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February 6, 2014
Sea Level Variations Escalating Along Gulf of Mexico
Around the globe, sea levels typically rise a little in summer and fall again in winter. Now, a new study shows that from the Florida Keys to southern Alabama those fluctuations have been intensifying over the past 20 years. Summer peaks have been getting higher and winter troughs dipping lower, potentially increasing flooding from hurricanes and stressing delicate ecosystems, the researchers report.
 
The additional summer increase in sea level over the past two decades means storm surges can rise higher than previously thought, increasing how much sea level rise contributes to the flooding risk from hurricanes, according to Thomas Wahl, a postdoctoral researcher from the University of Siegen in Germany who is working at the University of South Florida in St. Petersburg and lead author of the study.
 
Global sea levels rose by about 5 centimeters from 1993 to 2011, and the newfound trend of summer sea level rise has added approximately 5 centimeters on top of that in the eastern Gulf.

Caption: Sunset Beach on Treasure Island in St. Petersburg, Florida, during Tropical Storm Andrea in June 2013. (Photo Credit: Thomas Wahl)

Source: American Geophysical Union press release

University Teams From Three Continents
Race Human-Powered Submarines

Twelve teams from universities in six countries spanning three continents will be meeting in July 2014 to take part in the second biennial European International Submarine Races at QinetiQ’s Ocean Basin in Gosport, U.K., the biggest covered water space in Europe.
 
This week-long event, running from July 7 to 11, is a unique sporting and engineering challenge. It tests the students’ engineering skills, for every human-powered submarine taking part is designed and built by the university concerned with amendments, adjustments and rebuilding taking place during the week. It also tests their sporting prowess and stamina. The teams race against the clock, with the pilot wearing scuba gear and pedaling underwater around a slalom course in the tank measuring 122 meters by 61 meters and 5.5 meters deep.

The day offers attendees, racers and visitors alike, the opportunity to hear about the challenges that face working marine engineers.

Caption: École de Technologie Supérieure (Quebec, Canada) team's submarine Omer 8 was the overall winner in 2012. (Photo Credit: European International Subrace)

Source: European International Subrace press release

Flooding Damage Predicted to be More Costly
Than Protective Measures

Within the next century, more sea walls will be popping up as the cost of damage from flooding is predicted to exceed that of preparation, according to a study reported by Scientific American

Flooding in the years to come could rack up damages totaling $100 trillion as homes near the flood level are affected by the rising seas. The research suggests that by taking preventative measures, this number could be lowered to about $80 billion in damages.

Along the U.S. East Coast where Superstorm Sandy left cities with $50 million in repairs, officials are looking at options like revetments, dunes and floodgates.

In the past 100 years, the oceans have risen nearly 1 foot. The researchers predict that the trend will encourage governments to invest in projects to keep the water at bay.

Caption: A sea wall supported with steel. (Photo Credit: Clem Rutter, Rochester, Kent)

Source: Scientific American

Man Claims to Have Survived 13 Months at Sea
A man from El Salvador has said that he spent 13 months adrift in the Pacific Ocean after embarking on a shark fishing trip from Mexico, reported the Associated Press. Jose Salvador Alvarenga, 37, turned up on the Marshall Islands last week where he told the Ambassador to the United States that he survived the ordeal by eating fish, turtles and birds.

If true, Alvarenga would have floated more than 6,500 miles before reaching shore. According to his story, Alvarenga, an experienced fisherman working in Mexico for the past 15 years, was pushed off course by a storm. A teenage boy was also on the 23-foot boat, but Alvarenga said the boy died after a month of being at sea.

According to an oceanographer from the University of South Wales, the current off the west coast of Mexico could carry a drifting boat in the direction of the Marshall Islands. Officials still have outstanding questions about Alvarenga's story.

Caption: Map of the Marshall Islands. (Credit: U.S. Department of State)

Source: Associated Press

UnShark Week Spotlights Extreme Marine Life
Casting a red searchlight from under its eyes, the loosejaw fish searches for prey in the deepest corners of the ocean where the only light is a hint of bioluminescence. Being the only underwater creature in the deep ocean that can see the color red, the loosejaw is the sole predator that can detect its searchlight.
 
The loosejaw and other extreme marine creatures are taking a turn in the spotlight as UnShark Week highlights the inhabitants of the ocean other than sharks. Held from February 3 to 8, UnShark Week takes place six months from the Discovery Channel’s Shark Week programs to bring attention to some of the most fascinating species in the water.
 
“It turns out that the most extreme critters in the ocean really aren’t sharks,” said Steve Palumbi, a professor of marine biology at Stanford University and co-author of "The Extreme Life of the Sea," a book that will hit shelves next month highlighting some of the millions of marine species.
 
When it comes to the fastest fish, the marlin has been clocked swimming at speeds of up to 60 to 80 miles per hour. The average shark can move at about 15 miles per hour. To demonstrate, an UnShark Week segment will feature a Marlin cruising around on the roof of Palumbi’s car at 40 miles per hour.
 
Now able to bring deep-sea creatures to the surface, scientists have been studying how these species live their lives. Much research has focused on hydrothermal vents, deep cracks in the sea floor where water and hot lava mix, and the life that has adapted to exist in an environment where the temperature is above boiling.
 
For UnShark Week, stories will posted online. But about 200 tales of marine life will be featured in "The Extreme Life of the Sea." Palumbi said the goal was to tell the stories in a nonscientific way that everyone could enjoy.
 
“There are 400 shark species and a million other species in the ocean,” said Palumbi. “There are a million stories out there.”

Caption: A loosejaw fish. (Photo Credit: Filip em)

Scientists Dive and Discover Hydrothermal Vents
For one month, a team from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) set out to better understand microbial chemosynthesis at deep-sea vents near the East Pacific Rise off the coast of Mexico. Through the expedition's Dive and Discover website, students and the public can follow along as the scientists conduct research and get a glimpse of daily life aboard the vessel Atlantis. Stefan Sievert, a WHOI microbiologist leading the expedition as chief scientist, told Sea Technology magazine about the importance of the project, which is funded by the National Science Foundation's Dimensions of Biodiversity program.

Why are the ecosystems in deep-sea hydrothermal vents unique?
Deep sea vents were only discovered 35 years ago, and there is still a lot we don’t understand. These systems exist in complete darkness, yet they are highly productive. The reason for this is that there are microbes at the base of the food chain that can convert chemical energy coming from within the Earth into carbon that can be used by other organisms, such as animals.

Why are they difficult to study?
First off, they are located in the deep ocean, which is generally difficult to access and subject to extreme pressures. One needs specialized equipment to get there, such as ROVs or manned submersibles. In addition, the vents are emitting hot, corrosive fluids, adding additional challenges for equipment. Studying the organisms down there is challenging. The organisms live under extreme conditions and it’s not easy to recreate the conditions in the lab to study their activities.

What research questions are you hoping to answer during the expedition?
We are particularly interested in studying the activities of microbes living in vent environments. What energy sources and nutrients do they need to grow? How fast do they grow? How efficiently do they convert the available energy into cell biomass? What are the critical reactions supporting the microbes and thus the ecosystem? We are also addressing the diversity of the microbes using genomic, transcriptomic, and proteomic approaches to identify the biochemical pathways they are using. This will help us to better understand how these ecosystems function and assess their role in the deep ocean.

What equipment will you use to study the environment?
We are using a diverse suite of equipment for our study. We are using chemical sensors that can measure pH, sulfide, oxygen, iron and manganese directly at the seafloor. We are also taking fluid samples to measure the chemistry more extensively onboard the ship and back onshore. In this case we are using so-called isobaric gastight samplers. As the name implies, these samplers maintain the fluid at seafloor pressure, preventing the degassing of the sample during retrieval. The fluids collected with these samplers are also being used for experiments on board the ship to examine the microbes under conditions that are close to their natural environment. We are also using pumps that filter large volumes of hydrothermal fluid directly at the seafloor to collect the microbes for subsequent molecular analyses.
 
How does the Dive and Discover website bring the ocean to the classroom?
Dive and Discover is an interactive website designed for students from middle school (grades 6-8) through high school, as well as the interested public. Website visitors can follow the cruise and experience much of what the researchers are doing and learning through daily written updates, videos, slideshows and interviews with scientists, technicians, engineers and members of the ship's crew. There's also a "Mail Buoy" where students and teachers can send their questions about the expedition and the science involved.

What has been the most challenging expedition since the start of the website?
All the expeditions present unique challenges. Some expeditions include testing of new technology and techniques, which may not work the first time out. Even usually reliable equipment can break or develop glitches. The ships have good facilities for making and repairing mechanical and electronic devices, and the technicians and engineers are very good at fixing things on the fly, but that takes time away from the scientific mission. The weather may prevent the expedition team from deploying vehicles such as Alvin or Jason (and may render team members too sick to work). On one expedition, the science mission was interrupted by a request to assist in the rescue of people aboard a sinking ship.

 
How do you decide what the next expedition will be?
It begins with a proposal from the lead scientist for funding. There are plenty of other considerations, too, such as the length of the cruise and the time of year that the work will be going on. We prefer to highlight an expedition that is two- to three-weeks long. It's also important that the cruise will be happening during the school year, because we want students and teachers to follow along and participate by sending in their questions. Another important aspect to consider is the research itself—what science questions are they looking to answer? And of course, it helps if there will be interesting visual elements to the expedition.


Caption: The Crab Spa vent site photographed by the ROV Jason. (Photo Credit: Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)  

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