Where is the Biden Ocean Team?

In forty-eight hours, and amidst the largest peacetime deployment of a military force in any nation’s capitol, President Joe Biden will be sworn in as the 46th President of the United States of America. Biden will inherit a civil service bureaucracy that has been deconstructed by the twice-impeached President Trump. To build back a federal government that has been decimated and demoralized, President-Elect Biden has begun rolling out nominees for critical agencies throughout the federal government. And though these appointments have been met will enthusiasm from the environmental and scientific community, a nagging question lingers among America’s Ocean Stakeholders:

Where is the Biden Ocean Team?

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Donald Trump secures his legacy as the worst ocean president in American history.

Donald F. Trump hates sharks. We learned that in 2013, when, during an entirely uncontroversial discussion about shark conservation foundations on Twitter, the would-be President of the United States of America blocked a small cohort of marine scientists.

Gracing David Shiffman and myself with a timeline blissfully free of his insufferable Tweets for eight years was the only good thing he has ever done for the ocean.

Initially, it appeared as though Trump’s war on the oceans would take a backseat to his other social, judicial, and environmental atrocities. Though a troubling selection for a host of reasons, Wilbur Ross’s appointment as Secretary of Commerce was seen as a relatively non-threatening move. His letter to NOAA staff, reassuring them that his department would continue to follow best-available science, was met with praise. His initial leadership appointments received bipartisan support.

It is clear now in hindsight, that that initial optimism was intensely naïve.

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3 kid-friendly STEAM electronics projects that harness NOAA’s massive public databases

This is the winter of finding as many good, educational projects to keep our kids as occupied as possible. If you’re anything like me, you probably have a stack of assorted electronics in various stages of disrepair, which is great for your hardware hacking dads and moms, but kids need projects with a little more structure and, especially for the younger ones, a lot less soldering.

We can’t build open-source CTDs every day.

Fortunately, the awesome folks at Adafruit have built up an absolutely massive collection of electronics projects using just about every component you can imagine. I’ve culled through the archive to find three kid-friendly (projects that don’t require soldering or involve particularly risky components) ocean and weather projects that take advantage of NOAA’s publicly available databases to help students learn a little bit about electronics and the natural world.

All of these projects were built with the help of my kiddo (age four), require no soldering or electronics skills to start, involve just enough coding to stay interesting, and use Adafruit’s CircuitPython ecosystem, which is fairly easy to learn. Adafruit does a great job compiling detailed instruction for every project. These can all be completed in a lazy afternoon.

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Beyond Batteries: exploring the demand for scandium and tellurium from the deep ocean

This article originally appeared in the October/November 2020 issue of the Deep-sea Mining Observer. It is reprinted here with permission. For the latest news and analysis about the development of the deep-sea mining industry, subscribe to DSM Observer here: http://dsmobserver.com/subscribe/

Featured image: ferromanganese crust being recovered from Tropic Seamount. Photo courtesy NERC.

For the last decade, next-generation batteries have been the motivating force for the deep-sea mining industry. The electrification of the world’s vehicle fleets to wean society off of fossil fuels has created huge demands for cobalt, nickel, and other metals necessary for high-density batteries. The demand has placed the green revolution in a position where we either need to unlock new reserves of these essential metals or fundamentally change how we make batteries. 

While new battery technologies promise to reduce or eliminate the need for cobalt and other metals, unlocking the raw materials needed to energize electric vehicles isn’t the only mineral supply chain that can support commercial exploitation of the deep seafloor. The critical minerals found in polymetallic nodules, seafloor massive sulphides, and cobalt-rich ferromanganese crusts are being eyed for a variety of production needs, both commercial and strategic. 

It was the manganese content of polymetallic nodules that originally caught the eye of prospectors in the 1960s and 1970s looking to exploit the mineral wealth of the deep oceans. Useful in the creation of steel and aluminum alloys, as well as a lead replacement in internal combustion engines, and as an electron acceptor in dry cell batteries, among other uses, the market for manganese crashed in the 1980s as more accessible sources came online and alternative technologies mitigated its demand. As the 12th most abundant element in the Earth’s crust, global manganese production more than satisfied demand. Since 2000, manganese has been used as a substitute for copper and nickel in several US coins. 

But manganese and cobalt aren’t the only metal that occurs in abundance beneath the waves. Gold, nickel, copper, and rare earth elements are also commonly cited as viable resources to justify exploitation in areas beyond national jurisdiction. Two metals that aren’t quite as frequently discussed but may, nevertheless, prove attractive to deep-sea mining contractors, are scandium and tellurium. 

Scandium is a particularly challenging resource. It is used to produce strong, lightweight aluminium alloys for aerospace components, as well as, in much lower quantities, in the manufacture of some sporting equipment and firearms. Only a handful of scandium operations exist, producing 15 to 20 tons of scandium per year as a byproduct of other mineral extraction. This represents about half the global demand, creating a powerful incentive to develop new and novel scandium prospects. 

Scandium occurs in uniquely high quantities in polymetallic nodules and ferromanganese crust off the northern coasts of Alaska within the United States Exclusive Economic Zone. Scandium is also found in metal enriched muds in the northwestern Pacific Ocean, within Japan’s Exclusive Economic Zone associated with Minamitorishima Island. Much like other deep-sea elements, scandium, and its applications in making lightweight, energy efficient aircraft, makes it potentially an important component of the green revolution. 

Tellurium is one of the rarest metals on Earth. It is a technology-critical element–it is extremely important for the development of emerging technologies. Tellurium is used in the production of semiconductors, fiber optic cables, and solar panels, among other uses. It is produced as a byproduct in copper and lead refining and is produced primarily within the United States, Japan, Canada, and Peru. A little more than 100 tons of tellurium are produced every year. 

Most critically, tellurium is a key component of cadmium telluride solar cells; efficient, thin film solar cells which are more efficient at absorbing light than silicon-based solar cells. Cadmium telluride solar panels are cheaper per kilowatt than conventional silicon panels and are lighter and easier to deploy. Tellurium occurs in abundance in mineral-rich crusts of the Tropic Seamount, a mountain in the middle of the Atlantic, just south of the Canary Islands. The deposits on this seamount, which is alternately claimed to fall within the EEZs of both Spain and Morocco, may be 50,000 times richer than all terrestrial sources

Scandium and tellurium are the oddball metals in the push to mine the deep-sea. While elements like cobalt, nickel, and copper are needed in massive quantities to supply an exploding demand for next-generation batteries, neither scandium nor tellurium production is needed at that scale. Their relative rarity and the novelty of their occurrence in a few deposits on the seafloor creates a much different value proposition for these resources. As critical minerals with sparse terrestrial sources, barring a future surge in demand, accessing seafloor deposits represents a strategic, rather than purely commercial, decision.

Scandium demand, in particular, could finally mark the long-expected return of the United States to the deep-sea mining industry. 

The United States moves towards exploration and exploitation of critical mineral resources in the deep ocean.

This article originally appeared in the October/November 2020 issue of the Deep-sea Mining Observer. It is reprinted here with permission. For the latest news and analysis about the development of the deep-sea mining industry, subscribe to DSM Observer here: http://dsmobserver.com/subscribe/

Featured Image: US Exclusive Economic Zone (note: Navassa territorial claim is disputed by Haiti).

Since the signing of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and the creation of the International Seabed Authority, the United States of America has been a shadow partner in the growing deep-sea mining industry. Though the United States provides scientific and technical expertise, and is a de facto participant through American-owned subsidiaries incorporated in sponsoring states, the nation with the world’s second largest exclusive economic zone never ratified the core treaties and thus has limited influence at negotiations.

While the United States made significant contributions to the early development of the industry, it has been largely inactive since the mid 1980’s, focusing instead on its offshore fossil fuel resources and leaving critical minerals in the deep ocean largely untouched. Within the US EEZ surrounding the country’s Pacific territories, in particular, a push for large, remote marine protected areas in the form of the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument, Rose Atoll Marine National Monument, Marianas Trench Marine National Monument, and Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, deep-sea mining has been effectively prohibited.  

The United States continues to assert claims over two large lease blocks in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone, citing existing precedent from prior to the ISA’s creation, though no recent attempts have been made to exploit those blocks. The ISA, for its part, continues to hold those lease blocks in reserve, should the US eventually join all but a few nations who have ratified the Law of the Sea.

That general non-involvement at the policy level may soon change. In a recent Executive Order on Addressing the Threat to the Domestic Supply Chain from Reliance on Critical Minerals from Foreign Adversaries by the now-outgoing President of the United States tasked the Department of the Interior with assessing any potential national security threat posed by the nation’s reliance on critical mineral imports, securing a domestic supply chain, and funding projects to increase critical mineral production within the United States. 

“By signing the Executive Order, President Trump declared a National Emergency and called for action to expand the domestic mining industry, support mining jobs, alleviate unnecessary permitting delays, and reduce our Nation’s dependence on China for critical minerals.” says Beverly Winston of BOEM’s Office of Public Affairs. “In the few weeks since the order was signed, leadership at relevant Department of the Interior agencies have been actively engaged in identifying specific actions that can be taken to implement the order.” 

Executive Orders are not always the best indicator of changing government priorities. A more definitive approach to identifying significant policy shifts is to examine contracting opportunities through the US General Services Administration. Soon after the President’s Executive Order, a solicitation for Geophysical, Geological, and Environmental Data Collection and Analysis supporting Outer Continental Shelf Marine Minerals Stewardship contract bids of indefinite duration and indefinite quantity was posted, providing funding for a four year marine critical minerals exploration campaign through the US Department of the Interior. 

This call is a much more substantial indicator that the US is planning a more aggressive push into deep-sea minerals in the coming years. In a possibly unrelated move, the US Geological Survey is recruiting a postdoctoral fellow in Geology, geochemistry and global context of deep-ocean marine minerals.

With respect to BOEM’s four-year horizon, Winston adds that “BOEM is actively collaborating with partner agencies, such as USGS and NOAA, to better understand our marine mineral resources and associated biological communities. BOEM is a member of the newly created National Ocean Mapping, Exploration, and Characterization Council, and also co-chairs the Interagency Working Group on Ocean Exploration and Characterization. Both of these bodies will work to identify priority areas for exploration and characterization, and to coordinate personnel and funds to study the priority areas.”

While these moves point to increased deep-sea mining exploration within the US EEZ, they don’t provide nearly as much clarity on the United States’ future plans for the Area. In recent ISA council meetings, the US delegation has intervened to assert their existing claims in the CCZ, however no recent actions suggest an intent to attempt to exploit those claims. 

Notably, the recent Executive Order is directed at the Department of the Interior, while it is the Department of Commerce, within which the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is housed, who would initiate any exploration or exploitation in Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction. 

“Currently under the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act (OCSLA),” concludes Winston, “BOEM’s leasing authority is limited to the Outer Continental Shelf offshore the coastal states. NOAA is the implementing agency for the Deep Sea Hard Minerals Resource Act, which establishes an interim domestic licensing and permitting regime for deep seabed hard mineral exploration and mining beyond the EEZ pending adoption of an acceptable international regime.”

Though the election of President-Elect Joe Biden will likely have substantial influence on future priorities for the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, it is too early to know, according to BOEM representatives, how a new administration will impact critical minerals policy. With a core policy focus on climate change, it is almost certain that securing access to the critical minerals necessary to building next-generation energy infrastructure will remain a priority for the next administration. 

Hot air for windmills, oceans get layered, and North Korean ghost ships – What’s up with the Oceans this Week

Nothing but hot air. Trump bans windmills. The President made bemused news last week during his oddly partisan attempt to ban offshore oil in several key states (though for some reason, seismic testing in those states continue, making it seem less like a ban and more like a request to “stand by”). Unsurprisingly, the offshore oil ban also brings coastal wind farm development to a halt.

The oceans are norming. In addition to everything else facing the oceans, they are increasingly stratifying. This layer cake effect could disrupt ecological processes around the world and creating new and more pronounced ocean dead zones. It’s some bad cake.

Don’t call them ghost ships. North Korea’s fishing policies are forcing fishermen to fish father afield, dangerously under supplied and under fed. Hundreds of North Korean fishing vessels, barely large enough to be called a ship and carrying, in many cases, their dead crew, are washing up along the Japanese coast.

Upwelling

Last night, the President of the United States refused to condemn white supremacists terrorist group Proud Boys, called for illegal election interference from his supporters, and threw a variety of tantrums related to his horrifically terrible tenure. Though Climate Change made a small appearance at the debate, unsurprisingly, ocean policy issued were sidelined so that POTUS would have enough time to mock a dead soldier.

Tear gassing fish, new NOAA chief, and Facebook’s flop – What’s Up With the Oceans this Week?

Tear gas is bad for fish. Surprising no one, if you unlawfully unload tons of tear gas into a peaceful crowd of protestors in order to create chaos as a precedent for state violence, that tear gas will eventually find its way into drains and all drains lead to the ocean. And that is bad news for marine life.

More turnover at NOAA. NOAA has appointed meteorologist and climate change contrarian Ryan Maue to replace Dr. Craig McLean as Chief Scientist.

Facebook continues to Facebook. Facebook vowed to fight climate change denial and uplift climate science. Instead, they censored hundreds of climate activism who were protesting the Coastal Link pipeline.

How anglerfish hack their immune system to hang on to a mate

This article originally appeared in the August/September 2020 issue of the Deep-sea Mining Observer. It is reprinted here with permission. For the latest news and analysis about the development of the deep-sea mining industry, subscribe to DSM Observer here: http://dsmobserver.com/subscribe/

When you live in the darkness of the abyss, finding a partner is hard and keeping a partner is even harder. Deep-sea anglerfish, one of the iconic ambassador species of the deep ocean, have found a novel solution to this problem–dwarf males are sexual parasites that latch onto the body of the much larger female anglerfish and then physically fuse to their partner, becoming permanently attached to the point where they share a circulatory and digestive system. 

Parasitic dwarf males are uncommon, but not unheard of, throughout the animal kingdom. Osedax, the deep sea bone eating worm, also maintains a harem of dwarf males in a specialized chamber in their trunk. But few species, and no other vertebrates, go to quite the extremes of the anglerfish. And with good reason. 

Vertebrate immune systems have a long shared history. The Major Histocompatibility Complex (MHC) is a suite of genes shared among all gnathostomes–the taxonomic group that contains all jawed vertebrates, from fish to fishermen. It creates the proteins which provide the foundation for the adaptive immune system, the core complex which allows bodies to tell self from no-self, detect pathogens, and reject non-self invaders. Suppressing the MHC seriously inhibits a vertebrate’s ability to fight off infection. 

Incidentally, not all deep-sea anglerfish have parasitic dwarf males, and the species most often presented as a type specimen in the popular press, the humpback anglerfish Melanocetus johnsonii, is one of several that do not have permanently attached parasitic dwarf males. M. johnsonii males are free-swimming throughout their life, they’re just small and clingy.

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The climate denial industry in full swing, 5 storms rage across the Atlantic, and Orcas seek vengeance – What’s up with the Oceans this week?

Denial Incorporated. Over the weekend, the Administration announced the appointment of David Legates, an anti-science activist embedded in the climate denial industry. Legates will answer directly to acting NOAA administrator Neil Jacobs. Expect to see Legates making the media rounds downplaying the impact of climate change on the occurrence of more frequent and powerful tropical storms because…

There are currently 5 active tropical cyclones in the Atlantic. This has only ever been documented once before. Historically, we are just entering the most active part of the Atlantic Hurricane season and it’s already time to move on to Greek letters. The next earliest 20th named storm was Tropical Storm Tammy, which formed October 5, 2005.

Killer whales are attacking boats in the Mediterranean. Ok, then.

Upwelling.

This is possibly the grimmest climate change model I’ve seen in a long time: New Climate Maps Show a Transformed United States.

Great Whites get down to business, the Ocean Cleanup flounders, and a livestock carrier goes down – What’s up with the Ocean this week?

Frisky business for Great White Sharks. For only the second time since western scientists began studying the ocean, Great White Shark mating has been documented in the wild. Shark sex is infrequently observed in the wild, and this fisherman’s observations can provide invaluable insight in the lives and loves of this iconic species.

The Ocean Cleanup. Dr. Rebecca Helm of UNC Asheville spent the last week doing an extensive dive into the problems surrounding the Ocean Cleanup Project. The who thread, including all the updates, is worth a read for anyone interested in tackling the global problem of ocean plastics with practical solutions that don’t increase harm to marine ecosystems.

Search called for Gulf Livestock 1. The livestock carrier Gulf Livestock 1 capsized last week amidst heavy storms. Though three crew members have been found, the remaining crew, as well as the ship and its 6000 cattle, are still missing. The search was suspended earlier this week, due to weather.

Upwell

Burning Man, the legendary gathering in the Nevada desert, had its own shark jumping moment. After cancelling the main event due to the pandemic raging across America (and pretty much under control almost everywhere else), organizers decided to hold a mini-Burning Man on the actual playa–San Francisco’s Ocean Beach. It was a reckless and selfish gathering of 1000 people that put people’s lives at risk and forced the mayor to shut down beach access, depriving many city-dwellers of their nearest connection to nature in an age of lockdowns and limited travel.