Saturday, February 24, 2024

Image of the week : whales bones

Incredibly moving photograph of a whale skeleton in Greenland. 
Alex Dawson, winner of the Underwater Photographer of the Year 2024

Friday, February 23, 2024

How to use AI to talk to whales—and save life on Earth

From Wired by Ramin Skibba

With ecosystems in crisis, engineers and scientists are teaming up to decipher what animals are saying.
Their hope: By truly listening to nature, humans will decide to protect it.

Before Michelle Fournet moved to Alaska on a whim in her early twenties, she’d never seen a whale.
She took a job on a whale watching boat and, each day she was out on the water, gazed at the grand shapes moving under the surface.
For her entire life, she realized, the natural world had been out there, and she’d been missing it.
“I didn’t even know I was bereft,” she recalls.
Later, as a graduate student in marine biology, Fournet wondered what else she was missing.
The humpbacks she was getting to know revealed themselves in partial glimpses.
What if she could hear what they were saying?
She dropped a hydrophone in the water—but the only sound that came through was the mechanical churn of boats.
The whales had fallen silent amid the racket.
Just as Fournet had discovered nature, then, she was witnessing it recede.
She resolved to help the whales.
To do that, she needed to learn how to listen to them.

Fournet, now a professor at the University of New Hampshire and the director of a collective of conservation scientists, has spent the past decade building a catalog of the various chirps, shrieks, and groans that humpbacks make in daily life.
The whales have huge and diverse vocabularies, but there is one thing they all say, whether male or female, young or old.
To our meager human ears, it sounds something like a belly rumble punctuated by a water droplet: whup.

Fournet thinks the whup call is how the whales announce their presence to one another.
A way of saying, “I’m here.” Last year, as part of a series of experiments to test her theory, Fournet piloted a skiff out into Alaska’s Frederick Sound, where humpbacks gather to feed on clouds of krill.
She broadcast a sequence of whup calls and recorded what the whales did in response.
Then, back on the beach, she put on headphones and listened to the audio.
Her calls went out.
The whales’ voices returned through the water: whup, whup, whup.
Fournet describes it like this: The whales heard a voice say, “I am, I am here, I am me.”
And they replied, “I also am, I am here, I am me.”

Biologists use this type of experiment, called a playback, to study what prompts an animal to speak.
Fournet’s playbacks have so far used recordings of real whups.
The method is imperfect, though, because humpbacks are highly attentive to who they’re talking to.
If a whale recognizes the voice of the whale in the recording, how does that affect its response?
Does it talk to a buddy differently than it would to a stranger?
As a biologist, how do you ensure you’re sending out a neutral whup?

One answer is to create your own.
Fournet has shared her catalog of humpback calls with the Earth Species Project, a group of technologists and engineers who, with the help of AI, are aiming to develop a synthetic whup.
And they’re not just planning to emulate a humpback’s voice.
The nonprofit’s mission is to open human ears to the chatter of the entire animal kingdom.
In 30 years, they say, nature documentaries won’t need soothing Attenborough-style narration, because the dialog of the animals onscreen will be subtitled.
And just as engineers today don’t need to know Mandarin or Turkish to build a chatbot in those languages, it will soon be possible to build one that speaks Humpback—or Hummingbird, or Bat, or Bee.

The idea of “decoding” animal communication is bold, maybe unbelievable, but a time of crisis calls for bold and unbelievable measures.
Everywhere that humans are, which is everywhere, animals are vanishing.
Wildlife populations across the planet have dropped an average of nearly 70 percent in the past 50 years, according to one estimate—and that’s just the portion of the crisis that scientists have measured.
Thousands of species could disappear without humans knowing anything about them at all.

To decarbonize the economy and preserve ecosystems, we certainly don’t need to talk to animals.
But the more we know about the lives of other creatures, the better we can care for those lives.
And humans, being human, pay more attention to those who speak our language.
The interaction that Earth Species wants to make possible, Fournet says, “helps a society that is disconnected from nature to reconnect with it.” The best technology gives humans a way to inhabit the world more fully.
In that light, talking to animals could be its most natural application yet.
Sperm whales communicate through sound, using echolocation to navigate the deep ocean.
Different whale clans use their own patterns of clicks – or “codas” – much in the same way humans use language.
The meaning behind whale language is a fascinating mystery.
But could scientists be about to solve it? Find out how researchers are using AI, visual data, and sound recordings to try to understand the ocean’s biggest enigma.

Humans have always known how to listen to other species, of course.
Fishers throughout history collaborated with whales and dolphins to mutual benefit: a fish for them, a fish for us.
In 19th-century Australia, a pod of killer whales was known to herd baleen whales into a bay near a whalers’ settlement, then slap their tails to alert the humans to ready the harpoons.
(In exchange for their help, the orcas got first dibs on their favorite cuts, the lips and tongue.) Meanwhile, in the icy waters of Beringia, Inupiat people listened and spoke to bowhead whales before their hunts.
As the environmental historian Bathsheba Demuth writes in her book Floating Coast, the Inupiat thought of the whales as neighbors occupying “their own country” who chose at times to offer their lives to humans—if humans deserved it.

Commercial whalers had a different approach.
They saw whales as floating containers of blubber and baleen.
The American whaling industry in the mid-19th century, and then the global whaling industry in the following century, very nearly obliterated several species, resulting in one of the largest-ever losses of wild animal life caused by humans.
In the 1960s, 700,000 whales were killed, marking the peak of cetacean death.
Then, something remarkable happened: We heard whales sing.
On a trip to Bermuda, the biologists Roger and Katy Payne met a US naval engineer named Frank Watlington, who gave them recordings he’d made of strange melodies captured deep underwater.
For centuries, sailors had recounted tales of eerie songs that emanated from their boats’ wooden hulls, whether from monsters or sirens they didn’t know.
Watlington thought the sounds were from humpback whales.
Go save them, he told the Paynes.
They did, by releasing an album, Songs of the Humpback Whale, that made these singing whales famous.
The Save the Whales movement took off soon after.
In 1972, the US passed the Marine Mammal Protection Act; in 1986, commercial whaling was banned by the International Whaling Commission.
In barely two decades, whales had transformed in the public eye into cognitively complex and gentle giants of the sea.

Roger Payne, who died earlier this year, spoke frequently about his belief that the more the public could know “curious and fascinating things” about whales, the more people would care what happened to them.
In his opinion, science alone would never change the world, because humans don’t respond to data; they respond to emotion—to things that make them weep in awe or shiver with delight.
He was in favor of wildlife tourism, zoos, and captive dolphin shows.
However compromised the treatment of individual animals might be in these places, he believed, the extinction of a species is far worse.
Conservationists have since held on to the idea that contact with animals can save them.

From this premise, Earth Species is taking the imaginative leap that AI can help us make first contact with animals.
The organization’s founders, Aza Raskin and Britt Selvitelle, are both architects of our digital age.
Raskin grew up in Silicon Valley; his father started Apple’s Macintosh project in the 1970s.
Early in his career, Raskin helped to build Firefox, and in 2006 he created the infinite scroll, arguably his greatest and most dubious legacy.
Repentant, he later calculated the collective human hours that his invention had wasted and arrived at a figure surpassing 100,000 lifetimes per week.

Raskin would sometimes hang out at a startup called Twitter, where he met Selvitelle, a founding employee.
They stayed in touch.
In 2013, Raskin heard a news story on the radio about gelada monkeys in Ethiopia whose communication had similar cadences to human speech.
So similar, in fact, that the lead scientist would sometimes hear a voice talking to him, turn around, and be surprised to find a monkey there.
The interviewer asked whether there was any way of knowing what they were trying to say.
There wasn’t—but Raskin wondered if it might be possible to arrive at an answer with machine learning.
He brought the idea up with Selvitelle, who had an interest in animal welfare.

For a while the idea was just an idea.
Then, in 2017, new research showed that machines could translate between two languages without first being trained on bilingual texts.
Google Translate had always mimicked the way a human might use a dictionary, just faster and at scale.
But these new machine learning methods bypassed semantics altogether.
They treated languages as geometric shapes and found where the shapes overlapped.
If a machine could translate any language into English without needing to understand it first, Raskin thought, could it do the same with a gelada monkey’s wobble, an elephant’s infrasound, a bee’s waggle dance? A year later, Raskin and Selvitelle formed Earth Species.

Raskin believes that the ability to eavesdrop on animals will spur nothing less than a paradigm shift as historically significant as the Copernican revolution.
He is fond of saying that “AI is the invention of modern optics.”
By this he means that just as improvements to the telescope allowed 17th-century astronomers to perceive newfound stars and finally displace the Earth from the center of the cosmos, AI will help scientists hear what their ears alone cannot: that animals speak meaningfully, and in more ways than we can imagine.
That their abilities, and their lives, are not less than ours.
“This time we’re going to look out to the universe and discover humanity is not the center,” Raskin says.

Raskin and Selvitelle spent their first few years meeting with biologists and tagging along on fieldwork.
They soon realized that the most obvious and immediate need in front of them wasn’t inciting revolution.
It was sorting data.
Two decades ago, a primate researcher would stand under a tree and hold a microphone in the air until her arm got tired.
Now researchers can stick a portable biologger to a tree and collect a continuous stream of audio for a year.
The many terabytes of data that result is more than any army of grad students could hope to tackle.
But feed all this material to trained machine learning algorithms, and the computer can scan the data and flag the animal calls.
It can distinguish a whup from a whistle.
It can tell a gibbon’s voice from her brother’s.
At least, that’s the hope.
These tools need more data, research, and funding.
Earth Species has a workforce of 15 people and a budget of a few million dollars.
They’ve teamed up with several dozen biologists to start making headway on these practical tasks.

An early project took on one of the most significant challenges in animal communication research, known as the cocktail party problem: When a group of animals are talking to one another, how can you tell who’s saying what? In the open sea, schools of dolphins a thousand strong chatter all at once; scientists who record them end up with audio as dense with whistles and clicks as a stadium is with cheers.
Even audio of just two or three animals is often unusable, says Laela Sayigh, an expert in bottlenose dolphin whistles, because you can’t tell where one dolphin stops talking and another starts.
(Video doesn’t help, because dolphins don’t open their mouths when they speak.) Earth Species used Sayigh’s extensive database of signature whistles—the ones likened to names—to develop a neural network model that could separate overlapping animal voices.
That model was useful only in lab conditions, but research is meant to be built on.
A couple of months later, Google AI published a model for untangling wild birdsong.

Sayigh has proposed a tool that can serve as an emergency alert for dolphin mass strandings, which tend to recur in certain places around the globe.
She lives in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, one such hot spot, where as often as a dozen times a year groups of dolphins get disoriented, inadvertently swim onto shore, and perish.
Fortunately, there might be a way to predict this before it happens, Sayigh says.
She hypothesizes that when the dolphins are stressed, they emit signature whistles more than usual, just as someone lost in a snowstorm might call out in panic.
A computer trained to listen for these whistles could send an alert that prompts rescuers to reroute the dolphins before they hit the beach.
In the Salish Sea—where, in 2018, a mother orca towing the body of her starved calf attracted global sympathy—there is an alert system, built by Google AI, that listens for resident killer whales and diverts ships out of their way.

For researchers and conservationists alike, the potential applications of machine learning are basically limitless.
And Earth Species is not the only group working on decoding animal communication.
Payne spent the last months of his life advising for Project CETI, a nonprofit that built a base in Dominica this year for the study of sperm whale communication.
“Just imagine what would be possible if we understood what animals are saying to each other; what occupies their thoughts; what they love, fear, desire, avoid, hate, are intrigued by, and treasure,” he wrote in Time in June.

Many of the tools that Earth Species has developed so far offer more in the way of groundwork than immediate utility.
Still, there’s a lot of optimism in this nascent field.
With enough resources, several biologists told me, decoding is scientifically achievable.
That’s only the beginning.
The real hope is to bridge the gulf in understanding between an animal’s experience and ours, however vast—or narrow—that might be.

Ari Friedlaender has something that Earth Species needs: lots and lots of data.
Friedlaender researches whale behavior at UC Santa Cruz.
He got started as a tag guy: the person who balances at the edge of a boat as it chases a whale, holds out a long pole with a suction-cupped biologging tag attached to the end, and slaps the tag on a whale’s back as it rounds the surface.
This is harder than it seems.
Friedlaender proved himself adept—“I played sports in college,” he explains—and was soon traveling the seas on tagging expeditions.

The tags Friedlaender uses capture a remarkable amount of data.
Each records not only GPS location, temperature, pressure, and sound, but also high-definition video and three-axis accelerometer data, the same tech that a Fitbit uses to count your steps or measure how deeply you’re sleeping.
Taken together, the data illustrates, in cinematic detail, a day in the life of a whale: its every breath and every dive, its traverses through fields of sea nettles and jellyfish, its encounters with twirling sea lions.

Friedlaender shows me an animation he has made from one tag’s data.
In it, a whale descends and loops through the water, traveling a multicolored three-dimensional course as if on an undersea Mario Kart track.
Another animation depicts several whales blowing bubble nets, a feeding strategy in which they swim in circles around groups of fish, trap the fish in the center with a wall of bubbles, then lunge through, mouths gaping.
Looking at the whales’ movements, I notice that while most of them have traced a neat spiral, one whale has produced a tangle of clumsy zigzags.
“Probably a young animal,” Friedlaender says.
“That one hasn’t figured things out yet.”

Friedlaender’s multifaceted data is especially useful for Earth Species because, as any biologist will tell you, animal communication isn’t purely verbal.
It involves gestures and movement just as often as vocalizations.
Diverse data sets get Earth Species closer to developing algorithms that can work across the full spectrum of the animal kingdom.
The organization’s most recent work focuses on foundation models, the same kind of computation that powers generative AI like ChatGPT.
Earlier this year, Earth Species published the first foundation model for animal communication.
The model can already accurately sort beluga whale calls, and Earth Species plans to apply it to species as disparate as orangutans (who bellow), elephants (who send seismic rumbles through the ground), and jumping spiders (who vibrate their legs).
Katie Zacarian, Earth Species’ CEO, describes the model this way: “Everything’s a nail, and it’s a hammer.”

Another application of Earth Species’ AI is generating animal calls, like an audio version of GPT.
Raskin has made a few-second chirp of a chiffchaff bird.
If this sounds like it’s getting ahead of decoding, it is—AI, as it turns out, is better at speaking than understanding.
Earth Species is finding that the tools it is developing will likely have the ability to talk to animals even before they can decode.
It may soon be possible, for example, to prompt an AI with a whup and have it continue a conversation in Humpback—without human observers knowing what either the machine or the whale is saying.

No one is expecting such a scenario to actually take place; that would be scientifically irresponsible, for one thing.
The biologists working with Earth Species are motivated by knowledge, not dialog for the sake of it.
Felix Effenberger, a senior AI research adviser for Earth Species, told me: “I don’t believe that we will have an English-Dolphin translator, OK? Where you put English into your smartphone and then it makes dolphin sounds and the dolphin goes off and fetches you some sea urchin.
The goal is to first discover basic patterns of communication.”

So what will talking to animals look—sound—like? It needn’t be a free-form conversation to be astonishing.
Speaking to animals in a controlled way, as with Fournet’s playback whups, is probably essential for scientists to try to understand them.
After all, you wouldn’t try to learn German by going to a party in Berlin and sitting mutely in a corner.

Bird enthusiasts already use apps to snatch melodies out of the air and identify which species is singing.
With an AI as your animal interpreter, imagine what more you could learn.
You prompt it to make the sound of two humpbacks meeting, and it produces a whup.
You prompt it to make the sound of a calf talking to its mother, and it produces a whisper.
You prompt it to make the sound of a lovelorn male, and it produces a song.

No species of whale has ever been driven extinct by humans.
This is hardly a victory.
Numbers are only one measure of biodiversity.
Animal lives are rich with all that they are saying and doing—with culture.
While humpback populations have rebounded since their lowest point a half-century ago, what songs, what practices, did they lose in the meantime? Blue whales, hunted down to a mere 1 percent of their population, might have lost almost everything.

Christian Rutz, a biologist at the University of St.
Andrews, believes that one of the essential tasks of conservation is to preserve nonhuman ways of being.
“You’re not asking, ‘Are you there or are you not there?’” he says.
“You are asking, ‘Are you there and happy, or unhappy?’”

Rutz is studying how the communication of Hawaiian crows has changed since 2002, when they went extinct in the wild.
About 100 of these remarkable birds—one of few species known to use tools—are alive in protective captivity, and conservationists hope to eventually reintroduce them to the wild.
But these crows may not yet be prepared.
There is some evidence that the captive birds have forgotten useful vocabulary, including calls to defend their territory and warn of predators.
Rutz is working with Earth Species to build an algorithm to sift through historical recordings of the extinct wild crows, pull out all the crows’ calls, and label them.
If they find that calls were indeed lost, conservationists might generate those calls to teach them to the captive birds.

Rutz is careful to say that generating calls will be a decision made thoughtfully, when the time requires it.
In a paper published in Science in July, he praised the extraordinary usefulness of machine learning.
But he cautions that humans should think hard before intervening in animal lives.
Just as AI’s potential remains unknown, it may carry risks that extend beyond what we can imagine.
Rutz cites as an example the new songs composed each year by humpback whales that spread across the world like hit singles.
Should these whales pick up on an AI-generated phrase and incorporate that into their routine, humans would be altering a million-year-old culture.
“I think that is one of the systems that should be off-limits, at least for now,” he told me.
“Who has the right to have a chat with a humpback whale?”

It’s not hard to imagine how AI that speaks to animals could be misused.
Twentieth-century whalers employed the new technology of their day, too, emitting sonar at a frequency that drove whales to the surface in panic.
But AI tools are only as good or bad as the things humans do with them.
Tom Mustill, a conservation documentarian and the author of How to Speak Whale, suggests giving animal-decoding research the same resources as the most championed of scientific endeavors, like the Large Hadron Collider, the Human Genome Project, and the James Webb Space Telescope.
“With so many technologies,” he told me, “it’s just left to the people who have developed it to do what they like until the rest of the world catches up.
This is too important to let that happen.”

Billions of dollars are being funneled into AI companies, much of it in service of corporate profits: writing emails more quickly, creating stock photos more efficiently, delivering ads more effectively.
Meanwhile, the mysteries of the natural world remain.
One of the few things scientists know with certainty is how much they don’t know.
When I ask Friedlaender whether spending so much time chasing whales has taught him much about them, he tells me he sometimes gives himself a simple test: After a whale goes under the surface, he tries to predict where it will come up next.
“I close my eyes and say, ‘OK, I’ve put out 1,000 tags in my life, I’ve seen all this data.
The whale is going to be over here.’ And the whale’s always over there,” he says.
“I have no idea what these animals are doing.”

If you could speak to a whale, what would you say? Would you ask White Gladis, the killer whale elevated to meme status this summer for sinking yachts off the Iberian coast, what motivated her rampage—fun, delusion, revenge? Would you tell Tahlequah, the mother orca grieving the death of her calf, that you, too, lost a child? Payne once said that if given the chance to speak to a whale, he’d like to hear its normal gossip: loves, feuds, infidelities.
Also: “Sorry would be a good word to say.”

Then there is that thorny old philosophical problem.
The question of umwelt, and what it’s like to be a bat, or a whale, or you.
Even if we could speak to a whale, would we understand what it says? Or would its perception of the world, its entire ordering of consciousness, be so alien as to be unintelligible? If machines render human languages as shapes that overlap, perhaps English is a doughnut and Whalish is the hole.

Maybe, before you can speak to a whale, you must know what it is like to have a whale’s body.
It is a body 50 million years older than our body.
A body shaped to the sea, to move effortlessly through crushing depths, to counter the cold with sheer mass.
As a whale, you choose when to breathe, or not.
Mostly you are holding your breath.
Because of this, you cannot smell or taste.
You do not have hands to reach out and touch things with.
Your eyes are functional, but sunlight penetrates water poorly.
Usually you can’t even make out your own tail through the fog.

You would live in a cloud of hopeless obscurity were it not for your ears.
Sound travels farther and faster through water than through air, and your world is illuminated by it.
For you, every dark corner of the ocean rings with sound.
You hear the patter of rain on the surface, the swish of krill, the blasts of oil drills.
If you’re a sperm whale, you spend half your life in the pitch black of the deep sea, hunting squid by ear.
You use sound to speak, too, just as humans do.
But your voice, rather than dissipating instantly in the thin substance of air, sustains.
Some whales can shout louder than a jet engine, their calls carrying 10,000 miles across the ocean floor.

But what is it like to be you, a whale? What thoughts do you think, what feelings do you feel?
These are much harder things for scientists to know.
A few clues come from observing how you talk to your own kind.
If you’re born into a pod of killer whales, close-knit and xenophobic, one of the first things your mother and your grandmother teach you is your clan name.
To belong must feel essential.
(Remember Keiko, the orca who starred in the film Free Willy: When he was released to his native waters late in life, he failed to rejoin the company of wild whales and instead returned to die among humans.) If you’re a female sperm whale, you click to your clanmates to coordinate who’s watching whose baby; meanwhile, the babies babble back.
You live on the go, constantly swimming to new waters, cultivating a disposition that is nervous and watchful.
If you’re a male humpback, you spend your time singing alone in icy polar waters, far from your nearest companion.
To infer loneliness, though, would be a human’s mistake.
For a whale whose voice reaches across oceans, perhaps distance does not mean solitude.
Perhaps, as you sing, you are always in conversation.

Michelle Fournet wonders: How do we know whales would want to talk to us anyway?
What she loves most about humpbacks is their indifference.
“This animal is 40 feet long and weighs 75,000 pounds, and it doesn’t give a shit about you,” she told me.
“Every breath it takes is grander than my entire existence.” 
Roger Payne observed something similar.
He considered whales the only animal capable of an otherwise impossible feat: making humans feel small.

Early one morning in Monterey, California, I boarded a whale watching boat.
The water was slate gray with white peaks.
Flocks of small birds skittered across the surface.
Three humpbacks appeared, backs rounding neatly out of the water.
They flashed some tail, which was good for the group’s photographers.
The fluke’s craggy ridge-line can be used, like a fingerprint, to distinguish individual whales.

Later, I uploaded a photo of one of the whales to Happywhale.
The site identifies whales using a facial recognition algorithm modified for flukes.
The humpback I submitted, one with a barnacle-encrusted tail, came back as CRC-19494.
Seventeen years ago, this whale had been spotted off the west coast of Mexico.
Since then, it had made its way up and down the Pacific between Baja and Monterey Bay.
For a moment, I was impressed that this site could so easily fish an animal out of the ocean and deliver me a name.
But then again, what did I know about this whale? Was it a mother, a father? Was this whale on Happywhale actually happy?
The AI had no answers.
I searched the whale’s profile and found a gallery of photos, from different angles, of a barnacled fluke.
For now, that was all I could know.
Links :

Thursday, February 22, 2024

A whole new orbit: why shipping should embrace the connectivity boom

Earth from low earth orbit (NASA file image)

From Maritime Executive by Yarden Gross, CEO OrcaAI

The shipping industry has entered a new era of connectivity thanks to the rapid growth of satellite communications and the adoption of low earth orbit (LEO) technologies, like SpaceX’s Starlink.
With over 5,400 satellites currently orbiting the Earth and maritime data download speeds now exceeding 200 Mbps, an increasing number of shipping companies are upgrading their fleets to take advantage of the benefits of LEO connectivity.

According to a survey of 73 shipowners conducted by UK research firm Thetius for HFW and CyberOwl, 43% of respondents plan to roll out LEO satellite communications over the next 12 months.
There are reportedly already 7,000 ships that have LEO connectivity.

This is in line with a dramatic increase in data usage in shipping, which rose 207% and 146% in the container and bulk segments, respectively, between 2021 and 2022, according to an Inmarsat survey cited in the Thetius study The Network Effect.
This demand was driven by business applications, such as voyage optimization and remote auditing, which accounted for a 131% increase in data usage across all vessel types for the period and also by crew data usage, which rose by 149%.

This wave of connectivity is set to impact the shipping industry in many ways, both positive and negative.
However, here I focus on the exciting opportunity presented to operations leaders and shipowners – the chance to leverage AI and other advanced technologies to make their fleets smarter and enable them to make data-driven strategic decisions, much like leaders in other industries are doing today.

Paving the way for digital transformation

LEO satellite technology’s role in maritime communication goes beyond connectivity.
It paves the way for further digitalization of the industry, enabling the integration of advanced AI technologies for data-driven decision-making in various maritime operational fields.

With increased connectivity, operations leaders can take a big step forward towards automation of ship navigation: AI and computer vision-powered systems can assist in navigating vessels, monitoring weather conditions and help the crew to make better decisions to ensure safe and efficient navigation.
Visual data from computer vision sensors constantly monitoring the external marine environment both enhances navigational safety and allows companies to reduce fuel consumption and emissions by avoiding speed drops and unnecessary maneuvers.
With AI and computer-vision based navigation tools, simple decisions will be able to be made autonomously without human intervention while more complicated ones – in high-risk situations during severe weather or in highly congested waterways – will be able to be made with the support of the office, which will have real-time visibility of what is happening on the vessel.

In the field of predictive maintenance, AI-based technologies will allow shoreside teams to analyze data from sensors on vessels, enabling shipping companies to better predict equipment failures and implement proactive maintenance schedules, thereby reducing downtime and optimizing maintenance costs.
It is estimated that eliminating unplanned downtime through condition monitoring can increase margins by as much as 50%, according to the Thetius report The Optimal Route.

Connectivity can boost the bottom line

With improved connectivity, more companies will be able to use route optimization solutions and applications that analyse historical data, weather patterns and current conditions to suggest the most fuel-efficient routes and reduce emissions.
Joint research conducted by NAPA-ClassNK and Marubeni, published earlier this year, found that voyage optimization can reduce emissions by 7.3% and extend CII compliance by up to three years.

In terms of cargo monitoring and management, operations teams in the office will be able to use digital applications to track cargo conditions to ensure proper handling and monitoring of perishable goods or hazardous materials, enhancing safety and compliance.
Increased connectivity will also impact port operations: ports will become smarter with AI-based applications streamlining operations by managing traffic flow, optimizing container handling and automating logistics processes, thus reducing congestion and improving efficiency.

Connectivity – the fuel of smart shipping

The emergence of Starlink for maritime use and the exponential growth of LEO satellite communication services present exciting possibilities for those who choose to embrace it.

The ease of access to real-time weather data, route updates and navigation assistance will greatly benefit ship captains and crew members, while the shore side will enjoy a new level of visibility, enabling them to make informed decisions based on accurate data collected by multiple sensors.
Moreover, with more operations leaders transitioning towards a more connected, digitalized maritime environment, the shipping industry will become safer, more sustainable and operationally efficient.

Links :

Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Four new seamounts discovered in the high seas

Silhouetted in front of a map of Puerto Rico, Santiago Herrera (Principal Investigator, Lehigh University) gives a seminar to scientists and crew to familiarise them with the subject matter of the cruise.

Tallest of underwater features discovered by crew of research vessel Falkor (too) stands over 1.5 miles high

The crew of Schmidt Ocean Institute’s research vessel Falkor (too) discovered four underwater mountains — the tallest of which is over 1.5 miles high — on a January transit from Golfito, Costa Rica, to Valparaiso, Chile, the organization announced today.

The new seamounts, which range in size from approximately 1,591 meters (5,220 feet) to 2,681 meters (8,796 feet), add to the crew’s discovery last November of an underwater mountain that was twice the height of the Burj Khalifa at 1,600 meters (5,259 feet) in international waters off Guatemala.
seamount 2681 m found off of Chile
The largest of the four seamounts recently discovered by Schmidt Ocean Institute experts is 2,681 meters tall, covers 450 square kilometers, and sits 1,150 meters below the surface.
It was discovered during a mapping transit from Costa Rica to Chile in January 2024.
seamount 1591 m found off of Peru
seamount 1873 m
found off of Peru
seamount 1644 m found off of Peru
Using multibeam mapping, Schmidt Ocean Institute’s marine technicians and trained hydrographic experts, John Fulmer and Tomer Ketter, confirmed that the seafloor features had not been previously included in any bathymetric database.
The seamounts were found as the technicians plotted a course to examine gravity anomalies during the transit from Costa Rica to Chile.
Changes in the shape of the seafloor appear as very slight shifts in the Ocean surface; a deep trench will cause a slight depression, and a mountain can create an almost imperceptible bump on top of the Ocean. These subtle clues can help experts make discoveries and create better, more detailed maps of the seafloor.

“We were fortunate enough to be able to plan an opportunistic mapping route using these gravity anomalies in satellite altimetry data,” said Fulmer. 
Eulogio Soto (Scientist, Universidad de Valparaíso) and his colleagues work on sediment cores in the Dirty Wet Lab while images of multibeam sonar readings of the seafloor below them are rendered on nearby monitors.
“Examining gravity anomalies is a fancy way of saying we looked for bumps on a map, and when we did, we located these very large seamounts while staying on schedule for our first science expedition in Chile at the start of this year.”

Whenever sea conditions permit, the crew collects mapping data as the research vessel moves, or transits, from one location to another.
Since 2012, scientists on Schmidt Ocean Institute’s research vessels Falkor and Falkor (too) have mapped about 1.5 million square kilometers and discovered 29 seamounts, hills, and trenches.
Underwater mountains and trenches often host deep-sea coral reefs, sponges, and anemones living alongside organisms that find food, shelter, and a rocky surface to cling to along mountain slopes.
Research vessel Falkor (too) photographed during an expedition that tested new high-resolution mapping methods. Seafloor mapping is integral to oceanographic research.
Bathymetric data illustrates the seafloor’s depth, contours, and physical features.

“A map is a fundamental tool for understanding our planet — locating seamounts almost always leads us to understudied biodiversity hotspots,” said Dr. Jyotika Virmani, executive director of Schmidt Ocean Institute. 
“Every time we find these bustling seafloor communities, we make incredible new discoveries and advance our knowledge of life on Earth.”

STRM bathymetry off of Peru coast via the GeoGarage platform
The absence of detailed underwater topography, or bathymetric data, hinders the ability to manage marine resources sustainably, safely navigate vessels at sea, and safeguard coastal communities. Schmidt Ocean Institute is a partner of The Nippon Foundation-GEBCO Seabed 2030 Project – an ambitious effort accelerating ocean mapping efforts and working towards mapping the entire seafloor by 2030.

“These incredible discoveries by Schmidt Ocean Institute underscore the importance of a complete map of the seabed in our quest for understanding Earth’s final frontier,” said Jamie McMichael-Phillips, project director of Seabed 2030. 
“With 75 percent of the ocean still to be mapped, there is much to be uncovered. Ocean mapping is crucial to our understanding of the planet and, in turn, our ability to ensure its protection and sustainable management.”

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Tuesday, February 20, 2024

Industry majors join forces to face the situation in the Red Sea

About 15% of global trade flows through this region – 
making it one of the most important waterways on earth.
Credit: IBF

From Safety4Sea by The Editorial Team

In response to the persistent attacks by Houthis in the Red Sea area, international organizations with significant influence are actively seeking solutions on multiple fronts. 
The Houthis release an infographic showing all the ships that have been attacked

Continuous attacks posing threats

These ongoing attacks have become a cause for concern within the global community, posing security challenges not only for the crew members but also for the broader global supply chain.
Just yesterday, British maritime security firm Ambrey reported that a Belize-flagged, UK-registered, and Lebanese-operated open hatch general cargo ship came under attack in the Bab al-Mandab Strait, 35 nautical miles south of Yemen’s Al Mukha.

The United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations (UKMTO) received the report, confirming an explosion in close proximity to the vessel, causing damage.
Fortunately, all crew members are reported to be safe.

This attack marks one of the many that have taken place since November.
In response, the industry strives to address these issues and find effective measures to safeguard both personnel and the integrity of the worldwide logistics network.
Yemen's Houthis attacked the British ship Rubymar in the Gulf of Aden, Al Mayadeen reports.
The Houthis said the ship was seriously damaged and was on the verge of sinking, the crew had been rescued from the water.
Joint statement by the International Transport Workers’ Federation and the Joint Negotiating Group

The International Bargaining Forum (IBF) social partners are increasingly concerned about the actions taken by Houthi forces that are threatening the safety of transiting seafarers and vessels.

Following continued incidents in the Southern Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, the IBF Warlike Operations Area Committee (WOAC) convened on 7 February 2024 and agreed additional measures to support seafarers’ safety and welfare.

In response to these attacks, the IBF WOAC have agreed to expand the High Risk Area to include the Gulf of Aden and surrounding waters, please see the latest updated IBF list of designated risk areas for more detailed information.
Credit: IBF

Additionally, the IBF WOAC agreed:
  • To include into the existing conditions for the designated IBF High Risk Area for the Southern Red Sea and Gulf of Aden, the seafarers’ right to refuse to sail into the areawith repatriation at company’s cost and compensation equal to two months basic wage.
  • The two months basic pay compensation shall not be applicable if the seafarer is transferred to another vessel belonging or related to the same owner/manager, on the same rank and wages and all other terms.
  • There shall be no loss of earnings or entitlements during the transfer and the company shall be liable for all costs and subsistence during the transfer.
  • Seafarers must give seven days’ notice prior to entering the area, given the logistical constraints of passage and the difficulty to facilitate disembarkation in a safe port and mobilise repatriation in the area.
  • Seafarers who are onboard vessels within the High Risk Area or are due to transit into the High Risk Area within the seven-day window from the initial date of publication, will not be able to exercise their right to repatriation.
  • Collaboration between local and international governments, flag states, ports and airports will be crucial for seafarers to be repatriated safely and expeditiously, should they request it.
  • In the event that a vessel which was not scheduled to sail through the High Risk Area but has received instructions to cross within the seven-day notice period, seafarers will have the right to refuse to sail in the area, be repatriated at the company’s cost and receive compensation equal to two months basic pay.
Regardless of what is agreed between the social partners, the safety and security of seafarers is a global responsibility that requires global solutions.
Therefore, the IBF WOAC urges the international community to collaborate with local governments in the area to support international shipping and to ensure the safety of seafarers so that vessels can transit free from threat and aggression, as is their right under international law.
The decision to include seafarers’ right to refuse to sail was not a step taken lightly as this could negatively impact global trade, but the safety of the seafarers is paramount.
… said IBF in their statement

In addition, the IBF WOAC strongly condemns the actions of the Houthi forces that hijacked the car carrier Galaxy Leader on 19 November 2023, the crew of which are still being held hostage.

The social partners also urged all governments that have an interest in international shipping to do whatever they can to secure the immediate release of the Galaxy Leader and its crew, and for the Houthis to immediately cease further hostile activities.

Galaxy Leader ship
Today marks the three-month anniversary since the Houthis seized the Galaxy Leader and its 25 seafarers in the Red Sea.
Photo: Screenshot from video shared by Yemeni Armed Forces

Joint industry statement on the Galaxy Leader

Also on the subject of the Galaxy Leader, as Monday 19th February 2024 – marks the three-month anniversary since the Houthis seized the Galaxy Leader and its 25 seafarers in the Red Sea.
The crew has remained with the Houthis since then.

The maritime industry has joined together from around the world to express their concern for the seafarers who have been held hostage, and call on the Houthis to release the crew of the Galaxy Leader.

It was emphasized in the statement that the 25 seafarers comprising the crew of the Galaxy Leader are regarded as innocent victims of the ongoing aggression against world shipping.

The challenging situation they face is a significant concern, given the continuous attacks on the merchant shipping community.
It was underscored that all possible efforts should be undertaken by international organizations and states to ensure the release of the seafarers.
It is abhorrent that seafarers were seized by military forces and that they have been kept from their families and loved ones for too long. All 25 crew members of the Galaxy Leader must be released now

… concluded the organizations in their statement

Operation Aspides

Additionally, the European Union Naval Force (EUNAVFOR) has officially launched Operation Aspides, a new maritime mission aimed at addressing the increasing instability in the Red Sea.
This initiative comes in response to the escalating disruption of shipping in the region and is designed to complement the ongoing U.S.-led Operation Prosperity Guardian.

The formation of Operation Aspides signifies a unified effort by European Union member states, who, despite some divisions over the conflict in Gaza, reached a consensus in January to create a naval mission in the Red Sea.
The primary objective of Aspides is to strengthen deterrence in the area and provide defense for commercial vessels facing threats from Houthi attacks.

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Monday, February 19, 2024

Ocean temperatures keep shattering records—and stunning scientists

video Getty Images

From Wired by Matt Simon

Sea surface temperatures have been skyrocketing beyond expectations.
That may be a bad sign for hurricane season—and the health of ocean ecosystems.

FOR NEARLY A year now, a bizarre heating event has been unfolding across the world’s oceans.
In March 2023, global sea surface temperatures started shattering record daily highs, and have stayed that way since.

You can see 2023 in the orange line below, the other gray lines being previous years.
That solid black line is where we are so far in 2024—way, way above even 2023.
While we’re nowhere near the Atlantic hurricane season yet—that runs from June 1 through the autumn—keep in mind that cyclones feed on warm ocean water, which could well stay anomalously hot in the coming months.
Regardless, these surface temperature anomalies could be triggering major ecological problems already.

Courtesy of University of Maine

“In the tropical eastern Atlantic, it’s four months ahead of pace—it’s looking like it’s already June out there,” says Brian McNoldy, a hurricane researcher at the University of Miami.
“It’s really getting to be strange that we’re just seeing the records break by this much, and for this long.”

You’ll notice from these graphs and maps that the temperature anomalies may be a degree or two Celsius warmer, which may not sound like much.
But for the seas, it really is: Unlike land, which rapidly heats and cools as day turns to night and back again, it takes a lot to warm up an ocean that may be thousands of feet deep.
So even an anomaly of mere fractions of a degree is significant.
“To get into the two or three or four degrees, like it is in a few places, it’s pretty exceptional,” says McNoldy.

Courtesy of University of Maine

So what’s going on here?
For one, the oceans have been steadily warming over the decades, absorbing something like 90 percent of the extra heat that humans have added to the atmosphere.
“The oceans are our saviors, in a way,” says biological oceanographer Francisco Chavez of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute in California.
“Things might be a lot worse in terms of climate impacts, because a lot of that heat is not only kept at the surface, it’s taken to depths.”

A major concern with such warm surface temperatures is the health of the ecosystems floating there: phytoplankton that bloom by soaking up the sun’s energy and the tiny zooplankton that feed on them.
If temperatures get too high, certain species might suffer, shaking the foundations of the ocean food web.

But more subtly, when the surface warms, it creates a cap of hot water, blocking the nutrients in colder waters below from mixing upwards.
Phytoplankton need those nutrients to properly grow and sequester carbon, thus mitigating climate change.
If warming-induced stratification gets bad enough, “we don’t see what we would call a ‘spring bloom,’” says Dennis Hansell, an oceanographer and biogeochemist at the University of Miami.
“Those are much harder to make happen if you don’t bring nutrients back up to the surface to support the growth of those algae.”

That puts serious pressure on an ecosystem that depends on these phytoplankton.
Making matters worse, the warmer water gets, the less oxygen it can hold.
“We have seen the growth of these oxygen minimum zones,” says Hansell.
“Organisms that need a lot of oxygen, they’re not too happy when the concentrations go down in any way—think of a tuna that is expending a lot of energy to race through the water.”

In addition to plankton dealing with ever-higher temperatures due to global warming, there’s also natural variability to consider here.
Less dust has been blowing off the Sahara Desert recently, for example.
Normally this plume wafts over to the Americas, forming a giant umbrella that shades all that Atlantic water.
But now the umbrella has partially folded up, allowing more of the sun to beat down on the ocean.

Weirder still, another contributing factor to ocean warming might be the 2020 regulations that drastically reduced the amount of sulfur allowed in shipping fuels.
“Basically overnight, it cut this aerosol pollution by about 75, 80 percent,” says Robert Rohde, lead scientist at Berkeley Earth, a nonprofit that gathers climate data.
“That was a good thing for human health—the air pollution was toxic.”

Courtesy of University of Maine

But sulfur aerosols attract water vapor, meaning that previously those ships would produce clouds in their wake—known as ship tracks—which, similar to Saharan dust, would bounce some of the sun’s energy back into space.
“Now that we’ve cut it back, it has the side effect that some of that air pollution—that marine smog, if you might—is no longer there,” Rohde says.
“The sky is clearer, so a little bit more sunlight is coming through.”
Thus shipping regulations may have contributed a little bit of ocean warming in heavily trafficked areas like the North Atlantic.
(In the graph above, the solid black line again shows 2024’s temperatures, this time specifically in the North Atlantic. Orange is 2023.)

Over in the Pacific, an El Niño band of warm water formed last summer and is now waning, both accounting for a good chunk of ocean warming globally and adding heat to the atmosphere to influence weather around the world.
El Niño is now waning.
The phenomenon and its counterpart La Niña—a band of cold water in the same area—are perfectly natural, but now they’re happening on top of that warming of the oceans that humans are responsible for.
“One of our challenges,” says Chavez, “is trying to tease out what these natural variations are doing in relation to the steady warming due to increasing CO2 in the atmosphere.”

Courtesy of Mbari, adapted from MESSIÉ AND CHAVEZ 2011

Now check out the graph above, which shows sea surface temperature anomalies since the late 1800s.
Things really started warming up in the 1980s, but notice the red spikes well before, in the early 1940s.
That’s associated with El Niños, says Chavez, showing just how powerful the events can be in influencing global ocean temperatures.

Still, sea surface temperatures started soaring last year well before El Niño formed.
Also, independent of that band of warm water in the Pacific Ocean, the Atlantic Ocean has been boiling, as you can see in this map of January’s temperature anomalies relative to the mean between 1910 and 2009.
“The Atlantic has been record-breakingly warm since early March of 2023,” says McNoldy.
“It’s not even close.
That’s kind of the head-scratcher: Will it ever be back to just normal record-breaking instead of record-crushing? It’s just kind of crazy.”

Courtesy of MBARI, adapted from NOAA/ESRL/PSD

If you know that a warm ocean fuels Atlantic hurricanes, you might be wondering whether we’re now in danger of a cyclone forming in February.
But worry not.
“There are quite a few ingredients that hurricanes need, and warm ocean temperatures is just one of them,” says McNoldy.
For one, the low wind shear that hurricanes require to form isn’t there yet.
But, McNoldy adds, when those conditions do appear, they’ll take advantage of that warm ocean.
“We actually did see that a year ago with two named storms, Brett and Cindy, both in June in the middle of the tropical East Atlantic, which is incredibly odd,” he says.
“We were also looking at extremely warm ocean temperatures out there, where normally they would have been a little too cool.”

Last week, the US Climate Prediction Center put the odds of La Niña developing between June and August at 55 percent.
Whereas El Niño tends to create wind shear in the Atlantic, which beats down hurricanes, La Niña reduces wind shear.
“All other things being equal, La Niña acts to enhance Atlantic hurricane activity,” says McNoldy.
“When you have that influence on top of a very warm ocean, it’s probably cause for some concern.”

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