Author Archives: Frank Pope

About Frank Pope

The world's first dedicated Ocean Correspondent, for the Times of London.

Eureka joins the Catlin Arctic Survey

89418547_arctic10_174474bThe Arctic sea ice is melting faster than anyone thought. Finding out why is a difficult and cold business

The ocean correspondent of The Times dons his thermals and his polar gear to join a team of scientists studying Arctic sea ice at Prince Gustav Adolf Sea in northern Canada, about 800 miles from the North Pole. Here he shows what it is like living and working at 78 degrees north.

Rainforest area the size of Egypt could be lost In 10 years

Unlike temperate forests, tropical rainforests create the environmental conditions that make their existence possible. When a certain proportion of the forest is gone, the system enters a dry state in which it is impossible for the trees to grow. Where the tipping point between the two states lies is unknown, but it is influenced by climate and deforestation.

Time is of the essence, but any measures discussed in Copenhagen will not start until 2012 at the earliest. In only ten years we would lose an area the size of Egypt, which might mean we lose the lot.

The Rainforest Project under the Prince of Wales has developed an emergency plan to bridge this timing gap, and it is winning important international support. Tropical rainforests represent enormous natural carbon banks, worth an estimated $3.7 trillion(£2.3 trillion). The emergency plan aims to raise Rainforest bonds against this capital, fixed-interest gilts secured by governments of developed nations. The money raised would buy precious time.

“We certainly don’t have time to wait,” says Andrew Mitchell, director of the Global Canopy Program and adviser to the project. “Forests, unlike factories, cannot easily be rebuilt. We need an emergency plan. His Royal Highness has offered this plan, and it seems to be getting a lot of traction.” At present 18 heads of state back the plan and have formed a working group to take the idea forward. The G8 meeting next month will prove critical for an agreement.

Carbon capture and storage technologies are fixes that may deliver good results after a decade of development but natural forests are already doing this free. Mr Mitchell says their value is $45 billion to $80 billion a year, once social costs are taken into account.

The bonds would be issued by a global institution such as the World Bank, which would make yearly payments to rainforest nations for upkeep of the forests.

“The rainforests are giant eco-utilities providing an enormous service that all of us use, and developing nations actually own the asset,” says Mr Mitchell. “Why not think about not aid, but trade? They have something to offer the world. It’s time the service was paid for.”

A simple label will solve the problem

Where was this fish caught? What type of fishing gear was used?” The waiter starts to retreat. Dining companions fiddle with the tablecloth while chef is consulted. And when the answer comes back, unless you’re toting a copy of the Good Fish Guide, you won’t be much clearer.

At the supermarket chickens are easily graded at a glance, from unmarked, battery-farmed birds to free range, corn-fed or organic. Fish is more difficult because it’s caught wild. A scheme by the Marine Stewardship Council promises to give a simple choice between “certified safe” and “uncertified” but although it is is growing exponentially, only 107 fisheries (supplying 8 per cent of the edible catch) have been judged sustainable.

With more than 70 per cent of the world’s fisheries collapsed and governments unwilling to stand up to powerful fishing lobbies, the Good Fish Guide is invaluable in helping to choose which fish can be eaten without contributing to the problem. All we need is supermarkets and restaurants to lend consumers a hand by presenting the ranking on a label alongside the fish.

Ghost ship fleet could be a silver lining in clouds of climate change

It looks like something out of a Dan Dare comic book, and it might just help to save the world. A scientist at the University of Edinburgh has devised a new weapon in the fight against global warming: a fleet of 1,500 unmanned sailing ships creating wakes that whiten clouds to reflect the heat of the Sun better.

The concept involves vessels powered by a radical rotary-sail technology that could patrol selected areas of ocean, spraying tiny droplets of seawater into existing clouds. The droplets increase the surface area and so whiten the cloud, bouncing more radiation back into space and offsetting the warming caused by burning fossil fuels.

“The beauty of the system is that it runs on wind and seawater,” said Stephen Salter, author of a paper published today in the Royal Society’s Philosophical Transactions. “You can apply the effect locally, to cool down the Arctic or the seas around coral reefs. It would give us complete control. We could even take ourselves back to a little ice age. The effects can be turned up or down, or shut off completely if something unexpected happens.”

The cloud ships will be propelled by the wind, using a rotational aerodynamic force not used in ships for 80 years. The “Magnus Effect” was first observed by Sir Isaac Newton while watching tennis players use spin to change the trajectory of their shots. In 1926 a rotor-ship designed by Anton Flettner crossed the Atlantic, but the technology petered out in the Great Depression. Modern materials and the high cost of oil have sparked a revival: earlier this month Enercon, a German energy company, launched the first rotor-powered cargo vessel.

“The main reason for us to use these rotors is that they are computer-friendly,” said Dr Salter. “Traditional sailing ships have evolved to be sailed by humans. It’s much easier to sail a Flettner system. All you need to do is steer and adjust the rotor speed. Reverse the spin and you go backwards.”

The spinning sails deliver surprising power. The cloud ships will cruise at gentle speeds of eight knots while spraying, but when moving location or running from bad weather, the vessels are theoretically capable of up to 24 knots – fast even for a racing yacht. A back-up diesel engine can also help to bring the ships, costing £1million to £2million each, safely back to port.

Propeller-like turbines in the water beneath the ship power both the spinning rotors and the droplet-generator. Seawater is filtered before being forced through a 6in diameter disc perforated with more than a billion holes to produce a mist of droplets less than one micron wide. These seeds – or cloud condensation nuclei – are then blown into the skies via a fan mounted inside the rotor cylinders.

The 300-tonne cloud ships will be guided from a central traffic control-room. “Suitable sites for spraying have lots of sunlight to give something to reflect, have reliable but not extreme winds and a low density of shipping and icebergs,” Dr Salter said. Dirt, dust or pollution in the air act as nuclei, and for the ships to make a difference they need to operate away from such conditions. The seas off California, Namibia and Peru show year-round promise, while the Southern Ocean will be a key area in the Antarctic summer.

A companion paper published in the same Royal Society issue shows that the change in the brightness of marine clouds could cool the planet enough to compensate for the doubling in man-made carbon dioxide since the industrial revolution. A reduction of only 3.7 watts per square metre – less than 1.1 per cent of the 340 watts of heat per square metre that the Sun on average provides – would keep global temperatures stable until at least 2050.

Dr Salter estimates that £20 million is needed to move the technology and the science to a point where production of the vessels can begin. Once the ships are in the water, they will do double duty as science labs, collecting meteorological data on the actions of aerosols and information on ocean salinity, plankton counts and acidity.

“The boats will also be equipped with blankets and drinking water,” says Dr Salter. By linking into the maritime emergency services, the cloud ships could then come to the rescue of stricken sailors, not just the planet.

Robot sub discovers secrets of the deep that could predict a natural disaster

One of the world’s deepest-diving robot submarines has returned from its first mission with spectacular images of giant holes on the seabed and evidence of underwater avalanches.

Autosub6000, which was developed by British scientists, descended almost three miles below the surface to investigate a submarine canyon north of the Canary Islands.

Its next mission is to investigate the Lisbon earthquake of 1755, one of Europe’s worst natural disasters, in which more than 10,000 people died.

The successful first dive this week formed part of a research expedition investigating potential threats to Western European coasts from tsunamis, giant landslides and earthquakes.

On its return to the surface, 24 hours after its launch, it provided scientists with three-dimensional images showing holes in the sea floor the size of Wembley Stadium – evidence of giant underwater avalanches in the past, and a potential cause of tsunamis in the future.

The robot’s success was a relief to its creators. A previous underwater autonomous vehicle (AUV) developed from the same £10 million research programme was dispatched to investigate the underside of the Antarctic ice shelf in 2005 but never returned. “It’s always slightly nerve-racking launching an AUV,” Steve McPhail, the team leader, said.

Unlike most undersea robots, the £1.5 million submarine dives without cables connecting it to the surface, travelling for up to 330km (205 miles) before returning to the surface to rendezvous with the Royal Research Ship James Cook.

Autosub6000, which was developed at the National Oceanographic Centre, Southampton, can dive to a depth of 6,000 metres – nearly four miles – allowing it to reach 93 per cent of the world’s seabed.While spiralling downwards on the journey from ship to seabed, the craft can be sent off track by tides and currents, soAutosub6000 receives an acoustic position correction from its mother ship once it has arrived on the ocean floor.

Speaking to The Times from the James Cook, 200 miles southwest of Portugal, Russell Wynn, the expedition’s chief scientist, said: “This new technology is allowing us to image the sea floor in unprecedented detail, and is providing valuable information about the huge scale and immense power of these giant submarine flows.”

More than 95 per cent of the sea floor is known only from crude bathymetric data, whose resolution can miss mountains.Autosub6000 travelled at 100 metres above the seabed to scan a 16 sq km area with its onboard multi-beam sonar, and returned an image that shows objects as small as 2m wide.

The increased resolution allows the UK-led research team, involving scientists from Spain, Portugal and Russia, to drill cores accurately above and below the avalanche scars, known as scours, and so discover how and when many landslides have occurred.

“We have found that giant landslides are actually quite rare around the Canary Islands, with no major activity in the last 15,000 years,” Dr Wynn said.

“At the moment we don’t even know where the Lisbon quake originated,” he added. “We hope that new data from the deep ocean will provide information about the potential future threat to coastal communities.”

The research expedition began in the Canary Islands on August 5 and is scheduled to finish in the UK on September 3. The last stop on the journey is in the Bay of Biscay, where Autosub6000 will investigate the origins of the catastrophic megaflood that burst through the Straits of Dover, creating the British Isles hundreds of thousands of years ago.

It’s playful and popular but not the whole story

Whales are the flagship for ocean conservation, and humpbacks are their most adored ambassadors. No other animal so embodies the intelligence, playfulness, song and society that strums human heartstrings.

That’s why humpbacks were the only nonhuman species included on the intergalactic calling card pinned in 1972 to the Pioneer 10 space probe – in the form of a recording of their song. They were also launched into the music charts in 1970 with an album that sold 10.5 million copies.

Their high profile is misleading, and we should tread cautiously when extending their good fortune to other cetaceans.

Not only are their numbers and habits more closely studied than any other species but killing them is recognised by whaling nations such as Japan and Iceland as bad for the tourist industry and a difficult public relations sell. Surveys of other whale species are much less accurate, and vary widely with every count. Whales are notoriously and surprisingly, given their size, hard to spot.

Like icebergs, the majority of their bulk is submerged, even when breathing, and a substantial amount of their time is spent far beyond the reach of biologists’ binoculars.

Whales won our love, and so saved themselves from near-certain extinction.

But just as we should be wary of thinking that humpbacks are recovering and so all whale populations are, we shouldn’t assume that a boost in whale numbers means that life in the ocean is recovering too. The umbrella of protection from the whale conservation movement doesn’t cover all whales, let alone the myriad species in the sea.

The Yangtze river dolphin now seems to be gone: the first mammal species to have been driven to extinction in 50 years.

Our increasingly desperate search for protein now leads to factory ships hoovering up krill – the tiny shrimp that many whales live on.

And, despite its importance, who has ever lost their heart to krill?

Recovery of fish on a coral reef is a slow process…


The bullethead parrotfish (Scarus sordidus) plays an important role in grazing, which reduces algae and promotes corals.

News just in from Mombasa, Kenya, via WCS scientist Tim McClanahan:

A recently released study concluded that it takes more than 40 years for fish communities to recover once coral reef marine parks are created and fishing is stopped.

The study looked at Kenyan marine parks that were established in the mid 1970s and have received steady protection from fishing and high levels of tourism. The authors, who work for the Wildlife Conservation Society, have been counting and identifying fishes in these parks for over 20 years before coming to this unexpected conclusion.

The authors examined the size, growth and reproduction characteristics of the fishes and found that for growth and reproduction patterns there was no indication that they had stabilized – even after 40 years. The body sizes of the fish species showed more evidence for stabilizing but were still increasing up to the full length of the study.

The study has a number of implications for fisheries management and among them is that light fishing changes the ecology of fish communities and temporarily stopping fishing will have a minimal effect in promoting species recovery.  “While fish may grow larger over this stopping period, the community of fish may not change greatly when fishing is stopped for just a few years”, says the lead author Dr. Tim McClanahan. The authors argue that permanent fisheries closures are therefore a critical part of national marine conservation programs.

The authors found that herbivorous fishes, such as parrotfish and surgeonfish (see photo), have among the slowest recovery rates and may need special protection from fishing.  These herbivores have been the focus of a number of field studies showing their importance in preventing the demise corals from disturbances, such as coral bleaching. Given their slow recovery and the rapidly increasing rate of seawater warming, the study implies a need for immediate action in restricting fishing of these species.

Findings were published in the November 26th issues of Marine Ecology Progress Series.

McClanahan, T. R., and A. Humphries. 2012. Differential and slow life-histories responses of fishes to coral reef closures. Marine Ecology Progress Series 469:121-131.


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New book – Adapting to a Changing Environment: Confronting the Consequences of Climate Change

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