Monday, May 26, 2014

Team back on storm-ravaged Tern Island research station , but only temporarily

Fish and Wildlife Service staff are back on Tern Island at French Frigate Shoals this week, for the second time since a storm destroyed the research station there in December 2012.

This is not a permanent re-occupation.

 (Image: Meg Duhr-Schultz, former station manager at Tern Island, saves a green sea turtle that was trapped behind the rusting steel plates that form much of Tern Island’s perimeter. Credit: USFWS)

On December 9, 2012, a storm cell within a low pressure system smashed into the little island before dawn, with intense winds that ripped out windows, destroyed a boat shed, blew away or disabled the solar power system and wiped out most communications. Our report on that is here.

The Fish and Wildlife Service pulled out its biologist and four volunteers nine days later. The Tern station was left for months without human presence, apparently for the first time since before it became a Coast Guard LORAN station many decades ago.

A team went back last spring to clean up the station and to secure it. The Fish and Wildlife Service team left the island a year ago in May 2013. Here us a report on that mission

 (Image: Tern Island from the air. Credit: USFWS)

By end of spring 2013 reduced budgets eliminated a Tern Island position and prevented the rebuilding of the main administrative and housing facility.  

A NOAA-NMFS crew stayed through the summer, working from tents until September 2013. That team conducted monk seal research.

A three-member Fish and Wildlife Service team on the island now is tasked with conducting wildlife assessments and figuring out the condition of the facilities—including what it would take to restore the research presence.

Among the issues at Tern is that the collapsing human-built facilities on the island have the potential of entrapping wildlife (see upper image). Among the functions of the research teams over the years have been assessing threats to wildlife, and helping mitigate them.

French Frigate Shoals lies about 400 miles northwest of Kauai, within the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. The Hawaiian Islands National Wildlife Refuge is a protective overlay within the monument.

French Frigate Shoals has a small emergent basalt remnant of the original volcanic island. It is called La Perouse Pinnacle. But mostly, shoals is an appropriate term. It is a 22-mile-long crescent of reefs and sand bars. Tern, at the northern end of the reef complex, was one of the sandbars until it was modified to serve as a military base.

When Tern was built up by the Navy during World War II, military teams created a large rectangular structure by slamming steel plates into the reef around an existing sand bar. They filled the interior with the spoils from a dredged channel. The flat area created a roughly 3,300-foot flat coral surface that served as a runway for small aircraft for the next half-century.

The Navy maintained an air station on Tern from 1942 to 1946, and the Coast Guard built and maintained its Long Range Navigation (LORAN) station there from 1952 until it was phased out in 1979.

The Fish and Wildlife Service has had a presence there since the 1970s. Tern is a major Hawaiian monk seal habitat, and is the primary nesting place for the Hawaiian green sea turtle. Additionally, numerous 16 species of seabirds nest  by  thousands on the island.

© Jan TenBruggencate 2014

Friday, May 16, 2014

Climate scientists have been lying, but not the way you think

Mainstream science has been lying to us about the seriousness of climate change—but not the way you think.

The early reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, if anything, have been understating how bad it could be. Why? Maybe because the reality is so severe, so scary, that they didn’t think it was believable.

(Image: Antarctica’s Thwaites Glacier on the Amundsen Sea. Credit: NASA.)

Kind of like the staff on the Titanic, choosing between the truth: “We hit an iceberg. The ship is doomed. And two-thirds of you will die.” And the calming lie: “We’ve run into a little problem. Everything will be okay. Meanwhile, please grab a life jacket and calmly head for the exits.”

Or maybe it was political: because they were taking so much heat from the well-funded denial crowd. A Drexel University study found that over seven years 2003-2010, more than half a billion dollars was given to 100 denial organizations by foundations, oil companies and the like.

The Carbon Disclosure Project reported a lot of us are already paying costs for the climate change that’s here now.

In the IPCC report before the current one, the scientists left out sea level impacts of massive melting ice sheets like the one on Greenland and the ones in Antarctica. That, of course, dramatically reduced their estimates of how high sea level can get. 

Ostensibly, they left those numbers out because the science couldn’t yet accurately calculate their impact—even though everyone in the business knew the actual impact would drown any sea level estimates that left them out.

So, now the early climate conservatism is getting hit by a truck. Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is rising faster than it used to. Sea levels are rising faster than they were in the 1900s. There are more warmer-than-normal days and fewer cooler days over most land areas. The regional salinity of the oceans is changing. The oceans are acidifying. Storm, drought, flood and all the other impacts of climate change are already among us.

The permafrost in northern Alaska and Russia has warmed by 3-5 degrees Fahrenheit (2-3 degrees Celsius) just since the 1980s.

“Multiple lines of evidence support very substantial Arctic warming since the mid-20th century,” the new IPCC report says. The Arctic ice sheet is melting, although that doesn’t impact sea level. But the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets are both losing ice to the oceans at increasing rates. They do impact sea level, in a big way.

In Hawai`i, we care about sea level. The rate of sea level rise has doubled since a century ago. It hasn’t been rising this fast at any time in the last 2000 years.

The last time temperatures were consistently 2 degrees Celsius higher than now, sea levels were fifteen feet higher than now. 

We’ve been arguing about sea levels in the range of 15 to 30 inches. But the potential of melting land ice—including the massive Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets—is many times that.

Here’s NASA’s scary new report on the “unstoppable” melting of the West Antarctica ice sheets. 

Here are two paragraphs from the press release:

“The study presents multiple lines of evidence, incorporating 40 years of observations that indicate the glaciers in the Amundsen Sea sector of West Antarctica ‘have passed the point of no return,’ according to glaciologist and lead author Eric Rignot, of UC Irvine and NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. 

“These glaciers already contribute significantly to sea level rise, releasing almost as much ice into the ocean annually as the entire Greenland Ice Sheet. They contain enough ice to raise global sea level by 4 feet (1.2 meters) and are melting faster than most scientists had expected. Rignot said these findings will require an upward revision to current predictions of sea level rise.”

The future is even scarier than we're being told, and it’s time to tell the folks on the Titanic the truth.

© Jan TenBruggencate 2014

Monday, May 12, 2014

When Hawaiian volcanoes explode, it's gas

Hawaiian volcanoes are sometimes casually called drive-in volcanoes, for their comparatively tame eruptions, but sometimes they’re anything but tame.

Sometimes they fountain aggressively, and occasionally, they explode, tossing boulders like so many grains of sand.

(Image: Fountaining at the 1959 eruption of Kīlauea. Credit Hawaiian Volcano Observatory, U.S.G.S.)
A new study sheds some light on how the volcano determines when to be calm and when to have a temper.

It suggests that Kīlauea Volcano’s most explosive eruptions may come from far deeper in the Earth than previously thought, and may determine their explosive nature when still at depth.

A team of researchers studied 25 eruptions in the last 600 years, and concluded that the amount of dissolved gas in the molten rock is a key indicator of explosiveness. 

The researchers include Don A. Swanson of the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory, Bruce Houghton of the University of Hawai`i Department of Geology and Geophysics, and . R. Sides, M. Edmonds and J. Maclennan, of the University of Cambridge Earth Sciences Department.

Their paper, Eruption style at Kīlauea Volcano in Hawai‘i linked to primary melt composition, was published in the journal Nature Geoscience.

They argue that explosive eruptions seem to be from lavas formed deep, which rise fast to the surface, and bypass storage in a magma reservoir that may feed many less violent eruptions.

“We conclude that the eruption style and magma-supply rate at Kīlauea are fundamentally linked to the geochemistry of the primary melts formed deep below the volcano. Magmas might therefore be predisposed towards explosivity right at the point of formation in their mantle source region,” they say.

Or, put more simply, “Gas-rich magmas are “predisposed” to rise quickly through the Earth’s mantle and crust and erupt powerfully,” Houghton said in a University of Hawai`i press release.

© Jan TenBruggencate 2014

Sunday, May 11, 2014

New clarity on mysterious 1956 eruption in Kauai channel.

You’d think we would have Hawai`i’s volcanic geology well understood, but new mysteries pop up with regularity.

Like the report this week that O`ahu has a third volcano, besides the Ko`olaus and the Wai`anaes. 

They’re calling it Ka`ena, and it extends most of the way to Kaua`i. Now underwater, but once above the surface and connected to the rest of O`ahu.

(Image: This chart of the Hawaiian Islands shows the extended shallows to the west of O`ahu, which have now been identified as a separate volcano, Ka`ena, rather than a rift of the Wai`anae volcano. You can also see the spur to the southwest of Moloka`i, another volcano that forms Penguin Bank. Credit: USGS.)

O`ahu’s ancient shape is a lot, it turns out, like the configuration of Molokai, which has, from east to west, the volcano peaked by Kamakou, and the one at Maunaloa, and then the submerged volcano that forms Penguin Bank.

On the subject of the Ka`ena volcano, I refer you to Jim Borg’s excellent Honolulu Star-Advertiser piece on the Ka`ena volcano. If you're interested in the more technical view, here is an abstract of the original paper, written by a team led by John M. Sinton in the Bulletin of the Geological Society of America. 

Rather than review that information, I’ll make reference to a seemingly related nearly 60-year-old mystery, an apparent volcanic eruption in the Ka`ie`ie Channel, between Kaua`i and O`ahu.

It was May 23, 1956, a military flight over the channel spotted yellow water with debris on the surface and a distinct smell of sulfur in the air. Dead whales were reported in the area. Within days, pumice was reported washing ashore on O`ahu. 

There was lots of speculation at the time, some of which dismissed the reports. If there were an active volcanic vent between Kaua`i and O`ahu, we’d certainly know about it, after all.

Then, in 1991, a photographic survey of the ocean floor in the channel found fresh lava. The Associated Press report on that is here

Frisbee Campbell, vice president of the mapping firm Seafloor Surveys International, was quoted as saying, ''We found what looked like a very young lava flow. It could have been created yesterday or 100 years ago or 1,000 years ago, but it looks fresh, like you were looking at an area of the Big Island with a lava flow on it.''

Tom Wright, the respected long-time scientist in charge at Hawaiian Volcano Observatory, said that was consistent with the 1956 eruption.

Sinton’s new Ka`ena volcano report said it could not confirm a 1956 eruption from its own studies.
His paper suggested that the pumice that was found on O`ahu beaches was unlikely to have been from any late eruption activity on Ka`ena. Most references suggest pumice is formed during aerial eruptions, and it seems odd that pumice could form under the extreme pressure of an eruption a couple of thousand feet underwater. 

That said, the evidence of a mid-1900s volcanic incident in the Ka`ie`iewaho would seem compelling: yellow-brown water, dead marine life, the smell of sulfur, evidence of fresh lava on the channel floor, and now, news that there’s a big old volcano there.

 Ka`ena is reported from rock studies to be some 3.5 million years old, and Sinton's team said it once reached 3,000 feet above sea level. 

Interisland navigators have long known there's something odd going on underwater between Kaua`i and O`ahu, since the sea is very different on the O`ahu side of the channel than on the deeper Kaua`i side. It's one reason that the Ka`ie`ie channel has three distinct names: Ka`ie`ie Waho, Ka`ie`ie Waena and Ka`ie`ie Loko.

I'm guessing as to the boundaries identified by these ancient names, but I have paddled and sailed this channel, and the names make sense if understood this way:

If you have sailed on a trade wind day from Wai`anae to Nawiliwili, you will have known the calm, protected waters in the lee of O`ahu, the Ka`ie`ie Loko. 

And the steep, crashing waves over the shallower waters of what is know known as the Ka`ena volcano, the Ka`ie`ie Waena. 

And finally, the longer surfing swells as water deepens andKaua`i comes into sight, the Ka`ie`ie Waho.

Which raises the question of whether the new volcano ought to be named after a spot on the Wai`anae range, Ka`ena. Or should it have the Hawaiian name for the waters it creates: Ka`ie`ie Waena?

© Jan TenBruggencate 2014

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Climate change's evil twin, ocean acidification: chickens come home to roost.

The largely untold story of CO2 and climate change is, of course, ocean acidification: It’s here, now an starting to kill off marine life.

The oceans cover most of the Earth’s surface, and the oceans have taken up vast amounts of the carbon-dioxide pumped into the atmosphere by fossil fuel burning, deforestation and other activities.

Those chickens are coming home to roost. 

(Image: Ocean acidification is eroding the shells of a key tiny sea creature, the pteropod. The name means wing-foot, and refers to its split foot, which it uses like tiny flippers for movement. Credit NOAA.)

Mix CO2 with water and you get carbonic acid. It happens in a Coke bottle. And it happens in the laboratory. And sure enough, it happens in the ocean. The oceans have become more acid. And what does that matter?

Have you ever thrown a piece of seashell (alkaline) into a dish of vinegar (acid)? Try it. The shell sizzles and pops and eventually disappears.

The loss of shell-forming marine life was an early prediction about climate change. Now, it’s happening.

A study released May 1 shows that the shells of a small sea snail are dissolving. 

“We found 53% of onshore individuals and 24% of offshore individuals on average to have severe dissolution damage,” wrote the authors of this paper, referring to pteropods—a group of free-swimming deep-ocean sea snails.

 Here’s an easier-reading NOAA report on the same study.

Hawai`i has actually benefitted in one small way from acidification. Due to higher-acidity in upwellings off the West Coast, an oyster farming company moved its oyster hatchery to Hawaii. This story in theSeattle Times said: “Carbon dioxide from fossil-fuel emissions had turned seawater in Willapa Bay along Washington’s coast so lethal that slippery young Pacific oysters stopped growing.”

They can still grow the adult oysters in Washington waters, but the animals have trouble reproducing there.

In the Islands, there is concern that our coral reefs are at risk. Corals, after all, are made of calcium carbonate, an alkaline material that also makes up oyster and pteropod shells.

The National Climate Assessment’s Pacific section includes these words:

“The amount of calcium carbonate, the biologically important mineral critical to reef-building coral and to calcifying algae, will decrease as a result of ocean acidification. By 2035 to 2060, levels of one form of the mineral (aragonite) are projected to decline enough to reduce coral growth and survival around the Pacific, with continuing declines thereafter.”

Not to be too hysterical about this, if Hawai`i’s coral reefs begin dissolving, the potential impacts are severe: lost habitat for reef fish, lost snorkeling opportunity, disappeared surf breaks, lost coastal protection from wave can think of others.

© Jan TenBruggencate 2014