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Kelsey Stone, New England Aquarium
Kelsey Stone, New England Aquarium

President Obama Names First-Ever Marine Monument in the Atlantic Ocean

Kelsey Stone, New England Aquarium
Kelsey Stone, New England Aquarium

Score another one for planet Earth: The president has signed off on the very first Marine National Monument in the Atlantic Ocean. New England’s new Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument will protect chubby octopuses, ancient sharks, and underwater chasms deeper than the Grand Canyon.

Unlike its cerulean cousin the Pacific, the Atlantic Ocean is not known for its beauty or colorful wildlife. But the new monument’s 4913-square-mile area is home to astonishing biological and geological diversity, including three submerged canyons (Oceanographer, Gilbert, and Lydonia) and four extinct underwater volcanoes (Mytilus, Bear, Physalia, and Retriever). Scientific expeditions through the area have spotted creatures great and small, from sperm whales to tiny crabs and jellies.

Dumbo octopus. Image Credit: NOAA Okeanos Explorer Program, Our Deepwater Backyard: Exploring Atlantic Canyons and Seamounts 2014

 

Dandelion siphonophore. Image Credit: NOAA Okeanos Explorer Program, Our Deepwater Backyard: Exploring Atlantic Canyons and Seamounts 2014

 
The area’s protections will extend above the surface to include seabirds like Atlantic puffins. It’s a region of immense natural beauty and value, but it—like the rest of our oceans—is in very real danger.

Project Puffin/Stephen W. Kress

 

Paramuriceid sea fan. Image Credit: NOAA OKEANOS Explorer Program, 2013 Northeast U.S. Canyons Expedition

 

Hydromedusa jelly. Image Credit: NOAA Okeanos Explorer Program, Our Deepwater Backyard: Exploring Atlantic Canyons and Seamounts 2014

 
This is why a coalition of 49 different ocean conservation organizations and aquaria wrote a letter this June [PDF] urging the president and his staff to put protections in place for the canyons and seamounts area. “While the area is largely untouched and wild today,” they wrote, “it is highly vulnerable to disturbance and should be protected now from the push to fish, drill, and mine in ever deeper and more remote places. As climate change and ocean acidification continue to affect ocean life, it also becomes more and more urgent to establish blue parks in important and relatively pristine ocean habitats such as this one.”

This week, their wish came true. Speaking at the 2016 Our Ocean Conference in Washington, D.C. on September 15, President Obama announced the monument’s official designation. “One of the reasons I ran for president was to make sure that America does our part to protect our planet for future generations,” he said. The president reminisced about his childhood in Hawaii, where he learned of the ocean’s “magic” and how “if the waves are a little too big and you’ve gone a little too far out, how it inspires fear and a healthy respect.”

President Obama spoke of the future, of our responsibility to keep our planet safe for future generations. “The notion that the ocean I grew up with is not something that I can pass on to my kids and my grandkids is unacceptable,” he said. “So the investment that all of us together make here today is vital for our economy. It's vital for our foreign policy. It’s vital for our national security. But it’s also vital for our spirit. It’s vital to who we are.”

Lee Crockett oversees ocean conservation for the Pew Charitable Trust. “For everyone who recognizes the value of this unique ecosystem and cherishes a healthy, productive ocean, this monument designation is a huge win,” he said in a press statement.

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Ocean Waves Are Powerful Enough to Toss Enormous Boulders Onto Land, Study Finds
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During the winter of 2013-2014, the UK and Ireland were buffeted by a number of unusually powerful storms, causing widespread floods, landslides, and coastal evacuations. But the impact of the storm season stretched far beyond its effect on urban areas, as a new study in Earth-Science Reviews details. As we spotted on Boing Boing, geoscientists from Williams College in Massachusetts found that the storms had an enormous influence on the remote, uninhabited coast of western Ireland—one that shows the sheer power of ocean waves in a whole new light.

The rugged terrain of Ireland’s western coast includes gigantic ocean boulders located just off a coastline protected by high, steep cliffs. These massive rocks can weigh hundreds of tons, but a strong-enough wave can dislodge them, hurling them out of the ocean entirely. In some cases, these boulders are now located more than 950 feet inland. Though previous research has hypothesized that it often takes tsunami-strength waves to move such heavy rocks onto land, this study finds that the severe storms of the 2013-2014 season were more than capable.

Studying boulder deposits in Ireland’s County Mayo and County Clare, the Williams College team recorded two massive boulders—one weighing around 680 tons and one weighing about 520 tons—moving significantly during that winter, shifting more than 11 and 13 feet, respectively. That may not sound like a significant distance at first glance, but for some perspective, consider that a blue whale weighs about 150 tons. The larger of these two boulders weighs more than four blue whales.

Smaller boulders (relatively speaking) traveled much farther. The biggest boulder movement they observed was more than 310 feet—for a boulder that weighed more than 44 tons.

These boulder deposits "represent the inland transfer of extraordinary wave energies," the researchers write. "[Because they] record the highest energy coastal processes, they are key elements in trying to model and forecast interactions between waves and coasts." Those models are becoming more important as climate change increases the frequency and severity of storms.

[h/t Boing Boing]

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Climate Change Is Making Nearly All Sea Turtles Born on These Beaches Female
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Climate change can wipe out a species's food source and destroy its habitat, but rising temperatures are having a more surprising effect on green sea turtles that's no less devastating. According to a report in Current Biology [PDF], up to 99.8 percent of the green sea turtles born on certain beaches in Australia are female, a direct result of the area's warmer-than-average temps.

A turtle's sex is determined by its environment. As The Washington Post reports, a clutch of eggs that incubates in sand that's roughly 85°F will produce about 50 percent females and 50 percent males. A few degrees cooler and the batch skews male; a bit hotter and it's majority female.

This evolutionary mechanism tends to balance itself out, but on beaches in northeast Australia, it's being hijacked by climate change. In order to gauge the size of the impact, researchers with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration sampled the nesting beaches along the coast of Australia adjacent to the Great Barrier Reef, the part that has seen the most dramatic temperature rises and coral bleaching. What they found on the warmer northern beaches was the worst-case scenario: 99.1 percent of juveniles, 99.8 percent of subadults, and 86.8 percent of the overall population was female. Data taken from the southern beaches are only slightly less alarming: Turtles hatched in the relatively cooler sands there were still 65 to 69 percent female. According to the study's authors, "the complete feminization of this population is possible in the near future." That would affect the species' future population growth.

Green sea turtles aren't the only species vulnerable to huge sex shifts by way of climate change. Many other reptiles also rely on temperature-dependent sex determination to keep populations balanced. But above-average temperatures can do more harm beyond messing with sex development: It can also kill embryos before they have the chance to hatch. The authors emphasize that figuring out how to regulate sand temperatures at key rookeries will be essential moving forward. If not, the species could face "a population collapse—or even extinction."

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