Thursday, May 29, 2008

Honolulu's energy use: what the media missed in Brookings report

The Brookings Institution announced that Honolulu residents use less energy any other major U.S. city and Hawai'i's news media cheerily announced the results, without inspection.

(Image: Brookings Institution's map of city energy use.)

But there is a very dark side to the Brookings data that both daily newspapers missed entirely.

There is also a huge transportation fuel use flaw in the Brookings study.

And the Hawai'i media failed to explain clearly the key reason Honolulu's residential energy use numbers are low.

The Dark Side: Honolulu's use of energy and its carbon footprint grew at nearly 10 times the national average for major cities, up 10.24 percent from 2000 to 2005, according to the Brookings Institution study.

The Missing Side: If you want to go 100 miles out of town and you live in San Francisco, you generally drive, and your gasoline use is counted by Brookings. If you want to go 100 miles out of town in Honolulu (say, to Līhu'e or Kahului), you fly, and Brookings doesn't count that at all.

One Key Difference: Honolulu does so well in these calculations not because we are such good stewards of our energy use, but because of our subtropical climate. We don't use heating oil. Brookings ranked Honolulu first in the nation for its low use of residential fuels.

What it all means is that this study isn't comparing apples with apples, but you only got a hint of that in major news media coverage.

There are certainly worse records than Honolulu's 10.24 percent overall five-year increase in combined residential and transportation energy use for residential and ground transportation, like Dallas-Fort Worth's 11.05 percent and Chattanooga's amazing 48 percent.

But the majority of America's 100 top cites did far better than Honolulu, many of them cutting their emissions. Bakersfield cut its emissions by nearly 11 percent. Portland cut by almost 5 percent. San Francisco by 3 percent.

That's not the news you saw in the major Hawai'i media this morning. The Star-Bulletin declared Honolulu the nation's greenest city. The Advertiser called it the “best U.S. city” for its carbon dioxide production. The Advertiser's account did include a little useful perspective in the form of quotes from Sierra Club's Jeff Mikulina and the Department of Health's Laurence Lau.

Beyond the city-by-city comparisons, the Brookings report says that, nationwide, the picture is not good:

“America’s carbon footprint is expanding. With a growing population and an expanding economy, America’s settlement area is widening, and as it does, Americans are driving more, building more, consuming more energy, and emitting more carbon. Rising energy prices, growing dependence on imported fuels, and accelerating global climate change make the nation’s growth patterns unsustainable,” the organization says.

The Brookings city-by-city statistics are available here:

The Brookings report policy brief is here:

A Brookings table of energy use and emissons is here:

© 2008 Jan W. TenBruggencate

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Massive conservation partnership covers 25% of Hawai'i land area

Partnering is the new paradigm in conservation in Hawai'i, and a group of Big Island partners have announced a stupendous new camaraderie.

It will join together for conservation a quarter of all the land in the state—a million acres that sweeps across the Big Island, covering 40 percent of that island's land area.

(Images: photo of Ka'ū Forest Reserve by Christine Ogura, Map of the new Three Mountain Alliance region .)

The new Three Mountain Alliance watershed partnership covers the slopes of much of Mauna Loa, Kīlauea and Hualālai.

Nine landowners have signed on on a memorandum of understanding. They include: The Kamehameha Schools and The Nature Conservancy of Hawai'i; the state's Department of Land and Natural Resources and Department of Public Safety; and the federal government's U.S. National Park
Service (Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park), U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Geological Survey Pacific Island Ecosystems Research Center, USDA Forest Service and USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service.

A management plan for the region covers the joint efforts they propose to protect the watersheds.

“The Three Mountain Alliance will focus on protection of native habitat and species and will benefit the community by managing upland, forested portions of the watershed that provide essential groundwater, water filtration, and flood reduction,” said a press release announcing the partnership.

The new organization brings to nine the number of watershed partnerships across the state.

The Three Mountain Alliance is one of nine such partnerships throughout the State. And they have their own partnership, the Hawai‘i Association of Watershed Partnerships. The management plan for the Three Mountain Alliance as well as other watershed partnership information is available at

One of the early projects for the alliance is to involve students and teachers in an education and restoration project at the national park and adjacent Keauhou Ranch, using native plants grown by inmates at Kūlani Correctional Facility. The alliance also plans to control wild cattle in several state-owned forest reserves in the region, to fence dry forests of upland Kona to protect them, to conduct joint invasive weed control work and to develop a watershed management plan for the high country forests of Ka'ū and Kapāpala.

Here are some quotes from the various partners:

Cindy Orlando, Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park superintendent: “Partnerships such as the Three Mountain Alliance are the most effective way to address threats to the landscape such as invasive weed species that occur across land ownership boundaries,. The Park is able to accomplish much more with partners than we could on our own by sharing scarce staff and resources to accomplish joint objectives.”

Laura Thielen, chairperson of the Department of Land and Natural Resources : “DLNR is pleased to participate in this latest multi-partner cooperative agreement. Land-based activities have a direct effect on nearshore waters and corals and fisheries. For this reason, partnerships are critical to support healthy ecosystems, on land and in the ocean.”

Roger Imoto, Division of Forestry and Wildlife Branch Manager for Hawai‘i Island: “Coordinated on-the-ground management of threats such as invasive animals, weeds and fire is critically needed to maintain healthy watersheds on the slopes of Kîlauea, Mauna Loa and Hualâlai to sustain the future quality and quantity of fresh water and benefit Hawaii’s people as well as native plants and animals.”

Peter Simmons, Kamehameha Schools regional assets manager: “Large landowners such as Kamehameha Schools have a responsibility to show leadership in caring for their lands because these areas are critically important to the life, health and well being of the native Hawaiian
ecosystems and human communities that inhabit them.”

Beryl Iramina, warden at Kūlani Correctional Facility, whose inmtes will do some of the conservation work: “The Department of Public Safety and Kūlani Correctional Facility are very excited to participate with this innovative partnership through our inmate programs such as the conservation workline and the native plant horticulture program. By participating in the partnership, our inmates receive education and work training opportunities. Inmates can also give back to the community through our community service programs helping Three Mountain Alliance partners protect and restore important watershed lands.”

© 2008 Jan W. TenBruggencate

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Incredible rising airfares: the role of fuel

Airlines are hiking fees for all sorts of things these days, largely to deal with a single issue: the stupendous increases in fuel costs.

(Photo: The author and an Aloha Airlines passenger plane on the carrier's last day of operation. Fuel costs were blamed in part for the firm's demise.)

Our back-of-the-envelope calculations suggest that a flight from Honolulu to Maui or Kaua'i could burn as little as four gallons per seat. If the plane isn't full, it's more gallons per sold seat. If you're paying $49 for that flight, more than half the money is going to pay for the jet fuel.

Fuel exceeded labor as the largest airline cost in 2006, and that the year when fuel was crossing the $2 milestone.

Clearly, it's a big problem for airlines when fuel goes from $2 to $4 and appears ready to go to $5 a gallon, and there are equivalent hikes in lubrication and of the many materials and services that also have inherent fuel costs.

Jet fuel, much like kerosene and a heavier distillate of crude oil than gasoline, has gone up in some cases faster than the price of crude.

The International Air Transport Association ( reports that jet fuel has risen in cost 90 percent in the past year (effective May 16, 2008) and was costing airlines $3.90 a gallon.

IATA reports that “modern aircraft achieve fuel efficiencies of 3.5 litres per 100 passenger km.”

In U.S. terms, that works out to about 1.5 gallons per 100 passenger miles. But that's for the most modern planes. Some get far worse mileage than that.

Airline companies are designing planes to be dramatically more fuel efficient in response both to the cost of fuel and to the amount of carbon dioxide aircraft add to the global load. IATA says a couple of new aircraft are pushing for 1.3 gallons per 100 passenger miles. A Boeing executive was quoted saying the firm hopes the new Dreamliner 787 will get 1 gallon per 100 passenger miles, although most printed estimates put it closer to 1.3 gallons.

Airlines report how many seat miles they can fly per gallon—meaning how far they fly on a gallon of fuel per seat on the aircraft. Major U.S. airlines report a range of about 40 miles to 76 miles, with an average in the 50s. Hawai'i airlines, flying short routes, use a lot more fuel, due to more takeoffs per mile than most. Some airlines on short hops report numbers in the 20s.

Clearly, Hawaiian's big DC9 aircraft will get different fuel numbers than Mesa/go!'s smaller CRJ200s, but for illustrative purposes we'll go with 25 seat miles per gallon.

That means the 100-mile flight from Honolulu to Līhu'e costs about 4 gallons per seat. If the airline is flying paying customers in only 60 percent of those seats, it means 6.7 gallons per paid seat. (Again, caveats: If you fly less weight, you'll use less fuel, but we're talking broad numbers here.)

With aviation fuel at $4 a gallon, it means the airline is paying about $26 for the jet fuel to fly you to Kaua'i for that Hamura Saimin. And another $26 to fly you home.

If an airline can keep the planes 80 percent full, your seat gets charged 5 gallons or about $20 for the Līhu'e run.

Let's look at it another way. If two of you fly for the weekend to Maui, let's say you're burning 6 gallons for each person per flight, or 24 gallons in all. That would fill up most smaller cars twice. You could stay home and drive six times around O'ahu (assuming a 100-mile circuit) and burn about the same amount of fuel.

A long weekend in Vegas? Even if those planes are getting twice the seat miles per gallon of the interisland jets, think in terms of a couple of 55-gallon drums of fuel to fly your seat there and back.

(5,600-mile round trip at 2 gallons per 100 miles is 112 gallons. If the airline can get 1.5 gallons per 100 miles, it's 84 gallons, or $336 at $4 a gallon.)

It's no wonder you can't find that $300 West Coast flight any more.

Here is the U.S. Department of Transportation's rundown on anticipated efficiency of various forms of transportation:

It shows that even in 2020, the government is still only looking at an average of about 60 seat miles per gallon, or 1.66 gallons to 100 miles.

© 2008 Jan W. TenBruggencate

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Lingle: Hawai'i electric car network under discussion

A new electric car network that's being adopted in Israel and Denmark could find a place in Hawai'i.

Gov. Linda Lingle said the state is in discussions with an organization called Project Better Place, which in recent months has announced partnerships with Israel and Denmark to establish charging stations and battery swapping networks. (See

The California-based firm has also made a deal with Nissan-Renault to design a car that will work with its network. (

(Photo: Renault-Nissan could build its electric car on the platform of its Megane Sedan. Renault-Nissan photo.)

Lingle, on her April 19 radio show with host Mike Buck on KHVH, said the concept—at least the one proposed for Israel—does not require any government funding. She said Israel is committed to switching entirely to electric cars within five years.

“We are also in discussions with the same organization. It's to create a society where you don't need to use oil or gasoline,” Lingle said.

One economic benefit: A significant portion of the $5 billion Hawaii sends out of state for oil each year would stay at home.

According to a Hawaiian Electric report, nearly 20 percent of Hawai'i's oil imports are for ground transportation. The 2000 oil use breakdown, available at, was 36.9 percent for air transportation, 29.8 percent for electricity, 18.8 percent for ground transportation, 7.4 percent for marine transpotation and 7.2 percent for other uses.

Project Better Place's web site says it will be able to deliver folks an efficient, convenient transportation that is cheaper than one using fossil fuels.

“We have crossed a historic threshold where electricity and batteries provide a cheaper alternative for consumers. Existing technology, coupled with the right business model and a scaleable infrastructure can provide an immediate solution and significantly decrease carbon emissions,” said Shai Agassi, Project Better Place executive, at the firm's rollout last year.

Among the benefits of electric cars is that they can more easily take advantage of intermittent forms of carbon-free electrical generation—like wind plants and solar arrays—than utility grids can. Much of the charging can take place when the wind is blowing and when the sun is shining.

Here's what Project Better Place says about its system:

“The business model for the electric cars will be similar to that used by mobile phone operators. In the same way that wireless operators deploy a network of cell towers to provide an area of mobile phone coverage, Project Better Place will establish a network of charging spots and battery exchange stations to provide ubiquitous access to electricity to power electric vehicles.

“The company will partner with car makers and source batteries so that consumers who subscribe to the network can get subsidized vehicles which are cheaper to buy and operate than today’s fuel-based cars. Consumers will still own their cars and will have multiple car models to choose from.

“Project Better Place will deploy and test this framework over the next 24 months in a variety of launch markets, after which it plans to deploy hundreds of thousands of vehicles annually, across multiple markets. The company anticipates achieving tipping-point saturation in early markets within 10 years of rollout.”

© 2008 Jan W. TenBruggencate

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Hawai'i bird extinction: size matters, but also habitat, predators

Each time a new class of humans appeared in Hawai'i, the native birds suffered.

New research shows that native Hawaiian birdlife underwent two massive extinction events, coinciding with the first arrival of Polynesians in the Islands, and then with the arrival of Europeans. Half of all native bird species were killed off in these extinctions.

(Photo: Barren landscape on Rapa Nui. Rats are now implicated in the deforestation of that island, and are believed to have played a major role in Hawaiian landscape changes, which may have led to some Hawaiian bird extinctions.)

Alison Boyer, a biologist and Ph.D. Candidate at the University of New Mexico, studied fossil finds in the Islands and found that the timing is inescapable.

“Through the continuing accumulation of fossil evidence, it is clear that the avifauna of the Hawaiian Islands underwent a large-scale extinction event around the time of Polynesian arrival. A second wave of extinctions since European colonization has further altered this unique avifauna,” she wrote in a paper in the journal, “Diversity and Distributions.” (Avifauna means birdlife.)

But the question that intrigued Boyer was which kinds of birds—which classes of birds—disappeared.

She classified the Hawaiian birdlife by what they ate, what they looked like, how they behaved and how they were related to each other and other birds.

“Extinction of the unique Hawaiian birds began when people first colonized the islands over 1000 years ago,” Boyer said in an email. “During that time, I found that larger and flightless or ground-nesting species had a higher rate of extinction than other groups. Of course, many small species also disappeared, implicating a wide suite of human impacts including destruction of dry forest habitat.”

It is an amazing extinction record. Fossil discoveries show that at least 56 species of birds had become extinct during the Polynesian period before European arrival.

It is not clear to what extent direct hunting and eating resulted in the loss of larger birds.

“The relative importance of direct and indirect human impacts in the prehistoric extinction remains controversial,” she said in the paper.

But it's clear it had an effect.

“Direct hunting of native birds was widespread prehistorically. Charred bones of extinct birds are often found in prehistoric human middens in the Hawaiian Islands and elsewhere providing plentiful evidence that the ancient Polynesians used birds for food,” Boyer wrote, citing findings by numerous research teams.

That sort of activity tended to target larger birds. But smaller birds were a Polynesian target as well, in large part for their colorful feathers.

Still, that is not to say that humans were the primary cause. Habitat destruction for agriculture, and the arrival of rats, pigs and dogs could have played a role.

Rats are increasingly being recognized as an exceedingly important player in the loss of habitat. On Rapa Nui (Easter Island) for instance, while humans have traditionally been blamed for the loss of the native forest, new research is finding that loss of the dominant tree in the Rapa Nui forests may have been driven by rats eating virtually every seed—so the trees could not reproduce.

In Hawai'i as well, rats were key players, even when humans weren't even there.

“Much of the lowland forest of the ‘Ewa Plain region of Oahu appears to have been destroyed by rats even before human settlement in the area,” Boyer wrote, citing work by archaeologist Steve Athens and others.

Of all the flightless known Hawaiian birds, only one species survived to be seen by humans. It was a rail, Porzana sandwichensis, and it went extinct not long after European contact, with the arrival of new threats like roof rats, mongooses, cats and other species.

When Europeans arrived, a new wave of extinctions occurred, and it impacted a different group than the earlier wave. Among the factors implicated in the modern extinctions are further habitat loss, new predators, and the arrival of new diseases—generally ones carried by mosquitoes. Mosquitoes had not been present in prehistoric Hawai'i.

The loss of birds on the arrival of humans in a landscape is not unique to Hawai'i. Nor is the early disappearance of the large, flightless birds.

“Human colonization of the Hawaiian Islands initiated sweeping changes in the island environment including the extinction of more than 50% of native bird species. On every other island and continent examined so far, similar size-selective extinctions have followed human colonization,” Boyer wrote in her paper.

© 2008 Jan W. TenBruggencate

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Conservancy fellowship seeds marine resource conservation

The Nature Conservancy of Hawai'i will help train the next generation of Hawai'i leaders in marine conservation with its new marine fellowship program.

(Photo: New Nature Conservancy marine fellows Marion Ano and Russell Amimoto inspect a beaker of zooplankton with fisheries technical Wally Ito at the state Division of Aquatic Resources' Anuenue Fisheries Research Center. Photo © Manuel Mejia/TNC.)

The program is the wet equivalent of the Conservancy's land-based program for training natural resource managers. It is supported in part by the Atherton Family Foundateion and NOAA's Coral Reef Conservation Program.

The organization selected from among 100 applicants to pick Russell Amimoto and Marion Ano as its first Marine Fellows.

Amimoto is a captain of the Polynesian Voyaging Society canoe Hōkūle‘a and is a canoe builder. Ano works with students at the Paepae o He‘eia and Ka Honua Momona fishponds.

The new fellows will undergo a two-year training program, led by Conservancy experts as well as scientists, conservation authorities and kūpuna, in which they will learn about monitoring and management of marine resources, as well as planning for the stewardship of Hawaiian coastal areas.

The goal of the fellowships is not to create employees for the Conservancy itself, but to seed the state with trained experts in protecting marine resources.

After two years in this program, Russell and Marion will have the necessary skills and knowledge to be highly competitive in Hawaii’s conservation job market for positions not just at the Conservancy, but at state and federal partner agencies, other NGOs, and private sector marine-based businesses. Our hope is that they will stay in the islands and help guide the future of ocean resource management in Hawai‘i,” said Kim Hum, the Conservancy's director of marine programs on the Islands.

© 2008 Jan W. TenBruggencate

Friday, May 16, 2008

Hot new car class--the extended range electric

Plug-in hybrids are all the rage, but pure electric cars are making a surge, with the announcement by several major car companies of new manufacturing plans for electrics.

And hot off the design tables is a new class of vehicle—not a gas or diesel, not a pure electric, not a hybrid. It's the “extended range electric vehicle.” More on that later.

The hottest electric vehicle out there may be the sleek Tesla Roadster (blue car above), which is promised out next year (2009). It will cost well north of $100,000, for or five times the price of a

Nissan is the latest in the electric car field, with a proposed zero emission car that will be available in limited numbers within two years and in mass production by 2012. That's what Nissan boss Carlos Ghosn told National Public Radio.

He told the New York Times that what's driving Nissan's interest is that consumers appear to be ready for them, finally—even if government agencies haven't mandated the shift to cleaner, more efficient vehicles.

“What we are seeing is that the shifts coming from the markets are more powerful than what regulators are doing,” Ghosn told the Times.

This isn't new ground for Nissan, which put out an electric car as early as 1947. In 2000, it developed the Hypermini Urban Electric Vehicle (green Hypermini at right), which was

tested in the U.S. but never developed into a commercial model. The Hypermini was a two-seater, with batteries down low under the floor for stability. It could reach 60 miles an hour, had a 60-mile range. It was a tiny thing, eight feet long.

But it was different from the doorless golf-cart-looking vehicles that some associate with electric vehicles. The U.S. Department of Energy refers to those as NEVs, for neighborhood electric vehicles. The Hypermini fell into the class of UEVs or urban electric vehicles.

The new Nissan electric may be the same car announced in January 2008 by Renault. (Renault and Nissan are partners.) That electric car was to be built in Europe and initially sold in Israel. Some reports indicated it would be built along the lines of Renault's Megane Sport Saloon.

(Megane Sport Saloon at right)

That's a standard-looking family car, and is likely to be far more acceptable to many consumers than something looking like the Hypermini.

Hybrids, and something new

Virtually every car company is now producing or working on a hybrid car, which can run off petroleum fuel or electrical power, or a combination. They get substantially better fuel mileage than standard fuel engine cars.

What many don't know is that a couple of new classes of cars have snuck in between the hybrid and the pure electric.

One is the plug-in hybrid. Simply, it's a hybrid car that also lets you charge its batteries from the grid. The plug-in Prius, to be available next year (2009) will be the first internationally marketed plug-in hybrid.

But that's not all. There is now also the the extended range electric car.

Nissan's Ghosn said his firm could produce Renault's electric Megane in an extended range model. That car would have a gasoline engine on board—but it would only recharge batteries. It would not directly drive the car. It would be something like carrying a little generator along.

In the Wall Street Journal Thursday (May 15, 2008), Ghosn said the range extender could push the 100-mile range of a pure electric to 400 miles.

Chevrolet's Volt car, to be out in 2010, will also be an electric with a range extender. Chevy says it could have a range of 640 miles.

What this all suggests is that we're going to have to develop a new automotive lexicon.

It used to be you had the car, the truck, and later the SUV.

There's the gasoline fuel vehicle, and the diesel, and the natural gas-powered car.

And the one that can use up to 85 percent ethanol, the E85.

The straight electric vehicle (EV, plus of course modifications like the NEV and the UEV above). This one you just plug into the wall when the batteries are discharged.

The hybrid electric vehicle (HEV) of which there are now more than a dozen models on the market. Generally, this is a car whose wheels can be powered either directly from the battery bank, or directly from a fuel engine, or in various sorts of combinations—as an example, the car runs off battery until there's a demand for extra acceleration, and then the fuel engine kicks in.

The plug-in hybrid (PHEV)--the promised 2009 Prius model has gotten the most notice. With it, you can minimize the use of liquid fuel, but still have the security of being able to fuel up for long trips away from electric grids.

And the finally there is the extended range electric vehicle (EREV). As we understand it, the difference between an HEV and an EREV is primarily that the engine on the EREV cannot be used to directly power the wheels—it only generates power to the batteries.

This month's (May-June 2008) Technology Review, in an article by Kevin Bullis, makes the distinction:

"'Extended-Range Electric' vehicles represent a radical departure from conventional hybrids. Whereas in conventional hybrids, the wheels are turned by an electric motor, a gasoline engine, or both, the wheels in these new cars will be turned only by a large electric motor. For short trips, the motor will run on battery power alone. For longer trips, a gasoline-powered generator kicks in to supply electricity.”

© 2008 Jan W. TenBruggencate

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

The Big Dogs in emissions: electricity and transportation

We can talk about recycling newspaper and aluminum cans, composting and reusing our containers, but the big dogs in the global climate issue are electrical use and transportation.

(Image: The tailpipe is one of the major producers of carbon dioxide in the U.S.)

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, in a report issued in April 2008, showed that among sources of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, the nation's leading culprits are electrical generation and transportation.

They're huge.

The extensive executive summary for the report is available here: Included is a list of greenhouse gas emissions through 2006. (For the whole report, see

If your eyes glaze over when you see a lot of numbers, here's the short version: Between two-thirds and three-quarters of all carbon dioxide emissions in the United States come from electrical generation and transportation.

What to do about it? A few ideas are to find ways to cut your electric bill, drive less or in a more fuel-efficient car, and minimize long-distance travel.

For folks who like numbers, here are some: In 2006—the most recent year for which there are data—the nation is calculated to have produced 5,983.1 teragrams of CO2 and CO2 equivalent greenhouse gases. It's a big number—nearly 6,000 grams with 12 more zeros after it: 5,983,100,000,000,000.

If my calculations are right, that amounts to 6.6 billion tons. (Does your car weight a ton? Imagine the weight of 6.6 billion cars. And incidentally, 6.6 billion was the July 2007 estimate for the number of humans on the planet, but we digress.)

Of that total, the burning of fossil fuels represents 5,638 teragrams, more than 94 percent.

And of the fossil fuel burning, electrical generation is 2,328 teragrams or 41 percent and transportation is 1,856 teragrams or 33 percent.

Together, electrical generation and the fuel in your cars and planes represent 74 percent of all fossil fuel emissions, and 70 percent of all CO2 emissions from all sources.

Industrial fossil fuel emissions come in a poor third after power plants and motor vehicles.

As an aside, let's talk about a natural source of CO2.

Every now and then, you may run into someone who minimizes the human impact on climate, with the argument that volcanoes put lots more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than humans.

That argument is laughably off the mark. See a U.S. Geological Survey. Hawaiian Volcano Observatory post of last year:

It says, in part, that all the volcanoes in the world produce less than one percent the CO2 that human activities do. All the volcanoes in the world produce less than a fifth of greenhouse gas emissions of the United States alone.

© 2008 Jan W. TenBruggencate

Saturday, May 10, 2008

New genetic study throws 'ōhi'a (Metrosideros who?) into identity crisis

There's nothing easy about the Hawaiian 'ōhi'a.

Researchers doing genetic analyses of the trees are finding that they are just as confusing inside (genetically) as they are outside (in their physical appearance).

(Image: The shiny red leaves of a young 'ōhi'a, whose genetic makeup is now in doubt.)

'Ōhi'a are the dominant trees in many native Hawaiian forests. And they are amazingly variable.

Many folks search the forests for alternative flower colors. The starburst blossoms are generally seen in shades of red, but rarely are found in orange, salmon and yellow colors.

The leaves can be round and stiff or lance-shaped and delicate. They can be hairy or smooth, dull or shiny. New leaves can be greenish with purple-red veins or entirely red. The 'ōhi'a can grow into a towering tree or remain a shrub. In bog habitats, mature flowering trees can be found just a few inches tall, natural bonsai.

It's no wonder that the dominant Hawaiian species is known as polymorpha, many forms.

Over the years, scientists have sought to classify the 'ōhi'a, a member of the myrtle family whose genus is Metrosideros, by its appearance. One problem was that in the same small grove, they would find many different-looking trees growing together and presumably interbreeding.

New research is suggesting that, with 'ōhi'a, you can't make species distinctions based on appearance. More on that later.

Previous genetic work has suggested that the tree crossed the Pacific from New Zealand, and that it may have made the jump to Hawai'i from the Marquesas, where botanists find the closest relatives of Hawaiian 'ōhi'a.

And scientists have long believed that the tree that now dominates much of the Hawaiian natural landscape was a comparatively late arrival—showing up as little as a million years ago.

New dating is being reported in a paper in the “Proceedings of the Royal Society B,” by Diana Percy, Adam Carver, Warren Wagner, Helen James, Scott Miller and Robert Fleischer, all of the Smithsonian Institution, and Clifford Cunningham of Duke University. The paper is entitled, “Progressive island colonization and ancient origin of Hawaiian Metrosideros (Myrtaceae).”

Their genetic research finds that 'ōhi'a has been in the Hawaiian Islands for about 3.9 million years, and perhaps a million or two more. At that time, Kaua'i and Ni'ihau were the only emerged islands among the current main Hawaiian Islands, meaning that 'ōhi'a must have channel-jumped to newer islands as they formed.

'Ōhi'a seeds are tiny, can be dispersed by wind, can survive a while in salt water, and the tree grows quite well on new lava flows. So the genus is clearly capable of making such journeys.

The researchers studied 97 'ōhi'a samples from five islands. Their samples included representatives of the five accepted Hawaiian Metrosideros species: macropus, polymorpha, rugosa, tremuloides and waialealae. They also looked at samples of Metrosideros collina from the Austral, Society and Marquesan islands, Metrosideros excelsa from New Zealand and Metrosideros nervulosa from Lord Howe Island.

Molecular dating work on the samples suggests Kaua'i was inhabited first by Metrosideros, and that from there the genus jumped to O'ahu. Moloka'i was populated on at least two different occasions from O'ahu, but also on one occasion directly from Kaua'i. Maui got its 'ōhi'a from Moloka'i, and the Hawai'i island got its from Maui about half a million years ago.

Metrosideros...appears to have diversified in the Hawaiian Islands following the geological succession of islands,” the authors write. “The chloroplast data present a distinct geographical pattern that supports a hypothesis of sequential colonization of progressively younger islands.”

The scientists were able to confirm that the Hawaiian 'ōhi'a are most closely related to the Marquesan forms than any other. They are, in fact, close enough that the authors argue that the Marquesan and Hawaiian plants ought to be part of the same genus. They suggest that the name Metrosideros polymorpha be used for both.

Wagner, in an email, said the research will require botanists to reconsider the way Hawaiian wildlife evolved, since it's now clear that the 'ōhi'a was a part of the Hawaiian botanical picture far earlier than anyone previously thought.

“An older origin of the genus in the Hawaiian islands significant implications for understanding the evolution of Hawaiian ecosystems of which 'ōhi'a is a major component and the evolution of endemic organisms that may have co-evolved with Metrosideros,” Wagner wrote.

The other thing that's new is that current understandings of how to differentiate the members of the genus are going to require rethinking.

Wagner said their work indicates that the physical appearance of the plant doesn't correlate with its DNA, and that physical characteristics don't accurately reflect differences at a molecular level. That means that if you separate the Hawaiian 'ōhi'a into different species and varieties based on their appearance, you'll run into trouble.

“This was both a surprise and not surprising. This Metrosideros has been a challenge to biologists trying to classify it for many decades with various systems proposed by each of the major botanists to have studied the Hawaiian flora,” Wagner said. And in that list of botanists, he includes himself.

Not only isn't the physical appearance an unreliable guide to how the plans are actually genetically related—it turns out it's no guide at all.

“To find a situation where we are not sure how dependable the characters are is not so surprising. That there was essentially no correlation was a surprise,” Wagner said.

There are a number of theories on how this could happen. One is a whole lot of interbreeding within the 'ōhi'a clan. Another is that different genetic lines could evolve into similar-looking plants. Or perhaps something else.

“We are embarking on additional studies to attempt to determine more definitive answers to this puzzle,” Wagner said.

© 2008 Jan W. TenBruggencate

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Climate emissions metrics: figuring it out so you can manage it

The issue of metrics is compelling: You can't manage what you don't understand.

That is one reason the University of Hawai'i at Mānoa has signed up as a founding member of The Climate Registry.

The university hopes to manage its output of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, and is joining others around the United States and Canada to try to get a handle on just what greenhouse gases they are producing, and to develop some kind of standard on how to measure them.

The Climate Registry has among its members 75 cities, counties, corporations and non-profits. UH Mānoa is the first university member.

Its goal is to produce verifiable reports that will be publicly available. Thus, UH Mānoa will annually issue a statement that recounts its greenhouse gas emissions in a standardized form under The Climate Registry General Reporting Protocol. The standards were established based on ones developed by the World Resource Institute and the World Bank Council for Sustainable Development.

The university's report will then be verified by an independent agency appointed by The Climate Registry.

UH Mānoa's Mānoa Climate Change Commission helped move the institution into the registry.

The importance to the University of this kind of climate impact tracking was presaged in February 2007 by then-interim campus chancellor Denise Konan, and now economics professor, who wrote:

“The University of Hawai'i at Mānoa has been heavily reliant on fossil fuels through our consumption of electricity, travel patterns and other practices. We are also well equipped to explore alternative technologies and choices that promote our lifestyles through more sustainable practices. By tracking and demonstrating our impact on reduction of the generation of greenhouse gases we can serve as a living educational model,” Konan wrote as part of Mānoa's Climate Commitment.

The campus is committed to reducing its energy use by 30 percent by 2012 and to promoting the development of renewable energy resources—enough to have a quarter of the campus energy come from renewables by 2020.

“The emissions template developed by Mânoa provides accurate reporting that is specific to Hawai‘i. By taking a lead, Mânoa will ease the way for others to make a public commitment to our climate,” said Laurence Lau, the state Health Department's deputy environmental health director.

For more information on the Mānoa Climate Change Commission, see

For more on The Climate Registry, see

© 2008 Jan W. TenBruggencate

Friday, May 2, 2008

Alaska quake: no tsunami threat, but a caution

A powerful earthquake Thursday afternoon in the Andreanof Islands of Alaska's Aleutian chain did not launch a tsunami toward Hawai'i, but it's a clear warning.

Two of the most damaging tsunami in Hawai'i history came from the same region.
(Image: Pacific Tsunami Warning Center chart of the recent Alaska temblors.)
The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center report of no tsunami hazard went out at 3:46 p.m. Hawai'i time, just 12 minutes after the 3:34 p.m. shake, which registered a 7.0, although later recalculations dropped it to magnitude 6.6.
“A destructive Pacific-wide tsunami is not expected and there is no tsunami threat to Hawai'i,” said a statement from the center.
The quake was centered at 51.8 degrees north and 177.6 west. That placed it a little more than 1,200 miles from Anchorage.
“It was a pretty good-sized quake. It was heavily felt in the Adak area,” said Bruce Turner, geophysicist and science officer with the West Coast and Alaska Tsunami Warning Center.
It normally takes a considerably larger quake to generate a significant tsunami, but it was interesting that Alaska had a very active day Thursday from an earthquake perspective. (see
Just a day earlier, at nearly the same location, there was a 5.1 quake. And smaller shakers have rumbled up and down the Aleutian chain during the past 24 hours, most of them located in the immediate vicinity of these earthquakes.
The 1946 tsunami that caused severe damage in Hawai'i came from a location at 52.8 degrees north and 163.5 degrees west, about 900 miles away.
The 1957 tsunami came from a quake quite close to yesterday's temblor. It was at 51.5 degrees north, 175.7 degrees west, just 84 miles away and within the Andreanof Islands.
Thanks to an advanced Pacific tsunami warning system, Hawai'i residents are likely to get several hours of notice of the arrival of a tsunami generated from the Alaskan region—plenty of time to update their evacuation kits and get away from the coast.
Locally generated tsunami are a different story. There may be only minutes. And if you're on the island where the wave was generated, you need to move to high ground as soon as you feel the ground shaking.
From a statistical standpoint, Hawai'i has been free of damaging tsunami for an unusually long time. Does it mean one is imminent? Not necessarily, but it pays to be ready.
One ready place to look for information is the phone book. The directories once had the emergency information section reliably in the front pages, but some now have those pages in the middle section of the book.
These pages include tsunami inundation maps. If you live within a few blocks of the shore, check the map to see whether you are in an evacuation area.
Most residents should have an emergency evacuation kit at hand. It will include your prescription medications, glasses, cash and special items like special foods, diapers for babies and important personal documents. It might also include a personal first aid kit, water, flashlight and other gear. A more complete list is in the phone book.
Here are other earthquake resources:
Earthquakes Data Magnitude 5.0 and Over 2005 - 2014
In addition you can find more info on the topic below:
Seismic Monitor
Quakes - Live Earthquakes Map

© 2008 Jan W. TenBruggencate