Our regular Science and the SeaTM radio program presents marine science topics in an engaging two-minute story format. Our script writers gather ideas for the radio program from the University of Texas Marine Science Institute's researchers and from our very popular college class, Introduction to Oceanography, which we teach to hundreds of non-science majors at The University of Texas at Austin every year. Our radio programs are distributed at to commercial and public radio stations across the country.
Beaches are among the most ephemeral natural features on the planet. They’re built by wind and waves, which push grains of sand ashore — a process that can go on for thousands of years. But beaches can disappear quickly — in years, days, or even hours. The everyday action of wind and waves and rain can erode them gradually, while big storms can erase them overnight — bulldozing them back into the sea.
When the Exxon Valdez ran into a reef off the coast of Alaska more than a quarter of a century ago, it created an environmental catastrophe. The tanker released 40,000 tons of crude oil into the water, killing fish, mammals, and a quarter of a million birds.
Yet much more oil enters the oceans every year through daily human activities. Oil from leaking car engines, pipelines, and industrial facilities washes into rivers and streams, which flow to the coast. Small boats leak directly into the water. So do coastal refineries and off-shore drilling platforms.
A rose by any other name may smell as sweet, but it’s certain that a hurricane by any other name can be just as deadly. That’s because the names we call big tropical storm systems are all describing the same thing — a spinning pattern of clouds with strong winds, heavy rains, and deadly storm surges.
In the western hemisphere, once a system’s winds reach 39 miles per hour, we call it a tropical storm and give it a formal name. And when the winds hit 74 miles per hour, we call it a hurricane — from the name of an unpleasant Caribbean god.
Screeching, prancing, soaring seabirds are a standard feature of just about any day at the beach. Gulls, terns, pelicans, oystercatchers, and many others are common sights on American shorelines. But a recent study says that these birds are becoming a less-common sight around the world.
If you ever decide to walk America’s coastline, you better make sure someone’s taking care of your dog — it’s going to take a while. According to NOAA — the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration — the ocean coastline stretches for 88,633 miles.
Actually, NOAA has two measurements for the coastline. The other yields a length of just 12,383 miles. And both measurements are a bit arbitrary. That’s because there’s no internationally recognized definition of what a coastline really is.
The whale shark spends some of its day cruising through the warm water near the ocean surface. When it’s time to eat, though, it sometimes heads for the fridge — depths of a quarter of a mile or greater, where the water is much colder. That isn’t much of a problem because the shark is a gigantotherm — an organism that relies on its great size and a special anatomy to keep it warm.
When a wave breaks gently on the shore, it may be completing a journey of many days and hundreds or thousands of miles. Yet the water that comes ashore has journeyed no more than a few feet and a few seconds. That’s because a wave transmits only energy, not water.
To visualize how that works, think about two people holding opposite ends of a long rope. One person snaps her end of the rope, creating a wave. The wave moves along the full length of the rope, perhaps jiggling the hand of the person on the other end. But when the wave is through, the rope is right where it started.
It may sound a bit obvious, but some recent research says that one way to stop a fishery from collapsing is to quit fishing there for a while. What’s not so obvious, though, is that doing so would have little impact on the overall catch.
The researchers looked at groups of forage fish — small fish like sardines, anchovies, and herring. These species are important to the fishing industry, but they’re also key links in the ocean food chain. They’re a major food source for larger fish, whales, birds, and other creatures.
The oceans are full of surprises. Listen to this description, for example, and see if you can guess what type of fish it is. An adult is about three feet long, fairly shy, and not a very good swimmer. It has a wide mouth full of small teeth, but it lies in ambush and waits for food to swim right on in. And when it’s in trouble, it puffs up like a balloon.
Got it? The answer, of course, is a shark — a swell shark. It’s found in coastal Pacific waters from central California to southern Mexico, and perhaps off Chile as well.