Tag Archives: oceans

Big Melt in Frontierland: Alaska’s Lessons in Global Warming

Seward, Alaska

Sailing out from Seward.

Note: The following story was reported and written in 2007, for The Hartford Courant. Editors there declined to run it. I like the story anyway, and pretty much everything it says has been repeatedly validated by subsequent scientific research. It’s still going on – even in Connecticut. I’ve added a couple of notes in brackets in the text where updates seemed appropriate. — DF

SEWARD, Alaska — The Glacier Express chugged out of Resurrection Bay, and the blowing rain turned to sleet that lashed across the upper deck. White clouds shrouded the dark gray mountains that drop steeply into the sea.

This had been one of Alaska’s coldest and wettest summers. As they headed toward Kenai Fjords National Park, passengers aboard the sightseeing boat, some wrapped in fleece and rain gear in mid-August, had good reason to wonder what had happened to global warming.

But Alaska, frontierland of huge landscapes and volatile weather, is indeed warming. In the past 50 years, the state’s annual average temperature is up as much as 5.5 degrees. Overall, the Arctic region has warmed almost twice as fast as the rest of the world.

The greenhouse gas problem fueled by our crowded and busy civilization affects this remote region now, directly and in many ways — including fading sea ice, melting glaciers, thawing permafrost and changes in habitats that have been the same for thousands of years.

But this is not Alaska’s problem alone. The effects of warming in Alaska and the rest of the Arctic will reverberate all over the globe.

Even in Connecticut.

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Gulf Spill Solution, Or New Hazard?

By David Funkhouser — June 8, 2010

A Connecticut company that makes a line of what it labels “green” products for auto and marine use says it has just the thing for cleaning up the Gulf oil spill: A nanotech-based, biodegradable oil dispersant.

But a number of scientists and environmental groups are warning that the firm’s marine oil dispersant relies on nanoparticles in an untested formulation that could cause more harm than good.

Green Earth Technologies’ oil dispersant uses a detergent based on plant-based oils and other unspecified compounds.

Stamford-based Green Earth Technologies defends its products as harmless, and says a protest letter sent to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency by environmental groups has unfairly characterized the company’s dispersant. The EPA, which has been flooded by suggestions for using various products, has basically told the company to get in line along with other companies proposing Gulf solutions.

“This company may be right on, we don’t know that,” said Penny Vlahos, assistant professor of marine science and chemistry at the University of Connecticut at Avery Point in Groton. “It’s good someone is asking questions, and it’s good they have to defend themselves.”

Millions of gallons of oil have gushed into the sea in the seven weeks since the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, uncorking a well a mile below the surface. Efforts to fight the spill have included spreading more than a million gallons of oil dispersant.

Vlahos and two UConn colleagues are just back from a one-day conference in Baton Rouge at which 200 scientists in ocean and coastal research consulted with federal officials engaged in the oil cleanup. Vlahos described the Gulf crisis as “a bit of a feeding frenzy” for companies trying to promote their products and techniques for environmental cleanup.

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Algae As Biofuel: The Original Stuff

Published in

River & Shore


October 2009

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The Sinister Sea Squirt


Didemnum sp. / Photo courtesy UConn/Avery Point

Didemnum sp. / Photo courtesy UConn/Avery Point




Hartford Courant, July 1, 2006 (draft)

By David Funkhouser

GROTON — The R/V Connecticut bobs in a light chop, floating midway between Mystic and Fisher’s Island. From the bridge, the dark blue waters of Long Island Sound sparkle on a sunny May morning. A fresh breeze blows, the air is clear, and everything looks just fine.

About 70 feet down, the state of the Sound is a lot murkier.

Capt. Dan Nelson shifts his glance from the view outside to the monitor of a computer that controls the 76-foot research vessel’s position and taps the keys to make an adjustment. With a throbbing hum, thrusters in the bow and stern fight a stiff current to hold us at a spot a mile west of Latimer Reef.

This is where we will hunt for Didemnum sp. A dozen students, teachers and crew have joined marine researchers Robert B. Whitlatch and Ivar G. Babb on this voyage to track down one of the most recent foreign invaders in Long Island Sound. The “sp.” stands for the generic “species,” because we are not sure exactly what beast this is, only that it is a sea squirt, of the genus Didemnum, and that its presence might be really bad news.

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Lucky For Us: Horseshoe Crabs


Hartford Courant, July 21, 2008


WESTPORTAt the west end of Southport Beach, Doug Grabe hauled a folding table and plastic buckets from his truck and set up on the sand for a couple hours of counting, measuring and tagging horseshoe crabs.
Grabe’s unwitting subjects already were starting to arrive, dozens of them crawling and nudging their way from Long Island Sound up the mouth of Sasco Creek. Their movement was timed to a new moon high tide that flooded the creek’s grassy banks and gravelly bottom and pushed the water up onto the sand.
Horseshoe crabs have been around for 300 million years – older than the dinosaurs. As cumbersome and as homely as they appear in their tank-like brown shells, their light blue blood supplies an ingredient indispensable to human health.

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The ‘Canaries’ Under The Sound


The Hartford Courant, April 22, 2007


    Long Island Sound generates more than $5 billion a year for the regional economy and defines Connecticut as surely as the Charter Oak. It holds some 18 trillion gallons of water and is one of the nation’s largest and most significant estuaries.
    But if you want to understand how global warming is changing the Sound, start small.
    On a recent morning, Wesleyan University sophomore Emily Avener was working in a narrow laboratory on the fourth floor of the Exley Science Center. She tapped the grainy contents of a vial onto a tiny black tray. Setting the tray under a microscope, she stepped aside and offered a visitor a look.
    Through the lens, amid the debris, you could see intricate seashells — minuscule versions of the shells you might have picked up on a beach on a summer stroll. These are foraminifera — or rather, the tiny homes left behind by these single-celled creatures.
    Avener spends several hours a week as a research assistant counting forams, as they are informally called. The layman needs a microscope just to distinguish them from grains of sand. They live at the bottom of the food chain; but the stories they can tell us about the past — and the future — challenge the mind.
    Forams typically measure a millimeter or less in diameter, though the largest on record is more than half a foot. They are the principal ingredient in the limestone pyramids of Egypt.
    These microscopic creatures have been around for 550 million years. Because of their abundance in ancient sediments and their sensitivity to different environments, oil companies hire paleontologists to examine forams in rock samples to help them decide where to drill. For similar reasons, forams also are useful indicators of past climate change.
    And they can tell us something about changes to come.
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Our Marshes Are Dying





Hartford Courant, July 22,2007 (updated May 2, 2014, see endnote)


BRANFORD –Peter Banca looked out a window of his Stony Creek home, across his sloping lawn to the green swath of marsh named for his father, a look of surprise on his face.
“I had no idea,” he said when confronted with the prediction that the marsh would disappear in a few decades. But he knew the implications immediately.
Banca marsh has been losing 10 or more feet of its seaward edge each year to what some scientists call sudden wetland dieback — a so-far unexplained phenomenon in which marsh grasses die off, leaving mud, pocked with holes, to wash away with the tide. Even away from the edge, pockets of marsh grass are fading into barren mud sinks.
The fate of Banca marsh, and of tidal wetlands around the world, may be tied to rising sea levels and global warming in intriguing ways. The life of these simple grasses ebbs and flows to the moon’s orbital cycles, to the pressing influence of humans and perhaps even to a fungus that sails across the Atlantic Ocean on dust storms kicked up by drought in Africa.
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High Sea, High Risk

Photo courtesy of Sid Gale

High water from a storm covers Neck Road in Madison, leading toward Grass Island. (Photo courtesy of Sid Gale)

Hartford Courant, Sunday, Dec. 16, 2007


GUILFORD — Pollyanna Rock has always been a familiar foothold for Kathy Waugh, the spot she swam to as a child to test her mettle in the sea during summer days at her grandparents’ cottage on Mulberry Point.
The Long Island Sound tide rose and fell, but the black boulder never dropped completely out of sight beneath the water surface. Forty years later, she still visits the modest two-bedroom house, though her family rents it out most of the summer. And now, for about six hours a day, she can no longer see Pollyanna Rock.
This is a small measure of how a rising sea is changing the map of Guilford, as it is changing coastlines around the world. The sea has been coming up for thousands of years, following the retreat of glaciers after the last Ice Age, scientists say. But the water level is rising faster now, and scientists say that is driven by global warming.
Whatever you believe about climate change, some things are irrefutable: The sea off Connecticut’s coast rose at least 8 inches over the past century, and it is rising about a tenth of an inch per year now. And Pollyanna Rock is not the only thing that is disappearing.
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