Tag Archives: ecology

Why is California’s coast so cold anyway?

For those of us living in California, one of life’s great tragedies is that the Pacific ocean is both so close to us, and so poor for actual swimming. Just to our west lies miles and miles of beautiful California coast and beaches, but spending more than five minutes in their waters sounds like a recipe for pain and thermal shock, rather than the leisurely fun that summer is supposed to bring.

So why are the California waters so cold, anyway? As always, the answer is a combination of several factors, all of which highlight the intricate complexity of our global ecosystem, and how the effects that we feel locally often originate from hundreds of miles away.

Perhaps the first, most obvious answer for California’s chilly waters lies in the ocean currents that carry water from up north. The dominant current that flows past California is part of the “North Pacific Gyre”, a giant spiraling circle of water that takes up most of the Pacific Ocean.


Drumming with SAVE THE FROGS!

The historical Bay Area is notorious for many things, wine, activism, and music–to name a few. Most Berkleyans will agree that this area is practically overrun with protesters, painters, and artists. While The Black Keys might have rocked Outside Lands last year, the best performance around is Drumming for the Frogs, a group composed of scientist, educators, and musicians, who drum to save endangered amphibians.

Drumming for the Frogs is a movement that is associated with an organization called SAVE THE FROGS!, the first and only public charity that is dedicated to raising the awareness and education of environmental conservation. SAVE THE FROGS! aims to acquaint society with an appreciation for amphibians and develop a public interest in wildlife.

Plastic: It’s what’s for dinner

Conservation of mass often applies to college-level physics problems: in a closed system, mass can neither be created nor destroyed. In the case of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch — a gigantic section of the ocean littered with an unusually high amount of man-made trash — the system is clearly not closed. Yet conservation of mass is almost precisely what we see, both in the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans: more than 20 years of waste plastic studies in these oceans have demonstrated that the garbage patches are neither growing in size nor shrinking. They have conserved their mass. While plastic production rates have skyrocketed, as well as human consumption of plastic-contained goods, the plastic masses in these oceanic gyres (very large circular current patterns spanning thousands of miles) are incontrovertibly the same now as they were in the 1980s.

Interesting. If the rate at which plastic enters the patch has increased while the total mass of the patch has remained constant, then there must have been a corresponding increase in the rate at which plastic leaves the patch, to balance. Some scientists have hypothesized that the depths of the oceans act as plastic “sinks” from which waste never returns. If this were true, huge collections of settled ocean plastic debris should be established across the world. But for all their efforts, scientists have not been able to locate such sinks. With no evidence to support the ocean sink hypothesis, researchers have been looking for alternative answers for decades. What they have recently found may surprise you.

In a recent article appearing in Nature News, marine chemist Tracy Mincer and colleagues at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) reported the observation of oceanic bacteria actively consuming bits of plastic recovered from ocean gyres. At a glance, their result are not so shocking. After all, we have long known that microbial communities can (slowly) degrade plastic in landfills, over many years. However, it had been previously thought that the ocean gyres were too nutrient-poor to sustain substantial bacterial colonies. Therefore, the group’s findings help shed light on what has been a rather intriguing puzzle to scientists.