Rabu, 31 Maret 2021

U.S., Philippines officials discuss Chinese activities in South China Sea - Reuters

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FILE PHOTO: White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan delivers remarks during a press briefing inside the White House in Washington, U.S., February 4, 2021. REUTERS/Tom Brenner

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The national security advisers for the United States and the Philippines discussed their shared concerns over Chinese activities in the South China Sea in a call on Wednesday, the White House said.

The Philippines has described the presence of hundreds of Chinese boats inside its 200-mile exclusive economic zone at Whitsun Reef in the South China Sea as “swarming and threatening.”

Manila believes the vessels were manned by maritime militia. Chinese diplomats have said the boats were sheltering from rough seas and no militia were aboard.

White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan and Philippines national security adviser Hermogenes Esperon “agreed that the United States and the Philippines will continue to coordinate closely in responding to challenges in the South China Sea,” the White House said.

“Sullivan underscored that the United States stands with our Philippine allies in upholding the rules-based international maritime order, and reaffirmed the applicability of the U.S.-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty in the South China Sea,” it added.

Canada, Australia, Japan and others have voiced concern about China’s intentions.

Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, China and Vietnam have competing territorial claims in the South China Sea, through which at least $3.4 trillion of annual trade passes.

Reporting by Eric Beech; Editing by Shri Navaratnam and Lincoln Feast

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April 01, 2021 at 08:41AM
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450-million-year-old sea creatures had a leg up on breathing: First evidence of trilobites' bizarre breathing organs uncovered - Science Daily

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A new study has found the first evidence of sophisticated breathing organs in 450-million-year-old sea creatures. Contrary to previous thought, trilobites were leg breathers, with structures resembling gills hanging off their thighs.

Trilobites were a group of marine animals with half-moon-like heads that resembled horseshoe crabs, and they were wildly successful in terms of evolution. Though they are now extinct, they survived for more than 250 million years -- longer than the dinosaurs.

Thanks to new technologies and an extremely rare set of fossils, scientists from UC Riverside can now show that trilobites breathed oxygen and explain how they did so. Published in the journal Science Advances, these findings help piece together the puzzle of early animal evolution.

"Up until now, scientists have compared the upper branch of the trilobite leg to the non-respiratory upper branch in crustaceans, but our paper shows, for the first time, that the upper branch functioned as a gill," said Jin-Bo Hou, a UCR paleontology doctoral student who led the research.

Among the oldest animals on earth, this work helps situate trilobites on the evolutionary tree more securely in between older arthropods, a large group of animals with exoskeletons, and crustaceans.

The research was possible, in part, because of unusually preserved fossil specimens. There are more than 22,000 trilobite species that have been discovered, but the soft parts of the animals are visible in only about two dozen.

"These were preserved in pyrite -- fool's gold -- but it's more important than gold to us, because it's key to understanding these ancient structures," said UCR geology professor and paper co-author Nigel Hughes.

A CT scanner was able to read the differences in density between the pyrite and the surrounding rock and helped create three-dimensional models of these rarely seen gill structures.

"It allowed us to see the fossil without having to do a lot of drilling and grinding away at the rock covering the specimen," said paleontologist Melanie Hopkins, a research team member at the American Museum of Natural History.

"This way we could get a view that would even be hard to see under a microscope -- really small trilobite anatomical structures on the order of 10 to 30 microns wide," she said. For comparison, a human hair is roughly 100 microns thick.

Though these specimens were first described in the late 1800s and others have used CT scans to examine them, this is the first study to use the technology to examine this part of the animal.

The researchers could see how blood would have filtered through chambers in these delicate structures, picking up oxygen along its way as it moved. They appear much the same as gills in modern marine arthropods like crabs and lobsters.

Comparing the specimens in pyrite to another trilobite species gave the team additional detail about how the filaments were arranged relative to one another, and to the legs.

Most trilobites scavenged the ocean floor, using spikes on their lower legs to catch and grind prey. Above those parts, on the upper branch of the limbs, were these additional structures that some believed were meant to help with swimming or digging.

"In the past, there was some debate about the purpose of these structures because the upper leg isn't a great location for breathing apparatus," Hopkins said. "You'd think it would be easy for those filaments to get clogged with sediment where they are. It's an open question why they evolved the structure in that place on their bodies."

The Hughes lab uses fossils to answer questions about how life developed in response to changes in Earth's atmosphere. Roughly 540 million years ago, there was an explosive diversification in the variety and complexity of animals living in the oceans.

"We've known theoretically this change must have been related to a rise in oxygen, since these animals require its presence. But we have had very little ability to measure that," Hughes said. "Which makes findings like these all the more exciting."

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April 01, 2021 at 08:26AM
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Sea Dogs baseball is back! Fan experience adjusted amid pandemic - NewsCenterMaine.com WCSH-WLBZ

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Hadlock Field will be allowed to fill to 28% capacity or around 2,000 people. Fans will use a mobile app to order items from the concession stand.

PORTLAND, Maine — The Portland Sea Dogs are hitting the field in 2021 after their 2020 season was canceled. Opening day will be held on Tuesday, May 4. 

When players finally take the field, 610 days will have passed between baseball games at Hadlock Field.

"We can't wait to get back to playing baseball! that's what we live to do," Sea Dogs Vice President of Communications Chris Cameron said.

While it will be the same game we all know and love, the fan experience will be different. 

Seating capacity will be set at 28 percent or around 2,000 fans. That's significantly fewer people than what Vice President of Communications Chris Cameron says is peak summer turnout.

"In the summertime, June, July, and August, we're playing at 90 percent capacity almost every night, sometimes higher. We had 15 sellouts back in 2019. That’s over 7,300 fans in the ballpark," Cameron said. "So having only 2,000 is going to be considerably less, but we’re just happy to be playing baseball and welcoming any fans back to the ballpark at this point."

To increase social distancing among fans, the Sea Dogs are also turning to technology. 

"We’re going to go mobile with a lot of stuff," Cameron said. "It's going to be all mobile ordering so when you're sitting in your seat, you place the order on your phone and then the food is delivered to you."

The Sea Dogs will also be enforcing social distancing in the stands by creating "pods." How it will work is two to eight people will be seated at one end of a row, and then another group of two to eight people will be seated at the other end of the row. The rows directly in front and behind that row will be empty. All the seats that are not in use will be locked.  

Another change happening with the Sea Dogs this season is the sound of the game. The team has hired a new Director of Broadcast and play-by-play announcer, Emma Tiedemann. 

Tiedemann is originally from Dallas, Texas, and is a life-long baseball fanatic.

"I'm just ready to call my first sea dogs game," Tiedemann said. 

Tiedemann's first day in the office was in March 2020. That same day, all staff were told to go home because of the coronavirus. 

"We had to work from home for three months and then our season was canceled so it was a very bizarre start to a job! I don't recommend it," Tiedemann joked. 

More than a year later, she's eager to get started. 

"Baseball such a unique sport. It’s so fun. There's so much strategy to it. And it gives fans the opportunity to have fun between innings and get to know Slugger and fall in love with having a hotdog or cold beverage on a warm night," says Tiedemann. 

Tiedemann is one of just five women to hold that job in minor league baseball.

In other news, despite the Sea Dogs cutting ties with ice cream manufacturer Shain's of Maine last summer, the menu at Hadlock Field remains unchanged.

Cameron said, "I'm happy to report Sea Dogs biscuits will be back. We're going to have a new vendor and we're going to be announcing more details on that in the coming weeks." 

Tickets to Sea Dogs games will be sold on a month-to-month basis, as officials hope game capacity will increase as the season progresses. 

RELATED: Play ball! Sea Dogs announce reduced capacity, ticket sales on month-to-month basis in 2021

RELATED: Sea Dogs, Red Sox extend affiliation through 2022

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April 01, 2021 at 07:30AM
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We've Found Deep Parts of The Sea Where The Last Ice Age Never Actually Ended - ScienceAlert

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Some of the deepest parts of the Black Sea are still responding to climate changes prompted by the last ice age, scientists have discovered – a period which officially ended almost 12,000 years ago.

An analysis of gas hydrate deposits – in this case methane trapped by water molecules, in a solid substance that looks like ice – has revealed the lagging response in a northwestern area of the Black Sea known as the Danube fan.

Together with temperature measurements and other data, the drill cores of the gas hydrate deposits reveal something rather surprising: Levels of free methane gas under the seafloor have not yet adapted to the warmer conditions that have already prevailed on the surface for thousands of years.

"This shows that the gas hydrate system in the Danube deep sea fan is still responding to climate changes initiated at the end of the last glacial maximum," write the researchers in their paper.

gas age 2Examining drill cores. (Christian Rohleder)

Central to the findings are scientists' attempts to determine the base of the gas hydrate stability zone (GHSZ) - the lowest point at which gas hydrates naturally form due to temperature, pressure, and a few other factors. Above and below that zone, you'll get 'free' methane gas not trapped in hydrates.

To find the base of this zone, researchers typically turn to a seismic reflection measure of the sediment known as the bottom-simulating reflector, or BSR for short. However, earlier work has found that in this part of the Black Sea, there's a curious depth discrepancy between the BSR and the base of the gas hydrate stability zone. 

By drilling down to the seafloor and taking temperature measurements, researchers have now concluded that the gas hydrate stability zone has adapted to the warmer conditions over the past millennia – as indicated by a rise to a higher level – but the free methane gas and the associated BSR are still playing catch up.

"From our point of view, the gas-hydrate stability boundary has already approached the warmer conditions in the subsurface, but the free methane gas, which is always found at this lower edge, has not yet managed to rise with it,"  says geophysicist Michael Riedel, from the GEOMAR Helmholtz-Center for Ocean Research in Germany.

That lagging response could be why the BSR isn't where it should be. Sediment permeability could also play a role, the team thinks, and their measurements show that methane has managed to rise in certain areas but not others.

"In summary, we have found a very dynamic situation in this region, which also appears to be related with the development of the Black Sea since the last ice age," says Riedel.

Around 20,000 years ago, the water level was around 100 meters (328 feet) lower in the Black Sea, meaning less pressure on the sea bed. The water was significantly cooler too. As far as the free methane gas is concerned, those conditions haven't yet changed.

As with any study of the effects of climate change, this research is going to help in future climate modeling. There's currently a huge volume of gas hydrate deposits underneath the Arctic, for instance, and it's important to know how they might react to increases in temperature in the years ahead.

The scientists emphasize that their findings should be interpreted cautiously, with many different factors in play and plenty more scope for study – but they also stress the importance of in-situ measurements and quality data for an analysis such as this.

"For our investigations we used our drilling device MARUM-MeBo200 and broke all previous depth records with a maximum depth reached of almost 145 meters [476 feet]," says geologist Gerhard Bohrmann, from the University of Bremen in Germany.

The research has been published in Earth and Planetary Science Letters.

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April 01, 2021 at 08:42AM
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Big Coast Guard Choppers Go To Sea As America Eyes New Polar Challenges - Forbes

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With new icebreakers on the way, the U.S. Coast Guard is sending big MH-60T Jayhawk helicopters to sea. It is taking the first steps towards re-constituting a long-lost polar logistical support capability that it shed in 2005, when Coast Guard leaders disestablished the Helicopter Icebreaker Support Unit, better known as the Coast Guard Polar Operations Division (POPDIV).

The Coast Guard knows big polar challenges are coming. New icebreakers will help, but a handful of new ships are unable to answer the complexities of both the Antarctic and the Arctic alone. America needs an array of tightly-integrated systems to safely operate the new icebreakers in some of the most unforgiving territory on the earth, and, as the Coast Guard prepares better helicopters, new bases and polar training regimens, the U.S. is signaling America’s intent to head back “Into The Cold”, supporting lawful order in the polar regions it largely abandoned years ago.

Helicopters Head Out Into The Cold:

As the U.S. Coast Guard prepares for future polar operations, the logistical support pieces required to support Arctic and Antarctic activities are gradually coming into view. One big part—aviation support—is being addressed by the service-wide supplementation of small, short-ranged MH-65 Dolphin helicopters with the robust and longer-ranged MH-60T Jayhawk.

For the Coast Guard’s big new cutters, the MH-60T Jayhawk—a derivative of the Army’s Blackhawk helicopter—is becoming a more-easily embarked asset. At the 2021 State of the Coast Guard Address earlier this month, the Coast Guard Commandant, Admiral Karl L. Schultz, noted that he had recently “observed our first MH-60T Jayhawk outfitted with Blade-fold/Tail-fold capability that will enable deployment aboard National Security Cutters, and our future Polar Security and Offshore Patrol Cutters.” While the bigger Jayhawk helicopters can operate from cutter flight decks right now, the new "folding" capability allows the big, ocean-going helicopters to fit into vessel hangars and operate from the Coast Guard’s big cutters over a longer period of time. 

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While both the Jayhawk and the Dolphin have worked in extreme conditions, the MH-60T’s greater-than-four-hour endurance dwarfs the smaller helicopter’s 90 minutes of mission flight time. While this “increases the bubble” around host vessels and bases, the bigger helicopter’s increased range and robustness lends it to a wider range of activities under a wider range of environmental conditions.

The Coast Guard is not hiding the fact that embarked MH-60T helicopters are headed to the Poles. In an interview after the State of the Coast Guard Address, the Commandant expanded on the potential utility of the big Blade-fold/Tail-fold equipped Jayhawk, detailing that the modified MH-60T helicopters would be deployed aboard the Polar Security Cutter and employed, in part, for base inspections under the provisions of the Antarctic Treaty. 

Antarctic Treaty base inspections are needed. In 2019, the 45-year old Coast Guard icebreaker USCGC Polar Star (WAGB 10) supported the first U.S.-led Antarctic challenge inspections since 2006-7 (The U.S. and Russia conducted joint inspections in the 2011-2012 and 2012-2013 seasons). But in 2019, the U.S. inspections were limited to the Antarctic Coast, where a small eight-person team visited Italy’s Mario Zucchelli Station, South Korea’s Jang Bogo Station and China’s emergent station on Inexpressible Island—as well as the nearby Boulder Clay airstrip and a protected area. Rather than employ helicopters, the inspectors had to use a cutter boat to visit China’s station—which is being built despite China’s refusal to comply with Antarctic Treaty guidelines on base construction.

In about four years from now, if the first Polar Security Cutter is delivered as scheduled in 2024, America will have the capability to reach farther into Antarctica’s interior. China’s remote Kunlun Station, Taishan Station and some other more militarily or strategically “interesting” inland stations will be within reach of delegations eager to document activities at these isolated and rarely-inspected bases in the southern continent. These inspections simply cannot be done now, as the 800-mile range offered by the MH-60T helicopter outstrips the modest capabilities of the National Science Foundation’s contractor-provided fleet of two shorter-range AS-350-B3E “A-Stars” and Bell 412s. Adding in additional fixed-wing flights to reach isolated bases taxes the handful of available—and very high-demand—assets. Even if suitable aircraft are available, landing facilities may not exist.

Outside of geopolitics, as tourism and commercial traffic continue to increase in both the North and South Poles, additional rotary lift capability will be particularly welcome. In the Antarctic, dedicated search-and-rescue assets do not exist, and having advanced helicopters in the region will do a lot to relive the modest handful of already oversubscribed rotary-wing assets in the Antarctic.

It’s Not Just Helicopters:

In April, the Coast Guard will break ground on a permanent air station at Naval Air Station Point Mugu’s descendant, the now-vibrant Naval Base Ventura County. Naval Base Ventura County has strong Antarctic roots that China, Russia and other stakeholders will notice. Until 1998, the base housed the “U.S. Naval Support Force, Antarctica” and the Navy’s corresponding logistical aviation support command, Antarctic Development Squadron Six (VXE-6). When VXE-6 was shuttered in the late ‘90s, some 780 naval personnel were dedicated to support the National Science Foundation’s Antarctic operations, providing rotary and fixed wing support with ski-equipped LC-130R Hercules aircraft and Bell UH-1N Twin Hueys. 

While nobody expects the Coast Guard to assume fixed-wing support to the North and South Poles, in geographic terms, the Coast Guard is stepping in almost exactly where VXE-6 left off. The new base will be substantial; the Coast Guard expects to build out a 48,000 square foot hangar and add more than 12,000 square feet of office and berthing space at Naval Base Ventura County, and, even if the new base has nothing to do with Polar logistics, the detachment will likely be housed right next to the Navy’s proposed new home base for the MQ-25A Stingray unmanned air system, offering interesting opportunities for cross-fertilization between the Navy’s unmanned community and Coast Guard aviators.  

The U.S. Coast Guard has a long way to go before America’s old afloat Polar logistical support infrastructure is fully reconstituted. But planning can start now, with training of both aviators as well as support staff for Antarctic base inspection teams, multi-national fisheries engagement experts and overseas-based advance personnel. 

Domestic inspection teams are relatively easy to recruit and train, but more work can be done now to help other like-minded countries develop base inspection expertise. With the new icebreakers, the U.S. can offer like-minded Antarctic partners logistical assistance in getting out to see the Antarctic bases those teams might wish to examine. The same sort of foundational work can start with fishing and other advance personnel required for optimal in-region exploitation of the Coast Guard’s new operational resources. The U.S. Coast Guard already knows the Arctic is a patchwork of partners—but in the coming years, the Antarctic will be even more challenging, requiring additional engagement that must be started sooner rather than later.

Training for embarked cold-weather rotary wing support is equally important. Before any embarked Coast Guard helicopters head to the ends of the earth, helicopter crews will need to undergo some serious training. Antarctica, in particular, is a very tough place for helicopter operations. The Australian Transport Safety Bureau, in defining the causes of a serious 2013 Antarctic helicopter crash, listed off seven severe Antarctic helicopter mishaps that occurred in the prior three decades due to poor visibility alone. As tired pilots push through the long days to provide all the support they can during the limited Antarctic flying season, human errors, maintenance failures and weather can come together to extract a substantial toll. 

But the Coast Guard knows how to do all of this. They did it all before. Between 1969 to 2005, the Coast Guard operated the Helicopter Icebreaker Support Unit, or, as it eventually became known, the Polar Operations Division (POPDIV) at the Coast Guard Aviation Training Center in Mobile, Alabama. While Alabama may be a great place to train prospective polar-ready aviators, it may be too soon to start up a full-fledged training pipeline. Instead, Coast Guard MH-60 pilots with northern latitude experience, currently operating out of Air Station Kodiak or some other cold-weather Station, may be the first to take the foldable Jayhawk to sea as the Coast Guard rushes to reconstitute an old mission in the face of big new threats at the Poles.

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April 01, 2021 at 05:19AM
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Connecting a virus to cancer – in sea lions - University of Illinois News

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Colegrove at work in the Zoological Pathology Program Laboratory.

Colegrove at work in the Zoological Pathology Program Laboratory.

Photo courtesy Kathleen Colegrove

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CHAMPAIGN, Ill. – I distinctly remember the first day I saw the images proving our hypothesis about the connection between a herpesvirus and urogenital cancer in wild California sea lions. Our research team was the first to use a revolutionary technique to probe preserved cancerous tissue from marine mammals as we looked for signals of specific viral genes.

And we found them: Wherever there was tumor, there also was a strong signal of multiple cancer-promoting viral genes, called oncogenes. There were no viral genes in the adjacent cancer-free tissue. This meant that the virus clearly played a role in cancer development and was not merely a bystander in the animals’ reproductive tracts.

To say the images made us pathologists excited is an understatement. It was a eureka moment that was a long time in the making.

I began investigating cancer in sea lions 18 years ago when I was a Ph.D. student at the University of California, Davis working with The Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, California. My role as lead pathologist for the sea lion cancer project continued after I joined the Zoological Pathology Program at the U. of I. College of Veterinary Medicine.

Aerial photo of thousands of sea lions gathered on the breeding beaches of San Miguel Island.

Thousands of sea lions gather on the breeding beaches of San Miguel Island, one of the Channel Islands off the coast of Southern California.

Alaska Fisheries Science Center/NOAA Fisheries.

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Over the years, I’ve examined the reproductive tissues of hundreds of sea lions, so many that I’ve come to think of myself as a bit of a sea lion gynecologist.

I’m by no means working alone. This research is part of a multi-institutional initiative. The Sea Lion Cancer Consortium brings together a team of clinicians, pathologists, marine mammal biologists, virologists, toxicologists and epidemiologists from institutions around the world.

Our data set on free-living California sea lions is one of a kind. Because these animals develop cancer under real-life conditions – as opposed to having their cancers artificially induced in a laboratory – our findings are more likely to be relevant to other free-living populations, including people.

Labeled cancer tissue from a California sea lion showing positive pink signaling for the otarine herpesvirus-1 BCL-2 oncogene within the tumor.

Labeled cancer tissue from a California sea lion showing positive pink signaling for the otarine herpesvirus-1 BCL-2 oncogene within the tumor.

Photo by Alissa Deming

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One in four adult sea lions examined at The Marine Mammal Center has cancer. A robust case-control study requires a large population that includes individuals with and without cancer. Over the past 20-plus years, we have amassed enough pathologic, toxicologic and viral data to make firm conclusions about the causative factors of cancer development in sea lions.

In a new article in the journal Animals, led by Dr. Alissa Deming of the University of Florida, Gainesville, we report on tissues from 95 sea lions with an aggressive and deadly form of cancer, and 163 without. We found herpesvirus in 100% of the sea lions with cancer, along with exceptionally high viral loads and viral gene expression within the genital tumors. Although 36% of the sea lions that did not have cancer tested positive for herpesvirus, these animals had much lower viral load and no detectable viral gene expression, indicating that the herpesvirus was dormant.

Photo of a California sea lion on a rocky shoreline.

California sea lions inhabit coastal areas of the western United States. 

Photo by Kathleen Colegrove

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Of course, our findings will benefit sea lions. Veterinarians at the Marine Mammal Center and other wildlife institutions will be better able to assess the prognosis for stranded animals simply by evaluating their viral load. Otarine herpesvirus 1, the virus that is our focus, likely can lie dormant in sea lions and not cause cancer; these animals will have a low viral load. Sea lions with a high viral load are more likely to have aggressive cancer even if they exhibit no outward signs.

Our research could benefit human cancer patients as well.

California sea lions are top-level predators living in coastal areas with a large historic burden of the pesticide DDT, as well as other organochlorines. These “legacy” contaminants are slow to break down; they persist in California coastal waters even though DDT production was banned in 1972.

Who, besides sea lions, swims in and eats seafood from these waters? We do. Humans are likely exposed to the same environmental pollutants as sea lions. And we already know that viral infections play a role in up to 20% of human cancers.

We hypothesize that, similar to other virally induced cancers, the cancer in sea lions involves additional triggers that activate the virus, spurring malignancy in individuals. By examining the interplay between viral infection, chemical exposure and cancer development, studies like ours may help explain how everyday environmental exposures in the water or air can impact human health and affect tumor growth.

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March 31, 2021 at 08:07PM
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Sea otters keep remaining California kelp forests alive - National Science Foundation

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Research News

Sea otters keep remaining California kelp forests alive

Monterey Bay kelp forests depend on sea otters to control urchins

a southern sea otter

A sea otter in Monterey Bay, California; the otters are helping to keep the kelp ecosystem healthy.


March 30, 2021

Sea otters have long been recognized as a classic example of a keystone species, a dominant predator that maintains the balance of kelp forest ecosystems by controlling populations of sea urchins, which are voracious kelp grazers.

Since 2014, however, California's kelp forests have declined dramatically, and vast areas of the coast where kelp once thrived are now "urchin barrens," the seafloor carpeted with purple sea urchins and little else. This has occurred even in Monterey Bay, which hosts a large population of sea otters.

University of California, Santa Cruz researcher Joshua Smith set out to understand why. "Here in Monterey Bay, we now have a patchy mosaic, with urchin barrens devoid of kelp directly adjacent to patches of kelp forest that seem pretty healthy," Smith said. "We wanted to know: how did this sea urchin outbreak happen where there are so many otters, how did the otters respond, and what does that mean for the fate of kelp forests here on the Central Coast?"

Working with a team of sea otter researchers, Smith conducted intensive underwater surveys along the Monterey Peninsula over a span of three years. The study built on decades of long-term monitoring of sea otter populations and kelp forest ecosystems along the California coast.

The findings of the U.S. National Science Foundation-funded research, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, tell a story of how the behavioral responses of predators and prey to changing conditions can determine the fate of an entire ecosystem.

"This study not only fine-tunes our understanding of the role of sea otters in kelp forests; it emphasizes the importance of animal behavior," Smith said. "So much of this is driven by behavior -- the urchins shifting their behavior to active foraging, and the otters choosing to prey on healthy urchins in the kelp forest. These behavioral interactions have implications for the overall fate of the ecosystem."

Added Cynthia Suchman, a program director in NSF's Division of Ocean Sciences, "This study demonstrates that otters will go where the best food is and that smaller-scale details matter for kelp ecosystems."

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March 30, 2021 at 10:35PM
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Arctic sea ice winter peak in 2021 is joint-seventh lowest on record - Carbon Brief

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Arctic sea ice has reached its maximum extent for the year, peaking at 14.77m square kilometres (km2) on 21 March. This is the joint-seventh smallest winter peak – tied with 2007 – in a satellite record that spans more than four decades.

The provisional estimate from the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) in Colorado shows that this year’s winter maximum extent is 870,000km2 smaller than the 1981-2010 average.

The NSIDC describes this year’s milestone as an “uneventful maximum”, but notes that it follows an “exceptional” year for sea ice. The Arctic’s summer minimum in September 2020 was the second lowest on record and the unusually slow rate of sea ice regrowth that followed led to record-breaking low levels of Arctic ice cover in October.

Meanwhile, at the Earth’s other pole, the Antarctic sea ice minimum clocked in at 2.83m km2 on 21 February – the 12th lowest in the satellite record.

‘Uneventful maximum’

Arctic sea ice extent changes throughout the year – growing during the winter before reaching its peak for the year in February or March, and then melting throughout the spring and summer towards its annual minimum, typically in September. 

Scientists use satellite data to track the growth and melt of sea ice. This allows them to pinpoint the day that the ice hits its winter maximum extent and to record the size. This – along with the late-summer minimum – is one of the key metrics for tracking the “health” of the Arctic’s sea ice.

The plot below shows Arctic sea ice extent over this winter (blue line) compared to 2011-12 (green dashed) – 2012 being the year that saw the record low summer minimum – and the 1981-2010 average (grey). Arctic sea ice extent is measured as the area of the ocean that has at least 15% sea ice coverage.

Arctic sea ice extent as of 29 March 2020 for the 2020-21 summer (blue line), along with daily ice extent data for the four previous years: 2011-2012 (green) and the 1981-2010 median (dark grey) and the grey shading shows the range around the median.
Arctic sea ice extent as of 29 March 2020 for the 2020-21 summer (blue line), along with daily ice extent data for the four previous years: 2011-2012 (green) and the 1981-2010 median (dark grey) and the grey shading shows the range around the median. Credit: NSIDC

This year, early indications suggest that Arctic sea ice reached its annual maximum of 14.77km2 on 21 March  – the joint-seventh lowest Arctic maximum on record. 

This was an “uneventful maximum”, the NSIDC says, noting that it is 870,000km2 below the 1981-2010 average maximum and 360,000km2 above the lowest maximum, which was recorded in 2017.

The image below shows sea ice extent on 21 March 2021 compared to the 1981-2010 average extent for that day – shown by the orange line.

Average Arctic sea ice extent for March 2021. The orange line shows the 1981-2010 average extent for that month.
Average Arctic sea ice extent for March 2021. The orange line shows the 1981-2010 average extent for that month. Credit: NSIDC

“The sea ice maximum this year is not close to a record, but still quite low compared to any year prior to 2000,” explains Dr Ted Scambos, senior research scientist at NSIDC and lead scientist for their science team.

The graphic below – by Dr Zack Labe, a postdoctoral researcher at Colorado State University – shows the sea ice extent of every Arctic sea ice maximum since 1979. The red line shows the 2021 level.

“There is very little correlation between winter Arctic sea ice extent and the September annual minimum,” Labe tells Carbon Brief. 

“We know that sea ice has this ability to recover following anomalously low minima, the same happened in 2008 and 2013,” adds Dr Isobel Lawrence – a research fellow at the Centre for Polar Observation and Monitoring at the University of Leeds. She tells Carbon Brief:

“It is because the extra heat that gets absorbed by the exposed ocean in the summer is released quickly in the autumn and winter, leading to rapid ice growth. It is a negative feedback mechanism which allows the ice pack to recover after extreme summer melt events.”

According to the NSIDC, the date of this year’s maximum falls nine days later than the 1981-2010 average date of 12 March. 

An ‘exceptional’ year for sea ice

This year’s sea ice growth season kicked off with the second-lowest Arctic sea ice minimum on record – second only to 2012. The minimum was recorded on 15 September, when sea ice cover reached a minimum of 3.74m km2.

According to the NSIDC, this exceptionally low minimum sea ice extent was partly due to the strong positive phase of the Arctic Oscillation at the time, which caused wind patterns to transport ice from the Siberian coast, across the pole and out of the Arctic Ocean. This leaves thinner ice along the Siberian coast which is more prone to melting. 

The 2020 sea ice minimum (red line) is shown in the chart below. Decadal average sea ice extents for preceding decades are shown by the dashed lines, while the dates and sea ice extents of the sea ice minimum in past years is shown by the coloured circles.

Average Arctic sea ice extent over the summer minimum for each decade of the satellite era (dotted lines) and for 2020 (red line). Individual years also shown.
Average Arctic sea ice extent over the summer minimum for each decade of the satellite era (dotted lines) and for 2020 (red line). Individual years also shown. Chart by Dr Zack Labe using data from the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency

Arctic sea ice growth following the September minimum was “one of the slowest on record”, according to Labe. A record difference in Arctic sea ice extent compared to the 1981-2010 average was recorded on 24 October. Labe tells Carbon Brief that further sea ice records were broken that month:

“October 2020 sea ice extent and volume were both the lowest on record. At one point in mid October, satellites observed the largest Arctic sea ice anomaly ever recorded. The massive areas of open water in late fall contributed to anomalous warmth going into November across the Arctic, especially near the Siberian coast.”

The image below shows sea ice extent in October 2020 compared to the 1981-2010 average extent for that October – shown by the pink line.

Average Arctic sea ice extent for October 2020. The pink line shows the 1981-2010 average extent for that month.
Average Arctic sea ice extent for October 2020. The pink line shows the 1981-2010 average extent for that month. Credit: NSIDC

“From 13 October into early November, the daily sea ice extent was the lowest for that day in the satellite record”, according to the NSIDC. The low sea ice extent left vast expanses of open water across the Arctic throughout November, which lost heat to the atmosphere and caused hotspots to form near the surface of the ocean.

The NSIDC adds that the near-surface air temperatures around these hotspots were locally more than 12C above the long-term November average. Meanwhile, air temperatures for November 2020 were above average over much of the Arctic Ocean – 4-6C above average over the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas, the northern Barents Sea, and the Laptev Sea.

Following the pattern of previous years, sea ice growth picked up in the final week of October. In fact, the NSIDC says that November 2020 recorded the fastest average daily growth rate on record, with particularly rapid growth in the first week when the upper ocean lost its remaining summer heat back to the atmosphere.

However, due to the exceptionally low levels of sea ice earlier in the year, the NSIDC says that both total November sea ice extent and daily sea ice extent in early December still clocked in as the second lowest on record.

In December, the Arctic Oscillation flipped from a strong positive mode to a negative mode, according to the NSIDC. The Arctic Oscillation describes how air pressure patterns are distributed over the Arctic region and the mid-latitudes of the northern hemisphere. According to NSIDC director Prof Mark Serreze, an expert on Arctic climate and weather:

“When the Arctic Oscillation flips from one mode to another, that represents a fundamental change in the circulation of the atmosphere, the way the winds blows.”

NSIDC scientist Dr Walt Meier adds:

“When the AO is in positive mode, the polar vortex is generally a neat, tight circle, with cold air and contemptible winter storms sent into timeout far away from civilisation. When the AO is in negative mode, the vortex is wavier, and unruly weather can run amok, setting snowfall records.”

This caused high pressure to develop over the Arctic Ocean, with a fairly strong “Beaufort Sea High” air pressure pattern – a high-pressure centre over the Beaufort Sea that is present mainly in winter. It also caused low pressure to form over the Atlantic and Pacific subarctic. 

This pressure difference drove wind patterns that help to retain older and thicker ice in regions of the Arctic, says Prof Julienne Stroeve, a professor of polar observation and modelling at University College London and senior research scientist at the NSIDC. She tells Carbon Brief :

“The anomalously high pressure over the Beaufort Sea during part of the winter essentially reduced ice transport out of Fram Strait [the passage between Greenland and Svalbard] and helped to thicken ice in the Canadian sector.”

At the end of the year, the average Arctic sea ice extent for December 2020 was the third lowest in satellite record. “The Arctic climate was extraordinary in 2020, but the year ended with a less spectacular December,” the NSIDC says. 

New year

Sea ice patterns have been somewhat less notable this year than last year. While sea ice extent tracked below average throughout January, by the middle of the month, extent rose above the 2011-2020 average, the NSIDC says. Overall, January 2021 clocked in at the sixth lowest January on record for sea ice extent.

While air temperatures were well above average on the Atlantic side of the Arctic in January, they were below average over Siberia, the NSIDC notes. Furthermore, there was a sudden stratospheric warming event early in the year which caused a weakening of the polar vortex, Labe tells Carbon Brief: (See Carbon Brief’s explainer for more details.)

“One interesting research question going forward is how the weakening of the polar vortex  – following a sudden stratospheric warming event – in January may have influenced Arctic sea ice. While the polar vortex is located high in the atmosphere, it is indirectly connected to weather patterns closer to the surface that influence Arctic sea ice motion.”

February saw “an exceptionally strong clockwise Beaufort Gyre sea ice circulation”, consistent with the negative phase of the Arctic Oscillation, according to the NSIDC. This type of circulation pattern is sometimes associated with a wavy jet stream, it adds, and could have contributed to an outbreak of cold air in lower latitudes linked to the “deep freeze” in Texas.

The animation below shows how sea ice extent in early 2021 compares to 2007, 2012 and 2020. The year 2021 is shown by the moving yellow line, along with 2007 (pink), 2012 (white) and 2020 (blue). The stationary lines show decadal averages for the past four decades.

Arctic sea ice extent for each decade of the satellite era (dotted lines). Specific years are shown by the moving lines – 2007 (pink), 2012 (white), 2020 (blue) and 2021 so far (red). Chart by Dr Zack Labe using data from the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency

This year is in line with the expected trend, and “a good example of how year-to-year variability influences Arctic sea ice extent, despite the overall long-term declining trend”, Labe tells Carbon Brief.

Antarctica

While Arctic sea ice extent increases towards its annual minimum at the end of winter, the Antarctic follows the opposite pattern, decreasing to its annual minimum around the same time. This year, the Antarctic sea ice minimum clocked in at 2.83m km2 on 21 February, making it the 12th lowest in the satellite record.

When the Antarctic minimum sea ice occurred this year, the NSIDC was experiencing a data gap. According to the website, this was due to “a data loss by our source of passive microwave sensor data used to derive our concentration and extent estimates”. The sea ice extent for 20-21 February is based on interpolation from the surrounding days. 

The image below shows the minimum Antarctic sea ice extent for the year, with the 1981-2010 average shown in pink. Below-average extents were present in the northern Weddell and eastern Ross Seas, while the Bellingshausen Sea and the Wilkes Land Coast were near average.

Antarctic sea ice extent for February 2021. The pink line shows the 1981-2010 average extent for that month. Credit: NSIDC
Antarctic sea ice extent for February 2021. The pink line shows the 1981-2010 average extent for that month. Credit: NSIDC

The NSIDC notes that this year’s Antarctic maximum is “far from the record low extent”, which was recorded in 2017.

Similarly, while Arctic sea ice grows throughout the new year towards its maximum extent, sea ice in the Antarctic declines. Last year, the maximum sea ice in the Antarctic was recorded on 28 September – the 11th highest in the satellite record.

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BMW launches pledge against deep-sea mining - MarketWatch

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A group of four companies led by German luxury car maker BMW AG vowed not to use metals mined from the deep sea until there is a way to safely carry out the controversial type of mining, creating headwinds for a burgeoning industry.

Swedish bus-and-truck manufacturer Volvo AB joined BMW, alongside South Korean battery-producer Samsung SDI Co. and Google, the Alphabet Inc.-owned internet giant that also makes electronics.

"The lack of knowledge and the numerous risks to ocean health, fisheries, sustainable development and to important climate functions, point clearly to the need for precaution," the companies said Wednesday in a letter posted on noseabedmining.org. "Before any potential deep-seabed mining occurs, it needs to be clearly demonstrated that such activities can be managed in a way that ensures the effective protection of the marine environment."

The companies committed not to source minerals from the deep seabed, exclude these minerals from their supply chains and not to finance deep seabed mining. They also called on governments to support a moratorium and invited other companies to join the pledge.

Demand for cobalt, lithium and nickel is expected to grow over the coming decade to meet manufacturing needs for electric cars and electronics. The ocean floor offers a valuable trove of the metals.

Globally, the deep-sea mining market could grow to $15.3 billion by 2030 from some $650 million in 2020, according to BCC Publishing. Still, miners face headwinds from activists and investors who are increasingly gauging environmental concerns.

Vancouver-based ocean-mining pioneer Nautilus Minerals Inc. went bankrupt in 2019 after public outcry and financial setbacks for a project off the coast of Papua New Guinea.

BMW ranks in the top 37% for materials sourcing and efficiency among 46 automobile companies world-wide, according to The Wall Street Journal's environmental, social and governance research.

Write to Dieter Holger at dieter.holger@wsj.com; @dieterholger

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Herpesvirus triggers cervical cancer affecting nearly 1 in 4 adult sea lions: Sea lions are critical model for understanding how cancer develops, parallels to human cancer research - Science Daily

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After more than three decades of research, scientists have proven that the cancer affecting up to one in four adult California sea lions necrospied at The Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, CA, is caused by a sexually transmitted herpesvirus. The cancer, known as sea lion urogenital carcinoma, has clear parallels to cervical cancer in humans and provides a helpful model for human cancer study.

Scientists have long suspected this cancer was associated with a virus, but this is the first study to prove this theory. The study, which was published in Animals, an open-access, peer-reviewed journal, concluded that genital herpesvirus is a driving factor in the development of sea lion urogenital carcinoma. The research also suggests there is an underlying trigger or event that causes the virus to induce cancer in some infected sea lions and not others. Wild California sea lions have among the highest prevalence of a single type of cancer in any mammal, including humans.

A second recently published paper (Sea lions are dying from a mysterious cancer. -- Los Angeles Times) led by the same team showed that pollutants such as PCBs and DDT play a significant role as co-factors in the development of this cancer. This is particularly relevant to Southern California where there is a large DDT dumpsite in the Southern California bight which is also where the majority of the sea lion population gather each year to give birth and raise their pups (How the waters off Catalina became a DDT dumping ground -- Los Angeles Times).

"The confirmation that this is a virally induced cancer combined with the knowledge that contaminants play a significant role in the cancer's development means that we can use these sea lions as a naturally occurring disease model to better understand how cancer develops and spreads in all species, including humans," says Dr. Alissa Deming, the lead author of the study who completed this work during her Ph.D. studies at University of Florida in Gainesville, FL., while she was a Research Fellow at The Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, CA. (Dr. Deming is now Director of Clinical Medicine at the Pacific Marine Mammal Center in Laguna Beach, CA.)

The Marine Mammal Center is the world's largest marine mammal hospital and has been on the forefront of researching and understanding cancer in California sea lions and its connection to both ocean and human health. Since cancer in sea lions was first discovered in 1979, researchers have found that between 18-23 percent of adult sea lions admitted to the Center's hospital have died of the fatal disease. In 2010, the Center brought together an array of international researchers to form the Sea Lion Cancer Consortium to further investigate this disease, many of whom helped co-author the paper.

"This research is critical as these sea lions may hold the key to understanding virally induced cancers as well as how cancer metastasizes, or spreads through the body," says Dr. Pádraig Duignan, Director of Pathology at The Marine Mammal Center and a co-author on the study. "This knowledge is an important link that could help scientists better understand various cancers in people." Most cancers are caused by an accumulation of several factors, making it challenging to study cancer in traditional laboratory models. However, wild sea lions experience multiple layers of stressors including infectious agents, exposure to pollutants, nutrition, and environmental influences, all of which are much more representative of how cancer develops in the "real world."

According to Duignan, "the cancer begins in the sea lion's genital tract and aggressively spreads throughout the sea lion's body, resulting in death, often from kidney failure." Because of the advanced state of cancer by the time these patients strand on beaches and are rescued by rehabilitation centers, euthanasia is the only humane option. "This cancer is devastating to see in California sea lions. They come to the hospital in end-stage disease," says Dr. Deming.

The paper was the result of an international, cross-discipline effort, combining multiple techniques from a variety of specialists to unlock the mysteries of this disease. The research relied on novel techniques using RNAscope® Technology and Base Scope™, tools that allow researchers to pinpoint high viral gene expression within tumor tissue but not in surrounding healthy tissue.

"Our study was the first time that this revolutionary technique has been used on a marine mammal species," says Dr. Kathleen Colegrove, Clinical Professor of the Zoological Pathology Program at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, and a key researcher on the study. "This proved that the virus was integral to cancer development and was not just being detected in the reproductive tracts or tissue as a bystander."

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Materials provided by The Marine Mammal Center. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.

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Selasa, 30 Maret 2021

Marin research sheds light on sea lion cancer - Marin Independent Journal

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  • A California sea lion at the Marine Mammal Center in the Marin Headlands on Wednesday Oct. 17, 2018. (James Cacciatore/Marin Independent Journal)

  • Dr. Alissa Deming of the Pacific Marine Mammal Center in Laguna Beach, Calif., performs an ultrasound exam on California sea lion. Sea lions can be used as a model for studying virally induced diseases as well as how cancer spreads and metastasizes. (Provided by the Pacific Marine Mammal Center)

  • Two young California sea lions pause after being released by the Marine Mammal Center on a beach at Chimney Rock in West Marin near Inverness on Thursday, May 10, 2018. (Alan Dep/Marin Independent Journal)

Researchers say they have solved a three-decade mystery as to why so many California sea lions brought to the Marine Mammal Center in the Marin Headlands are dying of an aggressive cancer.

The findings recently published in the scientific journal Animals concluded that the sexually transmitted herpes virus was causing the high rates of cancer among female sea lions. About one of four dead sea lions examined by the Marine Mammal Center was found to have died of the cancer known as sea lion urogenital carcinoma, which aggressively spreads through the affected sea lion.

Dr. Alissa Deming, director of clinical medicine at the Laguna Beach-based Pacific Marine Mammal Center and the study’s lead author, said the findings could help researchers better understand how viruses trigger cancer development in other species including humans.

“Now that we know that this is a virally-induced cancer, we can use them as a model for studying that in all species,” Deming said on Tuesday.

Many cancers are triggered by viral infections in combination with other factors, Deming said. The human papillomavirus, known as HPV, is known to cause cervical cancer in women, especially in combination with other factors such as a history of smoking.

Researchers with the two mammal centers found in a study published earlier this year that contaminants such as the pesticides DDT and PCB were contributing factors in sea lions developing this cancer, especially in southern California. Now researchers plan to study how the virus and these other chemicals work to trigger cancers in some sea lions but not others.

Researchers at the Marine Mammal Center first diagnosed the cancer in 1979, but did not know the underlying causes and why it so acutely affected California sea lions. Between 18% and 23% of all sea lions admitted to the center’s hospital at the Marin Headlands between 2002 and 2017 died of the cancer, according to the study.

Study coauthor Dr. Pádraig Duignan, director of pathology at the Marine Mammal Center, said the “cancer begins in the sea lion’s genital tract and aggressively spreads throughout the sea lion’s body, resulting in death, often from kidney failure.”

Often the center’s hospital only receives stranded sea lions that are already at the end stages of the cancer. At that point, these sea lions are like “swimming tumors,” Deming said.

“It’s quite incredible to see how much it’s taken over these animals’ bodies,” Deming said. “Their lungs just have no normal lung tissue left and their livers are just riddled with tumors.”

What’s also uncommon is the high rates of the cancer among younger sea lions of about 5 to 7 years old when they begin breeding. For other animals, cancers typically develop when the organism ages and its immune system becomes compromised.

“It’s kind of an abnormal thing and has pretty serious population-level impact if you’re taking out a younger, just-starting-to-reproduce population,” Deming said.

The researchers tested for the herpes virus known as OtHV1 in tissues from 95 sea lions that had developed the cancer and 163 sea lions without the cancer. All of the cancer-afflicted animals had the virus, while only 36% of the healthy animals did.

Additionally, the cancerous sea lions had “exceptionally high” levels of the virus that were highly active in genital tumors, according to the study. In contrast, healthy sea lions showed no detectable levels of viral gene expression, which suggested the virus was dormant, according to the study.

Although the cancer was first recognized in the late 1970s, it wasn’t until the 1990s when Marine Mammal Center researchers such as Frances Gulland began collecting more data on these samples. The combination of nearly three decades of sea lion tissue samples along with the advancement of DNA sequencing technology, especially in this past decade, allowed for the discovery of the link between herpes and the sea lion deaths, Deming said.

While the findings likely won’t allow veterinarians at the marine mammal centers to cure infected sea lions, they could hold the secret on how to block the aggressive spread of the cancer in other animals, Deming said.

“It really gives us an opportunity to learn from a bad situation that we really can’t do anything about to help future animals and potentially even come up with some treatments of animals in managed care like aquariums that develop this disease,” she said.

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ASU researchers using deep-sea exploration to learn about space - 12news.com KPNX

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Samples are taken and brought back to the surface where they are analyzed for months in a lab.

PHOENIX — Researchers at Arizona State University have developed a new method that could drastically improve the way we explore space, and it is all happening some 3,500 meters under the sea.

Researchers Dr. Everett Shock and Dr. Vincent Milesi developed a method to interpret data received during deep-sea explorations in a short amount of time to allow researchers to make informed decisions on the next steps of a remote research project in just hours.

THE OLD WAY VS. THE NEW WAY

“Well, there was one thing that we did, especially from ASU, was we kind of turned the system on its head,” said Shock.

In traditional deep-sea explorations, especially when a remote-controlled vessel is used to reach depths of the ocean unhabitable by humans, data analysis is a long and complicated process.

Typically, an exploration is planned, samples are taken and brought back to the surface where they are analyzed for months in a lab. Decisions on where or what to explore next are then determined.

Taking part in a project sponsored by the Ocean Exploration Trust, a non-profit that supports the scientific explorations of the Earth’s oceans, Shock and Milesi used deep-sea exploration to put their method to the test.

“So, what we did was to do a huge number of calculations and models taking advantage of clever ways of doing computer programming, so that he had a whole bunch of predictions of possible chemical compositions that we might see,” said Shock.

These predictions of all the possibilities they might find on a mission, allowed them to line up the data they received and compare it to all the predictions. At that point, they could analyze the data much quicker. Like an autofill feature on text messaging, the predictions could point the researchers in the right direction instantly.

LOOKING BEYOND EARTH

“We built in this delay of a day in our communications, to simulate what it might be like to try to communicate with a team of astronauts exploring, say on Mars,” said Shock.

Shock and Milesi built in their delay in the communications with the ship Nautilus to simulate the delays scientists find in space exploration.

Unlike deep-sea exploration, space exploration comes with delays and gaps in communications. Sometimes researchers will encounter 30-minute delays while talking with astronauts over the radio, or have to wait for a small window of time when the entire data from a rover is sent across space from a previous day’s missions. Their new method of analyzing data would allow them to develop more nuanced plans of action for a space crew for the next day, as opposed to the next voyage.

“And that's where [the] ability to have already done a whole bunch of modeling and computation of what was going on in the system was so valuable,” said Shock. “Because we could try a bunch of things really rapidly. ‘Hey, does it work this way? Does it work that way?’”

ON THE HORIZON

With a plan in place to quickly analyze and react to data on a remote mission, NASA is planning on using Shock and Milesi’s method on its next probe mission to Jupiter.

“The Europa Clipper mission was approved several years ago, we've been working on it,” said Shock. “I'm involved in that project. The launch date is coming up in a couple of years.”

Europa, a frozen water moon of Jupiter, is a perfect environment for Shock’s and Milesi’s method, and the underwater exploration of the Gorda Ridge was the perfect location.

It’s thought that Europa’s surface, which is covered by ice, sits over a giant ocean. As Europa Clipper passes by, Shock and Milesi will be able to analyze the data and help NASA get the most out of their mission.

“I think it's a real benefit to try to do things differently than you've been doing them,” said Shock. “It causes you to have all sorts of new ideas about how things can be done.”

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Why the Black Sea could emerge as the world's next great energy battleground - Atlantic Council

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Why the Black Sea could emerge as the world’s next great energy battleground

Turkish drilling vessel Kanuni departs on her maiden voyage to the Black Sea on November 13, 2020. (REUTERS/Yoruk Isik)

The Baltic Sea has been perceived in recent years as the maritime front line in rising tensions between the West and Russia. This has prompted NATO to develop a multi-level approach, which has led to a substantial improvement in regional security.

In contrast, the Black Sea has received much less attention. This is despite Russian military aggression in littoral would-be NATO states Ukraine and Georgia, along with construction of the TurkStream pipeline, which is designed to control the flow of Russian gas to Eastern Europe and Turkey via the Black Sea.

A recent CEPA strategy paper noted that the Black Sea region was not only a frontier between the West and Russia, but also the meeting point of four great forces: democracy in the West, Russian military aggression to the north, growing Chinese financial influence to the east, and Middle Eastern instability in the south.

To fend off rising Chinese inroads and Russian aggression, it said, the West and NATO would have to produce a multi-layered strategy. This would involve helping littoral states build strong economies while encouraging collaboration among them.

Such a vision would consolidate security on NATO’s southeastern flank. It would bring alliance members Bulgaria, Romania and Turkey closer together with NATO’s strongest partners, Georgia and Ukraine.

One element that could underpin these objectives would be the development of Black Sea gas reserves which are being explored in the offshore zones of each littoral state. These reserves could become the linchpin of an integrated regional economy.

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The exact volumes of gas currently lying deep underneath the Black Sea are not yet known. Rough estimates predict that the Ukrainian shelf may contain more than two trillion cubic meters of gas. The exact figure is yet to be determined since two-thirds of the country’s maritime area passed to de facto Russian control following Moscow’s illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014. Ukraine’s state energy company Naftogaz is preparing to explore 32 remaining blocks.

Meanwhile, Turkey made international headlines in 2020 when it said reserves at its offshore Tuna-1 exploration zone may be as high as 405 billion cubic meters. Further reserves could be discovered in adjacent blocks.

To the west, Romania is thought to hold anything between 150-200 bcm of offshore reserves, being one of the most advanced littoral countries in terms of developing resources.

Bulgaria’s total reserves are unknown but just one of its as-yet unexplored fields, Khan Asparuh, is thought to contain 100 bcm. If this figure proves to be correct, these reserves alone could cover the country’s annual demand for more than 30 years.

To the east, Georgia may have overall recoverable gas resources of 266 billion cubic meters, although how much of these reserves lie in its Black Sea economic zone has yet to be determined.

In recent months, Romanian-Austrian integrated oil and gas company, OMV Petrom, which has been developing Romania’s Neptun Deep project together with US company ExxonMobil, has been seeking cooperation opportunities with neighboring countries.

In February 2021, it signed a memorandum of understanding with Naftogaz for joint gas exploration projects in Ukraine. Last summer, it increased its share in the Bulgarian Khan Asparuh project to 42.86% following the transfer of Spain Repsol’s 30% stake. The company also won a bid for exploration in Georgia’s offshore Block II.

However, more investors are needed to provide technology, financial support, and know-how to help littoral states develop an integrated strategy addressing shared challenges.

With the exception of Turkey, all littoral states have seen their maritime industries suffer a drop in competitiveness following the fall of communism. Ukraine, for example, was previously known for its “maritime maturity,” boasting a diversified maritime economy integrating river transportation, shipbuilding, and the oil and gas industry.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Ukraine struggled to rebuild its navy, while Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea meant the country not only lost substantial offshore reserves but also lost control over Naftogaz subsidiaries operating in the region along with billions of dollars in equipment.

Similar stories of industrial decline over the last three decades can be found in Romania, Bulgaria, and Georgia.

Meanwhile, Turkey’s Black Sea maritime zone has been historically undervalued as the country has viewed it as a border region adjacent to an area of conflicting military powers, namely NATO and the Warsaw Pact.

These countries do not only share historical difficulties. They also harbor similar aspirations to consolidate and diversify their economies. It is here that the development of natural gas resources could help revitalize energy-intensive industries as well as develop new sectors such as hydrogen production which align with global emission reduction targets.

As major regional agricultural and gas producers, Romania and Ukraine have historically had developed domestic fertilizer industries. However, declining output and higher gas prices have eroded their competitiveness in recent years. Ukrainian nitrogen fertilizer production has fallen dramatically since 2014. Romania’s decline has been even steeper, with production falling close to 19% year-on-year over the same period.

However, decreasing gas prices across the world in 2020 helped Ukraine ramp up its ammonia and urea output, which are critical to the production of nitrogen fertilizers. This made it possible to more than double urea exports from the Ukrainian Black Sea port of Yuzhny from 0.7 million metric tons in 2019 to 1.5 million tons to 2020, according to energy and petrochemicals news and price publisher ICIS.

Just like neighboring Romania, Bulgaria, and Turkey, Ukraine is looking to replace outdated coal-fired power plants, which cover around 40% of their total installed capacity, with cleaner fuels.

Natural gas produced in the Black Sea could help them to transition to renewable generation in a way that would not only guarantee reliable baseload capacity, but also access cost-effective means of generation. Moreover, the Black Sea region could become an integrated hub of innovation for the development of new technologies including hydrogen produced from natural gas and renewable forms of generation.

The Black Sea’s offshore wind potential is one of the highest in Europe, with Turkey’s conservatively estimated at 11 GW, Romania’s at 94 GW, and Ukraine’s at no less than 100 GW.

This abundance of natural gas and renewable energy potential could help Black Sea countries to set up hydrogen production clusters for supplies that would help decarbonize polluting industries such as steel, cement, glass, or car manufacturing as well as increase exports to Europe. Such a vision, however, could not be achieved without an integrated market approach where natural gas or hydrogen could flow freely from the Carpathians and the Balkans to the Urals.

The region already benefits from the Trans-Balkan pipeline, the historical transit corridor for Russian gas exports to the Balkans and Turkey via Ukraine, Moldova and Romania.

Due to the expiry of most legacy contracts held by Russia’s Gazprom with local transmission operators and the diversion of flows to the newly-built TurkStream, the Trans-Balkan pipeline, which has a capacity close to 30 billion cubic meters, is now free for third-party access.

For most of its route, the pipeline runs parallel to the Black Sea coast in Ukraine, Romania, Bulgaria, and Turkey, coming close to offshore blocks in their economic zones as well as the Mihail Kogalniceanu Military Base, NATO’s air base in southern Romania.

Meanwhile, Georgia could be integrated into the wider Black Sea gas region through the existing South Caucasus Pipeline, which has been expanded to carry Caspian gas to Turkey and southern Europe.

However, in order to take advantage of the opportunities offered by abundant gas reserves and the renewable energy potential of the Black Sea, littoral countries would have to consider building a regional energy market underpinned by shared rules.

Some littoral countries such as Ukraine have made progress in terms of opening up their markets, but even Kyiv has struggled to attract high-profile investors to help explore and produce its natural gas reserves.

In Romania, ExxonMobil is looking to exit the country, deterred by political and regulatory unpredictability, while Turkey’s currency instability and lack of reform in the gas sector have discouraged investors from entering the country in recent years.

An integrated and functional gas market would not only improve the region’s chances of attracting finance, but also give it greater collective weight among global gas producers. More importantly, it would minimize the risk of conflict arising among littoral states.

Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), exclusive economic zones (EEZ) extend 200 nautical miles beyond a sovereign country’s coastline. Since UNCLOS requires states to resolve conflicts equitably without giving further legal guidance, the potential for disputes is high in the Black Sea region since its deep sea is limited in surface.

In 2009, the International Court of Justice intervened in a conflict between Romania and Ukraine over the establishment of a single maritime boundary between the two.

Russia’s unlawful annexation of Crimea could complicate matters further as the peninsula’s EEZ overlaps with what remains of Ukraine’s, as well as with those of Romania and Turkey.

As explained by the authors of a recent article on Black Sea exploration, in the absence of shared rules, and with Turkey not being a signatory to the UNCLOS, what matters is who drills first.

This could leave room for conflict in the wider Black Sea region and create vulnerabilities for NATO and its partners, which Russia or China would be only too keen to exploit.

Dr. Aura Sabadus is a senior energy journalist who writes about Eastern Europe, Turkey, and Ukraine for Independent Commodity Intelligence Services (ICIS), a London-based global energy and petrochemicals news and market data provider. You can follow her on Twitter @ASabadus.

Further reading

The views expressed in UkraineAlert are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Atlantic Council, its staff, or its supporters.

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March 31, 2021 at 01:56AM
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Why the Black Sea could emerge as the world's next great energy battleground - Atlantic Council

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