Category Archives: marine pollution

The Ocean-Based Internet: Data Mining the Ocean

The U.S. Defense Department could one day place thousands of low-cost, floating sensors into the ocean to collect environmental data, such as water temperature, as well as activity data about commercial vessels, aircraft and even fish or maritime mammals moving through the area. But others also are dropping similar sensors in the world’s oceans, and defense researchers suggest many of those systems could be integrated into an even more comprehensive ocean-based Internet of Things.

The growing Internet of Things is mostly a land-based phenomenon, frequently in large cities with loads of sensors. But researchers at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) foresee a wide range of military and civil benefits from extending the Internet of Things out to sea.  The agency announced its Ocean of Things program in 2017. John Waterston, a program manager within DARPA’s Strategic Technology Office, says the sensors will float along the surface for at least one year, transmitting short messages via the Iridium satellite constellation back to a central location for analysis. “It’s a 280-byte in and 340-byte out message, so it’s a little bit more than a tweet. I like to say these things tweet about their environment,” he says.

The goal is to increase maritime awareness in a cost-effective way. Using existing systems to continuously monitor vast regions of the ocean would be cost prohibitive…. By coupling powerful analytical tools with commercial sensor technology, the agency intends to create floating sensor networks that significantly expand maritime awareness at a fraction of the cost of current approaches.

Waterston says one of the most interesting missions for the sensor might be to simply determine whether GPS signals are available in an area of interest for military operations. …The program also could help improve ocean modeling, which is important for forecasting weather, finding people who have fallen overboard or locating debris from a crashed aircraft. …The agency has yet to determine how many sensors it might eventually deploy, but they could number in the tens of thousands. To put that into perspective, DARPA officials compare the final density to placing a penny on the national mall, which Wikipedia says covers about 309 acres between the Ulysses S. Grant Memorial and the Lincoln Memorial….

In addition, Argo, an international program, uses several thousand battery-powered, robotic floating devices to measure temperature, salinity and current for climate and oceanographic research. The floats mostly drift 10 days at a time below the ocean surface. After rising and transmitting their data to satellites, they return to depth to drift for another 10 days. The floats go as deep as 2,000 meters, according to the Argo website. 

Argo Floating Device

It is possible an ocean-based Internet could provide data on demand to a variety of customers inside and outside the Defense Department. If, for example, a government agency needs the water temperature in a given area reported every six hours, or a combatant command needs to know what’s happening in the Mediterranean, or NATO officials want information between Gibraltar and Sicily, or commercial fishermen need data on where the shrimp or tuna are, they could simply request it. “It’s about serving the end users. If you can use that data, we can generate it for you,” he offers. “It’s a little bit like floats-as-a-service or data-as-a-service.”

Argo’s Ocean Sensors

Another option is that other organizations could purchase and deploy the DARPA-developed sensors. “I hope people want to come up with their own sensors or want to buy these. I imagine a marketplace where you get many commercial people buying these. Everyone could buy 500 and then take advantage of the service provided by the thousands that are out there. I could imagine this as that foundational community,” Waterston suggests.

DARPA currently is working with three teams led by the Palo Alto Research Center, better known as PARC***, Areté Associates and Numurus LLC to develop the floats. Leidos, Draper Laboratory, SoarTech and Geometric Data Analytics are providing software for data visualization, performance prediction, float command and control and detection. 

Excerpts from George Seffers, DARPA’s Ocean of Things Ripples Across Research Areas,, Nov. 1, 2019

***See also DARPA’s Vanishing Programmable Resources (VAPR) program. According to one scientist that works in the PARC’s disappearing electronics platform (called DUST) “Imagine being able to cover a large area, like the ocean floor, with billions of tiny sensors to ‘hear’ what is happening within the earth’s crust, and have them quickly disintegrate into, essentially, sand, leaving no trace and not harming the planet or sea life,  

Scrubbing Sulfur Pollution

From January 2020, the United Nations International Maritime Organization (IMO) will ban ships from using fuels with a sulphur content above 0.5%, compared with 3.5% now.The rules herald the biggest leap in how ships are powered since they switched from burning coal to oil over a century ago, but vessels will still be allowed to use higher-sulphur fuel if fitted with cleaning devices called scrubbers.  Closed-loop scrubbers keep most of the water used for sulphur removal onboard for disposal at port. Open-loop systems, however, remove sulphur coming through a ship’s smokestack with water that can then be pumped overboard.

Years of studies have examined whether open-loop scrubbers introduce into waterways acidic sulphur harmful to marine life, cancer-causing hydrocarbons, nitrates leading to algal blooms and metals that impair organ function and cause birth defects.  The results have largely been inconclusive and the IMO itself has encouraged further study into the environmental impact of scrubbers.

The stated aim of the new IMO measures is to improve human health..  A study in the journal Nature last year found ship emissions with current sulphur levels caused about 400,000 premature deaths from lung cancer and cardiovascular disease as well as around 14 million childhood asthma cases every year.

Singapore and Fujairah in the United Arab Emirates have banned the use of open-loop scrubbers from the start of next year. China is also set to extend a ban on scrubber discharge to more coastal regions. 

Excerpts from Noah Browning, Going overboard? Shipping rules seen shifting pollution from air to sea, Reuters, Oct. 21, 2019

Gambling with the Environment: Shell’s Decommissioning Plans in the North Sea

Giant oil firms have spent more than four decades pumping billions of pounds worth of oil from the seabed. But now decommissioned rigs in the North Sea are at the centre of an environmental storm with an oil giant under intense pressure to rethink plans to leave some of the platforms in the sea.

Several hundred oil drilling platforms in the waters off Scotland are due to be decommissioned over the next three decades as they approach the end of their operational lifetime.  Due to the cost and difficulty of dismantling the structures – each of which can be as tall as the Eiffel Tower – Shell proposed removing only the topside of its four Brent platforms, leaving the huge concrete legs in place.

A natural gas platform in Norway. Almost all of the 600KT structure will be submerged.

That resulted in the controversial suggestion that oil mixed with sediment in 42 out of 64 concrete storage cells – each up to 66 feet in diameter and 200 feet high, around the height of the Scott Monument in Edinburgh – should remain on the seabed. These could remain for up to 500 years after the platforms have been decommissioned.

Chevron oil platform

The plans have raised alarm in some quarters over the impact of leaks from the estimated 11,000 tonnes of raw oil and toxins remaining in the base of the four Brent installations – Alpha, Bravo, Charlie and Delta, all put up in the East Shetland basin in the 1970s.  It has emerged that a report of an expert evaluation group commissioned by the Dutch government has provided a critical analysis of the position and recommends a clean-up be carried out as agreed more than 20 years ago in international treaties.   See Brent Decommissioning Derogation: An evaluation. The special treaty known as Ospar, which was adopted in 1992, states that rigs, including their contents and pipelines, must be removed from the sea after decommissioning.

The experts said that removing all contaminated materials “presents the most certain solution”.  They say staying true to Ospar “not only avoids passing on potential problems to future generations” but also prevents “large amounts of negative public attention as was the case in the decommissioning of Brent Spar in the 1990s”.  When Shell proposed sinking the Spar oil storage buoy in 1995, it prompted protests by Greenpeace, petrol boycotts in Germany and a falling share price. The company was eventually forced to back down and find a more environmentally friendly plan.

In October 2019, Greenpeace activists from the Netherlands, Germany and Denmark boarded two oil platforms in Shell’s Brent field in a protest against the plans. They scaled Brent Bravo and hung banners saying “Shell, clean up your mess!” and “Stop Ocean Pollution”.

The 2019 report revealed that an earlier independent review group(that took place in 2017)said that a “leave in place” solution with appropriate navigational markers and safety zones gave “a risk in relation to shipping impact that Shell regarded as acceptable”.  The report added: “However, although the estimated probabilities of a collision may be low on a per annum basis, the consequences could be catastrophic and result in major injury and loss of life or serious marine pollution.”

Excerpts from North Sea oil decommissioning: pressure grows on Shell to back down, the Herald, Oct. 20, 2019

Sunlight Can Make Plastics Disappear

Numerous international governmental agencies that steer policy assume that polystyrene, a sort of plastic  persists in the environment for millennia. 

Styrofoam Cup

In their research paper published in the Journal of  Environmental Science and Technology Letters, scientists show the  that polystyrene is completely photochemically oxidized to carbon dioxide and partially photochemically oxidized to dissolved organic carbon. Lifetimes of complete and partial photochemical oxidation are estimated to occur on centennial and decadal time scales, respectively. These lifetimes are orders of magnitude faster than biological respiration of polystyrene and thus challenge the prevailing assumption that polystyrene persists in the environment for millennia. 

Excerpt from Collin P. Ward et al, Sunlight Converts Polystyrene to Carbon Dioxide and Dissolved Organic Carbon, Journal of Environmental Science and Technology Letters, October 10, 2019

The Disappearing Birds

North America’s birds are disappearing from the skies at a rate that’s shocking even to ornithologists. Since the 1970s, the continent has lost 3 billion birds, nearly 30% of the total, and even common birds such as sparrows and blackbirds are in decline, U.S. and Canadian researchers reported in the September 2019 Issue of Science Magazine…  Five  years ago, PM Rosenberg a conservation biologist decided to take a broader look at what is happening in North America’s skies.

“I frankly thought it was going to be kind of a wash,” Rosenberg says. He expected rarer species would be disappearing but common species would be on the rise, compensating for the losses, because they tend to be generalists, and more resilient. Indeed, waterfowl and raptors are thriving, thanks to habitat restoration and other conservation efforts. But the declines in many other species, particularly those living along shorelines and in grasslands, far exceeded those gains, Rosenberg and his colleagues report. Grassland birds have declined by 53% since 1970—a loss of 700 million adults in the 31 species studied, including meadowlarks and northern bobwhites. Shorebirds such as sanderlings and plovers are down by about one-third, the team says. Habitat loss may be to blame.

The familiar birds that flock by the thousands in suburbs were not exempt. “There’s an erosion of the numbers of common birds,” Rosenberg says. His team determined that 19 common species have each lost more than 50 million birds since 1970. Twelve groups, including sparrows, warblers, finches, and blackbirds, were particularly hard hit. Even introduced species that have thrived in North America, such as starlings and house sparrows, are losing ground.  “When you lose a common species, the impact will be much more massive on the ecosystem and ecosystem services,” says Gerardo Ceballos, an ecologist and conservation biologist at the National Autonomous University of Mexico in Mexico City. “It’s showing the magnitude of the problem.”

Some of the causes may be subtle. Last week, toxicologists described how low doses of neonicotinoids—a common pesticide—made migrating sparrows lose weight and delay their migration, which hurts their chances of surviving and reproducing. Climate change, habitat loss, shifts in food webs, and even cats may all be adding to the problem, and not just for birds. 

Weather radar data revealed similarly steep declines. Radar detects not just rain, but also insect swarms and flocks of birds, which stand out at night, when birds usually migrate. “We don’t see individual birds, it’s more like a big blob moving through airspace,” explains Cornell migration ecologist Adriaan Dokter. He converted “blobs” from 143 radar stations into biomass. Between 2007 and 2017, that biomass declined 13%, the Science paper reports. The greatest decline was in birds migrating up the eastern United States….

Excerpts from Elizabeth Pennisi, Billions of North American Birds Have Vanished,  Science, Sept. 20, 2019

A Huge Headache: the Radioactive Water at Fukushima

What to do with the enormous amount of radioactive  water, which grows by around 150 tons a day at Fukushima, is a thorny question, with controversy surrounding a long-standing proposal to discharge it into the sea, after extensive decontamination.  The water comes from several different sources: Some is used for cooling at the plant, which suffered a meltdown after it was hit by a tsunami triggered by a massive earthquake in March 2011.  Groundwater that seeps into the plant daily, along with rainwater, add to the problem.

A thousand, towering tanks have now replaced many of the cherry trees that once dotted the plant’s ground. Each can hold 1,200 tons, and most of them are already full.  “We will build more on the site until the end of 2020, and we think all the tanks will be full by around the summer of 2022,” said Junichi Matsumoto, an official with the unit of plant operator TEPCO in charge of dismantling the site.

TEPCO has been struggling with the problem for years, taking various measures to limit the amount of groundwater entering the site.  There is also an extensive pumping and filtration system, that each day brings up tons of newly contaminated water and filters out as many of the radioactive elements as possible.

The hangar where the decontamination system runs is designated “Zone Y” — a danger zone requiring special protections.  All those entering must wear elaborate protection: a full body suit, three layers of socks, three layers of gloves, a double cap topped by a helmet, a vest with a pocket carrying a dosimeter, a full-face respirator mask and special shoes.  Most of the outfit has to burned after use.

“The machinery filters contain radionuclides, so you have to be very protected here, just like with the buildings where the reactors are,” explained TEPCO risk communicator Katsutoshi Oyama.  TEPCO has been filtering newly contaminated water for years, but much of it needs to go through the process again because early versions of the filtration process did not fully remove some dangerous radioactive elements, including strontium 90.

The current process is more effective, removing or reducing around 60 radionuclides to levels accepted by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) for water being discharged.  But there is one that remains, which cannot be removed with the current technology: tritium.

Tritium is naturally present in the environment, and has also been discharged in its artificial form into the environment by the nuclear industry around the world.  There is little evidence that it causes harm to humans except in very high concentrations and the IAEA argues that properly filtered Fukushima water could be diluted with seawater and then safely released into the ocean without causing environmental problems.

But those assurances are of little comfort to many in the region, particularly Fukushima’s fishing industry which, like local farmers, has suffered from the outside perception that food from the region is unsafe.

Karyn Nishimura, At Fukushima plant, a million-ton headache: radioactive water, Japan Times, Oct. 7, 2019

The Impact of Oil Spills on the Deep Sea: the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill

The Louisiana University Marine Consortium (LUMCON) published in September 2019 a study on the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill in Royal Society Open Science.  The BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in April 2010, killing 11 workers.  The subsequent cleanup and restoration had cost nearly $65 billion..but while while we can burn off and disperse oil on the surface, but we don’t have the technology to get rid of oil on the seafloor. So approximately 10 million gallons of it settled there….In 2017 , the The LUMCON surveyed the site surrounding the wreck of the rig, and another one 1,640 feet north. There were no giant isopods, glass sponges, or whip corals that would have jumped (metaphorically) at the chance to colonize the hard substrate of the rig, such as discarded sections of pipe…..But]  crabs were just about everywhere. The researchers were shocked by the sheer number of crustaceans and other arthropods that had colonized the spill site. According to rough estimates, Atlantic deep sea red crabs, red shrimp, and white caridean shrimp were nearly eight times more populous at the Deepwater site than at other spots in the Gulf. “Everywhere there were crabs just kicking up black plumes of mud, laden with oil,” Nunnally says. But abundance does not mean the site was recovering, or even friendly to life. Particularly eerie was the crab’s achingly slow movement. “Normally, they scatter when they see the ROV lights,” he says. But these crabs seemed unbothered, or unaware of the robot’s presence.

Crabs on the seabed of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill

The researchers hypothesize that degrading hydrocarbons are what’s luring unwitting crabs from the surrounding seafloor to the deep-sea equivalent of a toxic dump. “The chemical makeup of oil is similar to the oils naturally present on crustaceans,” Nunnally says. “They’re attracted to the oil site, but everything goes downhill for them once they’re in the area.” A similar kind of chemical confusion occurred at an oil spill in Buzzards Bay in New England in 2003, which attracted hordes of American lobsters. The researchers liken the death trap to the La Brea Tar Pits: Once lured in, the crabs lose their ability to leave. With no other species able to thrive in the area, the crabs have no food source—except each other. And as one might imagine, consuming the flesh of a toxin-riddled crab or starving to death in a deep-sea tar pit is sort of a lose/lose situation.

The crabs also looked anything but normal: some claws shrunken, some swollen, shriveled legs, a dusting of parasites. “There were deformities, but mostly things were missing,” Nunnally says. “You come in with eight legs and try to get away on four or five.” The researchers have yet to ascertain what specific toxins led to these maladies. The shrimp looked just as awful as the crabs. “They didn’t look like shrimp from other sites,” Nunnally says, adding that many of the small crustaceans had humps in their backs—tumors, perhaps.

Excerpts from SABRINA IMBLERS, A Decade Later, the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill Has Left an Abyssal Wasteland, Atlas Obscura, Sept. 18, 2019