Buried treasure: finding safer ways to tap into oil and gas from our oceans

By Dr Kenneth Lee
Director, CSIRO Wealth from Oceans Flagship

If anything good is to come from the devastation caused by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and Australia’s Montara oil and gas leak the year before, it is that we learn from our mistakes.

It’s now more than three years since the April 2010 explosion and oil spill at the BP drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico, considered the world’s largest marine oil spill. Its effects are still being felt today – and there is still too much that we don’t yet know about its long-term costs.

That’s the challenge for scientists, the oil and gas industry and others: to develop better ways to safely tap into the wealth of our oceans to meet huge global demand for oil and gas, while still protecting our marine habitat and the communities who depend on it.
Witness to a disaster.

As a scientist involved in the development and application of oil spill counter-measures, back in 2010 I was asked by US Government agencies to assist in the oil spill response in the Gulf.

Dr Ken Lee, Director, CSIRO Wealth from Oceans Flagship.

Dr Ken Lee, Director, CSIRO Wealth from Oceans Flagship.

While working with a science team to monitor the effectiveness and potential environmental impacts of the clean-up, I witnessed how the spill affected the region’s environment and some of the surrounding local communities.

As a result of this firsthand experience, I was asked to serve on the US National Research Council Committee that was asked by Congress to examine the broader environmental, economic and social impacts of the Gulf spill.

Our report found that the US government could not fully account for the true costs of the disaster using current methods.

We found there is a substantial gap in our understanding of the social and economic impacts of the oil spill on the multiple uses of the Gulf, such as for tourism and fisheries.

Our study also highlighted the limits in our knowledge about processes in the deep sea ecosystem, such as nutrient recycling and microbial degradation of oil, which could influence the level of productivity of the ocean.

An offshore oil and gas drilling platform in Australian waters.

An offshore oil and gas drilling platform in Australian waters.

Oil and gas in Australia

The US isn’t the only place we can learn from. Closer to home, four years after Australia’s worst oil and gas leak at the Montara station in the Timor Sea off the coast of Western Australia, the station resumed production in June this year.

There has been a transformation of its management culture, operational capabilities, safety processes and environmental systems. PTTEP Australasia (the operators of the Montara station) said that the changes were all validated by five independent reviews commissioned by the Australian Government.

Learning lessons from such experiences is more important than ever, given that oil and gas remain a critical part in Australia’s future energy needs.

Domestic demand for oil is expected to remain fairly constant through to 2035, with imports likely to triple. By 2035, Australia’s gas production is expected to quadruple and by the end of this decade, Australia may rival Qatar as the world’s largest exporter of liquid natural gas (LNG).

Despite the vast majority of our oil currently coming from offshore Australia, our nation’s deep sea remains relatively unexplored and there is significant potential for new resources to be found in deepwater frontier basins, such as in the Great Australian Bight.

In the last few months alone, 13 new offshore petroleum exploration permits have been granted for the Indian Ocean off the coast of Western Australia, as well as offshore from Tasmania.

Plugging gaps in our knowledge

Research collaborations with industry, government agencies and academia provide the essential scientific information required for ecosystem-based management decisions that allow society to benefit from its commercial activities, while protecting our marine habitat and the life within it.

It is vital that we look at impacts across the full life-cycle of offshore energy activities. For example, many people don’t realise that oil and gas production produces operational waste during its day-to-day operations and we want to know the long-term effects on the environment from this waste.

Of course, we need good processes to quickly assess and reduce environmental damage when oil spills occur. But we also need to take a bigger picture approach, so that we better understand the wider economic and social impacts of spills, and of oil and gas activities in general.

Our nation’s quest for energy is of economic, social and environmental significance and we need to ensure we have the best available information to inform decision-makers in industry, regulation and government.

Reliable socio-economic and environmental assessments are needed for better informed decisions on applications for offshore oil and gas operations. Such assessments can also serve as a baseline for the guidance of spill response operations and subsequent damage assessments, if a spill ever occurs.

By conducting whole-of-ecosystem studies that examine everything from the sea floor to the ecology of our ocean’s top predators, we can establish benchmarks so that, if environmental damage does occur, we know what the healthy ecosystem looked like and have the knowledge to eventually return it to its original state.

Strengthening ties with industry

Originally from Canada, I now call Perth home after my recent appointment as Director of CSIRO’s Wealth from Oceans National Research Flagship. Australia’s national science agency has a long-standing relationship with the oil and gas industry. The Wealth from Oceans Flagship intends to strengthen its collaboration with industry even further.

In the past, industry-research partnerships traditionally focused on improving production technologies and solutions. However, our focus for oil and gas research now includes environmental, economic and social factors, including risk assessments for regulatory approval, exploration, production, transportation, decommissioning, and emergency response to spills and mitigation.

In April this year, a team of scientists from CSIRO, the South Australian Research and Development Institute (SARDI) and the University of Tennessee returned from a research voyage to the Great Australian Bight. BP Developments Australia has been granted exploration rights in the Bight and is now collaborating with CSIRO, SARDI, University of Adelaide and Flinders University to conduct one of only a few whole-of-ecosystem studies ever undertaken in Australia.

This four-year, $20 million collaboration will examine the oceanography, ecology, and geochemistry of the Bight. It will also conduct socio-economic research on communities and businesses dependent on the Bight to ensure the future developments co-exist with the area’s environment, industries and the community.

Successful collaborations can benefit the bottom-line and the environment. In 2012 Petronas and CSIRO launched Pipeassure, a material used to protect pipelines against corrosion in harsh marine environments. This product, now commercially available, offers considerable benefits over conventional repair technologies and reduces production downtimes, benefiting both the operating company and the environment.

Balancing our need for offshore oil and gas while minimising the legacy of environmental impact on our marine life is a major challenge worldwide. My goal is for Australia to be a leader in setting standards for environmental protection, as well as in developing technology and training experts, ready to work in a globalised industry.

This article was originally published at The Conversation. Read the original article.


Requiescat in pace – FFT

Nearly three years after Friday Fish Time was spawned, the time has come to kill it off. FFT served us well, but now the blog has caught on (and everyone wants to get on board) there is little room left for little fish tales. Time to cast them off, throw them back, reject the best, and recast. So, goodbye my scaly friends.

Nearly three years after Friday Fish Time was spawned, the time has come to kill it off.
FFT served us well, but now the blog has caught on (and everyone wants to get on board) there is little room left for little fish tales. Time to cast them off, throw them back, reject the best, and recast.
So, goodbye my scaly friends.


Marine life spawns sooner as our oceans warm

This eastern shovelnose stingaree was once unheard of in northern Tasmania. Now it is abundant. Image: Peter Last.

This eastern shovelnose stingaree was once unheard of in northern Tasmania. Now it is abundant. Image: Peter Last.

By Research Scientists Anthony Richardson and Elvira Poloczanska.

Warming oceans are affecting the breeding patterns and habitat of marine life, according to a three-year international study published today in Nature Climate Change. This is effectively re-arranging the broader marine landscape as species adjust to a changing climate.

Scientific and public attention to the impacts of climate change has generally focused on how biodiversity and people are being affected on land.

In the last Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report in 2007, less than 1% of the synthesis information on impacts of climate change on natural systems came from the ocean.

Yet marine systems cover 71% of Earth’s surface, and we depend on marine life for food, recreation and half the oxygen we breathe. A key unanswered question is whether marine life is buffered from climate change because of the much more gradual warming in our surface oceans – about one-third as fast as on land.

What’s happening in our oceans?

An international team of scientists from Australia, USA, Canada, UK, Europe and South Africa, and funded by the US National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis, set out to answer this question. They conducted the first global analysis of climate change impacts on marine life, assembling a large database of 1,735 biological changes from peer-reviewed studies.

Are changes in marine life consistent with climate change? Image: Elvira Poloczanksa.

Are changes in marine life consistent with climate change? Image: Elvira Poloczanksa.

Just as the medical profession pools information on the symptoms of individual patients from surgeries and hospitals to reveal patterns of disease outbreaks, we pooled information from many studies to show a global fingerprint of the impact of recent climate change on marine life. Changes were documented from studies conducted in every ocean, with an average timespan of 40 years.

Although there is a perception in the general public that impacts of climate change are an issue for the future, the pervasive and already observable changes in our oceans are stunning. Climate change has already had a coherent and significant fingerprint across all ecosystems (coastal to open ocean), latitudes (polar to tropical) and trophic levels (plankton to sharks).

These fingerprints show that warming is causing marine species to shift where they live and alter the timing of nature’s calendar. In total, 81% of all changes were consistent with the expected impacts of climate change.

Moving poleward, breeding earlier

As temperatures warm, marine species are shifting their geographic distribution toward the poles. Most intriguingly, though, they are doing so much faster than their land-based counterparts. The leading edge or front-line of marine species distributions is moving toward the poles at an average of 72 km per decade — considerably faster than species on land that are moving poleward at an average of 6 km per decade. Plankton and bony fish, many of which are commercially important, showed the largest shifts.

This Giant Rock Barnacle (Austromegabalanus nigrescens) is expanding down the east coast of Tasmania. Image: Elvira Poloczanska.

This Giant Rock Barnacle (Austromegabalanus nigrescens) is expanding down the east coast of Tasmania. Image: Elvira Poloczanska.

Warmer temperatures are also changing the timing of breeding, feeding, and migration events. For marine life, their spring events have advanced by more than four days, nearly twice the figure for land. The strength of response varied among species, but again, the research showed the greatest response — up to 11 days in advancement — was for plankton and larval bony fish.

Currents clearly play a role in the large distribution movements seen in the ocean, but there is a more-subtle phenomenon is also at work. Temperature gradients are more gentle in the ocean than over much of the land, and this has important implications for species movement.

Consider the complex topography on land. Many land plants and animals only need to move short distances up or down mountains to reach different temperature regimes. As the ocean surface is relatively flat, marine plants and animals must move greater distances to keep up with their preferred environments as oceans warm.

Seasonal cycles are also dampened in the ocean, meaning that for a set amount of warming, marine species need to shift their timing much earlier than on land.

Australian effect

Although the study reported global impacts, there is strong evidence of change in the Australian marine environment. Australia’s south-east tropical and subtropical species of fish, molluscs and plankton are shifting much further south through the Tasman Sea. In the Indian Ocean, there is a southward distribution of sea birds as well as loss of cool-water seaweeds from regions north of Perth.

Some of the favourite catches of recreational and commercial fishers are likely to decline, while other species, not previously in the area, could provide new fishing opportunities. Essentially, these findings indicate that changes in life events and distribution of species indicates we are seeing widespread reorganisation of marine ecosystems, with likely significant repercussions for the services these ecosystems provide to humans.

The Tasman Sea is rapidly warming. Image: Elvira Poloczanska.

The Tasman Sea is rapidly warming. Image: Elvira Poloczanska.

This article was originally published at The Conversation. Read the original article.


Friday Fish Time

Common name: Blue Marlin. Scientific name: Makaira nigricans. Family: Istiophoridae.

Common name: Blue Marlin. Scientific name: Makaira nigricans.
Family: Istiophoridae.

Blue Marlin: This week a blue marlin washed up on a suburban Adelaide beach. It is thought this is the first time a marlin has been found in the cool waters of Gulf St Vincent where Adelaide sits.

Scientists from the South Australian Research and Development Institute think the fish took a wrong turn at Kangaroo Island and ended up in the Gulf.

They also think that the 3.2m long, 250kg marlin swan along the WA and SA coasts in the warm Leeuwin Current which at this time of year flows down the WA coast and around into the Great Australian Bight.

Below is a picture of the current (red turning to yellow and green as it cools) whipping around the bottom of WA. The second image shows the SA coast with the relatively warm water flowing around Kangaroo Island.

More images of the ocean currents around Australia can be found at the Bureau of Meteorology site which gets the information through the Bluelink program  run by CSIRO’s Wealth from Oceans Flagship in collaboration with the Bureau of Meteorology and the Royal Australian Navy.

Current

current2

Anyway, back to the blue marlin. There is a debate going on about the classification of the Atlantic blue marlin and the

Indo-Pacific blue marlin (Makaira mazara) as separate species. Genetic data seems to show that although the two groups are isolated from each other they are both the same.

The blue marlin spends most of its life in the open sea far from land and preys on a wide variety of marine life and often uses its long bill to stun or injure its prey.

Females can grow up to four times the weight of males and the maximum published weight is 818kg and 5m long.

Blue marlin, like other billfish can rapidly change color, an effect created by pigment-containing iridophores and light-reflecting skin cells. Mostly they have a blue-black body on top with a silvery white underside.

Females can spawn up to four times in one season and release over seven million eggs at once. Males may live for 18 years, and females up to 27.

National Parks and Wildlife officer Josh Edwards and PIRSA aquatic health officer Dr Shane Roberts help to transport the blue marlin found on Carrickalinga beach. Pic: SARDI

National Parks and Wildlife officer Josh Edwards and PIRSA aquatic health officer Dr Shane Roberts help to transport the blue marlin found on Carrickalinga beach this week.
Pic: SARDI


Looking for a sea change?

Originally posted on Investigator @ CSIRO:

Later this year the MNF will take delivery of Investigator, a new state-of-the-art, research vessel capable of carry up to 40 scientists and support staff, on voyages that can last for 60 days, to destinations like Antarctica, the Southern, Indian and Pacific Oceans and up into the oceans near East Timor.

The delivery of Investigator to Hobart, Australia, means the MNF needs more support staff, some of whom will go to sea, while others will gladly stand and the wharf and wave others off.

Check out this recently produced video from onboard the MNF’s current research vessel, Southern Surveyor, showing some of the work that occurs onboard.

If you can see yourself as part of this team, then check out the multiple support positions then go to the CSIRO Careers portal http://www.csiro.au/Portals/Careers.aspx.

Applications and inquiries can ONLY be received via the CSIRO Careers portal.

For more information on Australia’s Marine…

View original 5 more words


Friday Fish Time

Common name: Dark Smiling Whiptail. Scientific name: Ventrifossa sazonovi. Family: Macrouridae.

Common name: Dark Smiling Whiptail. Scientific name: Ventrifossa sazonovi. Family: Macrouridae.

Dark Smiling Whiptail: I was trying to be smart and find a fish with some sort of connection to the Winter Solstice (today) to try and make the shortest day of the year bearable. So I started to search the ScienceImage database using words like solstice, daylight, night etc etc and came across the Dark Smiling Whiptail.

I have got to tell you there is very little of interest about this fish. It lives down to about 850m of water which is something, but apart from that, not much.

Then I started to have a look at the scientists who described the fish and named it in 1999 – T. Iwamoto & A. Williams. As it turned out Dr Tomio Iwamoto has been the Curator of Ichthyology for 37 years at the California Academy of Sciences.

Then I found a connection to CSIRO. Dr Iwamoto is named as one a number of scientists who have made a major contribution to the fishmap interactive database which is a part of the Atlas of Living Australia. Dr Iwamoto has done a lot of work in Australian waters and contributed an enormous amount of information and experience to marine science.

There is always something interesting about everything.

So, hopefully this has helped get you through the day. For those in the Southern Hemisphere, from now on things are looking brighter!


Take a bite at the Bight – and its deep ocean ecosystem

One of the many animals collected from the Bight’s deep water column, the unusual amphipod (genus Phronima) – a type of crustacean.

One of the many animals collected from the Bight’s deep water column, the unusual amphipod (genus Phronima) – a type of crustacean.

At the surface, it is home to white sharks, southern bluefin tuna, and marine mammals including blue whales and sealions – the images that make the Great Australian Bight a vast and iconic Australian ocean region.

Down deep there’s another lesser known world – and a frontier area for marine science, plus oil and gas exploration. Although we know that more than 85 per cent of shallow Bight species (such as those mentioned above) can be found nowhere else in the world, very little is known about their deep water counterparts.

We recently returned from 20 days exploring deep waters of the Bight – the first voyage supporting our recently announced science collaboration with BP and Marine Innovation Southern Australia (MISA, a consortium of South Australia’s major marine research institutions, including the South Australian Research and Development Institute, University of Adelaide, Flinders University and the South Australian Museum); a collaboration aimed at gaining a greater scientific understanding of the Bight.

In the video below meet CSIRO’s Mark Lewis and see our research in action.

In one of only a few whole-of-ecosystem studies undertaken in Australia, CSIRO and MISA are providing information to decision makers in industry and government to support sustainable development in the Bight and monitor possible future impacts.

Aboard Australia’s Marine National Facility research vessel, the Southern Surveyor (check out a virtual tour of the ship), we surveyed the Bight in depths of 200 to 2000 metres – collecting the deepest set of samples ever taken from the area.

Using a range of equipment, we collected samples of fauna from the seabed and the water column such as fishes, crustaceans (shrimp and crabs) and echinoderms (sea stars, sea urchins and sea cucumbers) and phytoplankton (single-celled plants).  These included unusual species like the bizarre amphipod Phronima (see picture above) and this deep sea crab (below).

One of the many animals collected from the Bight’s deep seabed, we think it could be a new species but we’re checking (it is similar to Ebalia tuberculosa).

One of the many animals collected from the Bight’s deep seabed, we think it could be a new species but we’re checking (it is similar to Ebalia tuberculosa).

We also collected a great variety of environmental information, including acoustic data that will help map the seabed and determine if oil seeps are present. We used what’s called an integrated coring platform (ICP), pictured below, which collects sediment cores from the seabed plus acoustic measurements (we recently blogged about this piece of gear).

Matt Sherlock with the Integrated Coring Platform (ICP). This instrument is lowered to the seafloor, where it collects a set of six sediment cores, along with a water sample. On the way down, and the way back up, it also collects information on the presence of hydrocarbons, and sends out an acoustic signal (much like that of a depth sounder on a boat) to measure fish and plankton presence.

CSIRO electrical engineer, Matt Sherlock with the Integrated Coring Platform (ICP). This instrument is lowered to the seafloor, where it collects a set of six sediment cores, along with a water sample. On the way down, and the way back up, it also collects information on the presence of hydrocarbons, and sends out an acoustic signal (much like that of a depth sounder on a boat) to measure fish and plankton presence.

There is a reason that we’re collecting all of these wonderful critters, samples and data – it will help us understand the composition, distribution and number of species in the Bight, and the ways in which they are influenced by the environment around them. This will be vital information for any potential development in the Bight.

All of this information contributes to an ecosystem model, which will help CSIRO, MISA and BP understand how the ecosystem could change with, for example, future development or exploration (for oil and gas for example), allowing industry and government to plan for future activities in the region in an informed way.

Survey results will be made available to decision makers in industry and government – to help evaluate the needs for future ecological monitoring as oil and gas activities accelerate and expand in Australia’s deep ocean.

Read more about our Great Australian Bight collaboration with BP and MISA.

Mark Green with a recently collected sediment core from the Bight, which will be used to assess the fauna present in the sediments. These are some of the deepest samples ever collected from the Great Australian Bight.

CSIRO ecologist, Mark Green with a recently collected sediment core from the Bight, which will be used to assess the fauna present in the sediments. These are some of the deepest samples ever collected from the Great Australian Bight.

Last but not least – another amazing piece of gear – the conductivity, temperature, depth sensor (CTD) with niskin bottles (water sampling bottles) for collecting water samples. The instrument is lowered to just above the seabed, recording data on salinity, temperature, oxygen levels, and fluorescence (an indicator of phytoplankton presence) all the way.  Niskin bottles are then fired at specified depths on the way up to collect water samples for detailed analysis of hydrocarbons, phytoplankton and nutrients.

Last but not least – another amazing piece of gear – the conductivity, temperature, depth sensor (CTD) with niskin bottles (water sampling bottles) for collecting water samples. The instrument is lowered to just above the seabed, recording data on salinity, temperature, oxygen levels, and fluorescence (an indicator of phytoplankton presence) all the way. Niskin bottles are then fired at specified depths on the way up to collect water samples for detailed analysis of hydrocarbons, phytoplankton and nutrients.


Friday Fish Time

Common name: Moon Jellyfish. Scientific name: Aurelia aurita. Family: Ulmaridae.

Common name: Moon Jellyfish. Scientific name: Aurelia aurita. Family: Ulmaridae.

Moon Jellyfish: It is rare for these to live more than six months in the wild but they are really interesting.

All species in the genus are closely related and is hard to pick them apart except by genetic sampling.

They grow to about 25–40cm in diameter and can be recognized by its four horseshoe-shaped gonads, easily seen through the top.

It is not really a strong swimmer and it mainly drifts with the current feeding on plankton, fish eggs, small organisms and molluscs. It captures food with its tentacles and scoops it into its body for digestion.

Moon Jellyfish are found throughout most of the world’s oceans, from the tropics to as far north as latitude 70°N (runs through the middle of the US and Spain) and as far south as 40°S (runs through Tasmania).

It has also been found in waters as cool as 6C to as warm as 31C.

They do not have any respiratory parts such as gills, lungs, or trachea so it respires by diffusing oxygen from water through the thin membrane covering its body.


Surf’s up… and down. Wave heights to change as atmosphere warms

Climate scientists studying the impact of changing wave behaviour on the world’s coastlines are reporting a likely decrease in average wave heights across 25 per cent of the global ocean.

In some of the first climate simulations of modelled wave conditions they also found a likely increase in wave height across seven per cent of the global ocean, predominantly in the Southern Ocean.

gopro_surfer

A lone surfer. Image: Flickr/stevenworster

Lead author, Dr Mark Hemer, said that 20 per cent of the world’s coastlines are sandy beaches which are prone to natural or man-made changes. It is estimated that 10 per cent of these sandy coasts are becoming wider as they build seawards, 70 per cent are eroding and the remaining 20 per cent are stable. Around 50 per cent of Australia’s coast is sand.

“Waves are dominant drivers of coastal change in these sandy environments, and variability and change in the characteristics of surface ocean waves (sea and swell) can far exceed the influences of sea-level rise in such environments.

“If we wish to understand how our coasts might respond to future changes in climate then we need to try and understand how waves might respond to the projected changes in global atmospheric circulation seen as shifts in storm frequency, storm intensity and storm tracks,” Dr Hemer stated.

Dr Hemer explained that coastal impacts of climate change studies have predominantly focused on the influence of sea-level rise and, until now, not focussed on how changing wave conditions will impact the coastal zone in a changing climate.

He said sea-level rise is likely to have considerable influence along much of the world’s coastlines. However, with such poor understanding of how changes in waves and other coastal processes will also influence shoreline position, it is difficult to attribute a level of future risk to the coast under a warmer climate.

Coastal cliffs in Sydney's Royal National Park. Image: Flickr/AndrewBeeston

Coastal cliffs in Sydney’s Royal National Park. Image: Flickr/AndrewBeeston

The study compared results from five research groups from Australia, the United States, Japan, Europe and Canada. Each group used different modelling approaches to develop future wave-climate scenarios.

“While we find agreement in projected change in some parts of the world’s oceans, considerable uncertainty remains. We’re continuing to quantify the dominant sources of variation with the latest generation of climate models which will be used in the up-coming Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports,” Dr Hemer said.

He said climate is one of several mostly human-driven factors influencing coastline change. These findings are derived from a study which seeks to understand potential impacts on coasts from climate change driven wind-wave conditions. The study will be published in the print edition of the journal Nature Climate Change on 25 April.

Media: Craig Macaulay  P: 03 6232 5219  M: 0419 966 465  Email: Craig.Macaulay@csiro.au


Friday Fish Time

350px-Lampanyctodes_hectoris_(Hector's_lanternfish)2

The anatomy of Lampanyctodes hectoris
(1) – operculum (gill cover), (2) – lateral line, (3) – dorsal fin, (4) – fat fin, (5) – caudal peduncle, (6) – caudal fin, (7) – anal fin, (8) – photophores, (9) – pelvic fins (paired), (10) – pectoral fins (paired)

As it is Good Friday I thought I would look into the association of fish with Christianity and religion in general. However, that turned out to be way too hard and full of potholes I just could not be bothered navigating around – and I’m trying to pack the swag for camping.

So, rather that concentrate on one fish I have “researched” Wikipedia for a description of all fish.

Here you go:

A fish is any member of a paraphyletic group of organisms that consist of all gill-bearing aquatic craniate animals that lack limbs with digits. Included in this definition are the living hagfish, lampreys, and cartilaginous and bony fish, as well as various extinct related groups. Most fish are ectothermic (“cold-blooded”), allowing their body temperatures to vary as ambient temperatures change, though some of the large active swimmers like white shark and tuna can hold a higher core temperature.

Fish are abundant in most bodies of water. They can be found in nearly all aquatic environments, from high mountain streams (e.g., char and gudgeon) to the abyssal and even hadal depths of the deepest oceans (e.g., gulpers and anglerfish). At 32,000 species, fish exhibit greater species diversity than any other group of vertebrates.

The earliest organisms that can be classified as fish were soft-bodied chordates that first appeared during the Cambrian period. Although they lacked a true spine, they possessed notochords which allowed them to be more agile than their invertebrate counterparts. Fish would continue to evolve through the Paleozoic era, diversifying into a wide variety of forms. Many fish of the Paleozoic developed external armor that protected them from predators. The first fish with jaws appeared in the Silurian period, after which many (such as sharks) became formidable marine predators rather than just the prey of arthropods.


Seasonal climate forecasts: reading tea-leaves in a digital age

It’s getting trickier to forecast future weather, but new models are helping. Image: Jay Wood

By Peter McIntosh, Principal Research Scientist, Marine and Atmospheric Research. 

Tea-leaves, entrails, cockatoos: we all want to forecast the future. Weather forecasts have become so commonplace we rarely think about the technology, research, computing power and millions of observations behind those couple of words: “mostly sunny”.

It’s not just the family BBQ that is at stake here. Farmers make decisions about planting, fertilising and harvesting worth many hundreds of thousands of dollars based on weather forecasts. Emergency services rally resources on high flood or fire risk days. Energy companies crank up the power if the forecast is hot or cold.

But that’s not enough. They all need to see further into the future than a weather forecast allows, and that’s where a seasonal climate forecast comes in.

Lewis Fry Richardson came up with the idea of numerical weather forecasting in 1922. Back then, his computers were real people in a large room scribbling parts of the calculation on notepads and passing them to messengers and an overall coordinator. A weather forecast starts with Newton’s laws of motion as they apply to gases (the atmosphere) and throws in some basic thermodynamics and the “ideal gas” law. These days, digital computers synthesise millions of observations with Richardson’s mathematical equations on a fine grid covering the entire planet to produce 10-day weather forecasts before morning tea.

But are they any good? In short, yes, and improving all the time. The skill of a seven-day forecast today is equal to the skill of a three-day weather forecast 30 years ago. Put that down to faster computers, more observations, and better techniques for using the observations to start the forecast.

However, beyond ten days, there is a problem. The ability to forecast individual weather systems rapidly decreases due to chaos. What this means is that very small errors in the starting conditions for the model (a butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil) can amplify over time and cause large errors. That’s where the ocean comes in.

Water has a much higher heat capacity than air, so the ocean changes its temperature slowly relative to the overlying atmosphere. Once a large patch of ocean becomes warm, it stays warm for many months, influencing weather systems all the while.

A recent example is the 2010-2011 La Niña, where warmer-than-normal ocean temperatures north of Australia contributed to increased rainfall, particularly in Queensland. More generally, ocean surface temperatures in the Pacific and Indian oceans can be linked to rainfall in different parts of the country. The link is made by analysing data going back to 1950 to determine how ocean temperature changes affect rainfall for the following season. This has been the basis of statistical seasonal forecast models such as the Bureau of Meteorology’s Seasonal Climate Outlook.

However, there is an emerging problem. The observations make it clear that the climate is changing and the oceans are warming. The Indian Ocean has warmed by more than half a degree since 1970, and it’s likely that this is affecting its relationship with Australian rainfall.

The past is becoming less of a guide to the future. Statistical models based on these past relationships are gradually losing accuracy and need to be replaced.

The ingredients for a better seasonal forecast are simple: take one weather model, add global models of the ocean, land-surface and sea-ice, add a healthy dash of observations to start it all off and blend at high speed in a supercomputer.

The weather model cannot accurately predict individual weather systems beyond about ten days, but the ocean model ensures that the average behaviour of the individual weather systems is about right for many months into the future. These individual weather systems in turn change the slow-to-respond ocean in a realistic way. The result is a useful forecast of average temperature, rainfall and winds for the next few seasons.

These so-called “coupled ocean-atmosphere global models” are the future of seasonal forecasting. They do not depend on a long history of observations, but instead start from present-day conditions and use physics to divine the future.

As the climate changes, these models adapt because they start from recent observations. Even without the effect of climate change, global coupled models now outperform their simpler statistical counterparts. The seasonal climate outlook has entered the digital age.

Seasonal climate forecasts will never be perfect; there are just too many butterflies out there. But they don’t have to be perfect. In the same way that you can make money betting on dice that you know are loaded, a seasonal forecast can shift the odds in a farmer’s favour. The new breed of seasonal climate forecast will give farmers and others who depend on seasonal climate outlooks the best chance to cope with an uncertain future. And maybe some time to simply sit back and enjoy that cuppa.

Peter McIntosh receives funding from the Australian Government and the Managing Climate Variability Program of the Grains Research and Development Corporation.

The Conversation

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Friday Fish Time

By Sarah Wilson

Today is World Water Day. In the spirit of this day I would like to pay homage to all things freshwater. In particular I would like to draw your attention to a peculiar fish found in the depths of the largest freshwater lake in the world : behold the Golomyanka.

golomyanka

OK, I admit it is a rather unassuming looking fish, but looks can be deceiving. Golomyankas, also known as Baikal oilfish, are only found in one place in the world – Lake Baikal . This UNESCO World Heritage Listed Lake is located in nippy Siberia. It is 25 million years old, contains one fifth of the world’s unfrozen freshwater, and is home to a staggering number of plant and animal species found nowhere else in the world. Earning it the nickname of ‘the Galapagos of Russia’.

As for the fish, it’s pretty amazing too:

Nerpa seal

The nerpa seal – yes, the Golomyanka does seem to contain a lot of fat….

Amazing fact No. 1: They are the world’s most abyssal fish. This means they live in the entire range of depths found in Lake Baikal. That’s a span of up to 1700m below the surface of the water. The pressure of going to these depths would easily crush a human.

No. 2: They rapidly melt in sunlight leaving only oil, fat and bones. (Imagine that!)

No. 3: It is one of only a few viviparous fish in the world. Viviparous means that it doesn’t lay eggs, but gives birth to live young . It gives birth to up to 3000 larvae at a time.

No. 4: They are a primary food source for the Lake Baikal’s nerpa seal. One of the few exclusively freshwater seal species found in the world.

No 5: They have a high fat content (over a third of their body weight is made up of fat). Native Siberians have been known to use them as fuel for their lamps.


Friday Fish Time

Common name: Bareskin Dogfish. Scientific name: Centroscyllium kamoharai. Family: Etmopteridae.

Common name: Bareskin Dogfish. Scientific name: Centroscyllium kamoharai. Family: Etmopteridae.

Bareskin Dogfish: I have an affinity with this dogfish. Little is known about how it works or the environment it inhabits. It is actually a shark and has so far only been found near Japan, along the Australian coast from about Brisbane to Hobart and in a relatively small area from Perth to the north.

Apparently they are dark in color with white-tipped fins, which suggest the pictured specimen above is either an albino or just a very crook sample.

According to what I could find out about them they have no anal fin (who would want one) and has grooved dorsal spines with the second larger than the first. It has a blunt nose, large eyes and large nostrils. It grows to a a maximum of  about 45cm.

They are found in a depth range of 500m to 1200m.

It has litters of three to 22 pups.

And that is about where the information on this thing ends: No information on the reproductive cycle, no information on annual fecundity, gestation period, age at maturity or longevity.


So many fish, one great map

From ugly ducklings like the Rough Dreamer to the kiss-me-I’m-really-a-prince Clown Triggerfish, Australia’s marine fishes are now at your fingertips thanks to FishMap.

Rough Dreamer

Rough Dreamer

FishMap is a free online mapping tool that anyone can use to find out which fishes occur at any location or depth in the waters of Australia’s continental shelf and slope. You can create species lists for any region that include photographs and illustrations, distribution maps and current scientific and common names.

FishMap has a million and one uses for everyday fish lovers, such as finding out which fishes occur at your local fishing spot, creating a personalised pictorial guide or identifying the fish you spotted during a dive. Researchers can examine the range of a threatened species, or figure out what occurs in a marine reserve. Commercial fishers can find out what fishes occur at different depths in the areas they fish, or even determine the possible species composition for catches of any fishery in the waters of Australia’s continental shelf and slope.

Australia’s marine biodiversity is among the richest in world, but before FishMap there was no easy way to generate illustrated species lists for any location you choose within Australia’s marine waters. It’s the only resource of its kind in the world that covers virtually all species of fish found in the marine waters of an entire continent.

FishMap on the Atlas of Living Australia provides the geographical and depth ranges of some 4500 Australian marine fishes, including the Clown Triggerfish (Balistoides conspicillum).

FishMap on the Atlas of Living Australia provides the geographical and depth ranges of some 4500 Australian marine fishes, including the Clown Triggerfish (Balistoides conspicillum).

The tool provides the scientifically known geographical and depth ranges of over 4500 Australian marine fishes – including our 320 sharks and rays. Searches reveal illustrated lists of fishes by area, depth, family or ecosystem. These lists can be printed to create simple guides or, if you really want to get serious about it, data can be downloaded into a spreadsheet for research.

FishMap is built on the Atlas of Living Australia’s open infrastructure, which is bringing Australia’s plants, animals and fungi from Australia’s biological collections to everyone.

FishMap was developed by CSIRO’s Wealth from Oceans Flagship and the Atlas of Living Australia. Try it for yourself at: http://fish.ala.org.au

The Atlas of Living Australia is an initiative of Australia’s museums, herbaria and other biological collections and is supported by the Australian Government through the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy, the Super Science Initiative and the Collaborative Research Infrastructure Scheme.

FishMap will be officially launched on Tuesday 26 February 2013 and is available on the Atlas of Living Australia website: http://fish.ala.org.au

Media: Bryony Bennett. Ph: +61 3 6232 5261 MB: 0438 175 268 E: bryony.bennett@csiro.au


Friday Fish Time

Kapala Lanternfish

Common Name: Kapala Lanternfish. Scientific Name: Diaphus kapalae. Family: Myctophidae

Kapala Lanternfish:

Lanternfish are generally the most abundant group of fishes caught during trawls of the mid-water (mesopelagic) and deep (bathypelagic) regions of the ocean.

They are some of the most widely distributed, populous, and diverse of all vertebrates. Therefore, lanternfish play an important ecological role as prey for larger organisms.

Kapala lanternfish are usually between 35mm – 67 mm in length and are found in the southwestern Pacific Ocean.

Front on view of a Kapala Lanternfish

The image above was posted on our Facebook page last week for users to comment on what the fish was thinking. You can read the great responses we got here.

These images were taken for a photographic guide produced by CSIRO scientists to identify the mid-water fish of the southern Tasman Sea.  Here are some more great images from the guide.

 

DL1_8578

DL1_9873

DL1_9852

Mid-water fishes are notoriously difficult to identify and this guide was developed to help researchers, students, commercial fishers and fisheries observers to identify fishes, encourage standardisation in data collection and foster data sharing. The guide shows both striking images of specimens collected in a good condition while also showing normal specimen quality collected during trawls.

Find out more about the Kapala Lanternfish and other mid-water fish of the southern Tasman Sea by checking out the guide!


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