JAMM AQUINO / JAQUINO@STARBULLETIN.COM
Robert Bidigare, director of the University of Hawaii Center for Marine Microbial Ecology and Diversity, left, reported findings of a neurotoxic amino acid in certain marine algae. He said it is a possible cause of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis/Parkinsonism dementia complex among Guam's Chamorro people. Discussing the research with Bidigare is Ed Laws, former chairman of the UH oceanography department who is dean of the School of Coast and Environment at Louisiana State.
Oceans still hold vast secrets
The reams of research shared at meetings here are a mere drop in the bucket
SCIENTISTS who study the ocean described their latest findings in 3,200 papers at meetings here last week. Yet, one said, "We are only scratching the surface of the system.
"The ocean is vastly undersampled," said Thomas Rossby, oceanography professor at the University of Rhode Island Graduate School of Oceanography. "Each time we put a sampler in the water, it's incredible what we learn."
Scientists are making progress, said Debbie Steinberg, Virginia Institute of Marine Science associate professor and co-chairwoman of the 2006 Ocean Sciences Meeting, sponsored by the American Geophysical Union at the Hawaii Convention Center.
"We basically are starting to get the ocean wired," she said in an interview. "We're seeing a lot of technology advances that are going to support ocean observing systems."
Scientists said faster computers, inexpensive communications and expanded monitoring of ocean phenomena by volunteer observing ships, satellites and ocean robots have given them information never possible before.
"It's getting to the point of survival for the human species on the planet. A small change makes a big difference."
Division of Marine Science, Harbor Branch Oceanic Institution
Many universities are using underwater gliders which are "revolutionary," said Oscar Schofield, associate professor at Rutgers University's Coastal Ocean Observation Laboratory.
They have wings to move horizontally and can be "flown" in any ocean conditions anywhere in the world with satellite communications -- all from an office, he said.
Operating in big storms, gliders have revealed "striking complexity" in the ocean that can't be seen by satellites, ships or radar, he said.
"As a seagoing oceanographer, it has changed my life," said Schofield.
Eric Terrill, director of the Coastal Observing Research and Development Center, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, said accuracy of storm forecasting has steadily improved.
But forecasting a storm's intensity is still difficult because of lack of data in the upper ocean, he said.
Terrill said robots are being used now in the ocean, along with hurricane surveillance planes, to understand the physics of the ocean during a severe storm.
About 2,000 robots are in the ocean as part of a global program to monitor the ocean's climate over five years, he said.
Silent gliders with acoustic recorders can record baleen whales vocalizing from several miles away and track their movements, said Mark Baumgartner of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.
He said the autonomous vehicles are "a real powerful tool" to gather oceanographic and acoustic measurements and monitor endangered species in sensitive areas.
Scripps has developed an ocean robot known as SOLOPC (Sounding Oceanographic Lagrangian Observer Laser Optical Plankton Counter), which measures particles and plankton in the upper ocean and sends data ashore by satellite.
Continuous measurements are important to measure carbon dioxide being taken up by the ocean from the atmosphere, said Scripps Professor David Checkley, Jr.
Steinberg said one of the key themes for the ocean meeting was "biodiversity and biocomplexity -- what lives in the ocean and how does it affect how the ocean ecosystem functions?
"We certainly know more now than we did several years ago about the ocean food webs and species but still, when it's said we are just scratching the surface, in a way it's true."
She said new molecular techniques are enabling scientists to see how much more diverse the ocean is from microbial communities of bacteria to bigger animals.
The impact of acoustic devices and other sounds on marine animals is a great concern.
Jeffrey Nystuen, University of Washington Applied Physics Laboratory principal oceanographer, has designed instruments to sort out sounds of ships, waves, animals and even raindrops, which he said can be heard on the ocean bottom.
He's trying to sort out the different sounds so activities can be modified where noise levels bother animals.
Terri Jordan, with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Jacksonville, Fla., described a Corps project to deepen the Port of Miami last year using confined explosives to reduce the impact on manatees, dolphins and sea turtles.
She said 186 animals were monitored in the area during construction, involving 40 blasts in 37 days, and there was only one recorded reaction. "A dolphin jumped from the water."
Oceans and the climate is another big issue confronting scientists.
"Because of these observing systems and other things we know now, we have a lot more information to feed into global climate models, so we're starting to learn more about how human influences on climate are affecting the ocean," Steinberg said.
Global warming is affecting the diversity and abundance of organisms, researchers reported. And they're asking how they can get the message across to the public that ecosystems are in jeopardy.
Underwater gliders are unmanned research vessels that allow scientists to plunge into the middle of the sea without leaving their offices.
The public knows more about space than they do about the ocean, Steinberg said, pointing out that schools have no ocean curriculum and many kids aren't exposed to it.
"We have such critical issues facing us ... we need to do a better job of making people informed."
"We need an environment (TV) channel," suggested Brian Lapointe, of the Division of Marine Science, Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution in Florida.
"It's getting to the point of survival for the human species on the planet," said Lapointe, who was among 130 scientists from 95 countries and 22 national academies who found the earth in bad shape in a millennium assessment.
"A small change makes a big difference," he said.
Scientists said there is no data to say whether coral reefs are doomed, but they are declining.
Lapointe believes corals have survived warming changes over a geologic time scale.
"But they have never had to deal with global fertilization of nitrogen." Their recovery may depend upon their ability to purge themselves of nutrients, he said.
Curt Storlazzi, U.S. Geological Survey research oceanographer at the Pacific Science Center in Santa Cruz, Calif., is part of a large crew of scientists studying coral reefs in Hawaii.
The Intergovernment Panel on Climate Change conservatively predicts a 20-inch rise in sea level over the next century, he said, reporting results of a continuing study of the large fringing reef off Molokai's south coast.
Four instrument packages were installed across the reef in 2001 to understand how winds, tides, waves and currents affect terrestrial sediments on the reefs.
A 20-inch rise in water depth will have a dramatic effect, transporting land-based sediments, nutrients and contaminants from the shallow reef to the deeper reef with the greatest coral cover and diversity, Storlazzi said.
Sediments from volcanic eruptions, human activities and animal overgrazing are the biggest concern for coral reefs in Hawaii, he said.
Increased loads of sediments block sunlight needed for photosynthesis or smother coral and increased nutrients with contaminants stress corals and produce algal blooms that overrun corals, he said.