USS John S McCain did not send out automatic identification signals: Singapore authorities

Leong Wai Kit Channel NewsAsia 28 Sep 17;

SINGAPORE: A US warship involved in a collision with a Liberian-flagged oil tanker in Singapore waters did not send out signals about its movements, Singapore authorities said on Thursday (Sep 28).

The Transport Safety Investigation Bureau (TSIB) – a unit within the Ministry of Transport which looks into air and sea accidents – gave this update about one month after the accident between the USS John S McCain and an oil tanker.

USS John S McCain and Liberian-flagged vessel Alnic MC collided at about 5.30am on Aug 21.

TSIB said it has reviewed the Maritime and Port Authority’s (MPA) Vessel Traffic Information System recordings and found that both vessels showed up on MPA’s radar.

The system pulls together data from various sources like radars and closed-circuit televisions, to present a comprehensive sea situation to officers monitoring maritime traffic.

The system can also capture Automatic Identification System (AIS) signals – which give details such as a ship’s speed and direction – from vessels.

TSIB said on Thursday that it only received AIS signals from Alnic MC, but not from USS John S McCain.

The statement, however, also said: “Mandatory carriage of AIS under the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) is not applicable to ships of war and troop ships.”

When asked if the AIS signals were turned off on USS John S McCain, US Seventh Fleet public affairs officer Clayton Doss told Channel NewsAsia he could not comment, citing the ongoing investigation.


According to a US Naval Institute report, one of the immediate changes to US Navy fleet operations after recent collisions is that surface fleet ships will now announce their presence in shipping lanes with heavy traffic.

The US will also, for the first time, institute formal rest guidelines for sailors on ships, as part of a sweeping set of new rules based on an internal command message within the US Navy, said the Navy Times.

Following the USS McCain incident, the Navy sacked the commander of its Pacific-based Seventh Fleet, and several other officers and enlisted sailors have been relieved of duty or reprimanded.

The collision left 10 sailors dead and their bodies were found on board the warship, after a one-week search effort led by Singapore.

“All 10 fallen sailors have been returned to the United States where families are making arrangements,” commander Clayton Doss said.

“The families have the full support of the US Navy community in Yokosuka, Japan, where the ship is forward deployed, as well as from US Navy resources in the United States, including representatives who liaison with family members directly.”

The warship – currently moored at Changi Naval Base – is set to leave Singapore in October. It is bound for Yokosuka aboard a heavy lift vessel.

TSIB said it has conducted interviews and gathered relevant information from Alnic MC and its crew, as well as ships in the vicinity at the time of collision. Authorities are still working with the US Coast Guard to collect information from USS John S McCain.

It could take a year before answers as to why and how the vessels collided will surface, the bureau said.


Meanwhile, Singapore authorities are also handling another collision at sea.

Three weeks after the USS John S McCain collision, a separate collision occurred in Singapore waters.

On Sep 13, Indonesian-registered tanker Kartika Segara collided with Dominican-registered dredger JBB De Rong 19 – at about 12.40am.

The collision left two seamen dead and three missing. Singapore agencies are still looking for the missing seamen. Channel NewsAsia understands that the search no longer involves divers.

Despite the recent collisions, maritime experts say Singapore waters are safe, and that accidents cannot be totally prevented.

Resolve Salvage and Fire managing director Anuj Sahai said collisions can occur for many reasons, including situational awareness, tide occurrence, engine breakdowns and fatigue.

“You can control your own ship but you cannot control the other ship. So those things do matter," Captain Anuj said.
Source: CNA/hm

US warship-tanker collision: Findings will be made public
Karamjit Kaur Straits Times 29 Sep 17;

The full findings of Singapore's investigations into the Aug 21 collision of an oil tanker and a United States warship will be made public once it is ready - a process that typically takes up to 12 months.

Responding to media queries yesterday, Singapore's Transport Safety Investigation Bureau (TSIB) said that it is looking into all circumstances leading up to the collision, which claimed the lives of 10 American sailors on board the USS John S. McCain.

The bureau is a unit within the Ministry of Transport which investigates air and sea accidents.

To date, it has conducted interviews and obtained information from the Liberian-registered tanker, Alnic MC, and its crew, as well as ships in the vicinity during the collision. It is also working with the US Coast Guard to obtain relevant information from the US warship.

The bureau added that it has reviewed the recordings of the Maritime and Port Authority's (MPA) Vessel Traffic Information System (VTIS), which tracks vessels via radar or the Automatic Identification System (AIS) signals, and enables an alert to be sent to vessels in the event of an impending collision and to get them to change course.

The AIS reveals critical information – like a ship’s location, identity, speed and direction of travel – to other vessels in the area and monitoring stations.

The bureau said it established that the MPA's VTIS "held" both vessels on MPA's radar.

But while the VTIS also received Alnic MC's AIS signal, it did not receive any AIS signal from the US warship.

The bureau added that under the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea, the mandatory carriage of AIS does not apply to ships of war and troop ships.

Soon after the Aug 21 incident, MPA had said that its systems had detected only the oil tanker and not the US warship.

TSIB did not elaborate, but naval experts told The Straits Times that while it is almost impossible for military warships to operate completely in stealth mode at sea, these warships can take steps to weaken radar or sonar detection.

This includes absorbent paint and surfaces angled to reflect signals elsewhere.

In the case of the USS John S. McCain, it is likely that MPA detected only a blip on its VTIS, signalling that something was there.

But without AIS confirmation, MPA was not able to ascertain that the blip was the US warship.

Explained a former Singapore naval officer: "With stealth technology, you can be a huge warship but appear on radar screens as a sampan. The whole point is to move under a cloak of secrecy."

The Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, which has been berthed at Changi Naval Base since the accident, will leave Singapore for Yokosuka, Japan, some time next month, said a spokesman for the US Seventh Fleet. The vessel, which needs further repairs, will be carried by a heavy lift vessel, he said.

Many of the crew members have been here since the collision, assisting with ongoing technical assessments of the damage as well as transit preparations such as placing systems in lay-up maintenance, he added.

The collision - the fourth incident in Asia involving a US warship this year - has raised questions about the US Navy's operations and procedures.

In an appearance before the US Senate Armed Services Committee last week, Chief of Naval Operations John Richardson said that while the US Navy has for years had AIS on board, the system was rarely used. He said: "One of the immediate actions following these incidents - particularly in heavily trafficked areas - (is that) we're just going to turn it on."

The Aug 21 collision occurred in Singapore territorial waters near Pedra Branca - situated at the eastern entrance to the Singapore Strait - but Malaysia had claimed the incident took place in its waters.

The International Court of Justice (ICJ) had in a 2008 judgment awarded sovereignty over Pedra Branca to Singapore and neighbouring Middle Rocks to Malaysia.

But in June, Malaysia filed an application at the ICJ to declare that the waters around Pedra Branca are within its territorial waters.

Singapore has said that it will oppose the bid, which it called unnecessary and without merit.

Read more!

2 injured in accident involving wild boar near Tuas Checkpoint

Channel NewsAsia 28 Sep 17;

SINGAPORE: Two people were injured when a wild boar turned up at the Ayer Rajah Expressway on Thursday (Sep 28) morning, causing an accident.

The Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF) said it despatched an ambulance to the scene near Tuas Checkpoint, after receiving an alert at about 7.30am.

The injured duo - a 38-year-old male motorcyclist and his 35-year-old female pillion rider - were sent conscious to Ng Teng Fong General Hospital, said police.

Photos posted on public Facebook group Traffic Report JBS show a group of motorcyclists gathered around the injured as the boar lay, apparently dead, on the road.

Facebook user Jackie Lim, who had uploaded the shots, said: "The wild boar caused a traffic accident", adding that it happened about 500m after the Tuas Checkpoint.

Wild boars have been spotted before in Tuas. Videos of a large herd gathering near the Tuas bus terminal were posted online in June. The video clips showed at least 20 standing on the road in front of the National Transport Workers' Union canteen.

Boar's sudden appearance on AYE causes crash
Lydia Lam Straits Times 29 Sep 17;

The sudden appearance of a wild boar on the Ayer Rajah Expressway (AYE) after the Tuas Checkpoint early yesterday caused a traffic accident that sent two people who had been on a motorcycle to hospital and left the animal dead.

Pictures of the scene posted on Johor Baru traffic group Traffic Report JBS showed a dead boar on the road, and a large group of motorcyclists gathered around a man lying on the road.

Facebook user Jackie Lim shared the photos, warning commuters to be careful while driving in the area.

He wrote that the accident occurred at 7.15am, about 500m away from the Tuas Checkpoint.

He wrote: "The boar caused a traffic accident, luckily nobody died."

The Singapore Civil Defence Force told The Straits Times that it was alerted to the accident on the AYE, towards Jurong, at 7.24am and sent an ambulance.

The police added that a 38-year-old male motorcyclist and his 35-year-old female pillion rider were taken to Ng Teng Fong General Hospital.

In June, a large herd of wild boars was caught on camera swarming a bus interchange in Tuas.

Wildlife group Animal Concerns Research and Education Society later set up metal barriers to prevent the animals from entering the terminal.

In November last year, a 25-year-old motorcyclist was hospitalised after colliding with a wild boar on the Bukit Timah Expressway.

In April last year, a 49-year-old motorcyclist was also injured after a wild boar dashed out on the Seletar Expressway.

According to the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority's (AVA) website, wild boars are "unpredictable animals and can be dangerous".

"Due to their solid body build, wild boars are considered to be particularly dangerous when involved in car accidents," said the advisory.

Here is what to do if you encounter a wild boar, according to an advisory by AVA, the National Parks Board and Wildlife Reserves Singapore:

Be calm and move slowly away from the animal. Do not approach or attempt to feed the animal.

Keep a safe distance and do not corner or provoke the animal, for example, by using flash while taking pictures.

If you see adult boars with young piglets, leave them alone. These are potentially more dangerous because they may attempt to defend their young.

3 injured in accident involving wild boar at Lentor Avenue
Channel NewsAsia 29 Sep 17;

SINGAPORE: Three people were injured after a car accident involving a wild boar at Lentor Avenue on Friday morning (Sep 29).

The Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF) said it was alerted to the incident along Lentor Avenue at 7am. Three people were conscious when they were taken to Khoo Teck Puat Hospital, SCDF added.

This is the second traffic incident involving wild boars in two days on Singapore roads, after one turned up on the Ayer Rajah Expressway on Thursday morning. A motorcyclist and his pillion were hurt in that accident.

For Friday's accident, a picture posted by a Facebook user Jason Soon showed a damaged black car adjacent to the wild boar, which was seen lying on the floor motionless.

According to police, the 40-year-old car driver and his 17-year-old passenger were injured in the accident. A 53-year-old van driver had collided with the car, and he too was hurt.

Channel NewsAsia understands that all three suffered minor back pain.

AVA to place signs alerting motorists about animals
Melody Zaccheus Straits Times 30 Sep 17;

In the wake of two road accidents caused by wild boars over the past two days, the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority (AVA) said it would work with the relevant authorities to place signs in areas where animals are known to appear.

This will "help to warn motorists of potential animal encounters on the road".

The accidents happened on the Ayer Rajah Expressway (AYE) near the Tuas Checkpoint on Thursday, and along Lentor Avenue, in the direction of Yishun, yesterday.

The sudden appearance of the boar on the AYE caused an accident that sent two people on a motorcycle to hospital. The animal died.

In the Lentor case, three people, aged between 17 and 53, were taken to Khoo Teck Puat Hospital conscious. In a photo sent by reader Jason Soon, a car with a badly damaged rear was sideways in the leftmost lane of the road. The wild boar lay motionless beside it.

Responding to media queries, the AVA said wild boars are often sighted near or around forested areas, and it had "received feedback" about areas such as Tuas West, Punggol and Lorong Halus.

Explaining why wildlife, including civet cats, pangolins and wild boars, might emerge on roads, Mr Sivasothi N, a senior lecturer at the National University of Singapore's department of biological sciences, said these foraging animals move between forests looking for new feeding opportunities.

He believes that apart from putting up signs, a holistic approach to installing safety features at vulnerable areas on Singapore's roads would be helpful. He said fences could be installed on some highways adjacent to large forests. These can be designed to prevent wildlife from crossing into dangerous areas and redirect them back to nature areas.

Meanwhile, "traffic calming measures" such as the addition of speed bumps to slow down vehicles should be implemented on smaller roads adjacent to green spaces. "As we green up more of Singapore, these mitigation measures need to be set in place," he said.

Based on the National Parks Board's observations and research, there are an estimated 500 wild boars in Singapore.

These animals are native to Singapore. A female can start reproducing at 18 months of age and produce four to six piglets a year. Their quick reproduction rates, presence of ideal foraging habitats and lack of natural predators contribute to their population growth.

Environmental consultant Ong Say Lin believes in effective, long-term, natural measures such as the removal of food sources from areas adjacent to nature areas. "This may help discourage animals from venturing beyond forested habitats," he said. Wild boars are omnivorous, but they feed mainly on seeds, tubers, young plants and small insects.

A traffic advisory issued by the Traffic Police said motorists are advised to give their full attention, travel within the speed limits, stay alert to their surroundings and to keep a safe distance between their vehicle and the vehicle in front.

Singapore Safety Driving Centre's training manager Gerard Pereira believes that caution signs will help, noting that while wild boar accidents are not as common, the danger lies in how "strapping" and heavy the animal is compared to other stray wildlife.

He said: "Like how it is in other countries - cows appearing on roads in Malaysia and kangaroos in Australia - caution signs warning motorists about vulnerable areas could help alert them so that they will be more cautious.

"It is worrying for motorists, especially if you are driving at a normal speed. If you try to avoid the animal, you will probably be hit by another vehicle or drive off the road. Smaller vehicles, especially light motorcycles, are also likely to fly upon impact."

• Additional reporting by Fabian Koh

What to do if a wild boar gets caught in your headlights
Road safety experts also urged authorities to put up warning signs along roads with frequent wild boar sightings.
Aqil Haziq Mahmud Channel NewsAsia 30 Sep 17;

SINGAPORE: In the wake of two traffic accidents in as many days involving wild boars, road safety experts urged motorists who encounter the animals on the road to brake and avoid swerving out of lane.

In the first accident on Thursday morning, two people were injured after a wild boar showed up on the Ayer Rajah Expressway.

On Friday morning (Sep 29), three people were injured in a car accident involving a wild boar at Lentor Avenue.

"If you see the animal there, you can slow down and warn the car behind," Singapore Road Safety Council chairman Bernard Tay told Channel NewsAsia.

"If the animal comes suddenly, swerving to the side might cause a fatal accident if you go to the oncoming lane and there's a car on the other side of the road."

The Automobile Association of Singapore (AA Singapore) said through a spokesman that motorists should "step hard" on the brakes and try to keep in lane when animals get in the way.

The car's anti-lock braking system will then kick in, ensuring the driver can steer clear of the obstacle without skidding.

However, swerving might cause you to hit a vehicle on your side, the spokesman cautioned. "You have to be alert, slow down your speed and apply defensive driving tactics."

On occasions when there is too little time to react, both experts said a collision is unavoidable.

"I’m not insinuating that you have to kill the animal," Mr Tay said, stressing that any evasive action would depend on the driver's reflexes. "To save the human being, you have to make a decision."

The AA Singapore spokesman added that in such cases, head-on collisions should be avoided. "If you have no choice but to hit the animal, try to hit it at an angle so you reduce the possibility of the animal going through your windscreen."

If the collision occurs on an expressway, Animal Concerns Research and Education Society (ACRES) deputy chief executive Anbarasi Boopal said motorists should park or pull over somewhere for their own safety first, before calling the Land Transport Authority (LTA), as the removal or rescue of the animal "would need traffic control".

"For smaller roads, they can call ACRES if the wild animal is still alive. If dead, they can report (it) to the National Environment Agency for removal," she added.

In response to Channel NewsAsia's queries on the recent wild boar accidents, the police advised motorists to "give their full attention while travelling on roads and observe road safety at all times".

"Motorists should travel within the speed limits, stay alert to their surroundings and to keep a safe distance between their vehicle and the vehicle in front," the police added.


Nevertheless, experts said that authorities should put up warning signs along roads with frequent wild boar sightings.

"If they know that there are certain animals around, they should put up signs to warn motorists," Mr Tay said, citing the example of Australia's wildlife road warning signs.

While the AA Singapore spokesperson acknowledged that animal crossings in Singapore are not common, he believes action should be taken after the recent accidents.

"Some kind of sign has to be put up to alert motorists," he said. "It's good to create awareness that when you drive along a road with bushes on both sides, animals might run out."

LTA said on its One Motoring website that the animal warning sign is used to warn drivers to slow down and beware of animals.

Channel NewsAsia understands that both roads involved in the recent accidents do not have this sign.

Ms Boopal said hotspots for wildlife crossing include Mandai Road, Bukit Timah Expressway (BKE), Seletar Expressway and Upper Thomson Road.

"These areas are usually flanked by forested areas, which provide habitats (for) these animals, and they may have to cross man-made barriers such as roads to get to the other side for resources," she said.

The Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority said in an advisory that the "increase in the population of wild boars may result in a higher frequency of human-wild boar conflict as they wander into parks, public roads and residential areas".

While the police and ACRES said they do not keep track of the number of road accidents specifically involving wildlife, Ms Boopal wants measures put in place to reduce instances of wild animals getting hit by cars.

"Buffer zones and barriers between new developments and traffic zones are important," she said, highlighting wildlife crossing signs, speed reduction markings and wildlife corridors as other possible measures.

Existing corridors include the Eco-Link@BKE. The Eco-Link at Mandai, which will be ready by 2019, allows wildlife to travel safely across Mandai Lake Road.

Ms Boopal added: "In the bigger picture, environmental impact assessment is essential to understand the impact of developments on wildlife and their movements, so mitigation measures can be put in place."

Read more!

Indonesia to end moratorium on mega land reclamation project: minister

Ed Davies, Fergus Jensen Reuters 28 Sep 17;

JAKARTA (Reuters) - Indonesia is set to end a moratorium on a $40-billion land reclamation project involving 17 artificial islands off the northern coast of the capital Jakarta, a senior government minister told Reuters on Thursday.

The ban was slapped on the project in April 2016 amid a bribery investigation by the anti-corruption agency and opposition from environmentalists.

“There is no reason to keep the moratorium because the legal things, the technical things are all already settled,” Luhut Pandjaitan, the coordinating minister for maritime affairs, said in an interview.

The minister said he hoped by next week there would be a resolution to the matter, adding, “We are just waiting for another meeting and then we will announce.”

Jakarta, one of the world’s most densely populated cities, sits on a swampy plain and is sinking at a faster rate than any other city in the world.

Unable to stop the sinking, Jakarta has focused on bolstering its defenses with a 15-mile (24-km)seawall and refurbishing the crumbling flood canal system.

The master plan envisages the construction of artificial islands off Jakarta’s northern coast, where property developers, such as PT Agung Podomoro Land, plan to build shopping malls and attractions similar to Singapore’s Sentosa Island.

Editing by Clarence Fernandez

Read more!

Indonesia: More than 130,000 flee menacing Bali volcano

Associated Press Yahoo News 28 Sep 17;

BALI, Indonesia (AP) — More than 130,000 people have fled the region around the Mount Agung volcano on the Indonesian tourist island of Bali, fearing it will soon erupt, an official said Thursday.

The disaster mitigation agency's command post in Bali said the number of evacuees has swelled to about 134,200. The figure is more than double the estimated population within an immediate danger zone but people further away are leaving too.

Those who have fled are scattered in more than 500 locations across the island famed for its beaches, lush green interior and elegant Hindu culture, taking shelter in temporary camps, sports centers and other public buildings.

The volcano has been at its highest alert level since Friday, sparking the massive exodus of villagers. Thousands of cows left behind by rural communities are also being evacuated.

The exclusion zone around the mountain extends as far as 12 kilometers (7.5 miles) from the crater in places.

"I was very worried about the situation" said Nyoman Suarta, who was leaving a village a few kilometers outside the official no-go radius. "So I decided to get out to save myself with my stuff and my pet," he said, carrying a cage housing a bird.

Agung, which dominates the landscape in the northeast of the island, last erupted in 1963, killing more than 1,100 people. It remained active for about a year.

Volcanologists say the past week's dramatic escalation in tremors indicates an eruption is more likely than not, but they can't say with certainty when it will happen.

"I would definitely be following the advice to stay outside the exclusion zone," said Heather Handley, an assistant Earth sciences professor at Sydney's Macquarie University. The increase in tremors suggests an eruption is "imminent," she said.

Its eruptions in 1963 produced deadly clouds of searing hot ash, gases and rock fragments that traveled down its slopes at great speed. Lava spread for several kilometers (miles) and people were also killed by lahars — rivers of water and volcanic debris.

Officials this week installed warning sirens in several townships.

"If Mount Agung erupts, I'm in charge of pressing the alarm button," said Nyoman Kasna, a local official. "Sirens will sound and tell the community the mountain has erupted."

Agung, about 70 kilometers (45 miles) to the northeast of the tourist hotspot of Kuta, is among more than 120 active volcanoes in Indonesia.

Another volcano, Mount Sinabung on Sumatra, has been erupting sporadically since 2010, sometimes blasting volcanic ash several kilometers (miles) into the air and forcing more than 30,000 to evacuate their villages.

Indonesia, an archipelago of thousands of islands, is prone to seismic upheaval due to its location on the Pacific "Ring of Fire," an arc of volcanoes and fault lines encircling the Pacific Basin.

Read more!

Alarm as study reveals world’s tropical forests are huge carbon emission source

Forests globally are so degraded that instead of absorbing emissions they now release more carbon annually than all the traffic in the US, say researchers
Jonathan Watts The Guardian 28 Sep 17;

The world’s tropical forests are so degraded they have become a source rather than a sink of carbon emissions, according to a new study that highlights the urgent need to protect and restore the Amazon and similar regions.

Researchers found that forest areas in South America, Africa and Asia – which have until recently played a key role in absorbing greenhouse gases – are now releasing 425 teragrams of carbon annually, which is more than all the traffic in the United States.

This is a far greater loss than previously thought and carries extra force because the data emerges from the most detailed examination of the topic ever undertaken. The authors say their findings – published in the journal Science on Thursday – should galvanise policymakers to take remedial action.

“This shows that we can’t just sit back. The forest is not doing what we thought it was doing,” said Alessandro Baccini, who is one of the leader authors of the research team from Woods Hole Research Center and Boston University. “As always, trees are removing carbon from the atmosphere, but the volume of the forest is no longer enough to compensate for the losses. The region is not a sink any more.”

The study went further than any of its predecessors in measuring the impact of disturbance and degradation – the thinning of tree density and the culling of biodiversity below an apparently protected canopy – usually as a result of selective logging, fire, drought and hunting.

This can reduce biomass by up to 75%. But it is more difficult for satellites to monitor than deforestation (the total clearance of foliage) because, when viewed from above, the canopy appears uninterrupted despite the depletion underneath.

To get more accurate data, scientists combined 12 years of satellite data with field studies. They found a net carbon loss on every continent. Latin America – home to the Amazon, the world’s biggest forest – accounted for nearly 60% of the emissions, while 24% came from Africa and 16% from Asia.

Overall, more carbon was lost to degradation and disturbance than deforestation. The researchers stressed this was an opportunity as well as a concern because it was now possible to identify which areas are being affected and to restore forests before they disappeared completely.

“Prior to this we knew degradation was a problem but we didn’t know where or how much,” said Wayne Walker, another of the lead authors. “It’s easier to address the problem when there is still some of the forest left standing.”

The priority is to protect pristine forests with high carbon density. The most effective way of doing this, he said, was to support land rights for indigenous people. “Those living in the forest can make a difference,” Walker said.

Unfortunately, many governments whose territories are home to tropical forests are moving in the opposite direction. In Brazil and Colombia, for example, deforestation has accelerated rapidly in the past year.

“When I look at these numbers and the map of where the changes are occurring, it’s shocking,” said Baccini, who has a two-year-old son. “My child may not see many of the forests. At this rate of change, they will not be there.”

But he said the numbers should be a driver for action. “We need to be positive. Let’s turn tropical forests back into a sink. We need to restore degraded areas” he said. “As far as technology for reducing carbon is concerned, this is low-hanging fruit. We know how to protect and sustain forests. It’s relatively cost effective”

Read more!

Japan Tsunami: Hundreds of Species Hitchhiked to U.S. on Plastic Debris After Megathrust Earthquake

Meghan Bartels, Newsweek Yahoo Groups 29 Sep 17;

March 11, 2011, had started like any other for thousands of mussels along the Japanese coastline, another busy day clinging to docks and straining snacks out of the water. Until 2:46 p.m. local time, that is, when two warring chunks of the Earth’s crust set off six minutes of ground-shattering quakes, then a series of gigantic waves powerful enough to crush three-story buildings and rip docks off their coastlines.

That’s when those mussels set off on an incredible adventure across the Pacific Ocean. In the six years since the tsunami, debris has landed all along the western coast of North America and on the beaches of Hawaii. And according to a new study of the tsunami’s aftermath published today in Science, just a small sample of that debris—much of it plastic—has carried living individuals of almost 300 species.

"What we report is really sort of a minimum picture of what may have arrived," James Carlton, lead author on the project and a marine ecologist at Williams College, told Newsweek. And the debris is still arriving, even today. "We had no idea it would last until 2017 and beyond, as we now expect."

The long trail of rafting debris means that hundreds of species are getting the chance to stake out a foothold in new ecosystems. Scientists have known for a long time that species hitch rides on logs, but it’s usually incredibly difficult to actually track a piece of debris from take-off to landing. "Nobody has ever witnessed these events," says Martin Thiel, an ecologist who studies species movement at the Universidad Catolica del Norte in Chile and who wasn’t involved with the study. "This is really the first large-scale event that we are basically witnessing as it unfolds."

That’s because the tsunami debris has generally been relatively easy to identify. In many cases, an entire dock or boat washed ashore, complete with registration numbers or other identifying information the scientists were able to verify with the Japanese government. The team examined 634 pieces of debris, all believed to stem from the tsunami.

Then, they tallied the animals each piece was carrying, aided by a network of 80 scientists from around the globe who identified species. The team also noted which were alive—critters from 289 species, all told. Those aren’t necessarily creatures that made the whole journey, they may also be descendents born on the voyage.

But whether long-haul travelers or newborns, that’s 289 species (and likely many more on unstudied debris) with the opportunity to try to build a new life for themselves where they landed. Most won’t make it, but several could settle down—and a couple of those could in theory become the next headline-making invasive species, able to thrive so well they make species that have been there for centuries suffer. Unfortunately, beyond species that have already invaded elsewhere, like the Mediterranean mussel, invaders don’t carry red flags—Carlton compares the process to "ecological roulette."

"It's very difficult to predict what species will blossom in the absence of predators or competitors that really could be eyebrow-raisers," he says. That’s why scientists monitor coastal habitats, on the lookout for early signs of an invasion. "Should something novel show up we expect that we would hear something on a fairly timely basis."

But what’s been particularly striking to scientists is how much and what kinds of debris are still washing ashore six years later. Natural debris like wood petered out after the first few years, since it breaks down en route. But thanks to our modern reliance on plastic, the debris keeps coming. "We have basically a huge armada of plastics, and those are the ones that have been making it along this very long trip," Thiel says.

And tsunami debris is just one tiny portion of all the plastic in Earth’s oceans, which means the same odysseys being documented here could be more regular than we realize. "We know that plastic in the ocean is not a good thing for many different reasons, and this is one of the reasons," Thiel adds.

The shift from natural debris to plastic aside, Carlton says that much of what the scientists saw wasn’t predictable. "Just when you think you've seen everything here comes something else new," he says—like a sudden rush of debris covered in sometimes hundreds of orange-spotted sea anemones that came ashore during the spring of 2016, the first time the anemone was spotted.

"The tsunami event was this obviously human tragedy, but the phenomenon that [Carlton] and others were able to document gave us insight into the way that species move around in our world," says Cathryn Clarke Murray, a marine ecologist at the North Pacific Marine Science Organization in Canada, which has been supporting Carlton’s research and other projects studying the impact of tsunami debris. "It really changed our perception of coastal ecology."

Carlton and Thiel both note that the study is particularly timely given the paths of Hurricanes Irma and Maria across Florida and the Caribbean, knocking plastic and other debris into the ocean as they go. That’s perfectly positioned to hitch a ride on the Gulf Stream and land in Europe. And if current trends continue, more and more of that debris will be long-floating plastic. "Really, it's a story about what the future could hold," Carlton says.

Read more!

Irma battered South Florida. Now at least one part of the state might be grateful

JENNY STALETOVICH Miami Herald 28 Sep 17;

Sixteen days after Hurricane Irma bulldozed a path across the Florida Keys, leaving a trail of steamy misery, roadside trash piles growing by the day, and a foot of water on his first floor, Capt. Steven Friedman stood on the bow of his boat in Florida Bay marveling at what he saw before him.

Happy, oblivious, rolling tarpon gorging on a shrimp hatch in a browning mat of dead seagrass.

Friedman grabbed a rod, made a few casts and hooked a tarpon. Then, after a few jumps and a valiant struggle, the fish delivered what seemed like solid evidence of nature’s capacity to fight back: It leaped into his boat.

Just moments before, Friedman, commodore of the Florida Keys Fishing Guide Association, had reasoned that Florida Bay would rebound if efforts to fix the Everglades stayed on track. That’s after a half hour ride from an Islamorada marina down a channel stinking like rotten eggs, across soupy brown water that’s normally gin clear and through a raft of dead turtle grass.

“I’m a fisherman, so my default makes me an eternal optimist,” he said.

In the days since Irma, scientists have worried about the storm’s toll on a bay battered by a triple whammy of damaging events in the past two years. More than 60 square miles of seagrass died in 2015, spreading a sulfuric yellow cloud. Algae blooms followed, although they never reached the magnitude of a stinky green bloom that erupted in the 1990s, crashing the bay and crippling fishing for years. But the bay is especially vulnerable now, following decades of flood control that cut off parts of it from an Everglades supply of freshwater. Restoration work remains many years from completion.

If South Florida undergoes another hot winter — 2016 stands as the hottest year on record — they worry that too much dead seagrass from Irma could overload the bay.

“My concern is as this continues to decay, this material is going to continue releasing nutrients that could cause another algae bloom,” said Everglades Foundation wetland ecologist Steve Davis, who organized the outing to examine Irma’s damage. “We just need to be vigilant.”

Just after the storm, Davis flew over Cape Sable and photographed vast mats of floating dead seagrass. But from the air, it was hard to tell exactly what kind, and where the grass might have come from. On the water this week, Davis found seagrass beds looking healthy, suggesting that they might have survived the storm’s powerful Category 4 winds, and the bay teeming with life.

In fact, there’s reason to believe both grasses and fish that evolved over eons of hurricane seasons could actually benefit from the storm.

Florida International University marine ecologist Jim Fourqurean said some scientists believe the bay suffers from too little circulation, allowing dead material to pile up. Cut off from historic overland flows, the shallow bay also tends to get too salty because water evaporates faster than rainfall or run-off can replenish it.

“So a big hurricane that causes a big displacement of water could also be good because it will freshen up the bay,” he said.

Hours before the storm, parts of Florida Bay emptied out. Fourqurean said a colleague reported seeing grass exposed just north of Key Largo, near Pelican Key, where water is normally four to five feet deep. As the storm passed, all that water came rushing back in, bringing fresher ocean water.

Hurricanes can also have a pruning effect on the grass by pulling out dead grass or loose blades, freeing up space and speeding up new growth.

After the 2015 die-off, heavy rain the following year helped stop the event from becoming as bad as scientists worried, Fourqurean said. Since then, faster-growing shoal and manatee grasses have started growing in the beds, a good sign of recovery. What’s not clear now is what will happen to those. Shoal and manatee grass have shorter roots than turtle grass, so a hurricane can uproot them more easily.

And where the dead grass ends up matters.

“If it’s scraped from hundreds of square miles and dumped in one place, that very well could cause problems in that place that received all that grass, so we’ll need to keep an eye on that,” he said.

In the coming days, he and other scientists will be taking a closer look at seagrass beds that since Hurricane Andrew have been more closely monitored.

Fish, including the young tarpon Friedman hooked and a nearby pod of bottlenose dolphins feasting around the grass, also have reason to thank Irma. When the storm churns up so much material, it releases nutrients that provide food for the smaller inhabitants of the food chain, like spawning shrimp. So that rotten egg smell? That’s a good sign too, if it doesn’t stick around for too long, drawing shrimp, crab and pinfish that lure bonefish, permit and tarpon — the backbone of a Keys sportfishing industry valued at about $722 million a year.

Mature tarpon, which spawn offshore this time of year, will “stay on the high side of a storm,” said Jerry Ault, a fisheries biologist at the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science. When a storm hits, young tarpon larvae can get washed over mud banks and into out-of-reach basins.

“It provides habitat they wouldn’t normally have access to and food,” he said. “They’re the kingpin feeding on it.”

And while it’s not good news for guides, a storm also dampens recreational fishing, easing the pressure on fish. Fish patterns can also change, making it harder to find them, said Audubon Florida research manager Pete Frezza, who’s also a fishing guide.

“That’s going to benefit people who spend a lot of time on the water — guides — rather than regular anglers,” he said.

So far, it also looks like nesting islands for wading birds, including Sandy, Tern and Frank keys, which had been stripped by Hurricane Wilma in 2005, did fine during Irma, Frezza said.

“The birds are very well adapted to hunker down in the mangroves,” he said.

There’s another potential boon. Near Rabbit Key, Friedman and Davis found a “rogue tree:” a clump of red mangrove ripped free by the storm and floating on a boat-sized ball of buoyant peat. The week before, Frezza also encountered two other rogues. If they’re lucky, the trees will wash onto a flat, take root and survive to become new homes to birds and fish.

“We got hit with a sucker punch, but we’re at the ready,” Friedman said. “We know we can find fish. We just have to find beds.”

Read more!