Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Newly described black coral species stands tall

Black coral is one of the gems of the islands, and now a new species of black coral has been discovered.

It was collected by the Pisces submersible, operated by the Hawai`i Undersea Reseach Lab, in waters 1,000 to 1,600 feet deep within the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument.

(Image: Leiopathes annosa, a newly described black coral off Hawai`i. Credit: NOAA/HURL/Chris Kelley.)

Researchers from NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries and the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural Resources described the new coral in the journal Zootaxa.  

The coral had been seen before, but had been misidentified as the same species as one found in the Mediterranean. A review of its features found it is a distinct species. It has been given the name Leiopathes annosa.

“The species is characterized by tall (1 m or more), fan-shaped colonies, with thick, sometimes overlapping branches, and tissues that are colored bright orange when alive,” the authors write.

The coral forms growth rings like trees, which can be used to establish their age. This coral, based on its growth rings, was found to be able to live more than 4,000 years. That helped determine its name species name. Annosa means long-lived.

NOAA report it may be the longest-living marine organism known.

“This research emphasizes how much can be learned from studying deep and pristine environments such as those found in the remote Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, of which only a small fraction has been explored,” said Daniel Wagner, a research specialist with the Papahānaumokuākea  Monument.

© Jan TenBruggencate 2015

Hawai`i old enough for fossils? Oh yeah.

A lot of folks think of fossils in terms of dinosaurs—things a couple of hundred million years old.

In the Hawaiian Islands, which emerged from the ocean far more recently, couldn’t have much of a fossil supply. Right?

Wrong. There are fossils all over the islands—fossil shells, fossil birds, even fossil plants.

Let’s start with what a fossil is. It can refer to a form of life that has been preserved in stone or converted to stone, like dinosaur bones. But a liberal definition is any evidence of a form of life from a distant time. Even the burrows of ancient animals are considered fossils.

Most of our island’s fossils are stone memorials of sealife or coastal life. 

They can be found on all the islands, but we'll focus on Kaua`i.

They are actually quite easy to find in sandstone fields, like the lithified (turned to stone) sand dunes of Maha`ulepu. There, fossil shells are common in the rock. Kaua`i geologist Chuck Blay, author of the book “Kaua`i’s Geological History,” regularly takes tours to fossils in geological formations.

Fossils of extinct Kaua`i birds have been uncovered in those same hardened dunes by Storrs Olson, curator emeritus of birds at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. His work proved that long before humans, numerous species of flightless ducks and geese  waddled the island’s shores.

At the Kaua`i South Shore’s Makauahi Sinkhole, paleoecologist David Burney has found sediments dating back to long before humans arrived on the island. The fossil array, preserved in moist sediment, has been just amazing.

There were shells, and bird bones, but also a really remarkable archive of the ancient botany of the island. Burney was able to find fossil pollen, bits of wood and ancient seeds, and to identify plant species that once lived in the region. 

One of the bits of evidence he was able to uncover was that the useful and attractive tree kou, Cordia subcordata, grew on these islands long before humans arrived. That was news, since it had long been assumed kou was brought by the first Hawaiian settlers in their canoes.

He also confirmed through pollen analysis that hala, Pandanus tectorius, fell into a similar category—it had previously been assumed a Polynesian introduction, but it was in the Islands long before humans.

There is additional fossil evidence for the hala—another kind of fossil. On a North Shore cliffside, in a lava flow several hundred thousand years old, are ancient hala impressions—molds in the black rock of hala fruit and hala trunks. 
It was fossil proof that a hala forest had stood on the island’s north shore when the island was still volcanically active. Since the first humans only arrived about a millennium ago, that makes hala clearly indigenous.

Similar fossils are formed during most volcanic eruptions, as lava flows through forests and creates tree molds and basalt "casts" of the plants they engulf.
Shell collectors like Reginald Gage have found evidence of many species of native land shells—now all extinct—in the soils of the island.

In sediment, sandstone, lava rock and soil, fossils, clearly, are all over the island.

(A version of this article first appeared in ForKauai magazine.)

© Jan TenBruggencate 2015

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Global food shortages under climate change: UH researchers

When climate change turns parts of the American grain belt into a dust bowl, and farming temperatures slide toward the poles, we can always move crops up to Canada, right?

Yes, but those fields won’t make up the loss, according to a team of University of Hawai`i researchers. Globally, suitable crop production land will actually decrease.

While the temperature may warm, the amount of sunlight available doesn’t. And expanded dry areas could also impact crop production.

“Areas in Russia, China, and Canada are projected to gain suitable plant growing days, but the rest of the world will experience losses. Notably, tropical areas could lose up to 200 suitable plant growing days per year.”

So writes a team is made up of Camilo Mora, Micah R. Fishe and Brandon M. Genco of the UH geography department, Iain R. Caldwell and Jamie M. Caldwell of the UH Hawai'i Institute of Marine Biology, and Steven W. Running of the University of Montana School of Forestry.

Their paper, “Suitable Days for Plant Growth Disappear under Projected Climate Change: Potential Human and Biotic Vulnerability,” was published June 10 in the journal PLOS Biology. 

Their calculations show that while days above freezing may increase 7 percent between now and 2100, actual suitable growing days decrease by 11 percent. 

“Using the latest generation of available climate projections we show that there will be fewer days with suitable climates for plant growth, despite an increase in days above freezing,” they write.

And, as often happens, the poorest populations will take the biggest hit.

“This decline in suitable plant growing days is due to interactions among unsuitable temperatures, light, and water availability. Our analysis shows that reductions in suitable plant growing days will be most pronounced in tropical areas and in countries that are among the poorest and most highly dependent on plant-related goods and services,” the authors write.

And at another level, if population continues to rise, that creates another threat.

“Human vulnerability could be further exacerbated because projected increases in human population are likely to result in a higher demand for diminishing plant-associated resources,” the authors write.

Here is Science Daily’s piece on the paper. "Plants may run out of time," it says.

Our headline mentions food, but the paper makes clear that it covers plant-based resources including food, paper, wood, meat, fiber, and animal by-products.”

© Jan TenBruggencate 2015

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Strange environmental stuff throughout the Pacific

Strange things are happening in our Pacific Ocean.

In the Hawaiian Islands, we’re seeing increasing coral disease, widening coastal erosion and reduced rainfall, all of which may be associated with climate change and its impacts. But there are other concerning impacts throughout the Pacific.

In Alaska, nine dead fin whales were found off Kodiak Island, with no obvious signs of injury or illness. 

In California, a massive toxic algae bloom is shutting down fisheries, as species of the alga  Pseudo-nitzschia floods the environment with neurotoxins that bioaccumulate in wildlife. Some sources suggest it may be the biggest such algae bloom ever.

Hundreds of thousands of dead red crabs are washing up on California beaches, apparently unrelated to the algae bloom, but associated with water temperature issues. 

"This is definitely a warm-water indicator. Whether it's directly related to El Nino or other oceanographic conditions is not certain," said Linsey Sala, collection manager for the Pelagic Invertebrates Collection at San Diego's Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

If climate change is a factor in all this, there’s another piece of data. 

Researchers have long worried about how much sea level rise we’ll get from melting glaciers in Greenland and Antarctica, but how they’re seeing significant impacts from Alaskan glaciers as well.

Those diminishing glaciers to our north will be a significant driver of sea level rise in coming years, say the authors of a new paper reviewed in Science Daily.

While mountain glaciers contain only a small fraction of total glacier ice, they are melting fast and represent as much as a third of all glacier melt contribution to sea level rise, says the study, “Surface Melt Dominates Alaska Glacier Mass Balance.” 

“Glaciers ending on land are losing mass exceptionally fast, overshadowing mass changes due to iceberg calving, and making climate-related melting the primary control on mountain glacier mass loss," said Chris Larsen, of the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, who was the study’s lead author.

Ocean acidity, which impacts all kinds of marine life, appears to be increasing dramatically in the far north. 

"The Pacific-Arctic region, because of its vulnerability to ocean acidification, gives us an early glimpse of how the global ocean will respond to increased human-caused carbon dioxide emissions, which are being absorbed by our ocean," said Jeremy Mathis, an oceanographer at NOAA's Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory.

Lots of strange stuff.

© Jan TenBruggencate 2015