Friday, November 30, 2007

Amazing upper Wainiha Valley set for protection

The Nature Conservancy of Hawai'i has teamed up with landowner Alexander & Baldwin to actively protect one of the most remote, stunningly beautiful pieces of Hawai'i—the upper Wainiha Valley.

This region, deep in the center of Kaua'i, is protected on all sides except for its streambed by high cliffs. The plunging valleys drop directly to the cold, fast-running Wainiha stream. The only reasonable way to reach the area is via helicopter.

(Photo: This native mint Phyllostegia helleri, once thought extinct, was rediscovered in Wainiha Valley by the photographer, Ken Wood, of the National Tropical Botanical Garden, and the Nature Conservancy's Trae Menard.)

Wainiha is a 12-mile long valley, extending southward from the island's north shore and then taking a dogleg southeast to Wai'ale'ale, the mile-high bog lands at the heart of the island. The protected area includes 5,750 acres representing the half of the valley inland from the dogleg, nearest Wai'ale'ale. The reserve additionally includes 1,300 acres of the Wai'ale'ale summit and the adjacent Alaka'i Swamp plateau.

Upper Wainiha is so isolated that it is the legendary last refuge of the Hawaiian Menehune, the mythical precursors of modern Hawaiians. No one could challenge that there were Menehune in these forested hinterlands, because no one went there.

“The upper region of Wainiha is as close to pristine as any valley system can get in the Hawaiian Islands,” said Sam Gon III, Nature Conservancy senior scientist and cultural advisor.

(Photo: Wainiha Valley, by John De Mello, The Nature Conservancy)

Throughout much of wild Hawai'i, there has for decades been a paradigm of benign conservation—drawing lines around regions on maps and declaring them preserved. That has been the case with upper Wainiha, but its remoteness, not the lines on maps, have protected it—until now.

Conservancy Kaua'i program director Trae Menard cited three new threats to once-pristine Wainiha: the invasive weeds clidemia and Australian tree fern, and wild pigs.

“Australian tree fern is the biggest threat. And it’s urgent, because right now we have a narrow window of opportunity to try to get in there and control it,” Menard said.

He estimated that well within 20 years, it could be dense enough in the valley to shade out much of the native wildlife.

Controlling the invading fern is important because of how much native stuff is still living in this rugged green valley.

Wainiha is so native that most Hawai'i residents would not recognize its wildlife.

Its forests contain 127 species of endemic Hawaiian plants, 41 of them found only on Kaua'i and several of them endangered. They include the native laua'e, the thick-leaved maile-scented fern that adorned hula dancers before it became rare they they resorted to an introduced fern.

In the stream are native gobies and the endangered Newcomb's snail, a tiny aquatic animal that crawls on its rocks.

The trees provide homes for an array of native forest birds, among them the ‘elepaio, ‘apapane, ‘amakihi, ‘akikiki and akeke‘e. And Hawaiian petrels, 'ua'u, nest in the cliffs.

Conservancy executive director Suzanne Case called upper Wainiha “a treasure chest.”

The Wainiha reserve will be the third-largest private nature reserve in the state. A&B will continue to own the land, but under an agreement announced earlier this month, the Conservancy will manage it for a period of 10 years.

A&B Foundation contributed $100,000 to help fund the conservation program.

“Our company has confidence in The Nature Conservancy’s capabilities and we are pleased to partner with them to pursue our common goal of ensuring the protection of this valuable natural resource for generations to come,” said A&B chief executive officer Allen Doane.

One benefit to A&B is that complex native forest is thought to be better watershed than a forest of alien species, A&B uses the water from Waihiha to run the state's largest hydroelectric facility, its Wainiha Hydroelectric Plant.

“Protecting the native forest that is the source of that water helps insure an important renewable source of energy for the future,” Doane said.

© 2007 Jan W. TenBruggencate

Conservancy press release and video:

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Polynesians were in Americas, but left no clear genetic trace

An extensive survey of the genetic makeup of native Americans—north and south—show no markers to indicate Polynesians contributed significantly.

That doesn't mean early Pacific voyagers didn't visit the western coasts of the Americas. There is evidence they did. But it suggests they didn't stay, or at least didn't stay in significant enough numbers to leave a genetic footprint.

(Photo: The Hawaiian-designed voyaging canoe Alingano Maisu, at the dock at Kawaihae, Hawai'i, before crossing the Pacific this year, showing that Polynesian canoes and crews were fully capable of accurate long-distance voyaging. Jan TenBruggencate photo.)

“From these analyses, there is no compelling evidence for a Polynesian contribution to South American genetic variation.

“I am unable to say whether there was admixture that was too limited to be detected by our analysis,” said Cecil M. Lewis Jr., an anthropologist at the University of Oklahoma.

He is one of the main authors of a massive scientific endeavor, which looked at genetic material from native Americans from the Arctic down the southern point of South America, and from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

The paper, “Genetic Variation and Population Structure in Native Americans,” was published this month in the online scientific journal PloS Genetics. The other primary authors are Sijia Wang of University College London's Galton Laboratory, and Mattias Jakobsson, of the University of Michigan's Department of Human Genetics. Two dozen other researchers from around the world also participated.

They took genetic samples from 422 individuals in 24 American native ethnic groups, and conducted detailed studies.

Among their conclusions:

► The Americas were most likely populated in a single colonization event from Siberia across a land bridge through the Bering Strait area. “The lower level of genetic diversity observed in the Americas compared to other continental regions is compatible with a reduction in population size associated with a geographically discrete founding,” the authors wrote.

► But while that's the best guess, “similar patterns could result from gene flow across the Bering Strait in the last few thousand years, together with continual interactions between neighbors on both sides of the Bering Strait.”

The people of the early Americas are clearly related: “at each step in the migration, a subset of the population splitting off from a parental group moves deeper into the Americas, taking with it a subset of the genetic variation present in the parental population.”

► The habitation of the Americas started down the oceanic coasts, and moved inland later. The western (Pacific) coast of South America was populated before the eastern and Amazon basin areas.

As you might expect, groups of native Americans with similar languages are generally similar genetically.

Does this work refute suggestions that Polynesians made contact with the Americas? Certainly not. It simply says that Polynesians didn't contribute a great deal to the genetic makeup of the American natives.

Other genetic work shows that Polynesian settlement occurred generally from west to east across the Pacific.

Within the past year, researchers have published genetic work indicating that the chickens found in coastal sites in Chile were the same as the chickens the Polynesians carried across the Pacific. It was the first hard evidence of a Polynesian “thing” in the Americas.

Previously, the American sweet potato has been located throughout the Pacific, but there was no clear proof of how it got there.

Increasingly, the evidence is that Polynesians were such remarkable ocean voyagers that they could readily have conducted back-and-forth voyages across great distances throughout the Pacific.

The most recent evidence of such voyaging was an adze found in the Tuamotu Archipelago, which was made of stone quarried on Kaho'olawe Island in the Hawaiian Archipelago. First, Polynesians needed to voyage to Hawai'i, in the North Pacific, from their South Pacific origins, and then, they had to sail back to deliver the adze stone.

The chickens appear to be proof of at least one voyage east to the Americas, and the sweet potato increasingly appears to be proof of voyaging back west from the Americas. The Kaho'olawe-Tuamotu adze appears to be proof of at least one voyage north to Hawai'i and then south to the Tuamotus.

Future archaeological and genetic work will doubtless provide further proof of frequent voyaging.

One thing the Wang-Lewis-Jakobsson genetic work, combined with other recent work, suggests is that while Polynesians were great voyagers, they tended not to settle in areas that were already inhabited.

© 2007 Jan W. TenBruggencate

See the paper:

For more information, see previous stories on

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Fountain grass: Darwin-defying super-weed?

Fountain grass is among the really problem weeds of Hawai'i, but globally, it may be more than a problem weed.

It may, in fact, be a global superweed, violating understood standards of plant behavior.

(Photo: Big Island fountain grass. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service photo by Marie Bruegmann.)

A team of scientists from the University of Hawai'i suggest the grass constitutes a “super-genotype.” They are Johannes Le Roux, Ania Wieczorek and Carol Tran of the university's Department of Tropical Plant and Soil Sciences, and Mark Wright of the Department of Plant and Environmental Sciences.

Their paper, “Super-Genotype: Global Monoclonality Defies the Odds of Nature,” was published this summer on the Public Library of Science's peer-reviewed online journal PLoS ONE.

Fountain grass is a problem in Hawai'i not only because it expands quickly and competes aggressively. It's also a fire fuel and is fire tolerant. That means it helps a fire sweep across the landscape by being readily ignited, and it recovers quickly from fire—often much faster than native plants.

It can be attractive in a garden setting, and has accomplished some of its expansion through escaping from cultivation. It is native to northern Africa. The paper's authors say it is now found, in addition to Hawai'i and the Mainland United States, in Australia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Fiji, Namibia, South Africa, Swaziland, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

But it is not equally invasive in each environment. As an example, they say, while it readily invades native forest areas in Hawai'i, it primarily goes into disturbed areas in South Africa and appears to be mainly along roadsides in Namibia.

The authors conducted genetic studies on the grasses, and found that there is amazingly little variability among them. Samples from “South Africa, Namibia, Egypt, Hawaii, Arizona and California share a single genotype.”

And yet, the grasses are growing in remarkably different environments. Highlands and lowlands, wet and dry, and some areas with significant limits on the amount of nitrogen available.

Most plants don't do well when you move them from one environment to a dramatically different one, although if they survive, their offspring after a few generations may evolve the capability to do well in the new situation.

The suggestion of the authors is that the fountain grass has a dramatic inherent ability to respond immediately to new environments, rather than needing to evolve to adapt to new circumstances.

Why would this be the case? They suggest that at some point in its past, in their native terrain, these fountain grass types “were exposed to constant environmental conditions that were extremely hostile” and rapidly fluctuating between dry and wet.

The researchers call this kind of flexible adaptiveness “plasticity,” and they suggest that fountain grass gave up for its plasticity some of its ability to evolve genetically. That's why, in widely separated parts of the world, fountain grass looks essentially the same genetically.

This is a pretty new idea in conservation biology. The standard story of the progression of life in places like Hawai'i and the Galapagos has been that of species—whether birds, plants or insects—that settle into new environmental niches, and then evolve to best take advantage of those niches.

Fountain grass represents another view: that some species carry a bag of tricks that lets them survive anywhere.

“In contrast to typical Darwinian evolution, the single super-genotype identified here persists and survives exposure under most environmental conditions. Further examination of other species may reveal further super-genotypes, and it may be found that this is a more common, significant but hitherto overlooked mechanism driving survival and local fitness of plant populations.”

© 2007 Jan W. TenBruggencate

See the article:

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Forest birds, beetles and koa trees: size matters

If you replant a koa forest, how soon does it become useful habitat for native creatures?

It seems to be a matter of, if you build it, they will come. But both age and location also matter, according to research by Steve Goldsmith of Austin College in Texas.

(Photo: 'Akiapōlā'au on a tree. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.)

Goldsmith worked in the Hakalau Forest National Wildlife Refuge, where more than 30,000 acres of a native forest sweep up and down from an elevation a mile high on the windward slopes of Mauna Kea.

Some of that forest has never been logged, but other sectors were converted a century or more ago to pasture and are being replanted in koa in other species.

Goldsmith's work was on the density of beetles in the koa trees. The beetles, while they are pests to the koa trees, are a part of the native ecosystem, and they're a food source for native birds, notably the 'akiapōlā'au, whose Latin name is Hemignathus munroi.

These yellow native forest birds are remarkable in part because their beaks form two separate tools. A stout, short lower beak is used woodpecker-like for excavating trees, while their longer, slender and curved upper beak is used for probing and pulling out food items, like beetles.

Among their prey are a pair of longhorned beetle species found only in Hawai'i, Plagithmysus claviger and Plagithmysus varians. These bore into dead branches of koa trees.

The goal of Goldsmith and fellow researchers Hayley Gillespie and Cole Weatherby was to determine how the age of the forest affected the population of the beetles. Their work was published in the September 2007 edition of The Southwestern Naturalist.

They studied young koa plantations that were planted 3 to 8 years earlier, middle-aged plantations with trees 12 to 15 years old, and then compared those with ancient trees that formed the canopy in native forest.

The result, perhaps predictable, was that the older, bigger trees have more dense populations of beetles.

Goldsmith, in an email, said “that the trees of the intact forest harbors the most beetles (per branch), that the trees of the older plantations have fewer beetles per branch (but still substantial numbers), and that the trees of the young plantations have the fewest beetles per branch.”

To a certain point, the fact that bigger trees have bigger dead branches accounts for the difference, although there is a point where getting a lot bigger doesn't seem to make a great deal of difference, he said.

Also, the beetles seem to be gregarious critters. Branches tend to have either a colony of them, or none at all. The Goldsmith team did not find many branches with solitary beetles.

In a second article in the same journal, Goldsmith noted that beetles change density with elevation.

The koa trees on the high, colder slopes have fewer beetles than lower slopes. Goldsmith said both climate and seasonal changes appear to be at play in the density difference by elevation.

Goldsmith credited the management team at Hakalau Forest National Wildlife Refuge for improving the habitat for native creatures.

“The folks at the refuge deserve a lot of credit and recognition for their hard work to preserve what is left of Hawaiian montane forest and its biota,” he said.

Scientists have long known that for many native bird species, a mature forest has more value than a young one, not only for things like insect food, but things like the presence of cavities that can be used for nesting.

© 2007 Jan W. TenBruggencate

Monday, November 19, 2007

Counting populations: Superferries and tropicbirds

The August Superferry protests on Kaua'i challenged my crowd-counting skills, and reinforced the value of accurate population assessments.
(Image: Red-tailed tropicbird and chick. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service photo.)

Counting individuals, or development techniques to develop reasonably accurate counts, are valuable in assessing the size of crowds of humans, but also crowds of critters, as we will see later in this article.

In my case, the work was comparatively simple. One media account said there were 1,000 people at the protest of Superferry Alakai's first sailing to Kaua'i. Superferry representatives were claiming the crowd on the Nāwiliwili Jetty was no larger than 150.

I've been counting crowds for nearly 40 years in lots of circumstances. It's fairly easy when they're in a stadium or auditorium because you have a known number of seats, which brackets the possible crowd count. (If the place seats 5,000 and the fire department's on hand, you won't get more than 5,000. You can ask about ticket sales, count full seats, count empty seats, or do representative samplings to get a number. Or use a combination of these technques.)

Milling crowds in the open are more difficult.

I used a couple of different crowd-counting techniques for the Superferry crowd, employing one method as a check on the other. I came up with close to 300, and that's the number I used to describe the crowd on the first day of the protest.

But because the numbers from other media and those asserted by Superferry supporters were so different, on Protest Day Two, I did my calculations and then backed those calculations up with an actual census by simply walking from one end to another and counting every single individual. The Nāwiliwili Jetty crowd was strung out for about a quarter mile, so the counting was pretty easy and only took a few minutes.

My initial calculated estimates on the second day of the protest came in at about 250, and my actual count came to 310—the difference largely because when I walked the crowd I found there was a clutch of a few dozen protesters at the mauka end inside Niumalu Park, a group I hadn't seen earlier.

Crowd-counting ain't rocket science, but it does require a little attention to detail.

I had what you might call a “high degree of confidence” in my numbers, but we still had people calling the newsroom to tell us our numbers were wrong. You get a lot of that—criticism from people who either have an ax to grind, who are mistaken or who are pathetically lacking a clue.

For scientists counting wildlife, the numbers can be more important. You want them to be accurate enough that you can distinguish long-term trends.

In a November issue of the journal Biological Conservation, Nathaniel Seavy and Michelle Reynolds, both of the U.S. Geological Survey's Pacific Islands Ecosystem Research Center, Kïlauea Field Station, on the Big Island, reviewed population counts for red-tailed tropicbirds at Tern Island in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.

Their paper is entitled, “Is statistical power to detect trends a good assessment of population monitoring?”

One of the things they were trying to determine: If the population of a species drops 50 percent over time, are your counts accurate enough to detect it?

In this situation, you need to understand that at Tern Island, seabirds don't come in individuals. They come in clouds. Of some species, there are tens of thousands. How do one or two people wandering a little island count those kinds of numbers?

With birds, there are all kinds of difficulties. At any given time, some of the population might be sitting on the nest, but some of the population might be feeding. The proportions can change with the time of day, the progress of the breeding cycle and the time of year, along with weather and lots of other things (like the presence of a human with a clipboard causing birds to change their behavior).

“Trend and power analyses alone are sensitive to the sampling period, sampling methods, and the statistical model used (and they) should not be the only tool to evaluate population status,” Reynolds said in an email.

And how can you tell whether changes you detect in a bird population are real, or perhaps the result of what Seavy and Reynolds call “observation error?”

The authors recommend close attention to monitoring methods, but also to the biology of the birds. You can spend too much time focusing on a trend without knowing whether the trend is significant, they say.

In some cases, “statistical power to detect trends is less important than understanding the long-range variability of the population.”

The upshot is that you never trust your methods entirely, you back them up with alternative counting systems when possible, and you constantly look for errors in your methods or ways to improve them.

© 2007 Jan W. TenBruggencate

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Dusty stars: images of our past?

Something familiar but still strange is happening around star HD 23514 in the Makali'i, the star cluster otherwise known as the Pleiades, Seven Sisters, or Subaru.

(Photo credit: Inseok Song/Digital Sky Survey, inset: Gemini Observatory/Lynette Cook. The larger image was created by combining B, R and I band images from individual second generation Digital Sky Survey images into blue, green and red image layers, respectively. HD 23514 is shown by the yellow arrow.)

What's strange, according to astronomers who used Hawai'i's Gemini Observatory, atop Mauna Kea, along with the Spitzer Space Telescope, is that they have identified what appears to be the formation of rocky planets, like Earth, around a star in Makali'i.

It's interesting, in part, because life like ours could not survive on many planets, even ones in our own solar system.

Researchers, writing in the Astrophysical Journal, say the planet formation in the Pleiades “may well be the first observational evidence that terrestrial planets like those in our solar system are quite common," said UCLA astronomer Joseph Rhee.

They studied a star called HD 23514 in the Makali'i. It's slightly brighter than our sun and is surrounded by lots of hot dust. The astronomers figure the dust is the result of massive collisions between planets or the embryos of planets.

The dust forms the “building blocks of planets” and can clump together with other dust to form small objects the size of asteroids, and continue to clump up to eventually create objects the size of planets, said Inseok Song, a former Gemini staffer who now works with NASA's Spitzer Science Center at the California Institute of Technology.

“In the process of creating rocky, terrestrial planets, some objects collide and grow into planets, while others shatter into dust; We are seeing that dust,” Song said in a Gemini/UCLA press release.

Also interesting about what the astronomers are seeing is that the dust is collected in the right zone. The news release on the research said: “The emission appears to originate from dust located in the terrestrial planet zone between about 1/4 to two astronomical units (AUs) from the parent star HD 23514, a region corresponding to the orbits of Mercury and Mars in our solar system.”

An AU is the distance from Earth to our Sun.

The activity at HD 23514, which is much younger than our Sun, may mimic what happened when our own solar system was younger. Astronomers believe our Moon was created by the collision between a young Earth and a planet the size of Mars. Another collision, between an asteroid and Earth, is believed to have been the cause of the extinction of dinosaurs.

The scientists earlier found another dusty star about 300 light years away in the constellation Aries, which may also be indicative of planet-formation.

Any hope of finding intelligent life on HD 23514? We may have a while to wait. Our sun is on the order of 4.5 billion years old, but HD 23514 is only about 400 million. It's just in the process of building its solar system.

But the good news, for those interested in the possibility of extraterrestrial life or at least planets capable of sustaining it, is that planets like ours may not be that rare.

“Our observations indicate that terrestrial planets similar to those in our solar system are probably quite common, said Benjamin Zuckerman, a professor of physics and astronomy at UCLA.

So the dusty evidence of planet formation, while it seems strange to us now, many not be so strange at all.

A little more about the Makali'i. When you take a close look, the Seven Sisters may only appear to have six members visible to the naked or binocular-assisted eye. But if you take a really, really close look, the cluster has something like 1,400 stars.

Makali'i is among the closest groups of stars to the Earth, about 400 light years away, meaning that if you had a space ship that could go the speed of light, which is really fast, you still would take four centuries to get there.

Some folks might have been surprised at the start of this article to learn that the Makali'i are known in Japan as Subaru. Yep, those stars on the front of the Japanese car represent the Makali'i, that little clutch of stars in the northern sky that are distinctive because they are all gathered together like coins in a purse. They swing across the sky between Taurus the bull and Perseus the warrior.

The Makali'i are not hard to find. If you go out at this time of year, on a clear night in the early evening, they're right there.

© 2007 Jan W. TenBruggencate

For more information, see the Gemini release at

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Alien birds may be providing native plants a critical service

A sad fact of Hawaiian forests is that we often don't know the impact of the loss of an insect, a plant or a bird.

Ecosystems are intricate webs, in which one bird may be a plant's pollinator, and the plant a source of nectar to the bird. Another bird might feed on the plant's fruit, in return for providing the plant with seed distribution services.
Many of the Hawaiian fruit-eating (and therefore seed-dispersing) birds have become extinct. And without their seed distributors, the plants themselves could quickly go the same way.
But in a few situations, researchers are finding that alien birds have stepped up to the plate.
Researchers Jeffrey Foster of the University of Illinois and Scott Robinson of the Florida Museum of Natural History, in an October 2007 article in the journal “Conservation Biology,” report that the Japanese white-eye or meijiro and the red-billed leiothrix may be filling the seed-distributing niche opened up by the extinction of some native fruit-eating birds.
Their article, “Introduced Birds and the Fate of Hawaiian Rainforests,” found from stomach contents that the birds ate widely of native fruit, and they used seed traps to show that the seeds were then being distributed rather widely.
“The Hawaiian Islands have lost nearly all their native seed dispersers, but have gained many frugivorous (fruit-eating) birds and fleshy-fruited plants through introductions. Introduced birds may not only aid invasions of exotic plants but also may be the sole dispersers of native plants,” the authors said in the abstract to their paper.
The alien birds are particularly important in forests that have already been dominated by alien species, and the authors say they are actually responsible for helping as many as six native understory re-establish themselves.
“Some native plant species are now as common in exotic forest understory as they are in native forest,” they said.
The birds also distribute the seeds of alien plants, but in their study, the authors said they found that more than 85 percent of the seeds were from native plants.
“Without suitable native dispersers, most common understory plants in Hawaiian rainforests now depend on introduced birds for dispersal, and these introduced species may actually facilitate perpetuation, and perhaps in some cases restoration, of native forests,” they said.
There is still the problem that there do need to be some surviving native plants to be a fruit and seed source for the birds.
Foster and Robinson said they believe that aggressive weed control is still critically important in forests that still have mostly native plants.
© 2007 Jan W. TenBruggencate

Sunday, November 11, 2007

An Editorial: draft Hawai'i 2050 sustainability plan fallling short

I wonder if I'm the only one deeply disappointed on reading the draft Hawai'i 2050 Sustainability Plan.

I read it in its entirely, then set it aside for a couple of weeks and re-read it to see if I'd missed some crucial aspect or direction.

The draft plan, while it identifies important subject areas, is astonishingly soft and fluffy, with no sharp edges, no firm resolve, no powerful new directions. Like so many other state plans, it is vague and broadly worded to the point of being impossible to implement and not particularly useful as a guide.

Before it is finalized it needs a shot of adrenalin, a sense of urgency, some specificity. For the plan to have meaning, and to respect the time and energy Hawai'i's people put into it, the bar needs to be set high, so we know what we're leaping for, rather than so low that any attempt at all is adequate.

Clearly a great deal of work went into it, but the draft reads more like a public opinion survey than a plan. I am not privy to the power struggles that led to this document, but all that work deserves a better final product.

In the words of one correspondent, “I want to know how are you going to do that, who's going to do that and by when are you going to do that.”

Gov. George Ariyoshi has been quoted on the importance of not creating a document that will be left on the shelf, as he said the original Hawai'i State Plan was. I'm not sure that standard is being met with the draft plan.

This document, if anything, is less forward-looking, less specific, less useful than the excellent 1978 Hawai'i State Plan, which still stands the test of time.

I'm not sure an expensive statewide meeting schedule was needed to reach the conclusion that the plan did—that the public would be willing to go green, as long as it didn't cost too much. Never mind that the cost later will be much higher if you don't.

Asking the lay public to guide a four-decade planning process may be a little like asking for directions from Kane'ohe to Kapolei from a person who has no map and has never been there.
Sustainability means taking people of this generation to places they haven't been before. Most won't be able to provide guidance out of their own experience.

Much of the draft says simply, "Here's a problem and somebody ought to do something about it." Missing are approaches that recognize known or anticipated problems and propose somewhat specific responses.

Here are a few examples that come to mind.

* COASTAL EROSION: Immediately plan for moving transportation and other crucial infrastructure mauka to ensure critical services are not disrupted by sea level rise. The state must identify inland transportation corridors. Such corridors should be planned for non-specific transportation technologies, since future preferred travel alternatives may be something other than cars, buses, trains and bicycles.

* RESTRUCTURE TOURISM: High fuel prices will raise the cost of travel, and the state must prepare to restructure the tourism industry to account for possible impacts on tourist numbers and demographics of dramatic airfare hikes and the likelihood high rates will persist.

* FOOD SECURITY: Fuel costs increase the cost of shipping of food and other goods to Hawai'i and create the potential of disruptions in transportation. Food security is key, and the Department of Agriculture, Department of Land and Natural Resources, Department of Taxation, Land Use Commission and other agencies must immediately enhance public education to create a trained agricultural work force, build the infrastructure for agriculture, establish tax policies to promote agriculture, and ensure the availability of land for expanded agricultural production for in-state food use. Traditional agricultural lands, such as non-producing Hawaiian dryland farm areas and lo'i should be reviewed for restoration and use, even if they are currently in zoning categories that prohibit such uses.

The 2050 plan recommends the establishment of a council to enact the plan. But like the plan, the Sustainability Council would have no teeth. Its duties would be to implement the plan, collect data, review progress, publish reports, hold public meetings, revise the plan periodically, and “advocate for sustainability in Hawai'i's public policy arena.”

One benefit of the sustainability plan is that sustainability is, at least, being discussed. But Hawai'i needs more than this.

© 2007 Jan W. TenBruggencate

Don't take my word for it.

Read the draft 2050 plan at:

Read the 1978 Hawai'i State Plan at:

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Mackenzie: climate perspective--Watch out!

Humankind has caused changes in every significant chemical process in the natural world, according to Fred Mackenzie, the University of Hawai'i oceanographer and geochemist who has done seminal work in issues involving the world's environment.

A lot, although not all of those changes, are directly tied to fossil fuel use.

“We must abate or mitigate fossil fuel use” or face planetary climate shifts that are potentially so fast and so powerful that we won't be able to respond effectively to them, he said.

Mackenzie gave a talk last week to a Big Island national conference of the National Science Foundation's EPSCoR project. EPSCoR is a program to promote scientific pursuit in the states that traditionally receive comparatively few NSF grants. Hawai'i is among them.

Today, the human impact on Earth's environment is as strong as any other force in the system, and the only thing more powerful, Mackenzie said, would be a meteor impact.

And the impact involves far more than just warming of the planet, he said.

As an example, there have been dramatic changes in what Mackenzie called the planet's “biogeochemical cycles.”

Before the Industrial Age, both carbon and sulfur tended to move from the oceans into the atmosphere. That pattern has reversed, with significant impacts, including making the oceans more acid.

His studies, Mackenzie said, show that shell-building and coral reef-building organisms do less of that when the ocean becomes more acid.

“Every experiment that we've done, when we've lowered the pH (made water more acid)...the organisms...have calcified at a lower rate,” he said.

As additional human-caused changes, Mackenzie cited high atmosphere ozone depletion, tropical deforestation, the loss of biological diversity and several more issues.

Mackenzie is rare among commentators in human environmental impacts because in many cases, he's the guy who has been doing the science.

He can tell you which pieces of the puzzle are significant, and which may not be. (Less-educated commentators, without the grounding in science, often throw out each fact as if it had equal value.)

For Hawai'i, for example, there are suggestions that continued climate change will make the Islands warmer. But Mackenzie argued “we can take that with a grain of salt because...of the variability of the data.”

Greenland's glaciers are a fine example of the need for perspective. The central mass of Greenland's glaciers are experiencing growth—more snow and ice. But the fringes of the glaciers are melting faster—less snow and ice.

Agenda-motivated commentators might focus on one or the other, but the fact is that both processes are happening at once. What's important is the net change, Mackenzie said, and the net is that the melting is bigger than the accretion.

The Greenland ice sheet as a whole is losing ice at the equivalent of a half a millimeter annually in sea level rise. If you extrapolate that out over a century (I did this calculation, not Mackenzie, so don't blame him) it's 50 millimeters, or about two inches.

That is, Greenland alone could be responsible for two inches of global sea level rise. And that number is not included in current estimates of sea level rise from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, since it's more recent than the data used by IPCC to come up with its conclusions.

A member of the conference audience asked about the impact of global dimming, the increase in particulate matter in the atmosphere, which reflects some solar radiation.

Said Mackenzie, dimming is real, but what's important for the planet is the net change. And the net change is that warming has continued over the past 150 years, in spite of dimming.

A number of the other scientists at the EPSCoR conference made reference to the allegory of the blind men and the elephant, in which people grasping at a small piece of the creature never guess the totality of what they have before them.

The key is perspective. Without taking the larger view, it's easy to make wrong assumptions.

© 2007 Jan W. TenBruggencate

Friday, November 9, 2007

The new paradigm in photovoltaics: on a roll, on lots of roofs

It's still generally more expensive to set up a solar photovoltaic power system that to simply hook up the grid, but times are changing.

One of the clearest cases for solar is away from the grid. You only have to be a few telephone poles away from existing powerlines before it's cheaper to install solar panels and batteries than to install the poles and powerlines.

But in recent years, even in town, solar photovoltaic systems are ending up on lots of commercial roofs.

It's possible through a Frankensteinian (some would say Frankenstinian) series of arrangements, which include state tax breaks, federal tax breaks, in some cases the transferability of those tax breaks (you may not have enough profit to take advantage of the tax shelters, but perhaps your bank or other institution does, and will do so), depreciation, and something called net metering.

Net metering lets you hook your solar system to the power grid, letting you feed power to the grid when the sun shines, and pull power from the grid when it doesn't. It means you don't need a big battery bank to store power for when the sun don't shine.

The amount you produce is subtracted from the amount you use.

In action, a deal like this can work this way: Your bank or some other firm owns the system on your roof. You pay the loan for the system, and your power bills go down—often they go down more than the cost of the loan. So not only do the solar systems break even, they can generate cash for you.

The other benefit is that as oil prices go up and power costs go up, your cost of power remains stable—it's the mortgage on your solar array.

Kaua'i County recently agreed to a 20-year arrangement with SunEdison LLC for a 72-kilowatt system on the roof o the county's Pi'ikoi Building.

In a press release, the county said the system should produce savings of $18,000 a year in the first year. It will also reduce the county's contribution to greehouse gas emissions.

See SunEdison's website at

A number of Hawai'i-based solar firms provide similar service. ProVision Technologies, affiliated with Hawaiian Electric, does it: There's a list of other providers at, but it's not complete, and there are several other electrical contractors and solar firms around the state that either provide the service directly or have arrangements with banks or other organizations to handle the financing end.
© 2007 Jan W. TenBruggencate

Monday, November 5, 2007

Predicting beach erosion and the 2003 Kaanapali event

Scientists are zeroing in on being able to predict beach erosion based on what's happening at sea.

But there are still mysteries to be solved.

(Photo, 2003 erosion at Ali'i Beach, Ka'anapali. Courtesy Sean Vitousek.)

Most beach erosion analysis is based on aerial photographs that show historical movements of sand. But new work is using physics to try to predict sand erosion and accretion based on what's happening in the weather, tides, oceanic eddies, seasons and other things.

Recent work at Ka'anapali Beach was discussed in a paper in Coastal Sediments '07, entitled “Model Scenarios of Shoreline Change at Kaanapali Beach, Maui, Hawaii: Season and Extreme Events.”

The authors are Sean Vitousek and Chip Fletcher of the University of Hawai'i's Department of Geology and Geophysics, Mark Merrifield of the UH Department of Oceanography, Geno Pawlak of the UH Department of Ocean Resource Engineering and Curt Storlazzi of the U.S. Geological Survey's Pacific Science Center.

Lead author Vitousek said the work is promising, but there are still significant areas for improvement.

“Modeling shoreline change is a very difficult proposition,” he said in an email.

The group studied the area from Black Rock to Hanakao'o Point at Ka'anapali in part because the area suffers extreme sand movement, or, in the words of the paper, “dynamic seasonal shoreline change forced by longshore transport from two dominant swell regimes.”

They noted that summer south swells push sand to the north end of the beach, while winter north swells push it south, and the sand settles on the reef offshore.

In the summer of 2003, the region suffered severe erosion, associated with multiple events at once: high tides, an ocean swell episode and the movement into Hawaiian waters of a massive oceanic eddy. The water in the eddy was six to eight inches higher than normal sea levels, and appears to have had a significant impact on the erosion.

Another feature the scientists studied was the fossil reef off Hanakao'o Beach. The roughness of the reef surface appears to be a factor in trapping outgoing sand, so that it remains available to rebuild the beaches when weather and oceanic conditions change. Without the roughness of the reef, that sand might be lost to the system.

The scientists applied complex computer models to the action of the ocean and sand, and found that they could predict reasonably well what was happening, but that there is still a significant amount of fine tuning needed it is to be accurate in every situation.

They concluded, in part, that oceanic eddies and the complex surface of a reef are important in sand movement.

“Mesoscale eddies and accretion on perched beaches atop rough reef substrates play a potentially significant role in beach morphology of Hawaiian shorelines, and merit continued investigation,” they wrote in the paper.

Vitousek, said, however, that there are still a number of factors that play some role in beach movement that haven't been applied.

“The modeling needs some work, but it should be applicable in the future with improved computer power and improved physics,” he said.

© 2007 Jan W. TenBruggencate

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Reef fish diets defy conventional wisdom

When you jump in the ocean in temperate areas you may notice large schools of only a few kinds of fish.

In Hawaiian and most tropical waters, the pattern is generally reversed—lots of different kinds of fish, but not that many of any single species.

If they're all competing with each other for food, shouldn't certain species eventually dominate?

Ken Longenecker of Bishop Museum, conducted studies that yield one clue to how
this all works.
His research, on reef fishes off Kane'ohe Bay, finds that reef fishes may have far
more specialized diets than was previously assumed. Certain reef fish prefer a
limited range of crustaceans, while others prefer another range.
A different way of saying that is that there's far less dietary overlap than scientists
have assumed until now.
That means that the species aren't competing for food, which may make it easier for
them to co-exist—and for more different species to coexist in the same habitat.

Longenecker wrote in the journal Copeia the results of his research: “Devil in the
Details: High-Resolution Dietary Analysis Contradicts a Basic Assumption of
Reef-Fish Diversity Models.”

In an email, Longenecker wrote that his work “shows, I think, that fishes on
coral reefs have far more specialized diets than was previously assumed. This
specialization, combined with the type and quantity of food available, appears
to influence which species and how many individuals of each are
found at a
specific location.”

Previous studies of reef fish diets have generally been unable to distinguish
in great detail what they were eating. They might have known a fish was eating
a crab, but not what kind of crab it was.

Longenecker collected bottom-feeding blennies, hawkfishes, sandburrowers,
scorpionfish and gobies. He studied their stomach contents. He went and
watched the species in the wild using SCUBA gear. He also collected samples
of what they appeared to be eating.

The findings suggest that while some species feed fairly broadly, and others
have extremely specialized diets, there is generally far less overlap in feeding
than marine scientists have believes.

One impact of the paper is that it shows that you can't guess at what might
improve a species' survival, Longenecker said.

The broad implication of the research is that sweeping generalizations may
be of limited use in reef fish ecology, conservation and management. We
need detailed information about species of interest,” he said.

Many scientists have argued that the environment is intricately
interconnected, that an ecosystem needs all its parts. Here's evidence
that a problem with a tiny crustacean could have a severe impact on the
population of a specialized reef fish, and by extension, impact on the larger
species that feed on that fish.

Paying attention to what's happening at the lower end of the food chain
may help to better manage fishes at higher trophic levels,” Longenecker said.

Trophic levels are steps in the food chain. For example, grass, a cow and a
beef eater are three distinct trophic levels—the plant, the herbivore and
the carnivore. And in the case of the reef, a bit of seaweed, the little reef
fish that eats it, and the papio that eats he reef fish are three different
trophic levels.

© 2007 Jan W. TenBruggencate

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Travel, History, Recycling and Trains

There's value sometimes in travel.

It provides new eyes with which to look at things back at home. Things like fuel efficiency, recycling, and the sense that one-size-fits-all doesn't always work.

We were impressed in many parts of a tour from New Orleans in the South to Vermont in the North.

In the Washington D.C. Metro station, I saw a special recycling container for newspapers. Lots of folks use the metro to commute, and finish their papers during the ride. For those riders, there's a convenient place in the terminal to drop off the papers. It's a fine response to a need.

In New Orleans, we stayed in a house built in 1820, and there had not been a lot of changes to it. It was a classic, narrow New Orleans French Quarter home, built right against the sidewalk, but with a courtyard inside the property the road and servant's quarters in back.

The house had been built by a free woman of color. In those days, she lived up front on the road, and the servants lived in the rear quarters. Today, the owners live in back, and the rooms on the road have been converted into several quaint, small bed-and-breakfast units.

For those unaware, while low-lying parts of New Orleans are still rebuilding from Hurricane Katrina, the heart of the city's visitor industry was never flooded, and it's fully functioning. Bourbon Street was rollicking, you can ride ancient trolley cars along the waterfront, take a sternwheeler tour of the lower Mississippi, eat fine Cajun and Creole food, tour the “Cities of the Dead” (unique graveyards populated with above-ground graves), listen to superb jazz and walk by centuries of history. The National Park Service provides daily free historical walking tours of the area.

In Burlington, Vermont, we stayed in a three-story brick home dating to roughly the 1880s, which has been restored to a Victorian look and feel. It was on a road filled with classic older homes, with aged oaks and maples out on expansive lawns.

We visited Washington, D.C., and stayed with friends in a house just a couple of decades old and already suffering from its age, though it was located in a high-priced neighborhood.

Impressions: Homes built to last, can last. Our New Orleans abode had been providing shelter for nearly two centuries, and although its function had evolved with time, it stood proud, its aged timbers still carrying the load rather than rotting in some landfill.

In much of the American East we saw a respect for history and a veneration for its value. The West Virginia town of Berkeley Springs, also known as Bath, celebrates warm springs that have drawn visitors since 1750—among them George Washington.

On our tour, we saw folks putting out curbside recycling containers in many cities, towns and villages. Often, city trash cans were designated for different recyclables. And occasionally, they were specialized.

Recycling takes many forms.

In the Washington D.C. Metro station, there were special recycling containers for newspapers. Lots of folks use the metro to commute, and finish their papers during the ride. For those riders, there's a convenient place in the terminal to drop off the papers. It's a fine response to a need.

In Burlington, we wandered through a recycled building materials place, where you could find classic aged doors, delicate paned windows, old glass doorknobs and brass fixtures, claw-foot bathtubs and lots more.

In several communities, we found classic reading material in used book shops and treasures in antiques shops.

On this visit, we also rode the rails. We viewed the nation's eastern edge through spacious Amtrak windows, watching the fall colors flash by, slipping at night through small southern towns, seeing the rivers and bays north and south from the nation's capitol.
Passenger trains aren't always the most fuel-efficient way to get passengers from place to place, but rail as a class of transportation is a remarkable transportation resource and is far more fuel-efficient a way to move cargo than planes, trucks and in some instances even water.

And since a key factor in all transportation is load (Even an automobile is quite efficient if it's full, and quite inefficient when running with just a driver), it has been pleasing to see in recent news that Amtrak's passenger loads are rising.

© 2007 Jan W. TenBruggencate