Happenings, Sites and Critters

Green Seas in the Emerald City

If you’re a barnacle, clam, mussel, or any other filter feeder in Seattle, you’re likely rejoicing right now in the recent profusion of food! Just as terrestrial plants throughout the northern hemisphere have exploded with new leafy growth and flowers, photosynthetic plankton have proliferated in the springtime sunshine. As a result, the seasonal seas of temperate coastal cities like Seattle are now a deep, soupy green, and marine invertebrates are having a feast!

Here’s a video I compiled from recent dives in Seattle. Everyone in the underwater environment has joined in on the celebratory affair. Orange sea cucumbers shove plankton-covered tentacles into their mouths. Serpulid worms collect passing food particles with their colorful branchial crown. Tubesnout fish hover in a milieu of green plankton, sucking in food as they go. Barnacles frantically fan the water with their feathery feeding appendage in an effort to get the most from the surrounding bounty while it lasts.

Now is the time for marine organisms to take up as much energy as possible and store it in their tissues or send it off as offspring. Within a few weeks, the plankton bloom will have run its course. The water will once again become clear and blue, making each fanning motion a bit less lucrative for barnacles and their filter-feeding compatriots. As dying plankton sink to the bottom and blanket the seafloor, detritus feeders like the California sea cucumber (Parastichopus californicus, below) may continue to lie about in satiation well after the party has ended. But for everyone else, it’ll be back to life as usual, as clear waters restore order to the underwater cityscape.

Parastichopus californicus, (c) James Watanabe

Parastichopus californicus, (c) James Watanabe


Research Blitz – Science for Adaptation Planning

I’m en route to the Friday Harbor Labs for a much anticipated research blitz – a 72 hour research intensive with fellow graduate students in the IGERT Program on Ocean Change (IPOC). Over the course of the coming weekend, we hope to make considerable progress on an interdisciplinary collaboration we started last fall. Our objective: Use a case study approach to identify how scientists can best support the planning process undertaken by coastal cities as they adapt to rising sea level.

From the IPCC's 2013 Report (see link in text)

From the IPCC’s 2013 Report (see link in text)

For many years now, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Changes (IPCC) and concerned scientists have warned of the impending rise of global sea level and the risks it poses to coastal communities, particularly in high density, urban areas. Projections published by the IPCC in 2013 suggest that sea level could increase by more than 3 feet by the end of the century. But more recent research suggests that the threat may be much more extreme and immediate in some locations due to geographic unevenness in the rate at which sea level is rising. Cities like Miami are already beginning to experience periodic inundation from the surrounding ocean, and record-breaking storm surge events like that from Hurricane Sandy now pose considerable risks to New York and other low-lying metropolitan areas. For many coastal cities, sea level rise is no longer a possibility in the distant future; it’s a process that is already underway, with very real social and economic consequences.

The question many coastal cities therefore face is not how to prevent sea level from rising, but how to adapt to the additional increase we’re already fairly certain will occur. Adaptation plans are under development in most major coastal cities, with the Dutch leading the pack. Many of these plans employ both traditional engineering solutions, like the construction or reinforcement of seawalls and dikes, as well as “soft engineering” approaches, such as restoring wetlands that serve as barriers from encroaching seas. Though economists, social scientists, policy buffs, and the design and urban planning community have already made extensive research contributions to the field of adaptation planning, we’d like to know what more natural scientists (climatologists, oceanographers, biologists, ecologists) could do to help.

Adapting to sea level rise will most certainly require creative approaches that draw on expertise from a wide range of disciplines. What better way to learn about adaptation planning and the science behind it than with an interdisciplinary group of IPOC fellows!


Sites and Critters

Urban Dweller: The Giant Pacific Octopus

Giant Pacific Octopus in riprap den

Giant Pacific Octopus (GPO) in artificial boulder habitat  in Elliott Bay, Seattle

Coastal cities are not just home to high densities of humans. Octopus may also come to dwell in urban landscapes in large numbers.

This is what we’re finding in an underwater study we initiated earlier this year. We conducted video surveys at a series of paired, neighboring dive sites where artificial structures were abundant vs. sparse. The addition of artificial structures to the marine environment is a major part of urbanization in coastal cities. Artificial structures can consist of anything from sunken cars to old toilets to discarded garden gnomes.

Giant Pacific Octopus in some junk

GPO in south Seattle, in a den made out of an old iron hatch

Without revealing the full punch line (we’ve yet to submit our findings for publication), I can say that octopus densities tend to be higher at sites where there’s more junk. This may come as no surprise to long-time divers in the Puget Sound region. Scientists also have been aware of the use of artificial structures by octopus for some time. What’s so striking is the extent to which artificial structures appear to increase octopus abundance in even the most heavily urbanized locations.

Here’s a great video from UW research diver, Ed Gullekson, of octopus and several other critters that live just off of downtown Seattle, in Elliott Bay:

For more great videos from Ed “Sharkman” Gullekson, check out his Vimeo page here!