Since the fields at the marine lab flooded, birds have been gathering in the vernal pools. It's frog-hunting season for the herons and egrets! This morning there was a group of about a dozen egrets were stalking prey in the area near the old road, and I finally had my camera with me to take photos and it wasn't raining horizontally.
For anyone interested in such things, I took these photos with a Sigma 150-600mm lens on my Nikon D780 DSLR body shooting mostly in the 200-400mm range.
No great blue herons today. Another storm is blowing in now, and the birds will take shelter until the wind and rain are less violent. Forecasters predict that today's storm will be stronger than the one that tore up the coast a couple of days ago. Fingers crossed we keep power!
Yesterday and last night California was hit by an atmospheric river bringing lots of rain and the flooding that comes along with it. Combined with a spring high tide, the storm surge gave us tremendous swells and surges along the shores of Monterey Bay. At this moment it isn't raining and the sky is lifting, so we are getting a brief break to dry out before the next storm comes through on Saturday. The National Weather Service's small craft advisory continues through tomorrow night. The NWS forecasts continued swells of 24-26 feet, with a period of 18 seconds, for the rest of today and tonight.
I wasn't the only person to brave the rain and see what was going on at Terrace Point. Several of the other marine lab folks were out there, and the common theme was "This is the biggest swell I've ever seen here!" I was grateful for my new boots and rain pants.
All of this action, combined with a high tide of +5.7 feet made for some cliff-bashing waves. When the big waves hit the cliffs, I could see large swaths of soil and ice plant falling away. Coastal erosion was happening in real time.
Here's a 1-2 sequence of a wave smashing against the little platform where we sometimes collect water samples. I like how the gull just rises above the most violent part of the splash.
To get a real sense of the energy in these waves, you need video.
This is the view from Terrace Point, almost right above that little platform, then looking down the coast towards Natural Bridges State Beach.
Given that I've been keeping a watchful eye on Younger Lagoon for the past week or so, to monitor the behavior of the sand bar, my ultimate goal for the morning was to see what was happening there behind the gate. Turns out that much had changed in the past 24 hours or so!
Yesterday, the mouth of the lagoon looked like this:
This is typical Younger Lagoon after it breaches the sand bar. Water is mostly flowing out, with the occasional splash of ocean trickling in. Note how extensive the beach sand berm is.
And here it was today, taken from the same location:
It wasn't just a matter of breaching the sand bar. About half of the beach has been carved away. The ocean was pushing so far upstream that sea foam was deposited along the uppermost shores of the lagoon. All the white stuff that looks like sand? It's sea foam.
But the truly impressive action was at the mouth of the lagoon. Given the rain there must have been some fresh water draining out of the lagoon, but the vast majority of the water moving back and forth was sea water. For the time being, Younger Lagoon was merely another branch of the Pacific Ocean, rather than a body of water in its own right.
Watch this video to see the effects of the combined swell and high tide on the mouth of the lagoon. The second half shows the swell pushing up into the lagoon, all the way up to and beyond the overlook.
I had never seen anything like this before. A week ago I was wondering how quickly the regular sand bar would re-form. Now I'm going to see how long it takes to rebuild that entire beach!
That water had once again accumulated in the lagoon was evidence that the sand bar had re-formed and prevented water from draining to the sea. Well, that makes one hypothesis that I could easily test!
So I took the short hike out to the beach to see what was going on there. And what I saw was a return to normal conditions at Younger Lagoon. The sand bar had indeed re-formed and the lagoon and ocean were separate bodies of water.
We're getting a little rain today (Monday), and should see a break between storms tomorrow. On Wednesday and Thursday we're going to see a lot of rain, producing floods and a lot of runoff. Younger Lagoon will undoubtedly breach again before the end of the week!
California is currently being slammed by another atmospheric river. A series of storms is blowing through, bringing lots of rain, which we always need. The National Weather Service has issued a flood warning and a high wind advisory here, lasting through tomorrow evening (New Year's Eve). It is indeed blustery, and although the rainfall hasn't been very heavy, our weather station has recorded 2 inches of rain as of 14:30 this afternoon. Slow, steady rain like this is what we need to make a dent in the state's ongoing water deficit while (hopefully) not causing catastrophic flooding and landslides.
When we have had heavy rains for several days, I always look for Younger Lagoon to breach the sand bar and open out into the ocean. So over the past couple of weeks I went out after every rain just to see, and to watch the birds. Nada. But I always like watching birds, so it was hardly time wasted.
This morning I was at the lab doing stuff when Traci, who manages the marine mammal physiology group, found me and told me that the lagoon had breached, some time in the night. Cool! I had an appointment to get to, but had just enough time to rush down there and snap some photos. And I'm really glad I did, because I had never seen Younger Lagoon like this.
I've seen breaches before, but those were always fairly soon after the breakthrough, and there was a lot of water pouring out into the ocean. This morning it was very different. The lagoon had drained completely, and since there wasn't much water running into it, the entire bottom was exposed.
This is what it looked like from near the overlook.
That reflective surface isn't water. It's the bottom of the lagoon. The bottom sediment is a shiny black, and probably smelled really bad right after the actual breach. I thought I noticed a little sulfur in the air when I came in this morning. Having seen what the top of the lagoon was like, I rushed down to the ocean end to see what was going on there.
The sand bar had been completely obliterated, leaving a sand cliff about my height. With nothing to hinder flow, was moving in both directions—every other wave or so flooding into the lagoon, and a steady light flow of fresh water draining from the lagoon.
Here's a video, to give you a little taste of what it was like out there.
I had never seen the bottom of the lagoon before, and wondered what it was like for the birds when the breach happened. In the past week or so I'd seen a variety of water fowl, with the occasional shorebird thrown in for extra flavor. Today there were none, even on land, where the Canada geese and mallards hang out. Granted, the wind was blowing, and birds are sensible enough to find shelter.
We're getting more rain over the next few days, with a break in the action on Tuesday. I don't think the sand bar will re-form for a while yet. Should be fun to keep an eye on things!
Yesterday I had the great fortune to visit a new intertidal site. It can be accessed only by crossing private property. The property owner is my next-door neighbor, and he said I can visit any time. As I said, lucky me! The site is a little north of Pigeon Point, and at first glance the terrain is not very different from Pigeon. But I could tell that it a site that is rarely, if ever, visited by humans. It just had that look of being mostly undisturbed. Yesterday's marine layer was low, making for dark skies and pretty lousy light for picture-taking, so I had to try something new.
This site has a lot of lovely pools and channels to explore, and at this time of year the water is very clear, which does make for good picture-taking. Halosaccion glandiforme, one of the charismatic red algae, is more abundant here than at other sites, and in the pools it grows quite a bit taller than it does on the rocks.
Here's what it looks like on the tops of the rocks. This is a cluster of young thalli. The tallest of these "bladders" is about 4 cm tall. Note that they are about 2/3 full of water, with a large air space at the top.
The really cool thing is what happened when I stuck the camera in the water and took a shot. I got something like this:
I got a little carried away. But don't things look interesting from the turban snail's perspective?
I'm kind of enraptured by these towers of algae.
But the best part of these experiments was the reflections on the surface of the water. Check it out.
And this is the money shot! I just love how this turned out.
This was a super fun morning. I'm looking forward to visiting this site again, when the light is better. When the daylight low tides return in a few months they will be in the afternoon. I anticipate some fantastic light shows in these pools and channels. I'll be teaching most afternoons by then, but will get out as often as I can.
Some organisms, like some people, have a charisma that just can't be explained. For me, the sea palm (Postelsia palmiformis) has always been one such organism. Maybe part of its charm is the fact that it's not very common; it lives on rocky outcrops on exposed outer coasts, which aren't the easiest places to get to.
See? That's a clump of Postelsia way out there in the center of the photo.
The tide was pretty good (-0.9 feet) so I figured it was worth working my way out there. I had a wishlist of critters to collect, but they would be pretty easy to find, and I had time to spend in the low intertidal. The algae are still going strong, although I did see some signs of senescence in some of the reds. The Postelsia, on the other hand, were in great shape.
Despite its beautiful olive-green colors, Postelsia is a brown alga in the phylum Ochrophyta. It is in the same order (Laminariales) as the large canopy-forming kelps Macrocystis pyrifera and Nereocystis luetkeana. However, Postelsia gets to be only about a half-meter tall. It has a thick, flexible stipe and a cluster of thin blades at the top of the stop, which give it the palm tree appearance. Postelsia's hapterous holdfast does what it says on the label—it hangs on tightly to the rock. In fact, the rock often fails before the holdfast does, and when Postelsia washes up onto the beach it often has bits of rock (or mussel or whatever) still in the grip of the holdfast.
And it turns out that Postelsia is one of the many photogenic seaweeds. This morning it was doing the '80s hair band thing. Especially when photographed from the vantage of a front-row groupie.
So that's the organism that captured and held my attention this morning. The algae don't get nearly the appreciation they deserve, even among fans of the rocky intertidal. Maybe shining a light on them once in a while is something I can do to fix that.
Dedication: For Krinkle, because I think he'd appreciate the juxtaposition
This is one of my favorite quotations from literature:
And it is a strange thing that most of the feeling we call religious, most of the mystical outcrying which is one of the most prized and used and desired reactions of our species, is really the understanding and the attempt to say that man is related to the whole thing, related inextricably to all reality, known and unknowable. This is a simple thing to say, but the profound feeling of it made a Jesus, a St. Augustine, a St. Francis, a Roger Bacon, a Charles Darwin, and an Einstein. Each of them in his own tempo and with his own voice discovered and reaffirmed with astonishment the knowledge that all things are one thing and that one thing is all things—plankton, a shimmering phosphorescence on the sea and the spinning planets and an expanding universe, all bound together by the elastic string of time. It is advisable to look from the tide pool to the stars and back to the tide pool again.
—J. Steinbeck and E.F. Ricketts, Log from the Sea of Cortez
These words are never far from my thoughts when I contemplate the nature of life on planet Earth. And with this week's release of the first images from the James Webb telescope, they rocketed back into my brain with full force.
To my eye, the most striking of these first images from James Webb is this one, of the Carina Nebula. It is just breathtaking.
When I started poking around NASA's website I kept finding images that reminded me of my tide pool photos. So I want to share a few comparisons.
NASA also released this photo of Stephan's Quintet, a group of five galaxies found in the constellation Pegasus. Only four of the five galaxies are visible in this image.
Those swirling white masses are vast sweeps of dust and gas. But to my mind they resemble spawning male marine invertebrates, of which I have seen more than any normal person. See what I mean?
Given all the justified hype over the images taken by James Webb, it's sort of easy to forget about the Hubble Space Telescope. But Hubble has been taking spectacular images for years, giving humanity some of our first and best images of the universe far from home.
In the archived data from the Hubble Space Telescope, I found several eye-catching photos. This one, of Abell 370, reminded me of plankton. Abell 370 is another cluster of galaxies. It contains hundreds of galaxies held in a group by their mutual gravitational pulls. I love all the shapes of these galaxies, which do indeed look like plankters!
Here's a plankton sample in a bowl:
And doesn't this radiolarian look like it belongs in Abell 370?
In 2021 the Hubble Space Telescope took a photograph of the Prawn Nebula. As with most of images of amorphous things in space, I can't explain why the Prawn Nebula has that name. Most of the light it emits is in wavelengths that we cannot see, so the Prawn Nebula is essentially invisible to the naked eye. This image from Hubble was taken in infrared light, and is beautifully colorful.
The colors in this nursery for baby stars reminds me of the ones I see in some of our iridescent algae in the intertidal here on Earth.
Hubble photographed this area of space, where new stars are being born, back in 2015. This region, designated NGC 2174, is in the constellation Orion.
At the peak of the summer growing season the sea lettuces (Ulva spp.) look similar.
In 2016, NASA's Juno mission arrived at its target, the largest planet in our solar system. The vehicle carries a camera called the JunoCam, which sends data back to Earth. NASA collects the raw images and makes them available to the public for free, to be processed and edited. The public is thus making an ongoing contribution to science. The JunoCam is still operational. NASA also invites amateur astronomers to add their own photos of Jupiter, taken from personal telescopes, to the database of images.
Anyway, here's a photo of Jupiter, taken by JunoCam and processed by Brian Swift:
All of these lovely swirls brought to mind the patterns I sometimes see on the surface of a tide pool.
And now, having spent several hours marveling at the beauty of the stars as captured by the Hubble and James Webb telescopes, I take Steinbeck's and Ricketts' advice and return to my tide pool image library, where I see other swirling patterns that I did not find in any of the space photos. But I hope that they will be found out there, some day.
By all means, look up at the stars and marvel at the vastness of the universe. But don't forget to also look down at where your feet are and marvel at the intricacy and exquisite beauty of what we can experience with our human senses.
On our last afternoon at the Schoodic Institute we were dealing with laundry for our upcoming several days touring in New England. On the way back from the laundry room we came across this little creature waddling towards us. It was a porcupine! It kept coming towards us, even as we were backing away. Clearly it had some place to be.
I don't know whether or not porcupines are always this nonchalant around humans. This one crossed the road in front of us and headed off into the woods. And look, it's plantigrade!
And then it nibbled on a few leaves and climbed a tree! Note how it uses the tail as a brace, the way woodpeckers do when they're hopping up and down trees.
We had to meet up with the rest of the Earthwatchers for a celebration event in the classroom and didn't get to keep watching this porcupine. However, on our way to the dining hall for dinner, we saw the same animal, on the ground again. And this time she was accompanied by a baby! It was getting dark by then and I didn't want to bother either mama or baby, so didn't take any additional photos or video.
We never did see any moose in New England, despite all the road signs promising "Moose X-ing next <insert positive integer> miles", but seeing a porcupine was pretty dang cool. What a terrific send-off from the Schoodic Institute wildlife!
One of the reasons I selected this particular Earthwatch expedition was that it involved studies of both forest and ocean, which are my two favorite ecosystems here at home. I wanted to compare what I'm familiar with to similar habitats on the opposite coast. Regarding the rocky intertidal, I had been warned not to expect the spectacular biodiversity I'm used to on the Pacific coast, and that warning turned out to be quite a propos.
Along the California coast the rocky intertidal is an explosion of colors and textures, especially during the growing season. See this at Pigeon Point:
and this at Asilomar:
And this is what you see when you walk—or in the case at Pigeon Point, climb down—to the site. It just is this varied, with several algae that are easily recognizable as being different even if you don't know what their scientific names are.
Contrast that with the rocky intertidal at Frazer Point on the Schoodic Peninsula:
All of the algae covering these rocks are rockweeds, and most of it is Ascophyllum nodosum. One of the projects we worked on was a study measuring the biomass of Ascophyllum on the coast of the Schoodic Peninsula. To do so we sampled along 30-meter transects in the intertidal, counting the number of Ascophyllum thalli in half-meter quadrats, looking for other algae and some key invertebrates, and weighing the Ascophyllum. This last part was new to me, and a lot of fun. It involved dividing the masses of Ascophyllum into as many as three bundles, wrapping it all up in a net like a burrito, and weighing the burrito using a hand-held metric scale.
Clearly, Ascophyllum nodosum makes up the vast majority of biomass along this coastline. There are some other rockweeds in the genus Fucus, a bit of sea lettuce (Ulva sp.), and that's about it. But the lack of diversity doesn't mean the intertidal doesn't have its own sort of spartan beauty. The lead for this project, Maya, described Ascophyllum as having a Van Gogh effect in the landscape. It didn't take long to see what she meant. Check it out:
There are, of course, many types of beauty in the natural world. What I saw in the intertidal at Acadia wasn't at all like what I'm used to seeing on the Pacific coast, but I wouldn't say it is any less beautiful. The variation in color between new growth and the older parts of the Ascophyllum thalli makes for gorgeous patterns as the thalli drape over cobbles.
Besides, any morning in the intertidal is a good morning! I certainly wasn't going to complain.
This summer we finally got to take a trip that had originally been scheduled for 2020. It was an Earthwatch expedition to Acadia National Park in Maine. It was also the first time I'd traveled outside the Pacific time zone, flown, and taken public transit since the COVID-19 pandemic began. All of those were stressful. I get that people are "over" the pandemic and tired of taking precautions, but seriously? During our travels before and after the expedition we saw very few other people wearing masks, despite being packed into subway cars, stations, and restaurants. We avoided indoor attractions and spent our time walking around outside.
This particular Earthwatch expedition is all about climate change. During the week we participated in three different, but related, research projects in the park, mostly on the Schoodic Peninsula. The first was called Refugia. At first I couldn't tell if that was a place name, a project title, or something else. Turns out that it refers to the actual project. The target of this project is a plant called black crowberry, Empetrum nigrum. Black crowberry is a low-growing tundra plant, living near its southern limit at Acadia. This is possible because the Schoodic Peninsula juts down into the Gulf of Maine, a region where cold water from the Arctic—specifically, the Labrador Current—meets warm water from the Gulf Stream. Thus, the Schoodic Peninsula may be indeed be a climate refuge for E. nigrum.
The Gulf of Maine, however, seems to be warming more quickly than other ocean regions, possibly due to northward extensions of the Gulf Stream1. As a result, plants such as E. nigrum may be a bellwether for how the ecology of Acadia will be affected by climate change.
The Refugia study examines abundance of E. nigrum along the coast of Acadia, as well as phenology of flowering and fruiting. Our Earthwatch group sampled at Schoodic Point and Little Moose Island, which is an actual island only at high tide. We were in Acadia during the mid-June spring tide series, which is always one of the most extreme of the year, so Little Moose Island was easily accessible for several hours.
The study itself involved setting up two perpendicular transects and collecting several sets of data:
Geographic data—GPS location and direction
Photos for iNaturalist
Presence/absence of E. nigrum at 10 cm intervals
Presence/absence of flowers and fruits
Visual estimation of the percent of E. nigrum that is alive vs. dead
We worked in teams of four, with each pair setting up and evaluating one of the transects.
Here's how E. nigrum appears in its natural habitat:
The crowberry is the red-and-green plant growing low among the rocks. Like all tundra plants, E. nigrum grows low to the ground and doesn't get more than about 15 cm tall. We were told that the red bits were the parts that died back over the winter, and the green was the new spring growth.
Here's a close-up look at the carpet of crowberry:
We found E. nigrum mostly in open areas, but also occasionally in the spruce forest where there is much less light at ground level. It seemed not to require much soil, and was often found tucked between rocks on the coast above the high tide line.
Black crowberry fruits are small berries, green when unripe and ripening to a blackish purple. The fruits we saw, ripe and unripe, ranged in size from 2 to 8 mm. We were told that they were unpalatable even when ripe.
The protocol had us setting up a 5-meter transect parallel to the coast, where we saw a patch of E. nigrum, and then a second 5-meter transect perpendicular to the first at its midpoint. The result is a big plus sign draped over or through whatever terrain happened to be there. We had to do quite a bit of climbing up and down rocks and pushing through bushes. If this were in California we'd have to worry about poison oak. Fortunately, they don't have poison oak in Maine, and there was no poison ivy at any of our study sites.
To give you an idea of crowberry habitat, here's some wider context:
The last part of the protocol was to estimate the percent of E. nigrum that was alive, in a 1-meter belt that straddles each of the transect lines. This is one of those qualitative evaluations that at first would seem to be all over the place, depending on the observer. However, the study takes into account any variation resulting from data collectors' individual estimates by pooling the percentages into bins. So instead of having to agree that 22% of the crowberry in a certain belt transect is alive, we only had to agree on a bin of, say, 20-30%. To give you an example, here's a photo of a patch of crowberry:
What percentage of this crowberry is alive, in your estimation?
I should mention that we had this glorious sunny weather on only one day that we worked on the Refugia project. The first day it was raining, which was fine because we all had brought rain gear with us. But the rain made it difficult to work with the tablets on which we were recording data. The wet screens didn't want to register our finger taps, but would instead register rain drops as touches. That was incredibly frustrating. We persisted and managed.
Over the summer several other groups of Earthwatch volunteers will collect additional data for the project. I think we set a pretty high standard for the sheer number of transect pairs we completed. I liked working on this project because I got to learn about the ecology of a plant that had been entirely unknown to me. That's always fun!
1Seidov, Dan, et al. 2021. "Recent warming and decadal variability of Gulf of Maine and Slope Water." Limnology and Oceanography Vol. 66: 3472-3488.