A woman wades through flood waters to retrieve sodden belongings from her home on a low-lying atoll, part of the central Pacific nation of Kiribati. The high tide arrived under a full moon, Oct. 9, peaking at 4:40 a.m. It pressed against a sand berm until it gave way, flooding the shantytown in Teaoraereke Village on Tarawa Island.
The breach of the berm took residents by surprise. Most of them scrambled to move to the homes of neighbors or relatives. An elderly couple, a disabled woman and few others had nowhere to go. “Some don’t want to move and are still sleeping while the water is just an inch away from their beds,” said Aretitea Teeta, a government official working on climate change. The roiling waters inundated pigsties and make-shift latrines and flowed into freshwater wells.
Such inundations are usually the result of misplaced local development, as a fast-growing population seeks a place to settle, scientists say. Much more will come, they say, as sea levels encroach on Kiribati’s 33 islands which rise on average about six feet above the sea.
Image and text by Ken Weiss. Kiribati, 2014.
Ken reports from Kiribati, an island nation of 32 atolls in the Pacific Ocean. The threat of climate change appears here twofold: At home, flooding, pollution and resource depletion threaten to quickly overwhelm both society and infrastructure, and more broadly, appeals to ratify legislative documents that would provide protection for climate refugee have been so far unsuccessful.
Also by Ken Weiss: Beyond 7 Million
OUR ANCESTORS, OUR FUTURE
We are older than you might think. Pulitzer Center grantee Amy Maxmen reports from Ethiopia where a new generation of archeologists is pushing back the clock on the first use of tools by hundreds of thousands of years, based on fossil evidence found in the Great Rift Valley.
“Stone tools imply that our ancestors’ minds were developing,” says Amy, who is also gazing into the future, examining how humankind’s cleverness with tools and technology could lead us to the same fate as our earliest ancestors.
“As I traveled through Ethiopia with scientists and local guides, dodging thick sheets of rain in Addis Abada, driving past Chinese manufacturing plants outside the city, and into the Afar, where I was parched, hot, and hungry, I realized just how fragile the scattered remains of our past are,” writes Amy in this ground-breaking piece for Nautilus.
These ancient artifacts “are constantly under threat by development (as African countries mine and modernize), conflict (as political situations shift), and global warming (as floods and droughts increase in severity). Ironically, our exceptional tool-making skills now threaten to lead us toward eventual demise.”
TROUBLE BENEATH THE SURFACE
Last week marked the second anniversary of the end of South Africa’s six-week long Marikana miners’ strike. More than 30 miners were massacred by police at the start of the strike and, as Pulitzer Center grantee Jack Shenker writes in Foreign Policy, the episode “brought South Africa’s post-apartheid fault lines to the surface and shocked a nation.”
South Africa’s wealth lies beneath the surface, and for more than a century and half, the business of extracting this wealth has shaped the country’s political and economic fortunes. Jack and photojournalist Jason Larkin have been taking a deep look at the lasting impact of the mining industry’s exploitation of labor.
“Under apartheid, the African National Congress (ANC) declared that the wealth below South Africa’s soil belonged to the people and vowed to eject white monopoly capital from the mines,” Jack writes.
“Once in power though, the party’s rhetoric shifted dramatically. Although many well-connected black South Africans have joined the boards of major mining corporations, the traditional structure of the industry has remained intact and become part of what some critics say is a “co-dependent comfort zone” of power and wealth in the new South Africa, melding together certain business, political, police, and trade union interests in support of a lucrative—for some—status quo.”
MICHAEL SCOTT MOORE
All of us here at the Pulitzer Center were relieved and gratified to learn of the safe release last week of grantee Michael Scott Moore, who had been held hostage by kidnappers in Somalia for more than 32 months.
Michael was working on a story about piracy in Somalia when he was taken captive in January 2012 near the Galkacyo airport. The kidnappers are believed to have been his own security guards who then sold him to a pirate gang. Michael has written for Der Spiegel in Germany and several U.S. publications and is the author of Sweetness and Blood, a book about how surfing spread from Hawaii and California to the rest of the world. A native of Southern California, he now lives in Berlin and holds dual American and German citizenship.
Michael’s mother Marlis Saunders tells us Michael is in good condition and delighted to be on his way back home.
We wish him and his family and friends a speedy recovery from this long ordeal. We also thank all of those who labored long and hard and quietly to secure his release.
Pulitzer Center grantee Justin Catanoso traveled to the Amazon basin of southern Peru to embed with a group of tropical biologists in order to see firsthand how tropical forests are responding to climate change. What are the implications for global weather?
View his whole project: Peru: Race in the Rain Forest
Pulitzer Center grantee Craig Welch takes us to Indonesia as he reports on island villages where the people are so dependent on coral reefs that climate change and ocean acidification are threatening their livelihoods.
View Craig’s project: Sea Change: The Pacific’s Perilous Turn
Our understanding of how souring seas will transform the oceans is growing more sophisticated every day. Here is a glimpse of what scientists are finding in laboratory studies about how ocean acidification could affect marine life. Learn more from Pulitzer Center grantees Craig Welch and Steve Ringman in their project: Sea Change: The Pacific’s Perilous Turn
This starfish relative is known for its ability to regenerate broken limbs, a feat employed to escape predators. Even small changes in ocean chemistry can cause some baby brittlestars to die in less than a week. Adults of other brittlestar species show loss of muscle mass when regrowing arms in high-carbon dioxide water. And warming water temperatures can make things worse by slowing regrowth. Adults of some brittlestar species appear resistant to ocean-chemistry changes.
Like other shellfish, acidification eventually affects hard and soft shelled clams, sometimes weakening their shells. Fertilization is hampered in at least one species. In another, when mud is too high in carbon dioxide, baby clams simply die. In baby clams, the smallest sizes struggle the most to overcome acidification. Giant clams can be hit quite hard by the combination of souring seas and warming temperatures.
Researchers a few years ago stumbled upon a surprise. Scientists had expected fish would easily handle changing sea chemistry, but work with reef fish, primarily clownfish, showed high carbon-dioxide levels altered fish behavior, changing how young fish see, hear and smell. They lost inhibition, traveling farther from home than normal. They also lost fear of predators and raced toward them rather than away. These fish survived far less often than fish in normal water. Yet when they reproduced, their offspring weathered the high-CO2 water. It’s not clear how that apparent resilience might translate to other species or real-world conditions, when water chemistry is expected to change year after year.
These undersea cities provide shelter and food for thousands of animals, but are directly assaulted by changes in marine chemistry. Warming can bleach and kill reefs, while waters slightly more sour than normal slow or halt reef growth. Acidification also increases bleaching. And it lets mat-forming algae thrive, which is bad for corals. There is evidence that some corals appear to handle acidification well, but the combination of rising temperatures and sea-chemistry changes makes things worse for many others. Even the special algae needed for baby corals to take root struggle. In Papua New Guinea, where natural carbon-dioxide vents offer a glimpse of life in more corrosive seas, intricate corals favored by marine lifewere virtually nonexistent while rounded boulder corals remained. Algae replaced corals at a similar vent site in the Mediterranean Sea near Italy. If CO2 emissions aren’t curtailed, reef erosion could outpace reef building by midcentury.
Crab, red king
Perhaps no creature better represents the perilous thrill of fishing the icy Bering Sea than this crimson crustacean. But unlike hardier relatives, so many juvenile red king crab died when exposed to higher-carbon dioxide waters that scientists fear acidification could drastically reduce their populations before century’s end. Scientists are exploring whether this species might adapt.
Few studies have examined how jellyfish respond directly to souring seas. One showed moon jellies were quite tolerant of several combinations of rising temperature and shifting sea chemistry. Some scientists have said they suspect acidification eventually could help make oceans more hospitable to jellyfish, but such a change has not been definitively documented. Still, jellyfish may influence the carbon system. When they die, jellyfish sink lightning-fast, taking carbon straight to the bottom of the ocean.
These shrimplike crustaceans travel in swarms and serve as food for everything from fish to seabirds to whales. At carbon dioxide levels expected by the end of the century, eggs of the Antarctic variety fail to develop properly, which researchers fear eventually may lead to a population collapse. Impacts are greater when acidification is combined with rising temperatures, which severely limits where and how many Antarctic krill survive. It’s not clear if acidification will affect krill in the eastern Pacific Ocean the same way.
These shellfish cluster in rocky tidal areas with harsh waves, where they help host other creatures. But acidification can hurt their immune systems and can dramatically weaken the threads mussels use to attach to rocks. Pathogens can infect mussels more easily in acidified waters. And the problems worsenwithout enough food. When researchers tracked sea chemistry changes on Tatoosh Island over eight years, they saw mussels quickly replaced by barnacles and algae. When the environment is healthy and mussels get enough to eat, some handle high carbon dioxide well. Some mussels also may adapt, though they may not keep pace with acidification as well as some other species (see sea urchin).
The Pacific oysters grown in Oregon and Washington were among the first species harmed by acidification. Their calcium carbonate shells are particularly susceptible, especially during the first few days of life, to changes in sea chemistry. Fossil fuel emissions mixed with water naturally high in carbon dioxide welled up from the deep on windy days and came to shore, killing billions of Northwest oyster larvae in recent years — decades earlier than expected. The nonnative Pacific oysters were brought from Japan a century ago. Native oysters may cope better, at first, because they carry eggs for weeks rather than releasing them into the water immediately. But native oysters, too, eventually show sensitivity.
Little is known about how souring sea chemistry might affect marine mammals. Researchers expect food-web changes from acidification might alter how mammals interact with marine life and each other. For instance, Pacific walrus were recently seen attacking spectacled eiders on floating ice in the Bering Sea. Researchers don’t know why, but suggest existing declines in Arctic clams, expected to worsen with shifting sea chemistry, might drive hungry walrus to chase sea ducks.
Hundreds of millions of people gather marine life threatened by changing seas. But the Indonesian village of Sampela depends so thoroughly on troubled coral reefs that climate change and shifting sea chemistry eventually could make it challenging to find food.
This slideshow is from “Sea Change,” an in-depth multimedia series on ocean acidification and climate change produced by The Seattle Times. See the full presentation of articles, pictures, graphics and video.
SANTA BARBARA, Calif. — The violet bottom-dwelling, prickle-backed spheres wriggling in the tank in Gretchen Hofmann’s lab aren’t really known for their speed.
But these lowly sea urchins adapt so quickly they’re helping answer a question that’s key to understanding ocean acidification:
As fossil-fuel emissions disrupt marine life, will evolution come to the rescue?
Like Darwin’s finches or Great Britain’s peppered moths, these hedgehogs of the sea increasingly embody nature’s stunning capacity for resilience.
A number of plants and animals threatened by souring seas, including some mussels, abalone, rock oysters, plankton and even a few fish, appear likely — at least at first — to adjust or evolve. But few seem as wired as these saltwater pincushions to come through the next several decades unscathed.
Yet work with urchins, as well as other species, suggests that acidification sooner or later may still push these and other marine organisms beyond what they can tolerate.
“Evolution can happen, and it can happen quickly,” said Hofmann, a marine biologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB), who has studied urchins for years. “But concerns about extinctions are very real and very valid. Biology can bend, but eventually it will break.”
This excerpt is from “Sea Change,” an in-depth multimedia series on ocean acidification produced by The Seattle Times. See the full presentation of articles, pictures, graphics and video.
Fishermen have found fortune and adventure in the frigid waters of the Bering Sea. But ocean acidification caused by carbon emissions has begun to alter the chemistry of the North Pacific, posing threat for Alaska’s crabs. PBS NewsHour’s Ray Suarez reports in collaboration with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting and The Seattle Times.
HILO, Hawaii — It appears at the end of a palm tree-lined drive, not far from piles of hardened black lava: the newest addition to the Northwest’s famed oyster industry.
Half an ocean from Seattle, on a green patch of island below a tropical volcano, a Washington state oyster family built a 20,000-square-foot shellfish hatchery.
Ocean acidification left the Nisbet family no choice.
Carbon dioxide from fossil-fuel emissions had turned seawater in Willapa Bay along Washington’s coast so lethal that slippery young Pacific oysters stopped growing. The same corrosive ocean water got sucked into an Oregon hatchery and routinely killed larvae the family bought as oyster seed.
So the Nisbets became the closest thing the world has seen to ocean-acidification refugees. They took out loans and spent $1 million and moved half their production 3,000 miles away.
“I was afraid for everything we’d built,” Goose Point Oyster Co. founder Dave Nisbet said of the hatchery, which opened last year. “We had to do something. We had to figure this thing out, or we’d be out of business.”
Oysters started dying by the billions along the Northwest coast in 2005, and have been struggling ever since. When scientists cautiously linked the deaths to plummeting ocean pH in 2008 and 2009, few outside the West Coast’s $110 million industry believed it.
This excerpt is from “Sea Change” an in-depth multimedia series on ocean acidification produced by The Seattle Times. See the full presentation of articles, pictures, graphics and video.
It didn’t take long for researchers examining the tiny sea snails to see something amiss.
The surface of some of their thin outer shells looked as if they had been etched by a solvent. Others were deeply pitted and pocked.
These translucent sea butterflies known as pteropods, which provide food for salmon, herring and other fish, hadn’t been burned in some horrific lab accident.
They were being eaten away by the Pacific Ocean.
Learn more about ocean acidification with Pulitzer Center grantees Craig Welch and Steve Ringman in “Sea Change: The Pacific’s Perilous Turn”