Warming Trends: A Manatee with ‘Trump’ on its Back, a Climate Version of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons and an Arctic Podcast

A column highlighting climate-related studies, innovations, books, cultural events and other developments from the global warming frontier.

A manatee is seen in the Homosassa River in Florida with "TRUMP" inscribed in the algae on its back. Credit: Hailey Warrington

A manatee is seen in the Homosassa River in Florida with "TRUMP" inscribed in the algae on its back. Credit: Hailey Warrington

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Warming Trends
Politics

Someone Wrote ‘Trump’ on a Manatee’s Back

Federal officials are seeking information related to a Florida manatee discovered with the word “Trump” carved into the algae on its back earlier this week in the Homosassa River, about 75 miles north of Tampa.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is investigating the incident. As of late Friday, however, the agency had no updates. 

The Center for Biological Diversity has offered a $5,000 reward for information leading to a conviction of whoever defaced the manatee. The center’s Florida director, Jacklyn Lopez, said she received more than 100 calls and emails from people expressing outrage and checking to see if the manatee was hurt—it was not, Lopez said.

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“It really transcended politics and was reassuring to see that so many people really do care about wildlife,” Lopez said. “It was really heartwarming to see that people had cared about this animal and felt compelled to advocate.”

Manatees are a native Florida species that have been protected under the Endangered Species Act since 1963.

Culture

A Podcast That Dives Deep Into Arctic History

Which explorer first discovered the North Pole? What was at stake for global trade in the Arctic? How did a spot on the map become a symbol of glory and achievement for adventurous spirits?

These questions and others are taken up by “The Quest for the North Pole,” a nine-episode original podcast from Mental Floss and iHeartRadio that premiered Friday and covers four centuries of Arctic exploration, including the debate over the pole’s discovery.

Science journalist and podcast host Kat Long said a sense of adventure and a fascination with the north pole runs in her blood. 

While researching one of her ancestors who worked as a whaler in the Arctic, Long was inspired by the history of the north pole and the explorers who ventured there over the last 400 years and decided to dive into the topic in a podcast.

“It kind of led me into learning more about polar history and how the observations of these folks inform our knowledge of the Arctic climate and climate change today,” she said, adding,  “I think it’s an exciting story, even if you’re not familiar with the story of Arctic exploration. You can certainly understand how people become obsessed with finding something.”

Later in the series, Long dives into how the explorers who set out for the pole encountered massive icebergs that trapped their vessels, making their journey even more dangerous and challenging. But researchers who recreate those journeys today don’t face such obstacles, because the warming climate has melted so much of the Arctic ice, Long said.

“We’re really talking about a world that we don’t really see anymore, and it was only a century ago,” Long said. “So it’s a really interesting story that I think has a lot of relevance for our understanding of the Arctic today.”

Science

Algae Speeds the Melting of Snow in the Antarctic

Areas of the Antarctic Peninsula where red and green algae grow cause snow to melt faster than areas without algae, a new study has found.

Researchers monitored the albedo—the amount of light reflected off the snow’s surface—in three locations on the Antarctic Peninsula in 2018. They found that green algae reduces albedo by 40 percent, and red algae reduces albedo by 20 percent. A lower albedo means that the snow’s surface absorbs more solar energy. The heated snow results in more snowmelt. Algal blooms lead to more than 1 million gallons of snowmelt in the peninsula annually, the researchers found. The study was published this week in the journal The Cryosphere.

“We need to better understand this and get it integrated into climate models and snow and ice melt models for the region,” said Alia Khan, affiliate research scientist at the National Snow and Ice Data Center and lead author of the study.

Dr. Alia Khan and Chilean colleague Edgardo Sepulveda collect spectra albedo measurements in front of Collins Glacier on King George Island. Credit: Gonzalo Barrera
Dr. Alia Khan and Chilean colleague Edgardo Sepulveda collect spectra albedo measurements in front of Collins Glacier on King George Island. Credit: Gonzalo Barrera

Khan said the new study is a step toward finding out how climate change is affecting Antarctica. Although it’s not clear whether algal blooms are occurring more frequently because of climate change, Khan said there is likely to be a tie between the two phenomena.

“We feel like our study is a foundational study for which future modeling can be built on,” Khan said. “But we’re really demonstrating for the first time that snow algae do play a role in regional snowmelt.”

Culture

More Thunder, Less Birdsong: Vivaldi’s Four Seasons is Adapted for Climate Change

When Antonio Vivaldi composed the set of four violin concertos known as the Four Seasons in the early-1700s, he incorporated the sounds of bird songs in the spring, thunderstorms in the summer, hunting in autumn and falling snowflakes in winter. 

Now a composer and a group of climate and computer scientists in Australia have reimagined the iconic musical work to account for what the seasons might sound like in 2050, if nothing is done to prevent the worst effects of climate change. They titled the reconceived concertos, “The Uncertain Four Seasons.” 

“Climate science is very complex, and there’s often been a difficulty in trying to translate those concepts and realities into lived experiences, and that’s what the original ‘Four Seasons’ did,” said Tim Devine, a designer and computer scientist with AKQA, a design and communications company involved with this project. “We loved the challenge of saying, ‘What is the lived experience in 2050?’ If we do nothing basically, what would it sound like?”

The creators used climate and geospatial data to create an algorithm that was applied to the original composition to add projected climate effects into the music’s narrative. The composer then modified the computerized composition to make the music playable and to add a touch of human creativity. 

One version of the Uncertain Four Seasons, adapted for Sydney, Australia, was performed this week by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, but Devine and his collaborators also created individual versions for 891 other orchestras around the world, each composition unique to the climate effects threatening their local community. 

In versions created for tropical communities, for example, the subtle bird song in the “Spring” concerto was removed to reflect the impact of climate change on wildlife. In the Sydney version, thunderstorms don’t just occur once in the “Summer” concerto, they repeat over and over, until they feel so normal they lose their intensity, Devine said. 

In the Shanghai version of the composition, the orchestra sits in silence for a full 10-minute concerto, signifying the moment when the densely populated Chinese city will succumb completely to sea level rise. 

“Without some people, there’s no culture,” Devine said. 

The creators hope to have the piece performed in as many places as possible ahead of the November COP26 climate talks in Glasgow, though Devine acknowledged that the coronavirus pandemic might complicate that. But, he said, he hopes that the project can improve understanding of the climate crisis and spark local action.

“This is a way to start a dialogue in those places,” Devine said.

 

Science

The Gray Whale Die-Off Continues

The high number of gray whale strandings on the North American coast of the Pacific Ocean last year, NOAA reported this month, continued the “unusual mortality event” that began in 2019.

In 2020, 172 gray whales were found stranded on the Pacific coasts of Canada, the United States and Mexico, slightly fewer than the total of 214 in 2019. From 2001 to 2018, the average number of gray whale strandings each year was about 30. 

Beachgoers observe a dead juvenile gray whale on Limantour Beach at Point Reyes National Seashore on May 25, 2019 in Point Reyes Station, California. Credit: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Beachgoers observe a dead juvenile gray whale on Limantour Beach at Point Reyes National Seashore on May 25, 2019 in Point Reyes Station, California. Credit: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

“We suspect that only 10 or 20 percent of the mortality gets documented by stranding, especially for gray whales which have low fat levels,” said John Calambokidis, a research biologist with Cascadia Research Collective who has studied gray whales for decades, adding that most of the gray whales that die “will just sink.”

The gray whale population in the eastern side of the Pacific nearly went extinct in the mid-20th century, but recovered after commercial whaling was outlawed. The population experienced an unusual mortality event in 1999 and 2000, similar to the one occurring now. The whales recovered spectacularly from that die-off, Calambokidis said, reaching a population of around 20,000. But the current decline is occurring too suddenly to be solely a result of the population reaching its limit, he said. 

Both die-offs are likely to be connected to prey availability, since the whales that wash ashore tend to be very thin and emaciated, though Calambokidis said there’s not enough information to say for sure. Gray whales feed on the seafloor, filtering amphipods and other tiny invertebrates through bristles in their mouths. 

The whales may recover swiftly, as they did in 2001, Calambokidis said, but he and other researchers will continue monitoring the population to see if this die-off persists.