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Update January 2018


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Saturday, January 27, 2018 - February 2, 2018

Low oxygen levels, coral bleaching getting worse in oceans

This July 2010 photo provided by NOAA shows bleached corals at Koh Racha Yai, Thailand. A study released on Thursday, Jan. 4, 2018 finds that severe bleaching outbreaks are hitting coral reefs four times more often they used to a few decades earlier. (Mark Eakin/NOAA via AP)

Seth Borenstein

Washington (AP) - Global warming is making the world’s oceans sicker, depleting them of oxygen and harming delicate coral reefs more often, two studies show.

The lower oxygen levels are making marine life far more vulnerable, the researchers said. Oxygen is crucial for nearly all life in the oceans, except for a few microbes.

“If you can’t breathe, nothing else matters. That pretty much describes it,” said study lead author Denise Breitburg, a marine ecologist at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center. “As seas are losing oxygen, those areas are no longer habitable by many organisms.”

She was on a team of scientists, convened by the United Nations, who reported that the drop in oxygen levels is getting worse, choking large areas, and is more of a complex problem than previously thought. A second study finds that severe bleaching caused by warmer waters is hitting once-colorful coral reefs four times more often than they used to a few decades ago. Both studies are in Thursday’s edition of the journal Science.

When put all together, there are more than 12 million square miles (32 million square kilometers) of ocean with low oxygen levels at a depth of several hundred feet (200 meters), according to the scientists with the Global Ocean Oxygen Network. That amounts to an area bigger than the continents of Africa or North America, an increase of about 16 percent since 1950. Their report is the most comprehensive look at oxygen deprivation in the world’s seas.

“The low oxygen problem is the biggest unknown climate change consequence out there,” said Lisa Levin, a study co-author and professor of biological oceanography at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

Levin said researchers have seen coastal “dead zones” from fertilizer pollution from farms before, as well as areas of low oxygen in open ocean blamed on warmer waters, but this study shows how the two problems are interconnected with common causes and potential solutions.

“Just off Southern California, we’ve lost 20 to 30 percent of our oxygen off the outer shelf,” Levin said. “That’s a huge loss.”

Some low oxygen levels in the world’s ocean are natural, but not this much, Breitburg said. A combination of changes in winds and currents - likely from climate change - is leaving oxygen on the surface, and not bringing it down lower as usual. On top of that, warmer water simply doesn’t hold as much oxygen and less oxygen dissolves and gets into the water, she said.

“Oxygen loss is a real and significant problem in the oceans,” said University of Georgia marine scientist Samantha Joye, who wasn’t part of the study but praised it. Levels of ocean oxygen are “changing potentially faster than higher organisms can cope.”

In a separate study, a team of experts looked at 100 coral reefs around the globe and how often they have had severe bleaching since 1980. Bleaching is caused purely by warmer waters, when it’s nearly 2 degrees (1 degree Celsius) above the normal highest temperatures for an area.

In the early 1980s, bleaching episodes would happen at a rate of once every 25 to 30 years. As of 2016, they now are happening just under once every six years, the study found.

Bleaching isn’t quite killing the delicate corals, but making them extremely sick by breaking down the crucial microscopic algae living inside the coral. Bleaching is like “ripping out your guts” for coral, said study co-author Mark Eakin, coordinator of the Coral Reef Watch program for the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Guam has been one of the hardest places hit with eight severe bleaching outbreaks since 1994, four of them in the last five years, Eakin said. The Florida Keys, Puerto Rico and Cuba have been hit seven times.

It takes time to recover from bleaching, and the increased frequency means coral doesn’t get the chance to recover before the next outbreak, Eakin said.

Only six of the 100 coral reefs weren’t hit by severe bleaching: four around Australia, one in the Indian Ocean and another off South Africa.

Georgia Tech climate scientist Kim Cobb, who studies reefs but wasn’t part of this international team, applauded the research and said that as the world warms more there will be “profound and lasting damage on global reefs.”


Update January 20, 2018 - January 26, 2018

Real weather term “bomb cyclone” blows up on social media

A person walks in the snow on King Street in Charleston, S.C., Wednesday, Jan. 3, 2018. A brutal winter storm smacked the coastal Southeast with a rare blast of snow and ice, hitting parts of Florida, Georgia and South Carolina with their heaviest snowfall in nearly three decades. (Matthew Fortner/The Post And Courier via AP)

Seth Borenstein

Washington (AP) - When it comes to weather, it’s hard to sound scarier than “bomb cyclone.”

It’s a version of a real weather term that applies to a massive winter storm that pulled together off the U.S. Southeast coast. But as fearsome as the storm is with high winds and some snow, it may not be quite as explosive as the term sounds.

Meteorologists have used the term “bomb” for storms for decades, based on a strict definition, said University of Oklahoma meteorology professor Jason Furtado.

After it showed up in a Washington Post story on Tuesday, the weather geek term took on a life of its own on social media. The same thing happened four years ago with “polar vortex,” another long-used weather term that was little known to the public until then.

“Bombogenesis is the technical term. Bomb cyclone is a shortened version of it, better for social media,” said Weather.US meteorologist Ryan Maue, who helped popularize polar vortex in 2014.

“The actual impacts aren’t going to be a bomb at all,” Maue said. “There’s nothing exploding or detonating.”

Storm intensity is measured by central pressure - the lower the pressure, the stronger. A storm is considered a “bomb” when the pressure drops rapidly - at least 24 millibars in 24 hours.

This storm dumped freak snow on the Southeast, and all the way up the coast to Maine, and delivered near hurricane-force blistering winds. It also ushered in record-breaking cold.

Bomb cyclones draw air from polar regions after they leave. In this case, it means extra cold Arctic air because of where the polar vortex is, Furtado said.

Worldwide, about 40 to 50 “bomb cyclones” brew each year, but most are over open ocean and nobody but weather geeks notice, Maue said.

“We use the term bomb,” Furtado said. “We know what it means, but I do think it gets a little hyped up.”


Update January 13, 2018 - January 19, 2018

Science Says: Why there’s a big chill in a warmer world

A coin operated binocular is covered with snow on Goat Island at Niagara Falls State Park in Niagara Falls, N.Y., Tuesday, Jan. 2, 2018. Almost every year frigid temperatures transform Niagara Falls State Park into an icy winter wonderland when the mist of the falls is blown back, freezing on the landscape. (James Neiss/The Niagara Gazette via AP)

Seth Borenstein

Washington (AP) - Anchorage, Alaska, was warmer Tuesday than Jacksonville, Florida. The weather in the U.S. is that upside down.

That’s because the Arctic’s deeply frigid weather escaped its regular atmospheric jail that traps the worst cold. It then meandered south to the central and eastern United States.

And this has been happening more often in recent times, scientists say.

Why is it so cold?

Super cold air is normally locked up in the Arctic in the polar vortex, which is a gigantic circular weather pattern around the North Pole. A strong polar vortex keeps that cold air hemmed in.

“Then when it weakens, it causes like a dam to burst,” and the cold air heads south, said Judah Cohen, a winter storm expert for Atmospheric Environmental Research, a commercial firm outside Boston.

“This is not record-breaking for Canada or Alaska or northern Siberia, it’s just misplaced,” said Cohen, who had forecast a colder than normal winter for much of the U.S.

Is this unusual?

Yes, but more for how long - about 10 days - the cold has lasted, than how cold it has been. On Tuesday, Boston tied its seven-day record for the most consecutive days at or below 20 degrees that was set exactly 100 years ago.

More than 1,600 daily records for cold were tied or broken in the last week of December, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. For Greg Carbin of the National Weather Service’s Weather Prediction Center, the most meaningful statistics are how last week’s average temperature was the second coldest in more than a century of record-keeping for Minneapolis, Chicago, Detroit and Kansas City, third coldest in Pittsburgh and fifth coldest in New York City.

Is it just the U.S.?

Pretty much. While the United States has been in the deep freeze, the rest of the globe has been toastier than normal. The globe as a whole was 0.9 degrees (0.5 degrees Celsius) warmer than normal Tuesday and the Arctic was more than 6 degrees warmer than normal (3.4 degrees Celsius), according to the University of Maine Climate Change Institute’s analysis.

What’s next?

The cold will continue and could actually worsen.

What makes the polar vortex move?

This is an area of hot debate and research among scientists and probably is a mix of human-caused climate change and natural variability, said Furtado. Climate change hasn’t made the polar vortex more extreme, but it probably is making it move more, which makes the weather seem more extreme, he said.

A recent study by Potsdam Institute climate scientist Marlene Kretschmer found the polar vortex has weakened and meandered more often since 1990, but that study focused more on Europe. Ongoing research shows that there seems to be a similar connection for more frequent Arctic cold snaps like what the U.S. is now experiencing, Kretschmer said.

How can it be so cold with global warming?

Don’t confuse weather - which is a few days or weeks in one region - with climate, which is over years and decades and global. Weather is like a person’s mood, which changes frequently, while climate is like someone’s personality, which is more long-term, Furtado said.

“A few cold days doesn’t disprove climate change,” Furtado said. “That’s just silly. Just like a couple down days on the stock market doesn’t mean the economy is going into the trash.”


Update Saturday, Jan. 6 - Jan. 12, 2018

Pope Francis needs a microscope to eye Lithuanian crib

(LinkMenu fabrikas via AP)

Vilnius, Lithuania (AP) - Lithuania has given Pope Francis a Christmas present invisible to the naked eye: a Nativity scene where baby Jesus is smaller than a human cell.

Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite on Friday looked through a microscope to see a replica of the crib at Vilnius’s downtown Cathedral Square, a copy of the nativity scene that was given to Francis by Lithuanian diplomats earlier this month.

She said it took three months for Lithuanian scientists and students to create the minuscule crib from a 3D scan of the life-size crèche, reducing it 10,000 times. Francis plans to visit the Baltics next year.

Details about Francis’ trip to Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia have not been released yet but he is expected in the fall of 2018.


DAILY UPDATE

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HEADLINES [click on headline to view story]

Low oxygen levels, coral bleaching getting worse in oceans


Real weather term “bomb cyclone” blows up on social media


Science Says: Why there’s a big chill in a warmer world


Pope Francis needs a microscope to eye Lithuanian crib

 



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