibility in the region.
These shifting priorities in the Pacific present a greater challenge for Australia, especially now that there are more players in the region, such as China, Russia and Indonesia. Australia may see these “outsiders” as potential threats, but Pacific nations are just as likely to view them as alternative development partners able to provide opportunities.
New Coalition team on the Pacific
Making matters even trickier is the leadership shake-up in Canberra. What’s perhaps most problematic is Julie Bishop’s departure as foreign minister. Bishop did more to engage with Pacific countries than any foreign minister in recent memory. The [2017 Foreign Policy White Paper], for example, prioritised increased Pacific engagement and led to the region receiving the lion’s share of Australia’s latest aid budget.
Payne will attend the Pacific Islands Forum on her first overseas visit as foreign minister. As the former defence minister, she lobbied for Australia to be seen as a “security partner of choice” in the Pacific. What remains to be seen is whether she can maintain the momentum on Biketawa Plus.
So the challenge for the new Coalition leadership is to find a way to push through a new Pacific security agreement that caters to both Australia’s security concerns about Chinese influence in the region and the Pacific Island countries’ focus on climate change and sustainable growth.
There are lessons that can be drawn from the decade-long negotiations between Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific Island nations over the Pacer Plus free-trade agreement, which was finally signed last year (without the region’s two largest economies, Papua New Guinea and Fiji). Australia must not underestimate the diplomatic skills of Pacific leaders or offer benefits that are perceived as being more attractive to it than the Pacific states.
Australia must also avoid allowing the leadership spill to impact its Pacific agenda at this sensitive time. Bishop’s focus on labour mobility between the Pacific islands and Australia has been most welcome, but there can be no authentic engagement with the region without addressing climate insecurity as well.
In Indonesia, more than 197 million people live within 100km of a volcano, including more than 8.6 million inside a 10km radius.
The country has a record of some of the most deadly volcanic eruptions in history, and right now there are ongoing eruptions at the Agung, Sinabung and Dukono volcanoes. But other volcanoes in the region are active too, including Kadovar in Papua New Guinea, Mayon in the Philippines, and Kusatsu-Shiranesan in Japan.
Although it all seems to be happening at once, it’s normal for the Asia-Pacific region to have frequent earthquake and volcanic activity.
But we still need to keep a close eye on things, and local volcanic authorities are monitoring activity to manage risks and evacuations adequately.
These volcanoes are part of the Pacific “Ring of Fire”, a horseshoe-shaped belt of earthquakes and volcanoes that runs for some 40,000km, roughly around the edge of the Pacific Ocean. The Ring stretches from South America, up to North America and across the Bering straight, and down through Japan, the Philippines, Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu and New Zealand. It generates around 90% of the world’s earthquakes and contains 75% of its active volcanoes.
Here are the volcanoes on my Asia-Pacific watch list this week.
Agung, Bali, Indonesia
Mount Agung in Bali has been highly scrutinised for the past few months, largely because of Bali’s popularity as a tourist destination.
After a series of volcanic earthquakes (more than 1,000 per day at its peak), eruptions began on November 21, 2017.
In the evening of January 19 an explosion of fire (known as a “strombolian” eruption) ejected glowing rocks up to 1km from the crater. The alert level remains at the highest level, with an exclusion zone in place.
There have been very few issues for tourists visiting Bali so far, apart from a temporary closure of Denpasar airport in late November 2017. However, thousands of Agung’s local residents are still displaced from their homes, with many still stationed in evacuation centres. It remains uncertain when those living closest will be able to return home.
Sinabung volcano awoke in 2010 after a 400-year sleep, and is currently one of the most active volcanoes in Indonesia. It has been pretty much in constant eruption since September 2013, and there are still frequent volcanic earthquakes.
Eruptions have produced ash plumes reaching as high as 11km into the atmosphere, as well as ash fall and lava flows. There have also been volcanic mudflows (“lahars”) and fast-moving, hot flows of gas, ash and rock fragments (“pyroclastic flows”), which have killed 25 people.
The initial activity in 2010 saw around 30,000 people evacuated. In August last year the Indonesian National Disaster Management Authority (BNPB) reported that there were 7,214 people displaced, and a further 2,863 living in refugee camps. For the locals, life seemingly goes on in the midst of eruptions.
The alert level currently remains at 4 (on a scale of 1-4), with exclusion zones of 3-7km around the volcano.
Mayon, around 330km southeast of Manila, is a picture-perfect volcano with its steep-sided conical cone, typical of stratovolcanoes. It is one of the most active volcanoes in the Philippines, with 24 confirmed eruptive periods in the past 100 years. Mayon’s most violent eruption in 1814 killed more than 1,200 people and destroyed several towns.
The recent eruption began on January 13, 2018, and is continuing, with several episodes of dramatic lava fountaining, one lasting 74 minutes.
Eruptions during January 23-29 generated 3-5km-high ash plumes and multiple pyroclastic flows, which travelled more than 5km down drainage channels. The alert is at level 4 (on a scale of 1 to 5) and an 8km danger zone is in place.
Lava flows have currently made their way up to 4.5km down river valleys from the summit crater.
The Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (PHIVOLCS) estimated on January 27 that the total volume of material deposited from ash fall and pyroclastic flows amounted to 10.5 million cubic metres. Remobilisation of this loose volcanic material by rainfall to form volcanic mudflows is a major concern.
According to news articles, more than 75,000 people have been evacuated, along with the temporary closure of Legazpi airport around 15km away.
Kadovar, Papua New Guinea
Until January 2018, when it began erupting, I hadn’t heard of Kadovar. It’s a 2km-wide, 365m-high emergent summit of a stratovolcano off the coast of Papua New Guinea.
The volcano had no confirmed historic eruptions before 2018. However, it is possible that William Dampier, a 17th-century pirate and later maritime adventurer, witnessed an eruption at Kadovar during a voyage in search of Terra Australis.
Activity began on January 5, 2018, with rising plumes of ash and steam from the volcano. The island’s inhabitants, some literally living on the crater rim, began evacuating at that time. People were initially taken by boat to neighbouring Blup Blup island but then to the mainland along with other nearby islanders, due to the close proximity of the eruption and logistics of providing people with supplies.
The Rabaul Volcano Observatory reported that activity significantly escalated on January 12, with a large explosive eruption and volcanic rocks ejected to the south. Large amounts of sulfur dioxide have been detected since January 8, and continue to be released along with ash and steam plumes. A lava “dome” has been observed glowing at night.
The impact from the eruption is not just confined to those on Kadovar and nearby islands, with satellite imagery tracking an ash plume from Kadovar travelling over tens of kilometres.
On January 23, 2018, an eruption occurred at Kusatsu-Shirane volcano without any prior warning, catching Japan’s Meteorological Agency and volcanic experts, not to mention the skiers on the volcano, by surprise.
The ejected volcanic rocks, which landed up to 1km away from the vent, injured several people. A member of the Ground Self-Defence Force who was skiing in a training exercise was killed.
The Japan Meteorological Agency has since analysed the deposits of the eruption and state that there was no new magma erupted on January 23.
Japan has more than 100 active volcanoes, with many monitored 24/7 by Japan’s Meteorological Agency.
Living near volcanoes
Indonesia, the Philippines and Japan have the greatest numbers of people living within 100km of their volcanoes. The populations of small volcanic island nations, such as Tonga and Samoa, almost all live within 100km.
Indonesia has the greatest total population located within 10km (more than 8.6 million), 30km (more than 68 million) and 100km (more than 179 million), and a record of some of the most deadly volcanic eruptions in history.
The eruption of Tambora in 1812-15, was the largest eruption in the last 10,000 years and killed around 100,000 Indonesians (due to the eruption and the ensuing famine). The infamous eruption of Krakatau (Krakatoa) killed an estimated 35,000 people, almost all due to volcanic-generated tsunamis. Volcanic mudflows (lahars) generated by the eruptions of 1586 and 1919 at Kelut (Kelud) in Java took the lives of 10,000 and 5,000 people, respectively.
Keeping watch on the world’s volcanoes is a big job for the local volcanic agencies. This is particularly true when volcanoes erupt for the first time in history (Kadovar is a good example) or there were no warning signals before eruption, as at Kusatsu-Shirane.
Fiji’s presidency of this year’s United Nations climate summit has put a renewed focus on the future of low-lying Pacific Islands. And while we should not ignore the plight of these nations, it is just as damaging to assume that their fate is already sealed.
Many people in Australia consider island nations such as Kiribati, Tuvalu and the Marshall Islands to be almost synonymous with impending climate catastrophe. After returning from Papua New Guinea in 2015, federal immigration minister Peter Dutton infamously joked that “time doesn’t mean anything when you’re about to have water lapping at your door”.
If influential and everyday Australians, and the rest of the world, hold the view that Pacific Island nations are doomed to succumb to climate change, the danger is that this will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
When we deny the possibility of a future for low-lying small islands, we are
admitting defeat. This in turn undermines the impetus to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and find ways to help communities carry on living in their island homes. It leaves us unable to discuss any options besides palliative responses for climate refugees.
There are other consequences of this pessimistic framing of islands. It may
undermine efforts to sustainably manage environments, because a finite future is
anathema to the sustaining resources in perpetuity. It can also manifest itself in harmful local narratives of denial or self-blame. And it can lead to climate change being blamed for environmental impacts that arise from local practices, which then remain unchanged.
We would do well to listen instead to what the leaders of low-lying island nations are saying, such as Tuvalu’s Prime Minister Enele Sopoaga, who told the 2013 Warsaw climate summit:
… some have suggested that the people of Tuvalu can move elsewhere. Let
me say in direct terms. We do not want to move. Such suggestions are
offensive to the people of Tuvalu. Our lives and culture are based on our
continued existence on the islands of Tuvalu. We will survive.
Displacement is not an option we relish or cherish and we will not operate on that basis. We will operate on the basis that we can in fact help to prevent this from happening.
Determined to survive
These leaders are determined for good reasons. Small islands are likely to respond in a host of different ways to climate change, depending on their geology, local wave patterns, regional differences in sea-level rise, and how their corals, mangroves and other wildlife respond to changing temperatures and weather patterns.
Evidence suggests that even seemingly very similar island types may respond very differently to one another. In many cases it is too early to say for sure that climate change will make a particular island uninhabitable.
But perhaps even more important in the future of low-lying small islands is the
way people adapt to climate change. There are all sorts of ways in which people can adapt their environments to changing conditions. Indeed, when the first migrants arrived in the low-lying atolls of Micronesia more than 3,000 years ago they found sand islands with no surface water and little soil, and settled them with only what they had in their small boats. Modern technologies and engineering systems can transform islands even more substantially, so that people can still live meaningful lives on them under changed climate conditions.
Adapting islands to climate change will not be easy. It will involve changes in where and how things are built, what people eat, how they get their water and energy, and what their islands look like.
It will also involve changes in institutions that are fundamental to island
societies, such as those concerned with land and marine tenure. But it can be done, with ingenuity, careful and long-term planning, technology transfer, and
meaningful partnerships between governments and international agencies.
Failure so far
Frustratingly, however, the international community is so far failing island states when it comes to this crucial adaptation. Despite their acute vulnerability having been recognised for at least 30 years, low-lying atoll countries such as Kiribati, the Marshall Islands and Tuvalu are attracting only low or moderate amounts of international adaptation funding. This is mostly as part of larger regional projects, and often focused on building capacity rather than implementing actual changes.
It is we who have failed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to help low-lying islands adapt, and it is we who cannot imagine any long-term future for them. It seems all we can do is talk about loss, migration, and waves of climate refugees. Having let them down twice, this defeatist thinking risks denying them an independent future for a third time. This is environmental neo-colonialism.
The international community has a moral responsibility to deliver a
comprehensive strategy to minimise the risks climate change poses to remote
low-lying islands. People living on these islands have a legal and moral right to lead dignified lives in their homelands, free from the interference of climate impacts. People who live in affluent countries high above sea level have several responsibilities here.
First, as most of us agree, we should reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. We have some control over that through how we consume, invest, vote and travel. Second, we should insist that our governments do more to help low-lying states to adapt to climate change. It is our pollution, after all. And we should argue for a reversal in our declining aid budgets.
And finally, and perhaps most importantly, we should all stop talking down the future of low-lying small islands, because all this does is hasten their demise.
But in winter 2009, the dolphin population fell by more than half.
This decrease in numbers in WA could be linked to an El Niño event that originated far away in the Pacific Ocean, we suggest in a paper published today in Global Change Biology. The findings could have implications for future sudden drops in dolphin numbers here and elsewhere.
The El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) results from an interaction between the atmosphere and the tropical Pacific Ocean. ENSO periodically fluctuates between three phases: La Niña, Neutral and El Niño.
During our study from 2007 to 2013, there were three La Niña events. There was one El Niño event in 2009, with the initial phase in winter being the strongest across Australia.
Coupled with El Niño, there was a weakening of the Leeuwin Current, the dominant ocean current off WA. There was also a decrease in sea surface temperature and above average rainfall.
ENSO is known to affect the strength of the south-ward flowing Leeuwin Current.
During La Niña, easterly trade winds pile warm water on the western side of the Pacific Ocean. This westerly flow of warm water across the top of Australia through the Indonesian Throughflow results in a stronger Leeuwin Current.
During El Niño, trade winds weaken or reverse and the pool of warm water in the Pacific Ocean gathers on the eastern side of the Pacific Ocean. This results in a weaker Indonesian Throughflow across the top of Australia and a weakening in strength of the Leeuwin Current.
The strength and variability of the Leeuwin Current coupled with ENSO affects species biology and ecology in WA waters. This includes the distribution of fish species, the transport of rock lobster larvae, the seasonal migration of whale sharks and even seabird breeding success.
The question we asked then was whether ENSO could affect dolphin abundance?
What happened during the El Niño?
These El Niño associated conditions may have affected the distribution of dolphin prey, resulting in the movement of dolphins out of the study area in search of adequate prey elsewhere.
This is similar to what happens for seabirds in WA. During an El Niño event with a weakened Leeuwin Current, the distribution of prey changes around seabird’s breeding colonies resulting in a lower abundance of important prey species, such as salmon.
In southwestern Australia, the amount of rainfall is strongly connected to sea surface temperature. When the water temperature in the Indian Ocean decreases, the region receives higher rainfall during winter.
High levels of rainfall contribute to terrestrial runoff and alters freshwater inputs into rivers and estuaries. The changes in salinity influences the distribution and abundance of dolphin prey.
This is particularly the case for the river, estuary, inlet and bay around Bunbury. Rapid changes in salinity during the onset of El Niño may have affected the abundance and distribution of fish species.
Of these strandings, in southwest Australia, there was a peak in June that coincided with the onset of the 2009 El Niño.
Specifically, in the Swan River, Perth, there were several dolphin deaths, with some resident dolphins that developed fatal skin lesions that were enhanced by the low-salinity waters.
What does all this mean?
Our study is the first to describe the effects of climate variability on a coastal, resident dolphin population.
We suggest that the decline in dolphin abundance during the El Niño event was temporary. The dolphins may have moved out of the study area due to changes in prey availability and/or potentially unfavourable water quality conditions in certain areas (such as the river and estuary).
Long-term, time-series datasets are required to detect these biological responses to anomalous climate conditions. But few long-term datasets with data collected year-round for cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises) are available because of logistical difficulties and financial costs.
Continued long-term monitoring of dolphin populations is important as climate models provide evidence for the doubling in frequency of extreme El Niño events (from one event every 20 years to one event every ten years) due to global warming.
With a projected global increase in frequency and intensity of extreme weather events (such as floods, cyclones), coastal dolphins may not only have to contend with increasing coastal human-related activities (vessel disturbance, entanglement in fishing gear, and coastal development), but also have to adapt to large-scale climatic changes.
When a foreign species arrives in a new environment and spreads to cause some form of economic, health, or ecological harm, it’s called a biological invasion. Often stowing away among the cargo of ships and aircraft, such invaders cause billions of dollars of economic loss annually across the globe and have devastating impacts on the environment.
While the number of introductions which eventually lead to such invasions is rising across the globe, most accidental introduction events involve small numbers of individuals and species showing up in a new area.
But new research published today in Science has found that hundreds of marine species travelled from Japan to North America in the wake of the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami (which struck the east coast of Japan with devastating consequences).
Marine introductions result from biofouling, the process by which organisms start growing on virtually any submerged surface. Within days a slimy bacterial film develops. After months to a few years (depending on the water temperature) fully formed communities may be found, including algae, molluscs such as mussels, bryozoans, crustaceans, and other animals.
Current biosecurity measures, such as antifouling on ships and border surveillance, are designed to deal with a steady stream of potential invaders. But they are ill-equipped to deal with an introduction event of the scale recorded along most of the North American coast. This would be just as true for Australia, with its extensive coastlines, as it is for North America.
Mass marine migration
This research, led by James Carlton of Williams College, shows that over a few years after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, many marine organisms arrived along the west coast of North America on debris derived from human activity. The debris ranged from small pieces of plastic to buoys, to floating docks and damaged marine vessels. All of these items harboured organisms. Across the full range of debris surveyed, scores of individuals from roughly 300 species of marine creatures arrived alive. Most of them were new to North America.
The tsunami swept coastal infrastructure and many human artefacts out to sea. Items that had already been in the water before the tsunami carried their marine communities along with them. The North Pacific Current then transported these living communities across the Pacific to Alaska, British Columbia, Oregon, Washington and California.
What makes this process unusual is the way a natural extreme event – the earthquake and associated tsunami – gave rise to an extraordinarily large introduction event because of its impact on coastal infrastructure. The researchers argue that this event is of unprecedented magnitude, constituting what they call “tsunami-driven megarafting”: rafting being the process by which organisms may travel across oceans on debris – natural or otherwise.
It’s not known how many of these new species will establish themselves and spread in their new environment. But, given what we know about the invasion process, it’s certain at least some will. Often, establishment and initial population growth is hidden, especially in marine species. Only once it is either costly or impossible to do something about a new species, is it detected.
Perhaps one of the largest questions the study raises is whether this was a once off event. Might similar future occurrences be expected? Given the rapid rate of coastal infrastructure development, the answer is clear: this adds a new dimension to coastal biosecurity that will have to be considered.
Investment in coastal planning and early warning systems will help, as will reductions in plastic pollution. But such investment may be of little value if action is not taken to adhere to, and then exceed, nationally determined contributions to the Paris Agreement. Without doing so, a climate change-driven sea level rise of more than 1 m by the end of the century may be expected. This will add significantly to the risks posed by the interactions between natural extreme events and the continued development of coastal infrastructure. In other words, this research has uncovered what might be an increasingly common new ecological process in the Anthropocene – the era of human-driven global change.
Over the past five weeks I led a “voyage of discovery”. That sounds rather pretentious in the 21st century, but it’s still true. My team, aboard the CSIRO managed research vessel, the Investigator, has mapped and sampled an area of the planet that has never been surveyed before.
Bizarrely, our ship was only 100km off Australia’s east coast, in the middle of a busy shipping lane. But our focus was not on the sea surface, or on the migrating whales or skimming albatross. We were surveying The Abyss – the very bottom of the ocean some 4,000m below the waves.
To put that into perspective, the tallest mountain on the Australian mainland is only 2,228m. Scuba divers are lucky to reach depths of 40m, while nuclear submarines dive to about 500m. We were aiming to put our cameras and sleds much, much deeper. Only since 2014, when the RV Investigator was commissioned, has Australia had the capacity to survey the deepest depths.
The months before the trip were frantic, with so much to organise: permits, freight, equipment, flights, medicals, legal agreements, safety procedures, visas, finance approvals, communication ideas, sampling strategies – all the tendrils of modern life (the thought “why am I doing this?” surfaced more than once). But remarkably, on May 15, we had 27 scientists from 14 institutions and seven countries, 11 technical specialists, and 22 crew converging on Launceston, and we were off.
Life at sea takes some adjustment. You work 12-hour shifts every day, from 2 o’clock to 2 o’clock, so it’s like suffering from jetlag. The ship was very stable, but even so the motion causes seasickness for the first few days. You sway down corridors, you have one-handed showers, and you feel as though you will be tipped out of bed. Many people go off coffee. The ship is “dry”, so there’s no well-earned beer at the end of a hard day. You wait days for bad weather to clear and then suddenly you are shovelling tonnes of mud through sieves in the middle of the night as you process samples dredged from the deep.
Surveying the abyss turns out to be far from easy. On our very first deployment off the eastern Tasmanian coast, our net was shredded on a rock at 2,500m, the positional beacon was lost, tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of gear gone. It was no one’s fault; the offending rock was too small to pick up on our multibeam sonar. Only day 1 and a new plan was required. Talented people fixed what they could, and we moved on.
I was truly surprised by the ruggedness of the seafloor. From the existing maps, I was expecting a gentle slope and muddy abyssal plain. Instead, our sonar revealed canyons, ridges, cliffs and massive rock slides – amazing, but a bit of a hindrance to my naive sampling plan.
But soon the marine animals began to emerge from our videos and samples, which made it all worthwhile. Life started to buzz on the ship.
Secrets of the deep
Like many people, scientists spend most of their working lives in front of a computer screen. It is really great to get out and actually experience the real thing, to see animals we have only read about in old books. The tripod fish, the faceless fish, the shortarse feeler fish (yes, really), red spiny crabs, worms and sea stars of all shapes and sizes, as well as animals that emit light to ward off predators.
The level of public interest has been phenomenal. You may already have seen some of the coverage, which ranged from the fascinated to the amused – for some reason our discovery of priapulid worms was a big hit on US late-night television. In many ways all the publicity mirrored our first reactions to animals on the ship. “What is this thing?” “How amazing!”
The important scientific insights will come later. It will take a year or so to process all the data and accurately identify the samples. Describing all the new species will take even longer. All of the material has been carefully preserved and will be stored in museums and CSIRO collections around Australia for centuries.
On a voyage of discovery, video footage is not sufficient, because we don’t know the animals. The modern biologist uses high-resolution microscopes and DNA evidence to describe the new species and understand their place in the ecosystem, and that requires actual samples.
So why bother studying the deep sea? First, it is important to understand that humanity is already having an impact down there. The oceans are changing. There wasn’t a day at sea when we didn’t bring up some rubbish from the seafloor – cans, bottles, plastic, rope, fishing line. There is also old debris from steamships, such as unburned coal and bits of clinker, which looks like melted rock, formed in the boilers. Elsewhere in the oceans there are plans to mine precious metals from the deep sea.
Second, Australia is the custodian of a vast amount of abyss. Our marine exclusive economic zone (EEZ) is larger than the Australian landmass. The Commonwealth recently established a network of marine reserves around Australia. Just like National Parks on land, these have been established to protect biodiversity in the long term. Australia’s Marine Biodiversity Hub, which provided funds for this voyage, as been established by the Commonwealth Government to conduct research in the EEZ.
Our voyage mapped some of the marine reserves for the first time. Unlike parks on land, the reserves are not easy to visit. It was our aim to bring the animals of the Australian Abyss into public view.
We discovered that life in the deep sea is diverse and fascinating. Would I do it again? Sure I would. After a beer.