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Gulf of Maine Times

Vol. 5, No. 2


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Gulf Log

International conference to explore climate change and next ice age

Climatologists from around the globe will meet in Halifax, Nova Scotia, August 19 to 24, to assess human and other activities on the Earth’s cycles of ice ages and warm stages. The meeting will come only weeks before the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, an international research institute on global warming, releases its final report on climate change. Its most recent report says southeastern Canada and northeastern U.S. can expect rising oceans and intense storms in years to come.

In addition to measuring the atmospheric affects resulting from the release of carbon dioxide and other gases from the combustion of fossil fuels, the Halifax conference will look at a range of other factors that contribute to climate change.

“We’ll be bringing out all of the things that are operating on scales of a few decades up to tens of thousands of years,” says Dr. Glen Lesins, of the Atmospheric Science Program at Dalhousie University and one of the conference’s organizers. Topics will range from climate change in the Arctic and the variability and impact of ocean currents and solar output on climate, to the predictions for the coming ice age, which is estimated at anywhere from 10,000 to 100,000 years away. Lesins says while the impact of fossils fuels on the Earth’s climate is a crucial topic, the conference will also look at other possibly significant contributors.

“For the Maritimes and New England, for example, it’s important to consider what happens to the Labrador Current, and how cold the water will be off the coast. That can affect our local climate much more, perhaps, than some of the global factors that are being considered.” Lesins says he hopes the sessions will generate lively discussions about the science of climate change, adding that conference organizers have no political agenda. “We want to expose all the contributing view points and have a debate about the relative magnitude of these factors and see what we can come up with.” (For more details see Calendar )

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Restoration experts compare notes in Maine

More than 70 experts gathered this past April to develop a framework for a habitat restoration plan for the Gulf of Maine. Sponsored by the Gulf of Maine Council on the Marine Environment, the workshop took place at the Wells National Estuarine Research Reserve in Maine and included representatives from federal and state government and nonprofit agencies, community volunteers and private consultants. The goal of the two-day session, said John Catena of NOAA Fisheries’ Community Restoration Center and co-chairman of the workshop steering committee, was to generate momentum for developing a regional plan to stimulate the rate and scope of restoration in the region.

Bird box in Paines Marsh, MA. Photo: Andi Rierden

“A plan for the Gulf of Maine will allow us to get the biggest bang for our restoration buck because it will identify regional priorities and help us focus our limited funding and technical assistance resources on the highest priority projects,” he said.

Participants explored four areas of coastal restoration: subtidal, tidal, riverine and beaches, dunes and islands. Among the topics of discussion: deter-mining priorities and setting criteria for selecting a restoration project, research and monitoring needs and funding sources.

The opportunity to network with people that share a common goal became one of the biggest benefits of the workshop, said Kim Hughes of the New Brunswick Department of Environment & Local Government and co-chairman of the workshop’s steering committee. “By becoming aware of all the differ-ent projects in the region we were able to share lessons and information that need to be learned, so we can return home and apply them to our own projects. And that’s a big boon to everyone.”

To receive a copy of the workshop report contact Laura Marron at (603) 271-8866 or e-mail her at,

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The Perfect Storm revisited

Ten years after the hurricane that came to be known as “The Perfect Storm” battered the East Coast with winds of up to 78 mph, a panel of meteorologists gathered at the New England Aquarium to discuss whether global climate changes could increase the frequency and severi-ty of such coastal storms.

The Perfect Storm was a hybrid storm–the melding of a nor’easter and a tropical storm–that formed when a cold front from the continental U.S. converged with a low-pressure system over Atlantic Canada and Hurricane Grace. “It was one of the most spectacular interactions I’ve ever seen,” said Kerry Emanuel, professor of atmospheric science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Although Grace petered out, a powerful, new hurricane developed. The “driving force” of the storm was a northerly blocking ridge of high pressure that produced extreme winds and generated enormous waves, said Peter Leavitt, president of Weather Information, Inc. and founder of WSI Corporation.

Joseph D’Aleo, chief meteorologist at, predicts that this storm pattern may be more prevalent in upcoming years because of variations in ocean currents that are linked with atmospheric patterns.

During The Perfect Storm, the North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO), the dominant pat-tern of atmospheric circulation variability, was in a negative phase. During this phase, atmospheric pressures reverse from the “Iceland low” and “Azores high” of positive NAO years. Tropical water temperatures tend to be warmer in negative NAO phases.

If the Atlantic is entering a cycle of more negative NAOs and there is an increase–as some scientists forecast–in cooler La Nina years in the Pacific, which tend to produce more tropical storms, D’Aleo believes that more hurricanes could hit the East Coast. Since hurricanes are born out of warm water, panelists also discussed whether the greenhouse effect would play a part in producing more storms. If surface temperatures rise, there may be more intense storms, but not necessarily more frequent storms, Emanuel said.

You can find more information on the North Atlantic Oscillation and climate change at:

– Maureen Kelly

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A “kit” to screen mercury in fish

Scientists at the Scripps Research Institute in California have developed a simple way to test for mercury contamination in fish, according to an article titled “Practical Screening of Mercury Contamination in Fish Tissue,” in the April 2001 issue of Bioorganic & Medicinal Chemistry.

Atlantic Puffin, Machias Seal Island Photo: Max Finkelstein, Gulf of Maine Times archives.

Kim D. Janda, one of the authors, said the test can be used by fishermen and environmentalists, and in homes when preparing meals. "It's fast and very inexpensive," he said. “You could buy your fish in the morning and have it tested by the time you're ready to cook that evening."

A recent study by the Centers for Disease Control found that ten percent of women of childbearing age in the United States have “potentially hazardous levels” of mercury in their blood stream believed to be from eating certain types of fish or contaminated fish. The report was the first in the U.S. to direct-ly measure mercury levels in people.

Power plants, especially those that burn coal, are the largest source of mercury releases, accounting for an estimated 40 million tons getting into the air and water annually, according to a National Academy of Sciences study released last year.

Mercury in fish is a serious health hazard, especially for children and pregnant women, because one particularly poisonous form, methylmercury, interferes with developing nervous systems and can cause birth defects. Methylmercury contamination occurs when mercury pollution from automobile emissions or industrial waste washes into the ocean or groundwater. There, aquatic organisms convert normal mercury ions into methlymercury and release the compound into the water. Fish absorb it through their gills or through their digestive tracts when they feed, and the poison accumulates in their tissue. Larger fish are the most risky because they eat smaller fish and have longer life spans during which the methylmercury can build up, or bioaccumulate.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has warned women who are pregnant or who are considering becoming pregnant to avoid eating the larger, high-risk fish, such as swordfish and king mackerel. The Food and Drug Administration, which works with state regulators and commercial fisheries to monitor methylmercury levels, also has issued a warning in recent months. The agency has recommended a mercury limit of no more than 1 part per million for human consumption (for a listing of state and provincial fish consumption advisories go to:

The mercury test uses a solution that changes color if there is even half the recommended FDA limit on mercury levels in fish. First, a tiny pellet from the fish is placed in a tube. An enzyme is added to the pellet, then the mixture is stirred with a special dipstick coated with a resin. If there is any mercury in the fish, it sticks to the resin. The dipstick is then placed into a solution of mild acid and the dye is added. It instantly turns purple if a certain level of mercury is pre-sent. Otherwise, it stays clear.

The test can be adjusted to detect different levels of mercury, but it can take three to four hours because of the time needed for the enzyme to "digest" the fish. Janda believes the test could benefit environmental professionals since cur-rent mercury detection methods require catching fish and bringing them into the laboratory for slow, expensive and complicated testing. He estimated that the kit should not cost more than a dollar or two a test, and anticipates that a compa-ny will come forward to develop the product.

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