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    How some sunscreens damage coral reefs

    One common chemical in sunscreen can have devastating effects on coral reefs. Now, scientists know why.

    Sea anemones, which are closely related to corals, and mushroom coral can turn oxybenzone — a chemical that protects people against ultraviolet light — into a deadly toxin that’s activated by light. The good news is that algae living alongside the creatures can soak up the toxin and blunt its damage, researchers report in the May 6 Science.

    But that also means that bleached coral reefs lacking algae may be more vulnerable to death. Heat-stressed corals and anemones can eject helpful algae that provide oxygen and remove waste products, which turns reefs white. Such bleaching is becoming more common as a result of climate change (SN: 4/7/20).

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    The findings hint that sunscreen pollution and climate change combined could be a greater threat to coral reefs and other marine habitats than either would be separately, says Craig Downs. He is a forensic ecotoxicologist with the nonprofit Haereticus Environmental Laboratory in Amherst, Va., and was not involved with the study.

    Previous work suggested that oxybenzone can kill young corals or prevent adult corals from recovering after tissue damage. As a result, some places, including Hawaii and Thailand, have banned oxybenzone-containing sunscreens.

    In the new study, environmental chemist Djordje Vuckovic of Stanford University and colleagues found that glass anemones (Exaiptasia pallida) exposed to oxybenzone and UV light add sugars to the chemical. While such sugary add-ons would typically help organisms detoxify chemicals and clear them from the body, the oxybenzone-sugar compound instead becomes a toxin that’s activated by light.

    Anemones exposed to either simulated sunlight or oxybenzone alone survived the length of the experiment, or 21 days, the team showed. But all anemones exposed to fake sunlight while submersed in water containing the chemical died within 17 days.

    Algae can soak up oxybenzone and its toxic by-products, a study shows. Sea anemones lacking algae (white) died sooner than animals with algae (brown) when exposed to oxybenzone and UV light.Djordje Vuckovic and Christian Renicke

    The anemones’ algal friends absorbed much of the oxybenzone and the toxin that the animals were exposed to in the lab. Anemones lacking algae died days sooner than anemones with algae.

    In similar experiments, algae living inside mushroom coral (Discosoma sp.) also soaked up the toxin, a sign that algal relationships are a safeguard against its harmful effects. The coral’s algae seem to be particularly protective: Over eight days, no mushroom corals died after being exposed to oxybenzone and simulated sunlight.

    It’s still unclear what amount of oxybenzone might be toxic to coral reefs in the wild. Another lingering question, Downs says, is whether other sunscreen components that are similar in structure to oxybenzone might have the same effects. Pinning that down could help researchers make better, reef-safe sunscreens.   More

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    Even the sea has light pollution. These new maps show its extent

    The first global atlas of ocean light pollution shows that large swaths of the sea are squinting in the glare of humans’ artificial lights at night.

    From urbanized coastlines along the Persian Gulf to offshore oil complexes in the North Sea, humans’ afterglow is powerful enough to penetrate deep into many coastal waters, potentially changing the behaviors of creatures that live there, researchers report December 13 in Elementa: Science of the Anthropocene. Regional and seasonal differences — such as phytoplankton blooms or sediment from rivers — also affect the depth to which light penetrates.

    Artificial lights are known to affect land dwellers, such as by swelling or shrinking certain insect populations, or by making it harder for sparrows to fight off West Nile virus (SN: 3/30/21; SN: 8/31/21; SN: 1/19/18). But the bright lights of coastal cities, oil rigs and other offshore structures can also create a powerful glow in the sky over the sea.

    To assess where this glow is strongest, marine biogeochemist Tim Smyth of Plymouth Marine Laboratory in England and colleagues combined a world atlas of artificial night sky brightness created in 2016 with ocean and atmosphere data (SN: 6/10/16). Those data include shipboard measurements of artificial light, satellite data collected monthly from 1998 to 2017 to estimate the prevalence of light-scattering phytoplankton and sediment, and computer simulations of how different wavelengths of light move through the water.

    Not all species are equally sensitive to light, so to assess impact, the team focused on copepods, ubiquitous shrimplike creatures that are a key part of many ocean food webs. Like other tiny zooplankton, copepods use the sun or the winter moon as a cue to plunge en masse to the dark deep, seeking safety from surface predators (SN: 1/11/16; SN: 4/18/18).

    Humans’ nighttime light has the most impact in the top meter of the water, the team found. Here, artificial light is intense enough to cause a biological response across nearly 2 million square kilometers of ocean, an area roughly that of Mexico. Twenty meters down, the total affected area shrinks by more than half to 840,000 square kilometers.

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    Some deep-sea octopuses aren’t the long-haul moms scientists thought they were

    Octopuses living in the deep sea off the coast of California are breeding far faster than expected.

    The animals lay their eggs near geothermal springs, and the warmer water speeds up embryonic development, researchers report February 28 at the virtual 2022 Ocean Sciences Meeting. That reproductive sleight of hand means that the octopus moms brood for less than two years, instead of the estimated 12.

    In 2018, scientists working off the coast of California discovered thousands of deep-sea octopuses (Muusoctopus robustus) congregated on a patch of seafloor about 3,200 meters below the surface. Many of the grapefruit-sized animals were females brooding clutches of eggs, leading researchers to dub the site the Octopus Garden.

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    But with water temperatures hovering around a frigid 1.6° Celsius, growth in this garden was predicted to be leisurely. In octopuses, embryonic development tends to slow down at low temperatures, says marine ecologist Jim Barry of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute in Moss Landing, Calif. “When you get really cold, down near zero, that’s when brood periods get really long.”

    The record for the longest brood period of any animal, just over four years, is held by a different species of octopus living in warmer water (SN: 7/30/14). M. robustus, thriving in the chilly depths of the Octopus Garden, was therefore a serious contender to snatch that title, Barry says. “If you look at its predicted brood period at 1.6° C, it’s over 12 years.”

    To verify what would be a record-setting stint of motherhood, Barry and his colleagues repeatedly visited the Octopus Garden from 2019 to 2021 using a remotely operated vehicle. The team trained cameras at the octopus eggs, which resemble white fingers, to monitor their rate of development. With one of the submersible’s robotic arms, the researchers also gently nudged dozens of octopuses aside and measured the water temperature in their nests.

    The team found that relatively warm water — up to 10.5° C — bathed all the egg clutches. The female octopuses are preferentially laying their eggs in streams of geothermally heated water, the researchers realized. That discovery was a tip-off that these animals are not the long-haul moms people thought them to be, Barry says. “We’re virtually certain these animals are breeding far more rapidly than you’d expect.”

    Deep-sea octopuses (Muusoctopus robustus) brood clutches of eggs, which look like white fingers.Ocean Exploration Trust, NOAA

    Based on observations of the developing eggs, Barry and colleagues calculated that the moms brooded for only about 600 days, or about a year and a half. That is much faster than predicted, says Jeffrey Drazen, a deep-sea ecologist at the University of Hawaii at Manoa who was not involved in the research. “They’re cutting a huge amount of time off of their parental care period.”

    There is also an evolutionary advantage to seeking out warmer water: Shorter brood periods mean that fewer eggs are likely to be gobbled up by predators. And these octopuses seem to know that, Barry says. “We believe they’re exploiting that thermal energy to improve reproductive success.”

    Only a few other marine animals, such as icefish in Antarctica’s Weddell Sea (SN: 1/13/22), are known to seek out warmer conditions when breeding. But there are probably other species that do the same, Drazen says. The challenge is finding them and their breeding grounds in the vast expanse of the deep ocean. “I imagine that as we keep looking, we will keep finding really interesting sites that are important to certain species,” he says. More

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    Sunlight helps clean up oil spills in the ocean more than previously thought

    Sunlight may have helped remove as much as 17 percent of the oil slicking the surface of the Gulf of Mexico following the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill. That means that sunlight plays a bigger role in cleaning up such spills than previously thought, researchers suggest February 16 in Science Advances.

    When sunlight shines on spilled oil in the sea, it can kick off a chain of chemical reactions, transforming the oil into new compounds (SN: 6/12/18). Some of these reactions can increase how easily the oil dissolves in water, called photodissolution. But there has been little data on how much of the oil becomes water-soluble.

    To assess this, environmental chemists Danielle Haas Freeman and Collin Ward, both of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, placed samples of the Macondo oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill on glass disks and irradiated them with light using LEDs that emit wavelengths found in sunlight. The duo then chemically analyzed the irradiated oil to see how much was transformed into dissolved organic carbon.

    The most important factors in photodissolution, the researchers found, were the thickness of the slick and the wavelengths of light. Longer wavelengths (toward the red end of the spectrum) dissolved less oil, possibly because they are more easily scattered by water, than shorter wavelengths. How long the oil was exposed to light was not as important.

    Though the team didn’t specifically test for seasonal or latitude differences, computer simulations based on the lab data suggested that those factors, as well as the oil’s chemical makeup, also matter.

    The researchers estimate irradiation helped dissolve from 3 to 17 percent of surface oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill, comparable to processes such as evaporation and stranding on coastlines. What impact the sunlight-produced compounds might have on marine ecosystems, however, isn’t yet known.  More

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    The past’s extreme ocean heat waves are now the new normal

    Yesterday’s scorching ocean extremes are today’s new normal. A new analysis of surface ocean temperatures over the past 150 years reveals that in 2019, 57 percent of the ocean’s surface experienced temperatures rarely seen a century ago, researchers report February 1 in PLOS Climate.

    To provide context for the frequency and duration of modern extreme heat events, marine ecologists Kisei Tanaka, now at the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration in Honolulu, and Kyle Van Houtan, now at the Loggerhead Marinelife Center in Juno Beach, Fla., analyzed monthly sea-surface temperatures from 1870 through 2019, mapping where and when extreme heat events occurred decade to decade.

    Looking at monthly extremes rather than annual averages revealed new benchmarks in how the ocean is changing. More and more patches of water hit extreme temperatures over time, the team found. Then, in 2014, the entire ocean hit the “point of no return,” Van Houtan says. Beginning that year, at least half of the ocean’s surface waters saw temperatures hotter than the most extreme events from 1870 to 1919.

    Marine heat waves are defined as at least five days of unusually high temperatures for a patch of ocean. Heat waves wreak havoc on ocean ecosystems, leading to seabird starvation, coral bleaching, dying kelp forests, and migration of fish, whales and turtles in search of cooler waters (SN: 1/15/20; SN: 8/10/20).

    In May 2020, NOAA announced that it was updating its “climate normals” — what the agency uses to put daily weather events in historical context — from the average 1981–2010 values to the higher 1991–2020 averages (SN: 5/26/21). 

    This study emphasizes that ocean heat extremes are also now the norm, Van Houtan says. “Much of the public discussion now on climate change is about future events, and whether or not they might happen,” he says. “Extreme heat became common in our ocean in 2014. It’s a documented historical fact, not a future possibility.”

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    The Southern Ocean is still swallowing large amounts of humans’ carbon dioxide emissions

    The Southern Ocean is still busily absorbing large amounts of the carbon dioxide emitted by humans’ fossil fuel burning, a study based on airborne observations of the gas suggests. The new results counter a 2018 report that had found that the ocean surrounding Antarctica might not be taking up as much of the emissions as previously thought, and in some regions may actually be adding CO₂ back to the atmosphere.    

    It’s not exactly a relief to say that the oceans, which are already becoming more acidic and storing record-breaking amounts of heat due to global warming, might be able to bear a little more of the climate change burden (SN: 4/28/17; SN: 1/13/21). But “in many ways, [the conclusion] was reassuring,” says Matthew Long, an oceanographer at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo.  

    That’s because the Southern Ocean alone has been thought to be responsible for nearly half of the global ocean uptake of humans’ CO₂ emissions each year. That means it plays an outsize role in modulating some of the immediate impacts of those emissions. However, the float-based estimates had suggested that, over the course of a year, the Southern Ocean was actually a net source of carbon dioxide rather than a sink, ultimately emitting about 0.3 billion metric tons of the gas back to the atmosphere each year.

    In contrast, the new findings, published in the Dec. 3 Science, suggest that from 2009 through 2018, the Southern Ocean was still a net sink, taking up a total of about 0.55 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide each year.

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    The 2018 study had used newly deployed deep-diving ocean floats, now numbering almost 200, that are part of a project called Southern Ocean Carbon and Climate Observations and Modeling, or SOCCOM. Calculations based on data collected from 2014 through 2017 by 35 of the floats suggested that parts of the ocean were actually releasing a great deal of carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere during winter (SN: 6/2/19). That sparked concerns that the Southern Ocean’s role in buffering the impacts of climate change on Earth might not be so robust as once thought.

    Long says he and other researchers were somewhat skeptical about that takeaway, however. The floats measure temperature, salinity and pH in the water down to about 2,000 meters, and scientists use those data to calculate the carbon dioxide concentration in the water. But those calculations rest on several assumptions about the ocean water properties, as actual data are still very scarce. That may be skewing the data a bit, leading to calculations of higher carbon dioxide emitted from the water than is actually occurring, Long suggests.

    Another way to measure how much carbon dioxide is moving between air and sea is by taking airborne measurements. In the new study, the team amassed previously collected carbon dioxide data over large swaths of the Southern Ocean during three separate series of aircraft flights — one series lasting from 2009 to 2011, one in the winter of 2016 and a third in several periods from 2016 to 2018 (SN: 9/8/11). Then, the researchers used those data to create simulations of how much carbon dioxide could possibly be moving between ocean and atmosphere each year.

    The float-based and aircraft-based studies estimate different overall amounts of carbon dioxide moving out of the ocean, but both identified a seasonal pattern of less carbon dioxide absorbed by the ocean during winter. That indicates that both types of data are picking up a real trend, says Ken Johnson, an ocean chemist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute in Moss Landing, Calif., who was not involved in the research. “We all go up and down together.”

    It’s not yet clear whether the SOCCOM data were off. But to better understand what sorts of biases might affect the pH calculations, researchers must compare direct measurements of carbon dioxide in the water taken from ships with pH-based estimates at the same location. Such studies are under way right now off the coast of California, Johnson says.

    The big takeaway, Johnson says, is that both datasets — as well as direct shipboard measurements in the Southern Ocean, which are few and far between — are going to be essential for understanding what role these waters play in the planet’s carbon cycle. While the airborne studies can help constrain the big picture of carbon dioxide emissions data from the Southern Ocean, the floats are much more widely distributed, and so are able to identify local and regional variability in carbon dioxide, which the atmospheric data can’t do.

    “The Southern Ocean is the flywheel of the climate system,” the part of an engine’s machinery that keeps things chugging smoothly along, Johnson says. “If we don’t get our understanding of the Southern Ocean right, we don’t have much hope for understanding the rest of the world.” More

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    Corals’ hidden genetic diversity corresponds to distinct lifestyles

    Stony corals that build reefs have been hiding their diversity in plain sight. A genetic analysis of the most widespread reef coral in the Indo-Pacific revealed that rather than being a single species (Pachyseris speciosa), it was actually four distinct species of coral, researchers report April 2 in Current Biology.

    Coral reefs are the condominiums of ocean biodiversity, supporting more species per square meter than any other marine habitat. Understanding which coral species foster that biodiversity and how those corals behave is vital to taking care of them, especially as a warming climate threatens overall ocean biodiversity (SN: 5/6/20). “Just knowing what’s there is critical to tracking what we are losing,” says Rebecca Vega-Thurber, a marine microbiologist at Oregon State University in Corvallis, who was not involved in the new study. The results suggest other corals thought to be a single species may actually be much more diverse than researchers realized.

    Using a combination of scuba gear and remotely operated vehicles, marine biologist Pim Bongaerts of the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco and colleagues sampled more than 1,400 P. speciosa corals from the ocean surface down to 80 meters. In the lab, the sampleslooked identical, and their internal structures were indistinguishable in scanning electron microscope images. Yet, their genomes — their full genetic instruction books — revealed the corals had diverged millions of years ago. That made sense for one of the species in the Red Sea’s Gulf of Aqaba, which was geographically separated from the others. But the other three newly identified species lived together on the same reefs in the waters off South Asia. If the corals were living together, why didn’t one overtake the other two, the team wondered.

    Examining habitat data from their dives, the researchers found the three distinct coral species favored different water depths, with one abundant in the top 10 meters and the other two flourishing deeper down. The three coral species also had different concentrations of photosynthetic algae and pigments, suggesting they had distinct strategies for hosting their algae partners that provide food. And spawning times of these three species were slightly spread out too. One released most of its gametes five days after the full moon, another seven days after, and the third at nine days and counting. The separation of spawning could help the eggs and sperm of each species hook up with its correct species match.

    Marine biologists Pim Bongaerts and Norbert Englebert collect coral samples during a dive at Holmes Reef in the Coral Sea north of Australia.David Whillas

    This study is the first to show how a set of cryptic reef corals are splitting up their shared ecological space — by depth, physiology and spawning time, Bongaerts says. “There are all these cryptic lineages occurring, but they’ve largely been ignored from an ecological point of view.”

    The results open the door to the possibility that many other doppelgänger corals may be multiple species that coexist thanks to ecological differences, says reef genomicist Christian Voolstra at the University of Konstanz in Germany. “There is a minimal chance that they picked the unicorn, but I highly doubt it. This paper shows that in all likelihood there is a huge diversity of reef corals with distinct ecologies.” More

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    Even the deepest, coldest parts of the ocean are getting warmer

    Things are heating up at the seafloor.
    Thermometers moored at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean recorded an average temperature increase of about 0.02 degrees Celsius over the last decade, researchers report in the Sept. 28 Geophysical Research Letters. That warming may be a consequence of human-driven climate change, which has boosted ocean temperatures near the surface (SN: 9/25/19), but it’s unclear since so little is known about the deepest, darkest parts of the ocean.
    “The deep ocean, below about 2,000 meters, is not very well observed,” says Chris Meinen, an oceanographer at the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Miami. The deep sea is so hard to reach that the temperature at any given research site is typically taken only once per decade. But Meinen’s team measured temperatures hourly from 2009 to 2019 using seafloor sensors at four spots in the Argentine Basin, off the coast of Uruguay.
    Temperature records for the two deepest spots revealed a clear trend of warming over that decade. Waters 4,540 meters below the surface warmed from an average 0.209° C to 0.234° C, while waters 4,757 meters down went from about 0.232°C to 0.248°C. This warming is much weaker than in the upper ocean, Meinen says, but he also notes that since warm water rises, it would take a lot of heat to generate even this little bit of warming so deep.
    It’s too soon to judge whether human activity or natural variation is the cause, Meinen says. Continuing to monitor these sites and comparing the records with data from devices in other ocean basins may help to clarify matters. More