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Focus on Ocean’s Health as Dolphin Deaths Soar (nytimes.com)
112 points by mhb on Dec 23, 2013 | hide | past | favorite | 31 comments

A dead commenter said, "Any startup ideas on cleaning the Ocean? I guess no country wants to pay for this yet?" and I had two thoughts in response:

There's a reason for the word "tragedy" in the phrase, "the tragedy of the commons"; "cleaning" probably isn't going to cut it; ocean warming and acidification will quite possibly cause mass extinctions.

ocean warming and acidification will quite possibly cause mass extinctions.

There's no possibly about it. As soon as the oceans become too acidic for corals to form, whole ecosystems will collapse.

But will they become too acidic so fast that no coral can adapt?

I know we are really good at changing the environment, but the oceans are huge.

The oceans are huge, but we've already managed to decrease pH by 0.1 in the past century.

A pessimistic but plausible scenario has ocean pH decreasing by an additional 0.7-0.8 by 2300.

That's pretty fast. It's hard to predict how and how fast coral might adapt, but those are short time scales to expect evolution to act on.

Pardon the profanity, but fuck! On a logarithmic scale, a decrease of 0.1 on the pH is a 25% increase in H+ concentration...

... and a decrease of 0.7 is a 500% increase in H+ concentration. That sounds apocalyptic, at least for ocean ecosystems.

Warming and acidification are increasing jellyfish blooms, right? Do you know any good recipes for grilled jellyfish?

Complex question, but there are a few aspects that work against them:

- coral typically takes several years before reaching sexual maturity. Adaptability to a changing environment strongly depends on this.

- corals typically occupy ecological niches.

- acidification directly interferes with a key part of their metabolism and habit. It's like asking whether mammals can't evolve to a life without skeletons.

Corals are an extremely diverse group of organisms that interact with other organisms through complex relationships. Take them away (or reduce them to a select few species that fulfill a fitness) and you're going to see lots of damage to other populations.

> There's a reason for the word "tragedy" in the phrase, "the tragedy of the commons"

Small but important clarification: as Garrett Hardin later said, he should have called it the tragedy of the unregulated commons. The problem is not the fact that the ocean doesn't have a private owner but rather that the legal framework does not presently cover its responsible access and use.

True, so let's be even more exact: "presently" is the wrong tense; present acidification and warming are consequences of actions taken over the last several decades.

The concept of laws were invented thousands of years ago to prevent just these tragedies. So we already have a solution. Now we only need to create such laws that pollution is greatly diminished.

This will naturally lead to creation of lots of ecological niches for new startups, that will find the most efficient means to achieve these reductions. Naturally government funded long term research will also play a part in finding good solutions.

The end customer will naturally pay for these changes. For example, it is cheaper to run transport ships with residue heavy fuel oil, the use of which has been banned almost everywhere else already. If we want to prevent that, we make laws that make it illegal. Then the ships will use some other, naturally more expensive fuel. The transport costs will go up and whatever you buy that was imported costs more, or whatever you export potentially pays less.

Laws are better at protecting individual rights and maintaining public order than protecting future generations from the unintended consequences of present and recent economic history.

There are quite a lot of anti-pollution and other laws that work very well. Why wouldn't they? You have to protect the society as well. If someone does damage to your property, I assume you'd think it's ok to protect you against that? What if the property is owned by the state? Or is an important natural resource that is not owned by anyone, but depended on by millions, or even billions?

Also, where do the laws come from? Many environmental laws enacted by nations are influenced by international treaties - this is required because many environmental problems don't respect borders. Take for example waste water cleaning and the Baltic Sea.

It is hard to create such treaties. But it has been done and can be done in the future.

That's where custom, tradition, and taboo come to the fore. They're somewhat stronger in terms of social signalling over time than mere laws.

Jared Diamond's Collapse explores this, both in positive aspects (Japan and several successful adaptations in Pacific Island and Borneo populations), as well as negative ones (Greenlander's insistence on raising cattle and not adopting Inuit practices).

I liked Collapse, but I really liked "The Collapse of Complex Societies." Written by an archaeologist, addresses many other scholars' theories of collapse, and provides an excellent economics / complexity argument.


(not an affiliate link)

Also, the idea of "diminishing marginal returns on added complexity" suggests a lot about why maintenance, extension, and management of software systems becomes harder over time.

Joseph Tainter. Very familiar with it, and it's excellent.

You'll find that Diamond cites Tainter and draws much from his model of collapse.

The funny thing is that I'd started evolving a theory of systems complexity before running across Tainter. It runs basically like this:

⚫ Proof of concept. Works for the creator.

⚫ Refinement: Incremental improvement of concept in function, reliability, efficiency, and utility.

⚫ Embellishment: Layering complexity on top of an initial design. Though initially well intentioned, the end result is fragility, impediments to usability, and eventually, rot. A baroque era.

⚫ Recaptitulation or replacement: An overly complex design may find itself refined back to a more functional one (e.g.: the car tailfin era recaptitulated into today's econo-box and performance sedan market, though SUVs perpetuate the meme of ostentatious nonfunctional embellishment). Or it may find itself replaced entirely by a more appropriate technology, as may be happening now with PCs being supplanted by tablets and mobile devices offering much of the functionality required by users.

Posted to G+ here (and yes, that's before I encountered Tainter). The idea had actually been percolating for at least a year prior.


It's not specific to any particular technology, and I've seen examplars across a wide range of cases: software (utilities, GUI apps, Web design, OSes), cars, audio equipment, aircraft, architecture, etc.

I think that what Tainter has to say corresponds strongly with this, though his point is also that complexity is undertaken, when it is, because it adds value and/or capability.

He also notes that complexity generally isn't undertaken for its own sake -- that there's a resistance to it.

Another correspondence with this is noting that a great many technical tools (high level programming languages, IDEs, revision control systems, etc.) are all effectively means for coping with complexity and that in the IT world, people are constantly working at the complexity frontier -- the reason software still has bugs isn't because we're not getting better at it (though sometimes I wonder) but because when we do get better, we make ever more capable -- and complicated -- systems. With more failure modes and hence bugs.

Maybe a better strategy is convincing one of these guys who seem more likely to be forward thinking: http://givingpledge.org .

Still orders of magnitude off. Several billions of dollars can do many things but halting and reversing global climate change isn't one of them.

If it's going to happen at all, which it probably won't, it'll take the coordinated effort of at least all the G-20 nations.

I guess UN should fund such people.

The way I interpret this is that we simply don't know what causes these extinctions. It could well be that they are perfectly normal in the sense that one gets them about every X years.

A bad year for dolphin food, possibly in combination with a harsh winter may make large parts of the population get susceptible to a disease that they normally don't suffer much from.

Predator-prey systems are known to show highly erratic behavior (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lotka–Volterra_equation gives the idealized version for only two species. That is tractable, but discrete multi-species ones aren't) This _could_ just be an example of such behaviour, but there could also be a human-induced change that changes that system to one where we end up with zero fish and, a few years later, zero dolphins. Or, possibly, the system has been on a course of a catastrophic event for thousands of years.

Your interpretation doesn't bear any particular resemblance to the article. There's no mention in it of any prey shortages, nor anything about extinction.

They do mention several times that they don't know precise why this morbillivirus outbreak is occurring now, though. But that

"The Indian River Lagoon, a diverse estuary, has been tainted by huge algae blooms caused in part by too much nitrogen. Research on some of the dead dolphins in the estuary — 76 died this year, the third series of deaths since 2001 — has showed that some had high levels of mercury, fungal diseases, antibiotic-resistant bacteria and oral-genital tumors. The dolphins found were emaciated."

and in some other cases, they have a pretty decent idea, but it's unconfirmed:

"Gulf Coast states and the federal government are still investigating the impact of the oil spill in the region, and scientists cannot yet say why the dolphins are dying. So far, it appears that toxins or morbillivirus are not the primary cause.

“We can’t conclusively say what role oil played at this time,” Ms. Fougeres said. “But the event is pretty unprecedented in terms of how long the die-off has been occurring and how many have died as part of that event.”

A NOAA study released last week of 29 bottlenose dolphins that were examined in Barataria Bay in Louisiana — an area hit hard by the spill — found that they had lung disease, hormonal abnormalities and other illnesses that are consistent with exposure to oil."

Being an interpretation, you should not expect to literally find it in the article.

As food for thought: the article doesn't mention what the size of the population is. A thousand death dolphins could be a disaster, but it also could be a statistical anomaly. Percentage-wise, the effect could be smaller than that of 25 years ago. http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/pr/health/mmume/midatldolphins2013.... does not mention population count, either. Looking at the linked http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/pr/health/mmume/mid-atlantic2013.ht..., I find that there are over a 100,000 dolphins that might be affected. If the deaths are across the population, I don't think any of the populations is at risk, even if this repeats itself next year. Replacement per year should be about 2,000 to keep population at 100,000.

And lung disease happens to be associated with Morbilliviruses, too (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phocine_distemper_virus)

Also, as that URL shows, there was a Morbilliviruses epidemic going on with seals in the North Sea in 1988-1992. At the time, people claimed seals would go extinct in the Wadden Sea. Now, there are 150,000 (http://www.ecomare.nl/index.php?id=4180&L=2); the population in the Wadden sea increased from 150 in 1992 to just over 3000 in 2012 (same link). Is that a sign that all is well with the environment? I doubt it. As with this article, I read "we simply don't know" between the lines.

And that's not because I think the scientists working on this aren't good. They have to make a living and have forget their maybe' sand "it's just one theory"'s in order to make the paper. Many of the so-called softer sciences are simply too hard to make accurate predictions about. Maths? Easy. Physics? AFAIK, all electrons are created equal, but things get difficult hard as soon as you have many of them. Chemistry? Already a bit harder. Biology? Some simple models make good rough predictions, but don't expect those predictions to be even remotely right every time. Psychology? You can almost forget to make reliable predictions. Sociology? Even harder.

I don't understand any of the points you're trying to convey. Let me respond to each of your paragraphs individually:

#2 - you're arguing against a point neither I nor (IMO) the article are trying to make. The cause of the anomalous mass die-offs is of interest, but there's no concert it's an existential threat for the Atlantic dolphin population.

#3 - irrelevant. Unless you can tell me more about the nature of the lung disease [edit: allegedly] from oil & from the virus, I'll assume the researches can distinguish between the two. That also doesn't address the hormonal abnormalities or the other symptoms they didn't enumerate.

#4 - again, irrelevant. Same comments from #1 apply. You are arguing against a point that is not being made.

#5 - If you have some sort of disagreements with the data, or the methodology of their interpretation, then by all means be specific about it. Otherwise it's hard to see how this is on topic.

We are probably living in one of Earth's great mass extinctions.


We are _causing_ one of Earth's mass extinctions.


Is Fukushima really worse than the decades of nuclear weapons testing carried out by the US, France and the UK in the Pacific?

I asked that question a few days ago and received a detailed answer: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=6939681

Fukushima would be like decades of dirty nuclear bomb testing.

Blowing up islands with nuclear weapons is pretty dirty, isn't it?


And I have no idea whether Fukushima is actually worse or not - I was trying to ask a genuine question, not be snarky. :-)

There are two factors there really, the nuclear stuff, and the material that was swept out to sea from the surrounding area which would have happened whether or not the reactor was there.

I wish there was a way to know what the actual condition of Fukushima is. News reports have been so conflicting, it seems the only way to know what's going on would be to go and measure things yourself.

Since they were supposed to be the first to leave Earth, this sounds like another bad signal for us...

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