Growing algae bloom in Arabian Sea tied to climate change

In this Mar. 3, 2017 photo, green algae swirls on the beach of Bandar Al-Jissah in Oman. The Gulf of Oman turns green twice a year, when an algae bloom the size of Mexico spreads across the Arabian Sea all the way to India. (AP)
Updated 16 March 2017
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Growing algae bloom in Arabian Sea tied to climate change

OMAN: The Gulf of Oman turns green twice a year, when an algae bloom the size of Mexico spreads across the Arabian Sea all the way to India.
Scientists who study the algae say the microscopic organisms are thriving in new conditions brought about by climate change, and displacing the zooplankton that underpin the local food chain, threatening the entire marine ecosystem.
Khalid Al-Hashmi, a marine biologist at the Sultan Qaboos University in Oman, wrinkles his nose as the research vessel nears the bloom. “Sea stench,” he says, referring to the algae’s ammonia secretions. “It’s here, you can smell it.”
He signals the boat to stop as it speeds beneath a gigantic rock arch off the coast of Muscat, the capital of Oman, an arid sultanate on the southeastern corner of the Arabian Peninsula. The captain kills the engine and drops anchor into a slick of bright green muck surrounded by crystal-clear blue water.
The swarms of microscopic creatures beneath the surface of the Gulf of Oman were all but invisible 30 years ago — now they form giant, murky shapes that can be seen from satellites.
Across the planet, blooms have wrecked local ecosystems. Algae can paralyze fish, clog their gills, and absorb enough oxygen to suffocate them. Whales, turtles, dolphins and manatees have died, poisoned by algal toxins, in the Atlantic and Pacific. These toxins have infiltrated whole marine food chains and have, in rare cases, killed people, according to the UN science agency.
In the Great Lakes of North America, Thailand and the Seychelles, the algae bloom green. In Florida they are red, in the North Atlantic they are chalky white, and in Puget Sound they are orange. The Irish call it the “sea ghost,” and the Taiwanese refer to the blooms as “blue tears.”
NASA uses satellites and floating robots to monitor the blooms, said Paula Bontempi, the manager for ocean carbon and biology projects at the US space agency. “It’s like a Van Gogh painting,” she said, referring to satellite images of swirls of chlorophyll spiraling across the world’s oceans. “Absolutely beautiful.”
It’s less attractive up close, where it can be “almost guacamole-like” in some lakes. “It smells bad, it looks bad,” she said.
The satellite technology has enabled scientists to link the algae to higher levels of air and water pollution in recent decades, but Bontempi said questions remain. “We know that our Earth is changing,” she said. “It may be in a direction we might not like.”
Scientists based at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University trace Oman’s blooms to melting ice in the Himalayas. Less ice has raised temperatures in South Asia and strengthened the Indian Ocean’s southwest monsoon. As this weather front moves across the Arabian Sea every year, it churned up oxygen-poor water thick with nutrients that have fueled the rise of a 1.2-billion-year old algae called noctiluca scintillans.
For the past 15 years, observatory biogeochemist Joaquim Goes, Al-Hashmi and biological oceanographer Helga do Rosario Gomes have tracked blooms in the Arabian Sea using boats, satellites and remote sensors.
Goes said the blooms have caused a “short-circuiting of the food chain,” endangering other marine life.
“Normally these things happen slowly, usually we talk about tens of hundreds of years. Here it’s happening overnight,” he said. “The transformation is happening before our eyes.”
The algae blooms pose a number of threats to Oman, whose fishing and trading ships have plied these waters for centuries.
Thick blooms reduce visibility, making it difficult for divers to repair undersea gas infrastructure. It can also clog the intake pipes of the desalinization plants that produce up to 90 percent of the country’s fresh water.
Fishermen call Oman’s marine research center when they spot blooms.
Marine ecologist Ahmad Al-Alawi adds these reports to four decades of observations before comparing them with satellite images of the swirling chlorophyll. He says the blooms are growing bigger and lasting longer, displacing the zooplankton at the bottom of the local food chain.
The algae has attracted more whale sharks — a major draw for divers — but many tourists have canceled their trips at the sight of the green, murky waves, said Ollie Clarke, a dive instructor at the Bandar Al-Rowdah marina near Muscat.
It also poses a threat to the country’s fisheries. An outbreak of a different kind of algae in 2008 led to the beaching of 50 tons of oxygen-starved fish, which rotted up and down the coast, Al-Alawi said.
The researchers have found cause for both despair and hope by studying a live noctiluca culture in their lab: The blooms will likely spread as the Indian Ocean continues to absorb greenhouse gas emissions, but could be contained if they are sprayed with fresh water. Goes and Gomes hope to develop an early-warning system for Oman modeled on one operated by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Florida
But Saleh Al-Mashari, who learned to sail and fish as a boy in the small coastal village where he still lives, and who now captains a researcher vessel, said the damage is already done.
“The fish are migrating,” he said. “They can’t get enough air here.”


UN envoy due in Yemen as strains escalate with Houthi missile launch

Updated 21 min 26 sec ago
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UN envoy due in Yemen as strains escalate with Houthi missile launch

RIYADH/ADEN: The Iran-aligned Houthi movement fired missiles at the Saudi capital Riyadh late on Sunday, escalating tensions ahead of a visit by the UN envoy to Yemen this week to try to avert a military assault on the country’s main port city.
A Houthi spokesman has threatened more attacks in response to the offensive launched by a Saudi-led coalition on June 12 to seize control of Hodeidah port, long a key target, in an attempt to weaken the Houthis by cutting their main supply line.
The United Nations fears that an assault on the Red Sea port, a lifeline for millions of Yemenis, could trigger a famine imperilling millions of lives.
UN envoy Martin Griffiths is due in the southern city of Aden on Wednesday for talks with ousted President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi in the legitimate government’s temporary capital, government officials said.
One official said Griffiths would be there only for a few hours for talks focused on averting an assault on the port.
“There is a proposal on the table,” the foreign minister of Hadi’s government, Khaled Al-Yamani, told reporters in Riyadh.
“We would accept a peace initiative on the condition that militias leave the western coast,” he said at a joint press conference to announce a $40 million project launched by Saudi Arabia for de-mining operations in Yemen.
The Houthis have indicated they would be willing to hand over management of the port to the United Nations, sources told Reuters. A US official said Washington was urging the Saudis and Emiratis to accept the deal.
The coalition said on Monday that eight members of Lebanon’s Hezbollah group had been killed in battles in the mountainous Saada region in Yemen’s northwest, which is held by the Houthis along with the capital Sanaa.
Hezbollah officials could not be immediately reached for comment, but the group has previously denied Saudi accusations that it is helping Houthi rebels.
MISSILES OVER RIYADH
Saudi air defense forces intercepted two rockets over Riyadh late on Sunday, sending debris measuring up to several meters hurtling toward residential areas.
Pieces fell near the US mission in the Saudi capital and at a school in the diplomatic quarter. Debris sparked a fire at a construction site 10 km (six miles) further south and fell on the roof of a private residence, but Saudi officials said there were no casualties.
“Our rockets will reach places that the enemy will not expect,” Houthi spokesman Mohammed Abdul-Salam said. “The longer the aggression and war continue, the greater our ballistic missile capabilities.”
Coalition spokesman Turki Al-Malki said the alliance’s advances on Hodeidah and other fronts were pushing the Houthis to try to project strength through such attacks.
Coalition-backed forces seized Hodeidah airport last week and have been consolidating their hold in the area as more Houthi fighters, many armed with Ak-47 assault rifles, were deployed in the city and around the port.
The United Nations fears heavy fighting will worsen what is already the world’s most urgent humanitarian crisis, with 22 million Yemenis dependent on aid and an estimated 8.4 million believed to be on the verge of starvation.
The Arab states say they must recapture Hodeidah to deprive the Houthis of their main source of income and prevent them from smuggling in Iranian-made missiles, accusations denied by the group and Tehran.
The coalition has pledged a swift military operation to take over the airport and seaport without entering the city center, to minimize civilian casualties and maintain the flow of goods.