So there you are, trying to take some pictures of the Aurora Australis, and there’s too much light. When there shouldn’t be. Blue light.
If you jumped to the conclusion that this was an alien invasion, you probably like science fiction. You’d also be right. But the aliens are from Earth, appearing in a place they don’t belong. However, they’re happily making it their home. Jellyfish expert Lisa-Anne Gershwin was in the right place at the right time to identify what was happening.
It’s a dinoflagellate called Noctiluca scintillans (which actually means ‘sparkling night’ in Latin). They’re phytoplankton – single-celled creatures, not strictly an animal, not exactly a plant. Seen separately, they look like tiny colourless lily-pads. But when the conditions are right, they look like something else altogether. Sometimes they bloom – countless tiny creatures, all massed together.
This was what the Aurora Australis photographers saw. All it takes is a good rain, which washes nutrients into the coastal water, combined with a gentle wind to concentrate these tiny creatures into a mass.
These blooms are almost certainly more common than we know, but most go unnoticed because they occur away from places where humans are likely to see them.
They make their own light, using a chemical reaction. Bioluminescence is found in almost every phylum, with different sorts of creatures having different colours of light, and using it for different purposes. It can be a startling effect to would-be predators, a warning to others, a call for help, or a way to recognise a potential mate. In this particular case it’s probably a startling effect, simply because the other explanations indicate greater cognitive function than is likely in single-celled creatures.
At South Arm in Tasmania, where a recent bloom occurred, the beach was blue for kilometres in both directions, glowing and flashing for most of the night. A band 1-2m wide along the beach was glowing quite brightly, and with each lapping wavelet it flashed a brilliant blue. The wave wash on the sand left behind a bed of twinkles.
Dipping your hand in it gave the skin an eerie Avatar-like appearance. A handful of sand thrown into the water elicited a brilliant flash of dots. And a piece of seaweed dipped into the water then flicked produced an amazing arc of light followed by an explosion of light when they hit the water. A kick of the water gave a similar arc and explosion, but even more brightly.
Sounds beautiful, doesn’t it? And it was, except here comes the ‘but’.
They’re an introduced species, penetrating the Southern Ocean, and they’re notorious for fish kills.
The majority of dinoflagellates are more plant-like than animal-like: they photosynthesise. Noctiluca doesn’t. Because it has no chloroplasts, it has to get food the old fashioned way, by eating something else. Mainly the ‘something else’ is other phytoplankton, but has been known to eat copepods (small crustaceans) and even occasionally tiny fish fry. Adjusted for scale, this is the equivalent of a human being eaten by a clam.
It’s been implicated in the decline of fisheries in other areas. Although it does not appear to be toxic itself, it accumulates and excretes high levels of ammonia into the surrounding area while it’s gorging itself on phytoplankton.
Australia’s Biodiversity series – Part 9: Seas and coasts
Life originated in the oceans 3–5 billion years ago and even today 20 of the 33 animal phyla (the highest groupings within the animal kingdom) remain confined to the sea. That means that most life under the sea is like nothing we find on land.
Worldwide there are big gaps in our understanding of the oceans and the life within them. Our exploration of Australia’s marine biodiversity has been limited mostly to the margins of the continent, on the continental shelf and the upper continental slope. Even near the continent, some 50–70% of the species we’ve found in recent surveys have never before been seen by scientists.
New technology and equipment, like autonomous robotic vehicles and electronic tagging, as well as our brand new marine research vessel, RV Investigator, is allowing us to explore in ways we’ve never explored before and so we can begin to address those knowledge gaps.
In the ninth video of our Australia’s Biodiversity series, Dr Alan Butler and Dr Nic Bax talk about the unique habitats of the sea, the challenges it poses to exploration, and new tools and technologies helping us discover and manage the biodiversity it holds:
To find out more about discovering biodiversity in the ocean, you might like to read the corresponding chapter of CSIRO’s Biodiversity Book.
By Simon Torok
Here’s a simple backyard science experiment for you to try, which has global implications.
Grab a garden hose, turn it on, and then put your thumb over the end of it. The flow of water thins, while its power intensifies.
Okay, now multiply that by a few million and you have some idea of the impact of recent La Niña conditions on a major ocean current north of Australia.
The Indonesian Throughflow is a series of ocean currents linking the Pacific and Indian Oceans. It carries water from the Pacific to the Indian Ocean through the passages and straits of the Indonesian Archipelago.
Researchers – led by Janet Sprintall at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in the United States, and including Susan Wijffels from CSIRO in Hobart – have found that the flow of water in the Indonesian Throughflow has become more shallow and intense since the late 2000s due to La Niña conditions, just as the water flow thinned and intensified while you played with that garden hose.
The paper, The Indonesian seas and their role in the coupled ocean-climate system appears in today’s online publication of the journal Nature Geoscience.
The Indonesian Throughflow is the only place in the world where warm equatorial waters flow from one ocean to another; consequently, the throughflow is an important chokepoint in the flow of heat in the climate system.
The paper suggests that human-caused climate change could make this shallowing and intensification a more dominant feature of the Indonesian Throughflow, even under El Niño conditions.
Changes in how much warm water is carried by the Indonesian Throughflow will affect the sea surface temperature, and in turn the patterns of rainfall in our region.
So you may need to think a bit more about how you use that garden hose.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.