Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Ocean acidity rising faster than feared

Ocean acidification, pronounced earlier on this blog as “the next big climate thing,” may be even bigger.

Australian researchers are arguing that their evidence shows the oceans are growing more acid faster than expected, and that the consequences could be on par with those of worldwide warming.

“Recent research into corals using boron isotopes indicates the ocean has become about one third of a pH unit more acid over the past fifty years. This is still early days for the research, and the trend is not uniform, but it certainly looks as if marine acidity is building up,” says Professor Malcolm McCulloch of the ARC Center of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies (CoECRS) and the Australian National University.

That sounds conservative, but McCulloch goes on to say: “It appears this acidification is now taking place over decades, rather than centuries as originally predicted. It is happening even faster in the cooler waters of the Southern Ocean than in the tropics. It is starting to look like a very serious issue.”

Australian researchers will review the latest science at the Coral Reef Futures 07 Forum this weekend (Oct. 19-20) in Canberra.

To summarize, there's a great deal more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere than there was a century ago, and the amount is continuing to increase as humans burn fossil fuels and forests. That CO2 mixes with water in the oceans to form carbonic acid, and slowly, the seas become more acidic.

That's a problem because a lot of the sea's creatures, including corals, shells and other things, have chalk skeletons that dissolve in the presence of acid, or at least form less readily in a more acid environment. Among things affected are certain plankton, which are a fundamental part of the oceanic food web—the stuff that tuna, whales and the other big creatures ultimately depend on.

“Analysis of coral cores shows a steady drop in calcification over the last 20 years. There’s not much debate about how it happens: put more CO2 into the air above and it dissolves into the oceans,” said Professor Ove Hoegh-Guldberg of CoECRS and the University of Queensland.

Hoegh-Guldberg did experiments in aquariums containing corals. When he increased CO2 levels in the air above the aquarium water, the corals stopped forming their skeletons, which are the source of reefs.

He also found that the rock-forming algae—coralline algae or red calcareous algae—that are another key reef builder, began to dissolve at high CO2 levels.

The oceans are still some time from that, but atmospheric CO2 has gone up from 305 to 385 parts per million from 1960 to now. If they reach 500 parts per million, “you put calcification out of business in the oceans,” Hoegh-Guldberg said.
“As an issue it’s a bit of a sleeper. Global warming is incredibly serious, but ocean acidification could be even more so.”

© 2007 Jan W. TenBruggencate

For information about the Australian forum, see:

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Why did Polynesians voyage? Because they had to.

Modern archaeological work is closely pinning down the dates of Polynesian habitation of the Pacific, but what drove them into the Pacific in the first place?

Perhaps resource shortages due to climate and sea level change.

(At right: The Polynesian Voyaging Society's double-hulled canoe Hokule'a, its red sails wet from a passing squall, tests Polynesian sailing techniques. Jan TenBruggencate photo.)

A pair of researchers argues that past climate change and sea level have had significant impacts on human migrations that occurred thousands of years ago in the Pacific and tens of thousands of years ago in the Asian coastal regions.

They argue that a drop in sea level roughly 4,000 years ago could have dried up lagoons and estuaries in the far southwestern Pacific, suddenly creating limits in what had previously been a resource-rich area. The response, the scientists say, could have been the launch of a seafaring culture unprecedented in the history of the world--Polynesia.

In the Journal of Biogeography, Kevin Pope of Geo Eco Arc Research and John Terrell of The Field Museum, say their evidence finds that people have moved in response to periods when climate and sea level made it easier to do so—or made it hard not to. Their paper is “Environmental setting of human migrations in the circum-Pacific region.”

A big expansion into the Pacific coasts of Asia occurred during a period when conditions were favorable, 50,000 to 40,000 years ago, they write.

“It is possible that modern humans reached southern Asia by 80,000 (years before present), but the meagre archaeological evidence for these early colonizers suggests that, if they existed, their populations were kept small by the unstable environments” before 50,000 years ago.

Thailand, Australia, New Guinea, the Philippines, Indonesia and nearby areas all were inhabited in this period after 50,000 years ago, the authors say. It was an amazing era of widespread human migration, all during just a few thousand years.

“A period of relatively stable climate and sea level from(about) 45,000 (years before present) to 40,000 (years before present) supported a rapid coastal expansion of modern humans throughout much of Southeast Asia, enabling them to reach the coasts of northeast Russia and Japan by 38,000–37,000 (years before present,)” Pope and Terrell write.

Then there was a period of colder weather that inhibited further occupation of new territories. It was the last glacial period, and it lasted from roughly 33,000 to 16,000 years ago. Other sources say that glacial period peaked about 20,000 years ago. During rapid cooling or warming, sea levels can change dramatically, either flooding coastal habitations or leaving them too far from the sea to be useful.

At the end of that period, ice retreated and seas rose. The authors say that it wasn't until about 16,000 years ago that sea level rise had slowed to the point that coastal territories could be confidently occupied. That's even though they were still 300 feet below today's levels.

It seems reasonable to assume that a culture need an extended period of coastal living time to develop significant maritime skills. Yet early Asian coastal folks did have some marine voyaging capabilities, which helped them cross channels of several dozen miles to get to islands near the Asian coast.

The authors say that a marked increase in rich estuaries, reefs and lagoon ecosystems developed between 12,000 and 7,000 years ago, and that a lot of coast development occurred during this period.

Scientists use the term Holocene to refer to the period from 10,000 or 11,000 years ago to now. It is within this comparatively short period during which occurred virtually all of the history of Polynesia.

“The most notable late Holocene human expansion is the settlement of the numerous islands in Oceania, which began (about) 3500–3000 (years before present), ultimately reaching Hawaii and Easter Island in the last 1000–2000 years,” Pope and Terrell write.

The authors tackle the question of why it didn't happen earlier.

Perhaps seagoing skills hadn't yet developed to the point they reached at this period. Perhaps the culture had not yet developed a “well-adapted and 'portable' agricultural technology to support long-range colonization efforts.”

Those ideas have been suggested by others, but Pope and Terrell suggest the real reasons are different. Climate and sea level change may be the key, they argue.

Perhaps a dynamic culture with a large population capable of undertaking resource-costly voyaging missions couldn't exist until “the sea-level rise slowed down sufficiently to permit the development of coastal lagoon and estuary ecosystems capable of supporting large permanent coastal settlements.”

They figure that didn't happen until 7,000 years ago. But significant expansion by the Lapita culture—ancestors to today's Polynesians—didn't happen until 4,000 years ago. Why the lag?

The authors suggest that another period of sea level change—this time a drop in sea levels during the period when voyaging began—caused estuary, reef and lagoon ecosystems to dry up and become less productive.

So why did early Polynesians voyage? Because they could, and because they had to, Pope and Terrell write.

“We propose that a more likely environmental cause of the Lapita expansion was resource scarcity, which drove people to search for new, more productive habitats... Sea-level fluctuations in the mid-Holocene (6,000–4,000 years ago) disrupted coastal environments and settlements and may have helped to initiate the last stage of human expansion in the Pacific, namely the settling of Oceania,” they write.

Lapita is the name for an a kind of ornamented pottery found at older sites throughout many parts of the western Pacific, associated with a culture considered ancestral to the Polynesian. Lapita pottery was carried into the central Pacific but not into the youngest, generally easternmost parts of Polynesia.

© 2007 Jan W. TenBruggencate

Friday, October 12, 2007

The view of Pluto is great from up here

A University of Hawai'i's astronomer David Tholen has taken the clearest images ever from Earth of Pluto, its big moon Charon and its two smaller moons, Nix and Hydra.

Nix and Hydra were only discovered two years ago from the Hubble Space Telescope, but they stand out clearly in this image, pinpoints of light that are distinct from the streaked objects in the background. From left to right, they are Pluto, Charon, Nix and Hydra. Hydra appears slightly brighter than nix.

Nix and Hydra are about 5,000 times fainter than Pluto, and can't be clearly imaged with Pluto in the frame. As a result, Tholen combined images to create the picture that has all four of the objects in it.

Astronomers have been having fun naming this group. Pluto is the ruler of the underworld in Greek mythology. Charon is the skipper of the boat that carries human souls across the river Styx to Pluto's world.

Nyx, the goddess of the night, was Charon's mother. Astronomers used the spelling Nix because Nyx was taken. And Hydra, a serpent with nine heads, is the grisly guard of Pluto's dark terrain.

The image doesn't address the prickly issue of whether Pluto ought to be called a planet or not, but it certainly seems to have a lot of moons for something that's not.

Tholen, of the university's Institute for Astronomy, created the image after spending an hour focusing one of the twin Keck Telescopes atop Mauna Kea on Pluto. A bunch of things came together to help make the images even clearer than anything the Hubble Space Telescope could produce.

The Kecks are among the biggest light-gathering scopes in the world. He used adaptive optics, a technology that corrects for distortions of the Earth's atmosphere. And that Sept. 5 night was simply a really good night for a clear view of the sky, he said.

"Several favorable factors occurred simultaneously to yield these spectacular images of the Pluto system," Tholen said. "The natural seeing was better than average that night, more sensitive wavefront sensors were installed on the telescope, and Pluto was at its maximum brightness, thereby giving the improved adaptive optics system more light with which to work its magic," he said.

Tholen said he hopes to use information from the images to help learn more about Nix and Hydra, which are believed to be 100 kilometers (about 60 miles) or less in diameter. By contrast, Pluto is 2,300 kilometers and Charon 1,212 kilometers in diameter.

© 2007 Jan W. TenBruggencate

For more images and more information on the subject, see the Institute for Astronomy site

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Superferry Maui ruling: rolling rocks

Deep inside a Maui judge's ruling on the Hawai'i Superferry are key pieces of information about the case.

Perhaps the most important is that Circuit Court Judge Joseph Cardoza joined the Hawai'i Supreme Court in concluding that the ferry's requirement under the state's environmental law to perform an environmental study is inescapable.

In retrospect, one wonders how anyone reading the law could have thought otherwise.

Cardoza, who previously ruled in favor of the ferry, said that the arguments for a study were persuasive.

His words: “...Plaintiffs have demonstrated the possibility of irreparable injury with respect to the environmental impacts of Hawaii Superferry operations on natural resources, protected species, increased introduction of invasive species and causing social and cultural impacts.”

He ordered the Hawai'i Department of Transportation not to allow the Superferry to use the ferry's Kahului Harbor terminal until “the environmental review process..has been lawfully concluded.”

Cardoza further voided the Superferry's operating agreement with the Department of Transportation, although only specifically in connection with Kahului Harbor.

The agreement was ruled void, he said clearly, “because it was not preceded by the requisite environmental assessment which was a condition precedent to approval of the request and commencement of the proposed action.”

Cardoza previous had ruled that the Department of Transportation's decision not to require an environmental assessment was okay. But in his latest decision he was constrained by the Hawai'i Supreme Court's take on the issue.

The Supreme Court said the Department of Transportation had failed to consider “whether its facilitation of the Hawaii Superferry Project will probably have minimal or no significant impacts, both primary and secondary, on the environment.”

That's the legal theory that you must not roll a rock down a hill without considering what happens when it gets to the bottom of the hill.

Perhaps the most intriguing question in a Honolulu Star-Bulletin poll on the ferry was this:

The poll found that 40 percent of Hawai'i residents felt it would not be a “problem” if the ferry ran into a whale.

Not a problem for whom?

It would clearly be a problem for the whale.

And given the kind of scrutiny previous Hawai'i vessel-whale impacts have gotten, it would just as clearly be a problem for the Superferry.

Who's left not to have a problem?

The poll respondents themselves, maybe.

© 2007 Jan W. TenBruggencate

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Laysan duck boom on Midway

The great Laysan duck expansion on Midway Atoll is going gangbusters.

The population on Midway is now roughly a quarter that on Laysan, and it's still growing.

It's a really successful attempts to provide an endangered population with the protection created by having a backup home turf.

Laysan ducks (Anas laysanensis), sometimes called Laysan teals, once occurred throughout the Hawaiian Islands, but their populations were destroyed off Laysan Island in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. The loss of the animals may have been due to human predation, rats, habitat loss and other factors.

Laysan, a sandy island with a central super-salty lake, was their last refuge. A century ago, their population was down to about a dozen birds. With the removal of the last rabbits, which had eaten most of the plants on the island, the vegetation and the ducks started to recover.

Still, fearful that a tsunami, a hurricane or other disaster could wipe out the last of the Laysan ducks, biologists decided to establish a second population at Midway Atoll. Workers dug pits down to the water table, to provide a little wetland habitat. The crew of the voyaging canoe Hokule'a got into the act by transporting from Laysan to Midway some of the sedges that the ducks favor, and they were planted along the ponds..

And in late 2004, a group of 20 ducks was transferred from Laysan to Midway, followed by 22 more in 2005. They thrived, wrote John Klavitter, biologist with the Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge.

“The ducks are doing great.

“In 2005 we had 12 fledglings. 2006 we had 60. In 2007 thus far we have at least 100 and are hopeful for 150,” Klavitter said in an email.

“With 100 fledglings confirmed so far, our population is about 200. It's amazing to
see this success with an original founder population of 42,” he said.

An update on the ducks was printed in the new newsletter, Ka Palapala Ho'omaopopo, of the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. It said volunteers have worked 20,000 hours building the habitat, clearing weeds and planting the species the ducks prefer.

“Lots of people have made this project possible - Michelle Reynolds, Mark Vekasy, Leona
Laniawe, Jimmy Breeden, myself, many many volunteers, and many more people,” Klavitter said.

© 2007 Jan W. TenBruggencate

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Sustainability expertise common in Hawai'i, just ask the old-timers

Sustainability is the new watchword, the mantra for a generation with its eyes open.

But it's not new. It's old.

It may surprise some to know that there is a unique, large reservoir in the Islands of people with special knowledge and training in sustainability. Many of those people may not even know they have the information, but it's there.

They're the tens of thousands of folks aged, say, 50 and older, who lived in Hawai'i during the early to middle part of the last century—and particularly those who lived in outlying areas. That would include anywhere on the Neighbor Islands (Outer Islands in those days), and plantations and other rural areas of O'ahu.

It was a place and time when virtually everything was scanned for its potential secondary value before being thrown away. And even then, somethings would be simply set aside, in case you thought of a use for them later.

I was raised on an isolated pineapple plantation on west Molokai.

We didn't do so much recycling in the sense of converting materials back to raw materials for the construction of new things. Instead, we found new end uses for old things.

I was reminded of this recently while reading a commentary in The Honolulu Advertiser by Maui Land & Pine's chairman, David Cole.

“In an earlier era,” he wrote, “we purchased items in bulk and reused our jars, cans and rice sacks. Today, we import a nonstop parade of trash in the form of packaging for which there is no after-market on the island...”

In Cole's “earlier era,” we found new uses for all kinds of stuff..

Our families didn't throw away fabric, for instance.

Rice bags had value once the rice had all been steamed and loaded into kaukau tins. The fabric was resewn into surf shorts, and occasionally into shirts.

Those little cloth sacks that tobacco came in were tied around the mouths of faucets to catch bits of rust and debris from plantation waterlines.

Glass jars were used to store all kinds of stuff—wood screws in the shop, sugar in the kitchen (to keep out ants). Even when the lids had rusted away, the glass jar could still be used for jams and jellies and chutneys, with a poured-in wax cap.

An old soda bottle might become a chili pepper water container.

Many modern plastic items would age, go brittle and crack—becoming useless—while a glass container worked on and on.

Old coffee cans took the place of small plastic buckets today, and were also used in the shop to store drill bits, old nails, oily lawnmower parts and all the rest.

Smaller tin cans that once held peaches in syrup, baked and green beans and other food were used as small potting tins to start vegetables for the garden. Or to hold paint for small painting jobs. Or for storing kids' marbles.

Food waste fed pets and livestock, or went into a pit.

I remember one year being impressed by the trash pit—today it would be referred to as a compost pit—at a place where we used to go fishing. I was impressed because instead of a pit, it was a dense mat of melon vines. The melon seeds that had been thrown in were growing, fertilized by years of vegetable peelings, slop, bread crumbs, and, yes, a few rusty cans. This particular year, the trash pit yielded juicy melons.

Reusing things was the standard in those days.

Even our outdoor trash cans had previous uses. They were old 55-gallon fuel drums with the tops cut out.

My first bike was a used, fat-tired retread that my dad had painted green. It was indestructible, which was a good thing, because I was hard on it.

My first car had a 16-year-old body and 18-year-old engine—the result of taking the best parts of two cars that didn't work to make one that did.

Can we survive in a society in which we use less stuff? Of course. We already have, and actually, it wasn't that long ago.

© 2007 Jan W. TenBruggencate

Hawaiian water rights and ancient law: Book Review

In the bad old days of burning rivers and farmers dispossessed of crop-irrigating water, the powerless and their lawyers had few ready legal remedies.

But over time, persistent efforts brought ancient legal precedent to bear, to solve modern problems. It happened in Hawai'i—where early Hawaiian legal concepts were brought into modern koa-paneled courtrooms—and across the nation.

A new book by a nationwide array of legal experts, edited by University of Hawaii law professor Denise Antolini and Golden Gate University law professor Clifford Rechtschaffen, reviews the progress of common law and the environment.

“Creative Common Law Strategies for Protecting the Environment,” edited by Clifford Rechtschaffen and Denise Antolini, 2007, 426 pages, $69.96, Environmental Law Institute, Washington, DC.

As Boalt Hall professor Joseph Sax wrote in the preface, “the traditional common law remedies were utterly inadequate to deal with contemporary environmental problems, and a whole new body of law—indeed a new conception of law—was needed.”

Among the weapons available to a lawyer are the written law—the Clean Water Act, for example—and common law, which might be described as legal custom. It is law that may not be a legal statute, but which has developed over the years by judges ruling on specific cases.

One example: using trespass laws to address pollution. The smoke from your stack, or the offal you dump into the river, are trespassing in my air or in the water that runs by my town.

Hawai'i lawyers Kapua'ala Sproat and Isaac Moriwake, both with Earthjustice, write a chapter in the book that reviews the issue of native Hawaiian access to water, with specific reference to the water battles of Waiahole Valley, whose water had been diverted for a century through a tunnel to the dry fields of central O'ahu.

The battle to refill the windward valley's streams recalled ancient Hawaiian concepts of water and the property rights of the period of the Hawaiian monarchy.

One of the key theories of the battle was the precautionary principle—the concept that steps should be taken to mitigate the effects of a use that might cause public harm, even in the absence of scientific proof of that harm.

Another theory was that the state has a responsibility to manage natural resources as a public trust.

The result of years of legal battle and communty unrest was an entirely new framework for thinking about water. It's a way, Sproat and Moriwake say, that harkens back to the understanding of property rights of the days before the overthrow of the Hawaiian kingdom.

© 2007 Jan W. TenBruggencate

Monday, October 1, 2007

The view from Hawai'i is shocking—telescopes are showing galaxies colliding and evidence that matter is being ripped apart.

In the artist's illustration shown above (credit CXC/M. Weiss) the red color represents hot gas while the blue represents dark matter. Yellow spots represent individual galaxies. The weirdness: The big pink ball in the middle represents the densest dark matter, but there are no galaxies there. Why are the galaxies and the dark matter separate?

Astrophysicists, writing in an October 2007 issue of The Astrophysical Journal, say are baffled by data that suggests the mysterious “dark matter” is behaving in ways that violate known principles.

Dark matter is a kind of theoretical fix. Astronomers, trying to make sense of calculations that show there's not enough matter in the universe to account for its observed behavior, suggest there's something else out there that we can't see, but which adds significantly to the mass of the universe. Really significant—most of the matter in the universe is believed to be the mysterious dark matter.

In some ways dark matter is believed to act like regular or “light” matter, but it's impossible to detect, except indirectly. It doesn't emit detectable light or radiation. However, while you may not see the dark matter, you know it's there because it has gravity and its presence can bend light.

And it is believed to populate the university generally alongside regular matter.

“Nearly all of our observations and inferences support the conclusion that dark matter and stars concentrate together in the same areas. The abundance of dark matter relative to stars varies with the size of the object under consideration, but we're not accustomed to finding blobs of dark matter 'all by themselves,'” said Adam Bolton, at the University of Hawai'i's Institute for Astronomy, in an email.

So it was a surprise when astronomers pointed NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory, Mauna Kea's Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope, and Mauna Kea's Subaru Telescope, at a galaxy cluster called Abell 520, where two galaxies were crashing into each other.

What they found was a region that had plenty of galaxies but very little dark matter, and another area with lots of dark matter and hot gas but few galaxies

Astronomers are not easily blow away, but here's what researcher, University of Victoria's Hendrik Hoekstra, said in a press release: “It blew us away that it looks like the galaxies are removed from the densest core of dark matter. This would be the first time we've seen such a thing and could be a huge test of our knowledge of how dark matter behaves."

"These results challenge our understanding of the way clusters merge. Or, they possibly make us even reexamine the nature of dark matter itself," said Dr. Andisheh Mahdavi of the University of Victoria, British Columbia.

The group plans more research to try to figure out what's going on. One of the suggestions is that dark matter may be even stranger than previously thought—that it has its own attractive force in addition to gravity, a force that would keep the dark matter together but would allow light matter to spin away.

Bolton, who was not part of the research team, said he anticipates that more observation will yield clues that suggest that dark matter really isn't misbehaving (at least according to currently accepted rules).

“If more sensitive observations confirm the authors' conclusion, I and many others will be convinced that there is a great puzzle here!” he said.

“Like many scientists, I tend to take a wait-and-see attitude towards a result like this. If it really, truly holds up, then it is extraordinary. But as the old saw goes, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence...”

© 2007 Jan W. TenBruggencate