Saturday, September 14, 2013

This Saturday in Underwater Science

Photo stolen from NPR
The Blob Fish.
Well we had a choice as we prepared this week's science entry and Mercury Police Reporter Caroline Sweeney made the decision.

Caroline Sweeney

(She hates this photo)
Offered science news about space or about water, she chose water and so don't blame us if you find this post to be all wet, or you're grossed out by the picture posted above.

It's there to grab your attention.

And so we begin with something truly ugly -- so ugly in fact that it has actually been voted most ugly by the Ugly Animal Preservation Society.

There really is such a thing.

Who knew?

Anyway, for reasons clear only to them, the society decided to hold an on-line contest to determine the world's ugliest animal and the blob fish, a native of very deep waters off Australia, won for obvious reasons.

Our thanks(?) to National Public Radio's web site for bringing it to our attention.

Seriously, yuck.
Graphic stolen from the Washington Post

While we're spending time on things you may find in deep water, we bring you now to the world's largest volcano which is, you guessed it, deep underwater.

Called "Tamu Massif," it too lives in the deep waters of the Pacific Ocean and was only recently discovered, according to this article in The Washington Post.

And, in case you were wondering why the word "massif" is in its name, it's because its friggin MASSIVE.

Up until now, Mauna Loa, one of the five volcanoes that comprises the big island of Hawaii, was the world's largest.

But Tamu Massif has a footprint the size of New Mexico!

Tamu, by the way, is an abbreviation for Texas A. & M. University, the home school of the scientists who discovered it. Figures, its discovered by Texans, who are always bragging about how everything in Texas is big.

"The area covered by the newly discovered volcano rivals the biggest volcano in the solar system, Olympus Mons on Mars," the Post reported. (See how I snuck a little space reference in there anyway?)

"Olympus Mons is the 800-pound gorilla of the solar system," said geophysicist William W. Sager of the University of Houston, the study’s lead author. "We didn’t know these massive volcanoes were here on Earth."

However, before we get all braggy about it, turns out Tamu is broad, but short.

Although Tamu Massif has a gigantic footprint, it is relatively short compared with Olympus Mons. The newly discovered volcano rises only a few miles above the seafloor, while the Martian mountain rises 16 miles at its peak.

Most importantly, scientists say there is little chance it will erupt.

Having visited ugly fish, let's visit some dead fish, thousands of them.

A resident of Wuhan, China, cleared dead fish from the Fu River

They were killed in a river in China because they had the misfortune of being downstream of a chemical plant there.

"Environmental protection officials said tests on water taken from the Fu River upstream from the metropolis of Wuhan revealed that extremely high levels of ammonia in the water were caused by pollution from a plant owned by the Hubei Shuanghuan Science and Technology Company," The New York Times reported in this Sept. 4 article.

The plant produces sodium carbonate, used in making glass, and ammonium chloride for fertilizer, according to local news media reports. It has been cited for environmental violations four times since 2008, said Ma Jun, director of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, a Chinese nongovernmental organization that tracks air and water pollution.

The Fu River flows into the Yangtze, China’s longest river and the source of drinking water for millions. Spills into the Yangtze and its tributaries remain a continuing problem despite huge investments in reducing pollution, Mr. Ma said.

China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection said water pollution was a serious concern, with industrial spills, farm runoff and untreated sewage all factors in degrading water quality. As of last year, nearly a third of the sections of major rivers it monitored were so degraded that the water was unfit for human contact, the ministry said in its annual State of Environmental Quality report, released in June.

Now, just in case you're shaking your head thinking that China needs to get its act together  before it pollutes all its drinking water, we would warn you to look in the mirror first.

A drilling rig used to extract natural gas from the Marcellus Shale in Washington County, Pa. (The Associated Press)

Two years ago, The New York Times revealed that conventional wastewater treatment plants are poorly equipped to deal with the often toxic outflow from Marcellus shale drilling operations.

But in June, as reported by NPR's State Impact team, the state’s Independent Regulatory Review Commission, approved new water quality standards for pollutants like strontium. But chloride and sulfates were not included in the more than 100-page revision.

Prepare to be shocked, but apparently the industries that would have been affected by the regulation didn't want it. And so, it didn't happen.
Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection had originally proposed adding
chloride, sulfates, and a chemical known as molybdenum, to the state’s water quality standards.
But opposition came from miners of molybdenum, the coal industry, and the natural gas industry. Coal mining, along with other industries, generates sulfate discharges. Molybdenum is a heavy metal mined for use in steel and cast iron.
Despite efforts by environmental groups concerned about increased natural gas drilling activity, and resulting discharges of chloride, the DEP withdrew the chloride from the original proposal.
In 2011, the gas drilling industry agreed to stop sending its wastewater to the plants, but apparently (who knows how....) some of the pollutants are ending up in rivers and streams in Pennsylvania anyway.

Most conventional sewage treatment plants, like this one in
cannot handle wastewater from
natural gas 'fracking.'
And even though the gas industry in Pennsylvania says it operates in "zero discharge mode," it nonetheless opposed the regulations that should have had no effect on its operations. Hmmmmm.

As State Impact's Susan Phillips reported, "that wastewater has a high salt content. In it’s original proposal, DEP pointed to increased oil and gas production as a reason to establish standards for chloride, describing its potential impacts on aquatic life."

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection wrote "freshwater fish and aquatic communities cannot survive in elevated concentrations of chlorides. Maintaining a proper salt-to-water balance in a fresh water environment challenges most aquatic life and, in particular, aquatic insects."

But maybe there's hope still in Pennsylvania.

The on-line version of the Harrisburg Patriot-News reported Thursday that: "Attorney General Kathleen Kane on Tuesday afternoon filed criminal charges against a Pennsylvania subsidiary of ExxonMobil for illegally discharging more than 50,000 gallons of toxic wastewater from a Marcellus Shale gas well site in Penn Township, Lycoming County.

One can't help but wonder if former attorney general Tom Corbett, who has received thousands in campaign contributions from this industry, would have made that case.... 

But before we get all conspiracy theory on you, let's not forget that sometimes we are a danger to aquatic life just because we're stupid.

Hawaii News Now - KGMB and KHNL
Case in point, NPR reported Thursday that 233,000 gallons of molasses that were spilled into Honolulu harbor on Monday, literally killing everything.

KGMB TV sent diver Roger White into the water to see what's happened to sea creatures there. He shot video and came back to say that:
"It was shocking because the entire bottom is covered with dead fish. Small fish, crabs, mole crabs, eels. Every type of fish that you don't usually see, but now they're dead. Now they're just laying there. Every single thing is dead. We're talking in the hundreds, thousands. I didn't see one single living thing underwater."

Why is the molasses causing so much damage? In an earlier report, Hawaii News Now:
A crab suffocated from a massive molasses spill in
Honolulu harbor.
"... did an experiment to see why molasses is so hazardous to fish. When we poured store bought Molasses into a vase of water we collected from Keehi Lagoon, the concentrated sugary substance went straight to the bottom.
"Unlike an oil spill, which can be cleaned by skimming the surface, the molasses quickly disperses to the deepest points. 'It's sucking up all the oxygen,' explained [state reef biologist Dave] Gulko. 'There's no oxygen at depth so the animals that need it can't get it and are suffocating.' "
You can see why its called a "Snakehead."

And, because no scientific post involving water on this blog is complete without news of our favorite "Frankenfish," we bring you now the latest news of the Snakehead, an invasive fish from China that, according to some stories, can do everything but advanced algebra.

In addition to being a voracious predator that can crowd out indigenous species, now, it turns out, it can also carry diseases that will kill its competitors but leave the Snakehead feeling dandy.

Last month, the Washington Post reported on an announcement from "the U.S. Geological Survey that Northern snakeheads in the Potomac River have apparently contracted a virus that is known to cause massive kills among largemouth bass."
It is possible that snakeheads could be reservoirs of the virus and pass it to bass throughout the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
So far, the virus has been detected in bass, sunfish and other species, the USGS said, but only largemouth bass have developed a disease as a result. Most bass who contract it are otherwise fine, but some have trouble submerging and are forced to float on the surface.

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