Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Canary in the Coalmine

Lattitude: 39 degrees
Longitude: 069 degrees

Sea Legs

Yes, it occurred to me today that I am really getting my “sea legs.”

Actually, that’s what my husband, (Dr. Bill Thompson of WHOI) said to me in a recent email. And I confess, I really am enjoying myself on the Knorr. Plus, I have learned so much! Cindy, the scientist who sits next to me, said that she has given me a crash course in Geology 101.

She teaches at the University of Massachusetts School for Marine Science and Technology and I just know she’s a fabulous professor, because she is a genius at explaining all this science to me! Plus, she’s really, really nice and always willing to talk to me, no matter how many questions I ask!

Butterflies are free.

Okay, I want to talk about Sea Butterflies today.

But before I do that, I must tell you I was given a very special invitation by the captain of The Knorr himself—to tour “The Bridge.” This is the place in the ship where you stand high above everything else and have a panoramic view of the ocean ahead of you. As we were talking a whole group of dolphins came swimming by us, leaping out of the water and waving their fins at us as if to say howdy! It was such an amazing experience that I want to devote tomorrow’s entire blog to my tour. So stay turned. You will be very surprised by what I have to tell you at The Knorr!

Early this morning I sat outside on the deck. The sun was low and bright in the sky and its reflection on the roiling ocean made the water look completely black—like a big thick piece of shiny black coal.

I began to think about these little creatures that live in the water. They’re officially called Pteropods. But, they also answer to the names Sea Butterflies and Sea Angels. The Sea Angels are referred to as the naked ones, because they don’t make a shell.

Here are two pictures of Sea Butterflies.

Aren't they beautiful? Look at the color. So blue. The French call this Provence Blue.

The Sea Butterfly is very small, but you can see her without a microscope. She’s about the size of your fingertip. And guess what—you can find these little sea creatures right here in the Gulf of Maine—floating on the surface or nestled deep in the sediments. (That would be the mud we’re been chasing. Honestly, after this trip, I will never think of mud as just mud ever again.)

Oh, and I also had to show this beautiful photo of fall fashion. You can see how the designers who create these delicate lace ensembles are obviously influenced by the patterns we find in nature.

It's the way life goes. We are all dependent on one another. That's what the food chain is all about.

All living creatures must eat, and so these little Sea Butterflies do more than just look lovely.

They provide a delicious morsel of food for the fish. And of course, bigger fish eat smaller fish and even bigger fish eat the big fish and so it goes. Humans then eat the fish and you know what—whales eat fish and seals eat fish and penguins eat fish!

Yes, we’re back to the penguins.

I guess I like to bring them up because just about everybody

loves penguins and nobody would want to make the poor penguins go hungry.

Hungry penguins: very sad.

But you know what—we’re really going to have some very hungry penguins in the near future and this is because the ocean is warming. And yes, the ocean is really warming. You can read all about that in yesterday’s blog.

But here’s what you may not know--this warming trend has already done a whole lot of damage to the Sea Butterflies!

The canary in the coal mine.

Right now, even as we speak, the sea butterflies are having a terrible struggle with producing their shells. This is because the ocean is becoming more and more acidic. The ocean is becoming more acidic because of all the CO2 (Carbon Dioxide) coming into it. So, the shells of the sea butterflies are getting thinner and lighter. This is what the WHOI scientists have discovered. This is really happening. Right now.

Why are these Sea Butterflies so vulnerable to the acidity in the ocean? It’s because their shells are made from agagonite, a form of calicium carbonate that dissolves more easily than calcite (which is what many forams are made of).

And if all this is hard to picture. Imagine what it would be like to drink the most acidic orange juice all day long for the next ten years. Imagine what that acid would do to your teeth. Not a pretty picture.

Well, consider the Sea Butterflies!

Their shells are becoming more and more fragile and they’re struggling just to survive. But more than this, we need to pay attention to these little creatures, because they are the canary in the coalmine. So many creatures are dependent on them.

If the Sea Butterflies die, then the fish that eat them will starve

and die, and the fish that eat those fish, and then the bigger fish and then the whales will die…and you see where I’m going with this, they’ll be no more penguins. And nobody wants that to happen!

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