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2006 Annual Lecture Series

Lecture Summaries
June 12-15, 2006

June 12
Biological Invasions in the Sea: Science, History and Policy
James T. Carlton, Professor of Marine Sciences, Williams College; Director, Williams-Mystic

Although organisms have traveled around the globe for billions of years, humans have largely facilitated a vast increase in the speed and multitude of these migrations in modern times. James T. Carlton, Professor of Marine Sciences at Williams Colleges and Director of Williams-Mystic, presented the current state of modern biological invasions in his lecture on June 12, 2006, at the University of Rhode Island’s Graduate School of Oceanography.

Carlton explained that along the New England coast and extending as far south as New York and New Jersey, the most common snail, Littorina littorea, is not an indigenous species. The snail is believed to have traveled down from Canada after being transported from Europe in the 1860s. Only 20 years after its introduction, this snail moved all the way down to the New Jersey coast and is now the most dominant snail in the area.

This is not, by any means, an uncommon scenario. Along the New England coast alone there are about 100 non-native species that have completely altered the shoreline. The Asian Shore Crab was detected about a decade ago off Long Island Sound and is now the only abundant crab in the area. One of the most remarkable aspects of this invasion, like many, is the species’ ability to expand its range of possible habitats. Whereas in Japan, the Asian Shore Crab is found only in specific places, in New England the same species has managed to survive in many different settings.

San Francisco Bay is home to a multitude of invasive species, including the mud snail, which has displaced all native snails in the area. The Chinese Mitten Crab has also invaded the San Francisco Bay, necessitating the development of special machinery at water pumping stations along the Californian coast that attempt to prevent further spreading of the species. The machinery has largely slowed the spread of the Chinese Mitten Crab, according to Carlton, but has not completely inhibited it.

The invasion of the New Zealand pill bug in San Francisco Bay has brought about up to three feet of land erosion per year. With warming of temperatures along the coastline, it will undoubtedly move north with time, allowing for continued erosion of the shoreline.

After reviewing several other invaders, Carlton stated that it would be very difficult to travel around the coast of North America today without seeing the results of a significant biological invasion.

Carlton pointed out three ways in which to change the natural state of the coast: alter what is already present, remove species, or add species. The most common and most significant changes have come by way of “human mediated vectors.” Ancient voyages, expansion of global exploration, colonization, and other major human migrations such as war or gold rushes, have all played major roles in the introduction of new species to an area. Cultivation of sea species for human consumption, such as edible clams, has also rapidly moved organisms around the world.

Organisms attach themselves to the outside of ocean going vessels and can live inside ships in ballast sand, rocks, and water, all of which are used to stabilize a ship that has empty cargo holds. When ballast water is released into various ports to make room for cargo, the traveling organisms are introduced to these new places. About 5,000 to 7,000 species move around the world at any given moment in the ballast water of ocean going ships.

The increase in human travel, along with other technological advances, has doubled the number of factors responsible for the movement of species and growth of invasions in the last 100 years. In the Gulf of Maine in the course of one day, there are at least 18 different agents with the potential to bring in and take out organisms, including ship ballast, sea buoys, fishing vessel nets, and private citizen release, such as fishing bait and personal sea plant cultivation.

There are serious obstacles for marine scientists to overcome in making any attempt to monitor potential carriers of invasive species. Perhaps the most notable obstacle is the number of places in which organisms can travel and survive. Shipments of seafood, marsh plants, and research or experiment equipment often carry with them additional species. Carlton recounted an incident in which he ordered one specific type of sea squirt for an educational experiment and was actually sent dozens without the shipper’s knowledge.

There are four stages a species must complete to increase its likelihood of survival in a new area: uptake, transport, arrival, and post-arrival. The amount of time ships stay in port has a considerable affect on the probability of these stages being completed by any particular species. Disasters, cargo and vessel issues, and cultural events mean that a ship may stay in port for an extended period of time, increasing the chances of a new species adapting to that new place or attaching to a boat and traveling to another destination.

While there are several variables that cannot be easily monitored or regulated, there are many more that can be. Carlton expressed that it is critical to take steps in the near future in order to prevent the increased migration of invasive species and to protect organisms in their natural environments.


 

June 13
A World Without Sharks: Consequences of Global Loss of Ocean Preditors
Ransom A. Myers, Killam Chair of Ocean Studies, Dalhousie University

The extinction of large mammals and flightless birds has been closely tied to the migration of humans, especially in North America and New Zealand. As humans, we have killed off most large land vertebrae, such as the giant sloth and mammoth, by hunting. This trend seems to now be repeating itself in the ocean. Ransom A. Myers, Killam Chair of Ocean Studies at Dalhousie University, addressed the results and consequences of overfishing as it pertains to ecological issues and the loss of large marine predators in his lecture on June 13, 2006, at the University of Rhode Island’s Graduate School of Oceanography.

In the last five decades, there has been a 90 percent drop in the number of large marine fish predators around the continent of North America. Even predators such as the White Tip Shark, at one time thought to be the world’s most common large vertebrate, have been seriously affected. The number of White Tip Sharks has decreased to one three-hundredth its former size off the southern US coast.

Native marine species in Nova Scotia, such as shad and halibut, once heavily populated the coast, but have now left completely. Walruses, Beluga whales, swordfish, and sharks, all animals that once were among the most populous in the area, are no longer present either.

Leatherback turtles have also suffered huge decreases in numbers as a result of overfishing in the last 50 years. Hammerhead shark abundance was reduced to less than one third it relative presence between the years 1995 and 1998. Additionally, all large shark populations have been significantly reduced across the globe, including sharks in the Mediterranean Sea.

The overfishing of the Newfoundland cod has been a very expensive project for Newfoundland, costing over $5 billion to counteract. However, the Newfoundland cod has not been added to the list of endangered species by the Canadian government.

Overfishing in the Gulf of Maine has had an immense impact on right whales, attributed mainly, by Myers, to the multitude of lobster traps in the area, which, he posited, are unnecessary. During the lobster-trapping season, the frequency of right whale sightings in the Gulf of Maine drops to almost zero, while the number in Nova Scotia decreases only slightly. In the 2003 season, lobster yields in Nova Scotia greatly outnumbered those in the Gulf of using far fewer traps.

Through this example, Myers indicated that an increased number of traps does not mean greater yields, and that fewer traps can help to lessen the impact of fishing on large marine predators.

With the vast reduction of large marine predators comes a steep increase in the abundance of middle-sized predators. Fishing, especially overfishing, poses a threat not only to desired catch, but also to other fish and seafloor habitats, all of which support marine ecosystems. Small fish and sea floor dwellers, such as cow-nose ray fish and soft shell clams, are starting to dwindle in number all along the North American east coast, a result of too many mid-sized predators. At the same time, small shark numbers have gone up dramatically.

According to Myers, if current trends in large predator reduction continue, giving the middle-sized predators the chance to expand, the survival or recovery of small fish and soft shell clams will be dangerously in question.


 

June 14
The Shifting Landscape of Environmental Reporting
Amanda Griscom Little, Columnist, Grist Magazine

On June 14, 2006, Grist journalist Amanda Griscom Little lectured at the University of Rhode Island’s Graduate School of Oceanography on the shifting landscape of environmental reporting, highlighting five key points that every environmental journalist should understand. These five points were the environmental landscape itself, environmental policy, the industrial and corporate landscape, the environmental movement, and the coverage of all these issues.

Little began by explaining that the task of environmental reporting leaves journalists facing both “crisis and opportunity.” They must present their audience with detailed and accurate information while also portraying what may happen if the situation is not dealt with and resolved. Their opportunity is the chance of landing a front-page story.

Environmental policy concerning energy and climate has greatly shifted in the past few months, especially as a result of recent events, including high oil prices and hurricane Katrina. These occurrences bring up powerful human emotions, which have sparked an increase in environmental activity at local, state, and federal levels.

Industry is also beginning to see major policy changes. New local and regional laws are making it easier to force factories to run cleaner and more energy efficient. Little explained that one of the most interesting and worldwide stories of this generation will be “chronicling the birth of a truly new kind of business strategy, and the reconciliation of longtime foes – nature and commerce.”

Business leaders today are much more aware of environmental policy; some have even started to self-monitor and control their CO2 emissions beyond government imposed regulations. The General Electric Company has expressed interest in promoting environment friendly products for profit, which could be an important influence on climate change.

Both Democrats and Republicans are working to produce ambitious energy bills, moving the process of environmental awareness and protection forward. With bipartisan support, the likelihood of passing progressive bills is greatly increased, an encouraging notion for all those who support positive environmental change.

The nature of environmental reporting is also undergoing a serious revolution. While environmental problems are becoming more complex and dynamic, so are the various voices trying to explain them, including online blogs and magazines. And, as technological advances allow more scientific progress and greater understanding of potential environmental crises, journalists have even more information to convey to the public.

Little encouraged environmental reporters to focus on the main issues, highlighting events and their results, instead of misconstruing the important information with too much peripheral information. She ended by stating, “Focus on the known. Accept the uncertainties. Choose a course.”


 

June 15
Climate Change and the Ocean’s Role in the Future of the Planet
Thomas Delworth, Climate Dynamics and Prediction Group Leader, Princeton University/NOAA

Thomas L. Delworth, group leader for the Climate Dynamics and Prediction Group of the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory/NOAA in Princeton, New Jersey, lectured at the University of Rhode Island’s Graduate School of Oceanography on the important role of the ocean as it relates to global climate change on June 15, 2006. By building computer-generated models of the Earth’s climate system, Delworth and his fellow group members attempt to improve future climate predictions and understand climate change trends.

After creating global climate computer models, there are several areas the group focuses on. The most significant of these focus points are El Niño and its role in global climate, global climate change, development of ocean models, and the development of hurricane models.

Delworth explained that the ocean’s reactions to increasing greenhouse gases and aerosols will play a major role in the earth’s future global climate. The ocean consumes 70 percent of the planet’s surface and essentially creates a massive reservoir of heat. The inherent thermal characteristics of the ocean mean that it warms and cools very slowly when compared to air temperature. According to models created by Delworth and his group, the ocean will take hundreds of years to fully absorb temperature increases taking place today.

Three characteristics of the ocean are important to consider when evaluating the role it will play in global climate change. First, the ocean has what Delworth refers to as “a mind of its own.” The natural inconsistency of the ocean can have a major impact on climate. Oceanic temperature changes occur on a yearly basis. In the Pacific, these changes have the potential to cause droughts in North America, while Atlantic changes result in an increased likelihood of hurricanes.

There is ongoing controversy surrounding the recent upswing in hurricanes which, Delworth stated, cannot be resolved for years. While some scientists argue that the increase is solely a product of the natural variability of the ocean, others suggest that it is a direct response to global warming. The models generated up to this point are not yet sophisticated enough to determine the answer. If global warming is eventually determined to be the dominant factor behind the increase in hurricanes, Delworth said, “the implications would be enormous.”

The second of these characteristics is the “buffer” concept. By absorbing heat, the ocean slows the rate of atmospheric warming. Although the atmosphere responds very quickly to radiation increases produced by humans, it also must respond to the ocean and its absorption, which slows down the atmosphere’s process. Changes in the ocean occur much more slowly than in the atmosphere, mostly due to large thermal inertia and relatively slow movement. While this is considered a positive aspect in some ways, there is also a down side.

In the last 100 years, the temperature of the atmosphere has increased a relative two degrees. The surface temperature of the ocean has increased one degree while the deep ocean has gone up only one-tenth of a degree. Models generated by the group show that it will take the deep ocean thousands of years to fully equilibrate with surface temperatures.

The third important factor to consider when discussing the ocean’s role in global warming is the response it has to human-induced temperature increases. Significant potential changes produced by the group’s models in large-scale ocean circulation have resulted in three theories: an Atlantic conveyer belt theory weakening; Pacific tropical circulation; and changes in the southern ocean circulation. Thermal changes predicted will result in the reduction of sea ice and a rise in sea levels. The impact of a conveyor belt weakening, if realized, will cause moderate regional warming and Pacific tropical circulation will be a crucial factor concerning the possibility of North American droughts. Potential changes in southern ocean circulation will be also important factors regarding the uptake of heat and carbon dioxide.

In closing, Delworth explained that the ocean’s natural variability really is key in the role it will play in global warming. It also has a crucial role in how the planet responds to increasing greenhouse gases and rate at which temperatures increase and decrease. The response of the ocean to altered climate change will also play a vital role. Delworth also stated that all three of these factors are closely intertwined with each other.


 

June 16
Science in the Political Arena
David Goldston, Chief of Majority Staff for the House Science Committee

On June 16, 2006, David Goldston, Staff Director for the House Committee on Science, lectured at the University of Rhode Island’s Graduate School of Oceanography on the growing focus of science-based questions in political spheres. As Staff Director, Goldston oversees the committee that controls most civilian research and development budgets, including NASA, the Department of Energy, and the Environmental Protection Agency.

Politicians, and members of Congress in particular, have been increasingly interested in scientific research because it is an objective source of information and a building block for new legislation. Goldston explained the gap that politicians are trying to bridge between public policy and science-based research, however, is not that simple. There are several complications and political biases that make the relationship more complicated than it may outwardly seem. Currently, scientists and politicians are interacting to shape a set of guidelines for science to be used as a guide for public policy in an appropriate manner.

The relationship between members of Congress and scientists has always been complicated, leaving no established set of guidelines or policy for their interactions. Today, there are two important factors that are largely defining this relationship in what Goldston called “golden years” of science and Congress communication. The first is the availability of funding and the second is the current trend for politicians to attach themselves in some way to what they refer to as “sound science.”

Goldston pointed out that the only truly concerted efforts to increase federal funding in the recent past have been in the areas of science. Even in controversial areas, such as evolutionary biology, there are no serious attacks on funding. This allows scientists to make advances more quickly and relieves tension between the two camps. The push for politicians to involve themselves in science research has been a result of the growing focus on science as a determining factor or tool in policy making.

Goldston explained that science tends to cause extreme polarization within the government. Generally when this happens, the public also becomes very polarized in their movements and attitudes. However, this is not the situation that is currently unfolding. The public, with exception to small extreme groups, while certainly divided over issues, is not aggressively pushing science legislation or trying to stop science legislation from forming.

Although this is the most positive time for the science community as related to politics, it is also the worst in some ways. Rifts still exist between scientists and politicians and there are definite instances in which policy makers are abusing science, creating a highly complicated and complex paradox for both scientists and politicians to overcome.

Politicians and policy makers are trying to use science in order to justify or defend their positions on certain issues so that it does not appear that they are simply promoting their ideological views. In this way, science is becoming pliable for politicians, as they can pick and choose the arguments that they decide to believe, leading to abuse of research and poor presentation of facts to the public.

Science has become the “objective and gold standard” which every politician is trying to use to support their opinions. Goldston explained that “wrapping yourself in science” as a politician is an effective way of drawing people to your cause, as opposed to the more historical trend of wrapping oneself in the flag. In doing this, politicians are putting science on a pedestal, giving opposing politicians the chance to knock it down. All of which is putting science in the position of becoming “a weapon much more than a tool” for progress. According to Goldston, this will be damaging to the reputation of science in various ways.

Contemporary politicians are attempting to frame every issue as a science-based one in order to sway people towards their cause. This leaves the public with numerous issues that are not truly scientifically driven framed in terms of scientific research, which affect the clarity of the actual issue for the voting public.

Goldston presented the 1997 Clinton air reform acts as an example of science research abuse. The Clinton administration was eventually successful in better regulating the standards for ozone protection, but while the science was fairly well understood at the time, the question of what the standards should have been was inappropriately presented to the science community. The matter of ozone standards, Goldston pointed out, was an economic issue. Scientists should have been asked only to inform policy makers on the science.

Goldston concluded that science should be a source of information used to make correct and informed policy decisions. Scientists, politicians, and journalists alike should work to present clear facts to the public, making sure not to abuse science or exaggerate its certainty.