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Antarctic octopuses may help humans understand impacts of global warming

Octopuses and sea-level rise – from Science 22 Dec. 23, pp. 1356-7 and 1384-9

What do the genes in 96 individual octopuses from Antarctica tell us about our near-term fate in sea level rise? Sally Lau and 10 colleagues from 7 research institutions undertook a very deep study… sometimes literally in the waters off the ice shelves, but more by analogy in analyzing genetic variations at over 120,000 sites in the genomes of an octopus found all around Antarctica, Pareledone turqueti.

Four populations of the octopus are almost isolated from each other now; it takes a long time for Antarctica ocean circulation to make some contacts between them. Lau’s group made incredibly sophisticated statistical analyses that showed that three of the populations now separated by the West Antarctic Ice Sheet were linked by waterways up until about 100,000 years ago because the ice sheet apparently collapsed in a period with modest warming… akin to what we’re very likely headed for with climate change driven by greenhouse gas emissions.

Until the group’s study it was unclear if the ice sheet totally collapsed that recently. Linking this with much other evidence can clarify if we’re set up for a quick collapse and a quick rise of sea level by 5-10 meters (our coastal cities will have to move!). Is the tipping point something that may pass in decades, or do we have breathing room to clean up our act? Let’s find out.

This has been an outreach activity of the Las Cruces Academy, viewable at GreatSchools,org.


Vince grew up in the Chicago suburb of Berwyn. He has enjoyed a long career in science, starting in chemistry and physics and moving through plant physiology, ecology, remote sensing, and agronomy.
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