Thursday, October 20, 2016

Hawaiian shearwaters have a bellyful of plastic marine debris

Not just seabirds: An entangled Hawaiian monk seal.  Credit: NOAA.

Laysan albatross chicks have been found dead with their bellies stuffed with bits of plastic, and a new study shows that Kaua`i-based Newell’s and wedge-tailed shearwaters face similar threats.

Worse, the amount of plastic found in the seabirds is increasing over time.

“On Kaua‘i…50.0 % of Newell’s…and 76.9 % of wedge-tailed shearwater … fledglings necropsied during 2007–2014 contained plastic items in their digestive tract, while 42.1 % of adult wedge-tailed shearwaters had ingested plastic'

That is one conclusion of the paper, “Plastic ingestion by Newell’s (Puffinus newelli) and wedge-tailed shearwaters (Ardenna pacifica) in Hawaii.” It was published in the journal Environmental Science and Pollution  Research by Elizabeth C. Kain, Jennifer L. Lavers, Carl J. Berg, Alexander L. Bond and AndrĂ© F. Raine. 

The researchers also found that “For both species, the frequency of plastic ingestion has increased since the 1980s with some evidence that the mass and the number of items ingested per bird have also increased.”

In fact, hundreds of marine species are threatened by plastic, which can mimic natural food sources, or be mistaken for food by seabirds, turtles, squids, fish, oysters, seals and others. 

The researchers in this paper looked at the stomach contents of seabirds killed by predators or collisions in the 2013-2014 nesting season. The results were compared with a study done in the 1987 season on Kauai, when 11 percent of the birds were found to have eaten plastics. For Newell’s shearwaters, that represents nearly a five-fold increase over  a quarter century.

In both the Newell’s, a mountain-nesting bird, and the wedge-tailed shearwaters, which nest near the shore, the predominant color of ingested plastic was white.

Both adults and fledglings had plastic in their guts. Since fledglings receive all their food regurgitated by their parents, the parents are presumed to have been delivering plastic-laced meals to their young.

“Plastic ingested by seabirds has been shown to block and take up space in the digestive tract, contributing to dehydration and in some cases starvation,” the authors wrote.

There is also suggestion in the scientific literature that the plastic can release chemical pollutants into the bodies of the birds, they said.

“The amount of plastic in the oceans is increasing and poses an increased risk of entanglement, ingestion, and thus morbidity and mortality for marine life,” the authors wrote.

National Geographic last year had a story that suggested that every seabird on the planet has or shortly will have a plastic ingestion issue.

That story references this study, which makes the point that “this threat is geographically widespread, pervasive, and rapidly increasing.”

© Jan TenBruggencate 2016

Sunday, October 16, 2016

There's an electric car in your future--and sooner than you think

A hot red Tesla S. Credit: Tesla

Electric cars represent a fraction of the number of vehicles on the road, but that’s changing—and indications are it’s soon to be changing a lot faster.

EV sales are picking up every month, according to

And if they're not quite increasing at an exponential rate, they are increasing real, real fast.

In January 2014 plug-in car sales were about 15,000 globally. 

By January 2015 it was close to 25,000. 

And by January of this year 40,000.

By the middle of 2016, it was approaching 70,000 plug-in cars sold every month. 

In these examples the sales include pure electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids.

Those stats are from the consulting firm EV-Volumes, which says growth in the plug-in market is expected to be 57 percent higher in 2016 than 2015. It says that globally, about 60 percent of the plug-ins are pure electric and 40 percent hybrid.

By September 2016, Hawai`i had more than 4,700 electric vehicles, 27 percent or more than 1,000 more than the year before. The state had more than 22,000 hybrid cars, up 6.5 percent from a year before.

China is the biggest player in the electric vehicle field, followed by Europe, then the U.S. and Japan. 

This Forbes article cites a figure estimating 450,000 electric car sales in China in 2016.

Europe is an interesting area. The Netherlands sees electric vehicles reaching almost 10 percent of every car sold. Holland is pushing to reach 100 percent electric car sales by 2025.

Indeed, all of Europe is pushing hard to increase the numbers, with both subsidies for electric car buyers and aggressive goals. Germany is talking about requiring 100 percent of new cars to be electric by 2030. 

The car manufacturers have gotten the message. More and more of them are offering electric cars. Nissan says it expects 20 percent of its 2020 production to be emission-free. 

The push is not only to push electric vehicle sales directly, but to push back against polluting cars. Paris has banned the weekday use of cars built before 1997. The theory: they don’t have engines that are as efficient as those built during the past 20 years, and they don’t have the same pollution control equipment. 

"We know that the major source of pollution in Paris is traffic. Sixty-six percent of nitrogen dioxide and fine particles come from road traffic. And we know it's old cars that spew out the most toxic fumes. That's why we are progressively going to get rid of them,” said Christophe Najdovsky, the Parisian deputy mayor for transport and public space.

If you’re in the market, know that the list of plug-in cars is a long one these days. In mid-2016, according to EV-volumes, Nissan Leaf led the market, following closely by Tesla’s Model S. Then come BYD’s Tang and Qin models, Chevy Volt, SAIC Roewe E550, Mitsubishi’s Outlander, Renault’s Zoe, BYD’s e6, BMW’s i3 and Tesla’s Model X—and more than a dozen others.

You may not recognize some of those names. BYD is a Chinese car manufacturer. SAIC is a British-Chinese company. 

Another sign that the industry is maturing: None of the cars on the list is a golf-cart looking thing. They’re all sedans or SUVs.

For early adopters, the idea that their hot new EV looks just like your father's sedan could be a problem. But the industry isn't just going for early adopters any more. 

© Jan TenBruggencate 2016

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Sea levels increase in stairstep fashion--slow, then real fast.

Sea levels are on the rise pretty much everywhere, but not at the same rate.

There is new information coming out of the University of Hawaii that suggests that in areas where the rise has been smallest, it can accelerate quickly.

An example: In the 1990s, the North Indian Ocean didn’t rise much at all. But since 2003 it is catching up—rising at twice the global rate.

That’s from a paper in the Journal of Geophysical Research, written by a team including Philip Thompson, of the University of Hawai`i Sea Level Center in the School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology, and Mark Merrifield, Eric Firing, Christopher Piecuch and Julian McCreary.

The changes are due to a combination of winds and water temperatures.

“Wind blowing over the ocean caused changes in the movement of heat across the equator in the Indian Ocean. This led to suppression of sea level rise during the 1990s and early 2000s, but now we are seeing the winds amplify sea level rise by increasing the amount of ocean heat brought into the region,” Thompson said.

Hawai`i has similarly experienced less sea level rise than the global average. And that could also come to an end with faster-than-expected rising following the slow period. We reported on that last year in RaisingIslands. 

Thompson called this a staircase effect.
“What we are learning is that the interaction between the ocean and atmosphere causes sea level to rise like a staircase instead of a straight line – starting and stopping for many years at a time. What we’ve done here is described one stair, which will help us better understand and plan for the future,” he said.

© Jan TenBruggencate 2016

Monday, September 19, 2016

Using genetic techniques to kill mosquitoes, prevent disease, save forest birds--this is a bad thing?

In a democracy, we listen to everybody, respect everybody’s opinion, but we go with the majority.

That’s not to say the majority is always right, because we know that’s not the case. 

But a lot of the time, the minority is just plain off-base. And sometimes there are minimal risks that you’re willing to take for a major benefit. 

In Florida, there’s a minority that’s fighting the use of genetically modified mosquitoes in fighting the Zika virus. (Spend some time looking at the comments on that article from the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.)

And there have already been murmurings in the Hawaiian Islands about fighting any effort to use genetic techniques to fight mosquitoes.


Here are three of the options. (There are others)

One. Do nothing, and let children be born with crippling brain damage associated with Zika. 

Two. Spray insecticides throughout the community. This also has the beneficial effect of damaging roach, spider and ant populations, but will also impact birds, pollinators and others.

Three. Then there is this targeted mechanism for attacking only the individual species about which we’re concerned. Here’s the website of one of the companies working on genetic modifications designed to reduce mosquito populations.

Essentially, they release male mosquitoes that have been bred to produce offspring that can’t survive. The males mate with wild females. And the resulting mosquitoes die before they can breed or bite.

I’ve already heard an early, still-soft drumbeat of people in Hawai`i opposing the use of genetically modified mosquitoes in the Islands.

But let’s look at some facts about skeeters in the Islands. 

Mosquitoes are not from here. They are not native to the Islands, so there’s no rare and endemic species issue with disappearing them.

They are annoying as heck, buzzing around your ears at night, sucking your precious bodily fluids from any bare skin they can locate.

They spread disease to humans. Diseases like dengue and Zika. And, oh shucks, let’s name a few more. Chikungunya, Yellow Fever, Malaria, West Nile Virus, several kinds of encephalitis, and the horror of filiariasis and the resulting disease, elephantiasis. 

Mosquitoes spread disease to rare native birds, almost none of which have resistance to mosquito-borne diseases like avian pox and avian malaria. It may be the primary cause of the loss of our native forest birds.

Have you experienced the heartbreak of a dog suffering from heartworm? Yes. Mosquito-spread.

If you reduce the mosquito count, it’s hard to imagine anyone or anything that might be negatively impacted, besides some mosquito-eating fish.

It’s not as if this is an untested process. It has already been deployed in three South American countries and has dramatically reduced the populations of the Zika mosquito, Aedes aegypti. And without negative impacts. 

But the opposition is firm. Helen Wallace, of the British environmental group GeneWatch , pulls no punches in this quote from The New Yorker.

“This mosquito is Dr. Frankenstein’s monster, plain and simple. To open a box and let these man-made creatures fly free is a risk with dangers we haven’t even begun to contemplate.”
You can find the entire litany of anti-GM technology regarding mosquitoes at GeneWatch’s fact sheet

One of them: Don’t kill these mosquitoes, or other mosquitoes might benefit. 
Another: What if people swallowed one? 
Another: If you release a lot of mosquitoes, there will be more mosquitoes around for a while.
Another: Maybe something else could be causing Zika, too, so study that before trying to kill off mosquitoes.

There is a whole paralysis by analysis issue. You can always find a new question, no matter how many have already been answered. 

GeneWatch’s position seems to be to do nothing, but continue studying until GeneWatch can come up with no more questions. 

It’s not clear what the alternatives are. Letting people get sick? Clouds of pesticides around homes? Irradiated mosquitoes? 

In every major public issue, there are impacts of action and impacts of inaction. On this one, the balance seems clearly to weight in favor of action.

© Jan TenBruggencate 2016

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Random science and supersocial Hawaii birds

This blog is at its heart a science blog, and we’ve mostly limited it to natural sciences in Hawaii.

But perhaps we haven’t sufficiently described our deep love for science, and how important it is to our lives. 

We could not understand our world, our bodies, out universe and all the rest in the sophisticated way we do without this remarkable system of inquiry.

Science is a systematic way of observing, compiling information and explaining what you’re seeing.

Some of this stuff has no immediate usefulness that most people can see. Some of it does. Some is a building block to later useful discoveries. Some builds tools that can be used to beneficial effect later. Some may never have any direct application.

But there’s even value in satisfying curiosity, solving mysteries. 

I went through just one day’s supply of new science stuff.

Not sure how useful this is to anyone, but some scientists have been able to make suppositions about the habitats of dinosaurs from the coloring of the big lizards. 

“These studies suggest that Psittacosaurus sp. inhabited a closed habitat such as a forest with a relatively dense canopy,” the authors wrote.

Here, researchers looking at meteorites—or a class or meteorites called chondrites—posit about the Earth’s formation from some complex chemistry on these astral travelers. 

That stuff is all very nice, but there’s also research that has direct beneficial effect.

Like a study that suggests a diet that will reduce ovarian cancer. 

And while all sorts of government agencies are beginning to regulate the use of e-cigarettes, there are a couple of new studies that suggests electronic smokes actually do help people quit smoking. They are here and here.

Here’s one. It’s some scientific work that suggests that the droughts of California in the past couple of decades are something Californians will need to get used to, in a world of changing climate. 

You might scoff at researchers taking core samples in ancient lake beds, but they can provide useful clues about how our behavior today can impact the lives of our grandchildren. 

In this case, scientists compared lake sediments in the Sierra Nevada mountains with marine sediments in the Pacific. They found relationships between periods when the planet was warmer and when California dried up.

“These data provide evidence of a persistent relationship between past climate warming, Pacific sea surface temperature shifts and centennial to millennial episodes of California aridity,” the paper says. 

Some of those dry spells lasted several decades, and some lasted thousands of years. UCLA professor Glen MacDonald, quoted in ScienceDaily, said that given the progress of climate change, there are some California predictions you can make: 

"In a century or so, we might see a retreat of forest lands, and an expansion of sagebrush, grasslands and deserts. We would expect temperatures to get higher, and rainfall and snowfall would decrease. Fire activity could increase, and lakes would get shallower, with some becoming marshy or drying up."

Finally, because we are a Hawai`i science blog, an odd little piece from Hawaii research that suggests introduced Kalij pheasants behave in interesting ways when overcrowded. 

While pheasants are not normally known to do this, researchers found that in Hawai`i Volcanoes National Park, both male and female pheasants—even unrelated birds—participate in raising chicks. 

The study was published in The Auk, a publication of the American Ornithologists’ Union,n by Lijin Zeng, John T. Rotenberry, Marlene Zuk, Thane K. Pratt and Zhengwang Zhang. The reseachers are from Hawai`i, Texas, Minnesota, California and China.

Pheasants don’t normally display this behavior but at the park, they seem to form communities, and individual birds conduct activities that support the community.

“All adults exhibited cooperative behavior, including caring for chicks, agonistic behaviors against conspecific intruders, and vigilance against predators,” the authors wrote.

They suggest that the behavior may not be as rare among pheasants and other similar birds as previously assumed, and that overcrowding may help promote the communal behavior.

© Jan TenBruggencate 2016