Joe’s Journal

What is going on with the Gulf of Maine

Ramblings from an old scribbler
Wed, 05/19/2021 - 7:15am

It is no secret that something is happening out in the Gulf of Maine.

No, I will not dive into the pending political food fight over floating windmills v. fighting fishermen. That is another topic for another time.

We all have seen news reports of how the Gulf is warming and how it might affect the fishing industry and our local lobstermen. We have seen news reports of rising sea levels, usually accompanied by videos of icebergs breaking off arctic glaciers and crashing into the sea. And we all have wondered about the West Coast fires and horrific storms that seem to populate our favorite television news shows on the left and the right.

To get some idea of what is going on in the Gulf, I chatted via zoom with Barney Balch, the slick jazz trombone player. Like most musicians, he holds a day job to pay the bills, masquerading as William M. Balch, Ph.D., senior research scientist for East Boothbay's Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences.

For more than 20 years, Barney has studied the Gulf of Maine, sailing from Portland to Yarmouth and back sampling the waters that grace our coast.

I asked him how the Gulf of Maine was doing. And he told me, in great detail.

In the end, I felt like the guy who asked someone for the time and was told how to build a watch factory. Like many scientists who get a chance to explain their field, he dives right in, starting with biology, chemistry, underwater geography, and meteorology, for a start, then it gets complicated. His bottom line is that much is triggered by factors beyond the 36,000 square miles of ocean that run from Massachusetts to Nova Scotia.

Problems are happening on the surface and in the deep, much linked to global warming triggered by the amount of carbon we have pumped into the atmosphere since we started burning fossil fuels since the industrial revolution in the 1800s.

As he explained his research in detail, one facet seemed to stand out. The Gulf of Maine has a significant problem with dirt. Barney uses lots of scientific terms for it, like river runoff and decomposed detritus, but it is dirt. Dirt and debris loosened from the land by major rainstorms are washed into the rivers, deposited into the Gulf of Maine, changing its color.

Barney says some is linked to the weather. As the Earth gets hotter, the weather cycle triggers bigger storms. In the years since they kept records, four of the wettest years occurred since 2007, and this means more and more dark materials and fresh water were pumped into the Gulf by coastal rivers from the St. Lawrence to the Sheepscot to the mighty Kennebec.

As Barney explains it, over the years, the mud and debris pumped into the Gulf waters act as a sort of umbrella blocking sunlight and interfering with the ability of the microscopic critters to reproduce and survive.

Why do we care? The Gulf's coloration affects our ability to harvest the superb fresh seafood that graces our dinner tables, feeds our children and brings tourists to our restaurants.

Barney begins with the Gulf's food chain based upon microscopic critters with confusing scientific names. These tiny critters are eaten by bigger critters, which are eaten by larger critters until they become fish food. After a few more steps, the food chain feeds lunch to lobsters and dinner for the yummy halibut we buy at Russ Pinkham's market.

The tiniest of the critters, which are the basis of the food chain, and some that are a bit larger, need sunlight to live and reproduce.

How does Barney know the color is changing? He measures it, beginning with the detailed records of rainfall and temperature that Maine had kept since the 1800s when the logging industry needed to know when the ice would melt, and the rains would fill streams so they could float the logs down to the mills.

Then he turns to the work of the famed oceanographer Henry Bigelow; yes, that is the guy the lab is named for, who measured the color of the water by comparing it to color charts.

Barney continues that research, sampling the Gulf's waters, although today he uses NASA satellites and other sophisticated instruments to supplement Bigelow's old color charts.

He likens it to tea. As the teabag in your cup steeps, the color gets darker and darker.

In the Gulf, changing color makes it harder for the tiny critters to access the sunlight they need to reproduce and grow into food for the lobsters and halibut that we love to catch, sell, steam and grill.

And that is a problem for us all.