From whales to icebergs: scientists and researchers share their studies

Fri, 10/09/2020 - 12:45pm
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During the entire month of August, the Block Island Maritime Institute hosted online talks each week called Tuesday Talks for scientists, conservationists and artists to share their studies and research. The first Tuesday Talk commenced on Tuesday, Aug. 4 and the last talk occurred on Tuesday, Aug. 25. The following stories below are from the four talks hosted by BIMI:

Culture helps animals get along and live

First Tuesday Talk on Aug. 4: Dr. Carl Safina

Renowned ecologist and author Dr. Carl Safina gave the first virtual talk hosted by BIMI. The talk was based on his new book, “Becoming Wild: How Animal Cultures Raise Families, Create Beauty, and Achieve Peace.”

“In the book I follow three species: sperm whales in the Caribbean Islands, scarlet macaws in the Amazon rainforest, and chimpanzees in Uganda,” said Safina. He shared insight into two of the three species from his book.

Sperm whales were found to carry a family-oriented culture, with the females serving as matriarchs, or leaders of the family.

“They have a babysitting culture, a female-led family – sperm whales have a social organization similar to African elephants. The females stay together for their entire lives, and males leave at adolescence. The families belong to clans, and all of the members of a clan recognize each other by a series of clicks called a coda. If they come upon other sperm whales that share the coda, they will socialize with them. If they do not share the coda, they will avoid them,” said Safina.

The scarlet macaws were a different story from the sperm whales: they choose partners based on appearance.

“Usually the female is camouflaged, and the male is bright. The female chooses a bright male – they have an aesthetic. They became this way over millions of years of evolution because they like the way it looks, the coloration – it is chosen generation after generation,” said Safina.

“When you consider the beauty that exists, you realize that life chooses beauty for itself, and a lot of the choosing of beauty is culturally – they look for the individuals that are [similar to them],” stated Safina.

Understanding icebergs and ice patrols for safeguarding vessels

Second Tuesday Talk on Aug. 11: Ret. Chief Scientist Don Murphy

Don Murphy was the Chief Scientist of the United States Coast Guard International Ice Patrol (IIP) for 28 years. Previously, he was a research oceanographer at the United States Coast Guard Research and Development Center. He also served as a surface line officer in the U.S. Navy on board USS Frank E. Evans and USS England.

The International Ice Patrol, a unit of the USCG located in New London and formed in 1913, serves to “monitor iceberg danger near the Grand Banks of Newfoundland,” said Murphy.

When asked where most icebergs come from, Murphy said most of the icebergs the IIP encounters come from the tidewater glaciers of West Greenland. The icebergs will float into the Transatlantic Shipping Lanes in the North Atlantic Ocean, posing a threat to safe navigation.

“Most icebergs come from the glaciers on the west coast of Greenland. Greenland is a giant bowl of ice, and at the edge of the bowl are mountain ranges around the coast of Greenland. The ice is tremendously thick, about two miles thick in the middle. The ice wants to move towards the sea. The mountains for the most part are containing it, but there are places to escape through the valleys in Greenland. When the glaciers reach the ocean water, they break off, become an iceberg, and float away,” said Murphy.

As of July 2020, there were reported 169 icebergs in the North Atlantic Ocean region.

Diversifying marine species to sustain fisheries

Third Tuesday Talk on Aug. 18: Ecosystem Director Kate Masury

“Eating with the Ecosystem” Program Director Kate Masury began her presentation on the principles of seafood sustainability in New England, and what exactly it means to ‘eat with the ecosystem’.

She listed five key points for understanding the approach: proximity, symmetry, adaptability, connectivity and community.

“Proximity means choosing seafood from your local ecosystem. We are lucky here in RI that we live close to all [diverse] marine ecosystems - Georges Bank, Mid Atlantic Bight, and Gulf of Maine,” said Masury.

Symmetry means “Eating with the local system, which is about balancing our diets with what the ecosystem is producing.”

For adaptability, Masury noted that Block Island is “in tune to the changes in our local waters. As you know, what is in the ecosystem is constantly changing. As consumers, we need to change our diets with what is changing in the ecosystem.”

Connectivity focuses on the need to “nurture positive feedback loops between seafood eaters and seafood habitats… we need to protect habitats. Fish depend on healthy habitats to breed, feed, and grow,” said Masury.

Finally, Masury stated how crucial it is to “know your fishermen” and build relationships with them to understand the marine environments.

“Some of our greatest marine stewards – they are the ones who go out into the ecosystems and bring the food back to us. Supporting them is an important aspect of what we do. They harvest what we want to eat,” said Masury.

Utilizing artwork to share a message for conservation

Fourth Tuesday Talk on Aug. 25: Artist Marlo Garnsworthy

For the last Tuesday Talk of the 2020 season, BIMI welcomed artist and polar science communicator Marlo Garnsworthy. She shared her experience in documenting a conservation-based message for icebergs in Antarctica through her artwork.

“I am not a scientist, and almost everyone that goes to Antarctica is a scientist or trying to help scientists achieve their goals. I had been dreaming of going to Antarctica”, said Garsworthy.

In 2019, Garnsworthy applied for the International Ocean Discovery Program to sail on the JOIDES Resolution: a research vessel that drills into the ocean floor to collect and study core samples, including mud, rock and sediments. The research vessel started in Chile, and sailed down through the Southern Ocean to Iceberg Alley.

In Iceberg Alley in Antarctica, “icebergs travel counter-clockwise around Antarctica. We wanted to go where most of the icebergs were ending their lives,” said Garnsworthy.

When an iceberg breaks free from land and floats out into the ocean, the iceberg can start to melt, dropping rocks and sediments to the sea floor.

“As glaciers and ice streams grind across the Antarctic continent, they pick up rocks and dirt. This can also tell us how old the mud is – the scientists can measure the patterns in the mud. Microfossils were also found [in the mud], tiny organisms – they are called diatoms. Our mud will tell us which parts of Antarctica was melting, and how fast, and compare it to current conditions and changes,” she added.