Friday, March 27, 2009

Rising seas causing major U.S. economic impacts now; Hawai'i dodging bullet so far

Sea level rise and increasing hurricane strength are already having severe economic impacts on the East Coast—insurance companies have stopped issuing home insurance in extensive coastal areas.

“If you can't get insurance you can't do business, you can't own a home,” said Mike Tidwell, director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, a grassroots nonprofit that works on global warming impacts and solutions.

(Image: A century of sea level measurements in Honolulu. For sea level information across the state of Hawai'i, go here. Credit: NOAA.)

Allstate “has made a decision to retreat from coastal Maryland, parts of Virginia. And Liberty Mutual and State Farm have joined Allstate up and down the east coast from Massachussets to Florida in this retreat, directly and explicitly tied, according to them, to rising sea levels and bigger storms,” he said.

Hawai'i has thus far dodged this particular bullet, but experts are warning that severe impacts are coming.

Sea levels have measurably risen, and are continuing to do so. Shorelines are retreating. Low-lying areas are suffering inundation. And Hawai'i, like much of the nation, has done very little to prepare for the retreat of its shorelines.

“The tragedy is that there is so little planning for sea level rise in the United States,” Tidwell said. He joined two scientists in a recent audio conference on sea level rise. The conference, sponsored by the Rockefeller Family Fund, is available online at

One of their messages is that a lot of the projects being funded by the federal government's stimulus package are on land that will be under water within the lifetimes of today's young people.

Sea level expert Orrin Pilkey said that while current estimates differ somewhat, serious students of sea level are now looking at three to seven feet of sea level rise by 2100. The Dutch, whose below-sea-level provinces can't afford to get it wrong, are figuring on two feet in the next 40 years—during the working life of today's high school kids.

Pilkey is director of the Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines at Duke University. He said panels in Miami and Rhode Island figure a minimum sea level rise of 3 to 5 feet by 2100. And a book Pilkey and associated wrote figures it will be 6 to 7 feet by then—and it will keep going up.

For Hawai'i, local coastal geologist Chip Fletcher has concluded that these levels put much of Waikiki under water. Indeed, a lot of coastal Hawai'i, including low-lying beach parks, are at risk.

We're not alone.

Just a three-foot rise could lop off the entire southern tip of Florida, and destroy much of the Everglades National Park, the third largest park in the contiguous U.S., said Anthony D. Barnosky, environmental change expert and professor in the Department of Integrative Biology at the University of California, Berkeley.

The main driver of sea level rise in the past century has been thermal expansion of the oceans, Pilke said. Water expands as it warms. The main driver of rise in this century will be the melting of the Greenland and West Antarctica ice sheets, he said.

Much of the world is taking this issue far more seriously than the U.S.

Great Britain is talking about abandoning some of its coastal small villages. The Maldive Islands are discussing buying land in India or elsewhere to move their whole low-lying nation. New Zealand is agreeing to take refugees from flooding Pacific islands. The Dutch approach is an engineering one—armoring the shoreline to keep the ocean at bay.

Pilke said the U.S. can't really consider large-scale armoring—its coastline is far too long. And beach nourishment—like what has been done to add sand to Waikiki Beach—is a very temporary solution in a rising sea environment.

The only reasonable American response to continued sea level rise is to retreat from the shoreline, he said. That gets development out of the danger zone and preserves beaches for future generations.

The experts identified three key strategies for this problem.

One, as cited by Pilke, is retreat—moving critical infrastructure and population out of the low coastal area.

Another is engineering—developing critical coastal infrastructure (harbors, for example) so it can continue to function in a higher sea level environment.

And the third is to attack the cause—climate change. The speakers at the session agreed on a need to curb greenhouse gas emissions at all levels, push the move to non-carbon fuel sources and cap carbon emissions.

Said Tidwell: “The impact of sea level rise and global warming is already being profoundly seen and felt.”

©2009 Jan TenBruggencate

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Climate in peril, reefs weaken, Nero fiddles

The carbon dioxide load in the atmosphere keeps rising unabated, as the chart at the right shows, and scientists are getting a better handle all the time on consequences.

(Image: 1958 to 2009 chart of CO2 levels taken at Mauna Loa Observatory shows the rise of the gas in the atmosphere, if anything, is increasing at a steeper rate than it was half a century ago. More information on it here. Credit: NOAA.)

Against this ominous background, here is today's news, starting with something in Hawai'i back yard.

International researchers report that reef growth will slow as more and more carbon dioxide translates into more and more acid oceans. CO2 levels since 1958 have risen from under 320 to more than 380 parts per million (ppm).

The worse news: “ the time atmospheric partial pressure of CO2 will reach 560 ppm all coral reefs will cease to grow and start to dissolve.”

There goes the shoreline. There goes your favorite surf break. There goes the nearshore fishery.


Reuters is reporting that by 2060, summer heat as a result of global warming in Sydney could be fatal to some residents.

Climate change is said to be one-third responsible for major droughts across the world, and as things continue, the droughts are likely to get worse. This is hardly news—these droughts were predicted more than a decade ago as one feature of a warmer world. And now they're here.

It's not that we're doing nothing, although it's not clear we're doing enough.

Europeans are looking at straightening out airline routes
, to reduce fly time and fuel burn.

Congress has some legislation to address carbon emissions, but is not going to fast-track climate legislation for fear of a Republican filibuster.

International groups are pointing fingers rather than acting on climate issues.

And the United Nations official in charge of climate change says India's cheap Nano is just fine, because people deserve automobiles.

The really bad news, perhaps, is that most folks agree that we need to do something about climate, but as Scientific American reports, we can't agree on who should do it or what, exactly to do.

©2009 Jan TenBruggencate

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Admiral Farragut's torpedoes and the Hawai'i Superferry

There is a point at which a commander throws caution to the winds and orders, in the words of Admiral Farragut, “Damn the torpedoes. Full speed ahead.”

It worked for David Farragut in the Battle of Mobile Bay in 1864. He defeated the Confederate fleet—largely because most of the tethered mines, then called torpedoes, were duds. They bounced off the ships' hulls and didn't explode.

(Image: The U.S. Postal Service's 1903 Farragut stamp, a $1 issue.)

Damning the torpedoes is always risky. It doesn't always work. Indeed, it seldom does. Take the Hawai'i Superferry (I know, you're tired of the Superferry).

Early on, when there was still plenty of time to perform a proper environmental study without holding up the ferry at all, someone made that call.

To paraphrase the classic line from “The Treasure of Sierra Madre:” “We don't have no EIS. We don't need no EIS. I don't have to show you any stinkin' EIS.”

Never mind that the Councils of three of the four counties, representing 100 percent of the ferry's destinations from Honolulu, asked for environmental studies.

Today's it's popular to blame the “environmentalists” for the Superferry's failure. But County Councils are hardly hotbeds of environmental furor. They mostly get blamed for representing the interests of power, not the radical vegan community.

Someone, at some point, made the Farragut call, although we don't know whether it was in Governor Linda Lingle's office, Superferry president John Garibaldi's office, a Superferry lawyer's or state Attorney General's office, a public relations consultant's office or perhaps a state Department of Transportation office.

The call was wrong. The Hawai'i Supreme Court said so, although the court's position in this is widely misunderstood. It required the Department of Transportation conduct an EIS—not that the Superferry prepare one.

In late August, 2007, a 15-year-old kid on a surfboard was among four dozen swimming and paddling protesters in Nawiliwili Harbor, preventing the Superferry's entrance. When Coast Guard officers used boat hooks to try to snag him and arrest him, he insisted they arrest the ferry captain as the real lawbreaker.

Technically, the Kauai kid on the surboard was wrong. Arguably, he should have been protesting at the state Department of Transportation office—or at the office of the person who made the Farragut call, if anybody could figure out who that was.

And technically, the Superferry was right as it sailed into the minefield. But clearly, the Farragut call in this case was catastrophic.

For Farragut, the mines didn't go off. For the Hawai'i Superferry, they did.

©2009 Jan TenBruggencate

Monday, March 23, 2009

Tata Motors' Nano, the $2,000 car debuts

India's Tata Motors is making good on its promise to sell a $2,000 to $2,500 car, the Nano.

Depending on whom you talk to, this is really great news or an environmental catastrophe.

(Images: A hot little red Nano. And a yellow Nano interior. Credit: Tata Motors.)

For folks in Hawai'i, it's interesting news, but hardly important—it will be a long time before a Nano is available here, it will need to have a bunch of improved features to meet U.S. safety standards, and it will certainly cost a lot more.

But what it is, is interesting.

There are three models. It's a little over nine feet long, and weighs 1,320 pounds.

By comparison, a Honda Civic is more than 14 feet long and weighs 2,600 or so pounds.

The Nano seats four and has a two-cylinder engine. The gas tank holds 15 liters of fuel, about four gallons. The Nano comes with seat belts, but not air bags.

It has been touted as Tata's “city car,” an inexpensive vehicle to get Indian families off motorbikes.

Top speed is 65 miles an hour. Fuel economy is 55 miles to the gallon.

The Civic gets 29 to 34 miles to the gallon. It has air bags, air conditioning and a pile of other features not found in the ultra-budget Nano.

For folks on a tight, tight budget who absolutely need a car, the Nano may be a godsend.

Environmental groups say that putting millions of cars in the hands of folks who would otherwise not be driving cars at all, will create traffic, fuel, environmental and other issues that could cause untold problems.

Tata will begin taking orders next month and says it will deliver the first Nanos in July.

©2009 Jan TenBruggencate

Thursday, March 19, 2009

New information further tangles Hanalei whale stranding

The cause of a 2004 stranding event involving melon-headed whales at Hanalei Bay gets more interesting as time passes.

And so does the role of the moon.

(Image: Melon-headed whales circling in tight formation in Hanalei Bay July 3, 2004. Credit: NOAA.)

A new scientific paper published in February concludes that military mid-frequency played a major role, and that there's no consistent evidence that the phase of the moon did. The Hanalei stranding and a simultaneous stranding in Rota, the Mariana Islands, happened at the full moon.

But just when you start leaning hard in one direction, the foundation of your assumptions gets shaky. To muddy the water, of two Philippines strandings of melon-headed whales this year—after the new paper was published—one of those, too, happened at the full moon.

More precisely, the day after the night of the full moon, same as with Hanalei and with Rota.

Science ever requires reconsidering your conclusions based on new data.

This gets complicated. Stick with us.

In the continuing controversy over the Navy's use of sonar, and the larger role of noise in the marine environment, the prime bit of Hawai'i evidence is the apparent stranding incident in Hanalei Bay on a day in 2004 on which the Navy was using mid-frequency sonar.

A new paper compares that incident with other stranding and near stranding incidents involving the same species, the melon-headed whale. None of the other cases is known to involve sonar activity.

The paper, “Behavior of melon-headed whales, Pepnoncephala electra, near oceanic islands,” in the journal “Marine Mammal Science,” was written by Robert L. Brownell Jr of NOAA 's Southwest Fisheries Science Center, Katherine Ralls of the Smithsonian Institution's National Zoological Park, Simone Baumann-Pickering of Scripps Institution of Oceanography, and Michael Poole of the Marine Mammal Research Program in Moorea, French Polynesia.

They compared the Hanalei incident with a stranding that took place at precisely the same time in Sasanhaya Bay, Rota, near Guam. They also considered melon-headed whale behavior at different times at Nuku Hiva in the Marquesas Islands of French Polynesia, and at Palmyra, the Line Islands atoll where the Hawaiian voyaging canoe Hokule'a is scheduled to arrive today.

Researchers in a previous paper in 2006 concluded that sonar was a more than possible cause of the Hanalei stranding:While causation of this stranding event may never be unequivocally determined, we consider the active sonar transmissions of July 2-3, 2004, a plausible, if not likely, contributing factor in what may have been a confluence of events.”

Others, notably Hawai'i researchers Joe Mobley and Paul Nachtigall, along with Navy researchers David Fromm and Stephen Martin, in the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, have suggested that lunar cycles or other factors could be associated with the unusual simultaneous Hanalei and Rota strandings.

In the Hanalei case, nearly 200 melon-headed whales entered the north-facing bay about 7 a.m. July 3. The animals remained in the bay, alternately swimming in small groups and milling in one group. Brownell's team called it “prestranding behavior.”

Navy sonar activity was being conducted offshore in conjunction with RIMPAC exercises. A Japanese ship nearly 30 miles away used sonar to the northwest of Kaua'i about 15 minutes before the whales entered the bay. The National Marine Fisheries Service, informed of the whale event during the day, asked the Navy to halt sonar use, which it did about 5 p.m.

The next morning, residents using canoes escorted the whales out of the bay. A newborn whale calf that washed ashore dead. “It must have been separated from its mother at some point during the event and died from dehydration,” the Brownell paper says.

Melon-headed whale strandings are far from unknown, and they have been reported occurring in the Pacific for as long as people have been watching them. In an 1841 case in Hilo, native Hawaiians in canoes are reported to have forced a stranding by driving nearshore melon-headed whales to the beach.

In the Rota case, which was going on at the same time as the Hanalei event, Brownell and his team said the whale behavior did not look like a stranding event; rather, the whales congregated without apparent panic in the bay, and later left.

But Mobley and his team argued that you couldn't ignore two near-shore appearances of large numbers of the same kind of whale, at the same time, nearly 4,000 miles apart.

“Beyond the extraordinary coincidence of these two events, at a minimum, the Rota event indicates that aggregations of this type may have natural causes totally independent of sonar activity,” wrote Mobley and his team.

In the July 2005 Nuku Hiva case, melon-headed whales congregated in a bay, and while they were there, three killer whales stranded—but the melon-headed whales did not.

“...both MHWs and killer whales behaved as if they were fleeing from some strong aversive stimulus. Perhaps this was the case but we have been unable to identify a likely candidate for such a stimulus, so the cause of the Nuku Hiva MHW event remains unknown,” Brownell and co-authors write.

The Palmyra stranding occurred in 1959, and melon-headed whales are frequently observed near shore at Palmyra.

Brownell's group said they compared the stranding dates with moon phase data, and found no correllation. But Brownell specifically excludes Rota from his lunar phase study, saying it wasn't a proper stranding.

The Navy argues that none of the events was a proper stranding, since aside from the dead calf, which washed ashore at a different Kaua'i beach near Hanalei, none of the melon-headed whales actually swam up onto the beach.

“In reality, none of the events are actually "strandings" since in none of the events did melon-headed whales actually strand,” said Mark Matsunaga, environmental public affairs officer for the U.S. Pacific Fleet.

Browning calls the Hanalei incident a stranding and Rota not a stranding, largely based on reports of how the whales behaved—that they cruised apparently normally at Rota and appeared anxious at Hanalei.

But the whole argument about melon-headed whales and full moons took a new turn with a February melon-headed whale stranding in the Philippines also happened the day after the full moon, the same as the Hanalei and Rota events.

On Feb. 10, the day after the full moon, local fishermen helped guide several hundred melon-headed whales back to deep water in Bataan Province of the Philippines.

A second apparent stranding in the Philippines occurred at the half moon, a week before the next full moon, about March 4.

In the latest paper, Brownell says Hanalei's incident was different from all the others. If anything, compared to their 2006 conclusion, the researchers even more securely pin the blame on the Navy.

“Our review of (melon-headed whale) behavior strengthens the case that (mid-frequency sonar) use played a major role in the near MS in Hanalei Bay,” they write.

The Navy itself doesn't deny some role for sonar in the Hanalei incident, but argues for scientific caution.

“Much remains to be learned about cetaceans, including melon-headed whales,” Matsunaga said.

“Brownell's study is certainly not the final word on melon-headed whale aggregations. Even if one accepts that all scientific studies are subjective and selective by nature, we believe Brownell has overstepped."

He notes that the Mobley team in 2006 “indicated mass strandings are more common during the full moon and third quarter.

“That is not to say that lunar influences cause strandings, but they may result in animals being closer to shore in some environments and thus, serve as a contributing factor. Marine mammals strand for a variety of reasons, some of which are still unknown,” Matsunaga said.

One issue is whether birthing has anything to do with the full moon strandings. The baby whale found dead near Hanalei was just a week old. Two of four dead whales found near one of the February Philippine strandings were females, one of which was pregnant and one of which had just given birth.

Here is a line from the Convention on Migratory Species:

“Mass strandings of melon-headed whales have been reported from Moreton Island and Crowdy Heads, Australia, Malekoula Island, Vanuatu, the Seychelles, Aoshima, Japan, Piracanga Beach, Brazil, the Kwajalein Atoll, and Tambor, Costa Rica. It has been noted that in several mass strandings of this species, the ratio of females to males was about 2:1. This may reflect behavioural segregation.”

That raises the whole issue of human interference. If melon-headed whales have a history of entering bays and nearshore waters en masse, they also have a history of getting themselves out of those bays without help.

Except for handful of dead animals found on the beach the whales in most of these incidents did not physically strand themselves--did not run themselves up on the beach a la Whalerider.

What's the appropriate human response in this situation--they appear to be in distress, or at least behaving unusually, but do not appear to be in immediate danger?

©2009 Jan TenBruggencate

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

A photo of Phyllostegia hispida, Hawai'i's latest endangered species

For those on the email list, please note that we now have a photo of the Moloka'i mint, Phyllostegia hispida, which was the subject of yesterday's Raising Islands post. It's now in the original story, but here, too. Reader Bill Garnett of Wiliwili Hawaiian Plants, in Kalae, Moloka'i, Hawaii, took the picture and kindly provided the shot.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

A Moloka'i mint, perhaps saved by the endangered species process

The listing process for endangered species, is just paperwork—it has no real effect, right?

Wrong, in the case of the very latest member of the federal endangered species list.

There, the attention has perhaps already saved the plant from extinction.

The species is a little Moloka'i mint called Phyllostegia hispida. It has never been common, and has no known common name.

(Image: The mint in flower, with unidentified butterfly. Credit: Bill Garnett. Wiliwili Hawaiian Plants, Moloka'i, Hawaii.)

It was officially added to the U.S. list of endangered species today, March 17, 2009.

But it might not have made it this far if the attention of being a candidate endangered species hadn't launched an effort to protect it.

For most of the 1900s, only 10 individuals were known, all from the forested mountains of east Moloka'i, but they all died out. Scientists figured P. hispida was a goner.

This little plant isn't the kind of mint you put in a julep, and it doesn't have a minty smell, but it's a relative of the fragrant mints. It's a vine with lots of branches—kind of sprawling and messy. It has floppy, rough-haired leaves and clusters of white flowers, according to the proposed listing notice last year in the Federal Register. The listing notice contains virtually all the information known about the plant.

In 2005, botanists searching Kamakou, a preserve operated by The Nature Conservancy, found two of them growing in the wild. And in the last two years, a total of 24 of them have been found, all but one in Kamakou Preserve, and the remaining plant in the state's Pu'u Ali'i Natural Area Reserve.

Cuttings were taken and carefully rooted, and the plantlets were re-established in Kamakou.

There are now 238 plants growing in the wild.

But there's still so little known about it that scientists aren't sure how best to protect it, other than growing it from cuttings and planting it in the wild. One assumes that protection from feral pigs and non-native weeds are important. And keeping an eye on it for disease or other problems.

The Fish and Wildlife Service has a year to designate the critical habitat for the species, but based on what's known about the plant, the places where it grows—in high Moloka'i at elevations between 2,300 and 4,200 feet—are pretty much already protected by the Conservancy and the state.

But one benefit of being identified as a plant in peril is that more folks are paying attention to it. And that may be the key to its survival.

“A variety of organizations such as the University of Hawaii’s Lyon Arboretum on O‘ahu, the National Tropical Botanical Garden on Kaua‘i, and Kalaupapa National Historical Park on Moloka‘i are propagating plants that may be used for outplanting into suitable habitat.

“Land managers from Hawai’i’s Department of Land and Natural Resources have fenced some plants to protect them from feral ungulates, and The Nature Conservancy continues to control feral pigs and alien plants within the Kamakou Preserve,” said the Fish and Wildlife Service in a press release.

©2009 Jan TenBruggencate

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Green gasoline: oxymoron or the future?

Gasoline is everyone's idea of the anti-biofuel—the stuff we're trying to get away from. Is it even conceivable to think of gas as green?

Well, sure, if it doesn't come from oil or coal, and particularly if it comes from a renewable source.

(Image: University of Wisconsin student Edward Kunkes in the lab used to convert sugars into liquid fuels. Credit: Jim Dumesic, University of Wisconsin.)

What if you make it out of sugar cane? Better yet, what if you can make it out of non-edible sugars in agricultural waste and non-food plants?

Everybody knows you can efficiently make alcohol out of sugar, and create either rum or a fuel that can run an engine. Not everybody likes using ethanol fuel, and it does have its unique set of issues. Now new research has developed a way to make gasoline out of sugars.

Two independent groups using different approaches came up with the discovery.

“Sugars and carbohydrates can be processed like petroleum into the full suite of products that drive the fuel, pharmaceutical and chemical industries,” says the National Science Foundation press release on the work.

The independent teams, both working in Madison, Wisconsin, were Randy Cortright and associates at Virent Energy Systems, and James Dumesic at the University of Wisconsin. Madison isn't that big a city, and these guys obviously know each other. Cortright used to be a student of Dumesic.

The techniques have been discussed since as early as 2006. They call the system aqueous phase reforming.

“In passing a watery slurry of plant-derived sugar and carbohydrates over a series of catalysts—materials that speed up reactions without sacrificing themselves in the process—carbon-rich organic molecules split apart into component elements that recombine to form many of the chemicals that are extracted from non-renewable petroleum,” the release says.

The process yields an oil that can readily be converted into gasoline. Being able to buy gasoline made from sugars from this process is still a few years off, but the scientific teams are sure they can get there.

Said Cortright: "Our scientists now have years of expertise with our BioForming process and are rapidly moving the technology to commercial scale. We are quickly working to put our renewable, green gasoline and other hydrocarbon biofuels in fuel tanks all over the world."

But isn't gasoline a fuel source of the past?

"Even when solar and wind, in addition to clean coal and nuclear, become highly developed, and cars become electric or plug-in hybrid, we will still need high energy-density gasoline, diesel and jet fuel for planes, trains, trucks, and boats," said John Regalbuto, director of the Catalysis and Biocatalysis Program at the National Science Foundation.

One of the interesting things about gasoline, Virent says, is that it spontaneously separates from water. Ethanol, by contrast, must be distilled to separate it from water, and that's an energy-intensive process.

Green gasoline is not by any means the only big advance going on in fuel science. Here's just one other.

Researchers at Penn State have found they can produce hydrogen through electrolysis using cheap stainless steel cathodes instead of ones made of expensive platinum. They get similar yields, and although it takes a little more steel than platinum, it's so much cheaper that it saves bundles.

"Stainless steel brush cathodes can produce hydrogen at rates and efficiencies similar to those we have achieved with platinum-catalyzed carbon cloth," says Bruce E. Logan, Kappe professor of environmental engineering.

©2009 Jan TenBruggencate

Friday, March 13, 2009

Does Ni'ihau fish kill cause still lurk?

Nearly two months after they were found, the thousands of dead fish on Ni'ihau's coast are still a mystery.

Fish have stopped dying, and health officials have told residents they can resume eating their nearshore marine life.

(Image: One of the species killed in the January 2009 Ni'ihau fish kill was the humuhumu 'ele'ele. This 1903 image from NOAA's historic fisheries collection is originally from "The Shore Fishes of the Hawaiian Islands, with a General Account of the Fish Fauna", by David Starr Jordan and Barton Warren Evermann. Bulletin of the United States Fish Commission)

But what killed the fish? Can it happen again? Is there some lurking threat? And what about the initial suspect, the use of rat poison on the neighboring islet of Lehua. Was that the culprit?

The answer to the last question, in short, is no. Something killed lots of fish near Ni'ihau, but it's extremely unlikely it was diphacinone, the rat bait that was aerially distributed on nearby Lehua Islet. More on this farther down.

Ni'ihau residents grew understandably concerned when thousands of dead fish washed ashore in January, and they made the logical connection to an aerial application of the rat poison diphacinone on nearby Lehua Islet a couple of weeks earlier.

After weeks of research, the Ni'ihau fish kill continues to baffle. But the research is continuing.

The first suspect was diphacinone, so here's the case on that. It was used nearby—Ni'ihau and Lehua are only half a mile apart—and the time of application, early January, was reasonably close to when large numbers of dead fish were seen, which was in the third week of January. But all the evidence thus far appears to show that diphacinone could not have been the culprit.

A key piece of evidence is a research project done just a year earlier on another steep-sided Hawaiian island, about the same size as Lehua, where precisely the same rat poison was distributed in the same way. The report by Robert W. Gale, Michael Tanner, and Carl E. Orazio is “Determination of Diphacinone in Sea Water, Vertebrates, Invertebrates, and Bait Pellet Formulations Following Aerial Broadcast on Mokapu Island, Molokai, Hawai’i.

Within days after the broadcast of diphacinone at Mokapu, the researchers tested the water, they tested the fish, they tested the 'opihi clinging to the rocks on the side of the island. They also checked the water at Kalaupapa, which is downwind from Mokapu, as Niihau is (during tradewind weather) downwind from Lehua. Their result: “No detectable concentrations of diphacinone were found in the fish, limpets, or sea-water samples from Mokapu Island or from the reference sites.”

Diphacinone is a powerful anticoagulant. In big enough doses, it inhibits blood clotting, causing internal bleeding and death in target species. It is primarily used to control rodents, like rats, mice and voles, and can harm bats as well. These species are very susceptible to it in quite small doses. It is listed as slightly to moderately toxic in fish, although only freshwater fishes were tested.

We checked diphacinone at Extoxnet, a chemical toxicity site operated by a number of universities in the United States, and at NOAA's toxic chemical site, as well as a label for one of the diphacinone baits. Make no mistake, diphacinone in high enough concentrations is extremely toxic to humans. In its pure form, a teaspoon full is probably enough to kill a human.

Here are some pieces of the puzzle:

The baits are extremely dilute mixtures, with a fraction of a percent diphacinone in the bait pellets.

Diphacinone doesn't survive long in the marine environment. It decomposes quickly in water and sunlight.

The necropsies done on the Ni'ihau fish showed they had no detectable diphacinone.

There were no heavy rains during the period between the distribution of rat bait and the fish kill that would have caused rat bait to wash into the ocean.

And, for the entire period in question, winds and currents in the Lehua were flowing away from Niihau not toward it.

The dominant fish involved in the kill were two species of triggerfish, the humuhumu 'ele'ele and the humuhumu hi'ukole. Also located were a few gray chub, or nenue, and a blue-stripe snapper, ta'ape.

They were of different ages and sizes, and the deterioration suggested they had died at different times.

Some appeared to have distended swim bladders, and many had inflamed gills. Gill inflammation can come from parasites, viruses, use of toxic chemicals for fishing, bacteria and other things. It's not known from diphacinone.

Inflamed gills are a fairly common symptom in fish kills across the oceans, and their cause often remains mysterious—as in this case, where no cause could be readily identified.

State aquatic biologist Don Heacock, who collected dead fish samples on Ni'ihau, said the options are endless. It could be a natural event, a man-made event at sea, a man-made event on land that affected the marine coast.

The questions are endless, too. Why did it affect only a few species, not all of them related to each other? Why both young and old, large and small specimens? Why did it continue to kill over time rather than all at once? Why only Ni'ihau and not other islands? Why were most of the dead fish found at the uninhabited southern end of Ni'ihau? What factor links inflamed gills and distended swim bladders?

It's a classic mystery. Heacock said state and federal officials continue to work on it. They're looking desperately for the clue, the link, the thing that brings the evidence into focus.

“What is it we're not seeing here?” Heacock said.

©2009 Jan TenBruggencate

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Hokule'a dreaming

Hokule'a is a quarter of the way to Palmyra, more or less, as this is written.

How many of the hundreds of former crew members went out to look at the stars since the departure and imagined what the crew was experiencing?

I did. Faced hema, found steering stars and put myself on board.

In the quiet night, riding the sweep, holding a star at a point in the rigging.

Keeping a backup steering star on the other side of the canoe, for when clouds obscured the first.

Feeling the wind.

Hearing whispered conversations, water moving against the hull, wind in the shrouds.

Bodies moving on deck in the moonlight, then disappearing into the lua, into their bunks, onto the aft trampolines.

Squalls rolling through, wet and cold.

But nobody on board would be anywhere else.

Nowhere else on Earth.

©2009 Jan TenBruggencate

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Energy suckers abound, in both senses of the term

There's a sucker born every minute*, and when it comes to energy, it seems the sucker is us.

Society has breathed a collective sigh of relief and stopped worrying too much about the likelihood of high oil prices returning.

We've forgotten that the disruptive oil price peak most associate with the gas lines of the 1970s, actually lasted for a decade, from the mid-70s to the mid-80s.

And we've forgotten that while the most recent peak occurred last summer, the steady ramp-up of oil prices to nearly $150 a barrel went on for half a decade. Some folks are acting as if they figure prices will stay low.

Hybrid car sales are down by a third or more, according to the site Of course, all car sales are down, so that may not be the best measure.

Gasoline sales continue to stay comparatively modest, but nobody thinks that's because we're into conservation for conservation's sake. It's because of the rotten economy, says the Energy Information Administration. The EIA figures energy use will begin its rebound in 2010, and prices will start up before that.

“Our current forecast assumes that a recovery in global economic activity begins sometime in the second half of 2009. If this timing assumption proves to be correct, then world oil prices should begin to rise gradually later this year,” the EIA says in its March 11, 2009, “This Week in Petroleum.”

And while President Obama is still talking about energy issues (here and here and here), they are flagging at the Hawai'i State Legislature, according to Blue Planet Foundation's Jeff Mikulina.

“Moving the needle on Hawaii’s oil dependency will not happen this session unless legislators make significant amendments to measures before them. For most lawmakers, ‘supporting clean energy’ is an easy sound bite, but voting for effective policy to get it done is hard,” he said.

Blue Planet's goal is to move the world off its fossil fuel addiction.

Mikulina reports that the Legislature, in the language of bills now moving through the assembly, has weakened its stance on energy independence, energy efficiency and state energy security.

Bills to prohibit new fossil fuel power plants (HB 1464 and SB 1671) have been backed down.
Measures died that would have set Hawai'i's own automobile efficiency standards and to set standards for energy efficiency in homes and offices.

Mikulina said he has hope for bills that would establish higher standards for renewable energy generation. Blue Planet supports an oil surcharge of $5 a barrel (42 gallons in a barrel), with the money to be used for clean energy and efficiency programs.

“Blue Planet believes the low oil price today presents a perfect opportunity to tap the source of our energy problem to fund our solutions—and create good, local, high-paying jobs in the process. The current version of the bill doesn’t specify the amount of the new barrel surcharge,” Blue Planet's statement said.

Blue Planet is pushing for a new version of SB 1173, which it feels should create a system in which you could pay for energy efficiency improvements on your home through your electrric bill.

“By eliminating the up-front cost of energy efficiency investments, on-bill financing is one of the most powerful tools to increase adoption of smart energy technologies (such as solar water heating, photovoltaic, and efficient appliances),” Blue Planet said.

*(The “sucker born every minute” line is often attributed to circus man P.T. Barnum, but apparently was actually the quote of a great hoaxter, David Hannum, who had New York's Cardiff Giant carved, and them claimed it was a petrified human. Barnum, too smooth to publicly use a line that would make his customers seem stupid, out-maneuvered Hannum and cleaned up on the Giant scam.)

©2009 Jan TenBruggencate

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Ocean plants stun researchers with alternative body-building technique

You may prefer to have a house built of wood, but if there's no wood around, you can use concrete or steel.

Turns out phytoplankton have similar options available to them.

(Image: Ocean researchers deploy a Conductivity, Temperature, Depth rosette to conduct inquiries into conditions on the ocean. Credit: Lance A. Fujieki.)

In a bit of groundbreaking research, teams of researchers have found that when their favored cellular wall building blocks are unavailable, microscopic ocean plants can build their cell walls out of replacement compounds.

The teams are from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, University of Southern California, University of Hawai'i, the Czech Academy of Sciences, the Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences, University of Southern Maine, and the Centre d’Océanologie de Marseille.

Cell membranes are generally known to be built of a range of compounds, with a phosphorus-based oil compound known as phospholipid prominent among them. And it has been assumed that except in very rare exceptions, you need phospholipids to make cell membranes.

But what is a bit of phytoplankton to do in ocean areas starved of phosphorus? The Sargasso Sea is such an area, and it turns out that phytoplankton like cyanobacteria grow just fine there.

Their trick? They manufacture their cell membranes out of other compounds, notably sulfur.

It's interesting news in a world of climate change, in part because there is evidence that phosphorus may be disappearing from surface waters in parts of the world—including around Hawai'i—due to reduced mixing of nutrient-rich deep water with nutrient-deprived surface water.

Phytoplankton produce much of the world's oxygen, and need to do that near the surface, where there's sunshine to fuel the production. They do lots of other useful things, including suck carbon dioxide out of the atmposphere, and serve as a basic feature of the oceanic food web—with impacts on fisheries, among other things.

“Phosphorus is still measurable but is disappearing from the surface waters (near Hawai'i) at an alarming rate. One prediction from this initial study is that the phytoplankton in Hawaiian waters are likely to become more like those in the Sargasso Sea over time as phosphorus supplies dwindle further,” the University of Hawai'i said in a news release.

What's not clear is what effects such a change would have on all the ocean processes and species that are associated in some way with phytoplankton.

It's also not clear whether other forms of life have the same flexibility in building their cell membranes that phytoplankton have.

“To date, the ability to synthesize substitute lipids appears to be restricted to the phytoplankton; heterotrophic bacteria and other organisms must have a different strategy for survival, or none at all,” the University of Hawai'i release said.

Two Hawai'i researchers, Michael Rappé and David Karl of the School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology and UH’s new Center for Microbial Oceanography, are co-authors of the new research, published in the March 5, 2009, issue of the journal Nature.

The paper is “Phytoplankton in the ocean use non-phosphorus lipids in response to phosphorus scarcity,” by Benjamin A. S. Van Mooy, Helen F. Fredricks, Byron E. Pedler, Sonya T. Dyhrman, Karl, Michal Koblíek, Michael W. Lomas, Tracy J. Mincer, Lisa R. Moore, Thierry Moutin, Rappé and Eric A. Webb.

The University of Hawai'i School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology release is here.

©2009 Jan TenBruggencate

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Corals 4,000 years old can tell environmental tales

If you go where you've never gone before, what are the chances you'll see what you've never seen before?

Pretty good.

That's why, while fascinating, it's not a shock that a recent series of dives in mile-deep water off the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands turned up some bizarre-looking new marine life.

(Images: Above, a new genus and species of orange bamboo coral found 5,745 feet down. It is 4 to 5 feet tall. Credit: Hawaii Deep-Sea Coral Expedition 2007/NOAA . Image below is the Pisces V submersible. Credit: NOAA.)

More information and photos in the official NOAA press release here.

Among the discoveries of a 2007 NOAA-funded mission in the depths of the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument are seven new corals, never before described by scientists. And the mission found more signs of life that haven't yet been fully studied,

The coral discoveries are interesting not only for the intrinsic interest in finding new forms of life, but also because they can tell a story about conditions and long-term changes in conditions in the deep ocean.

“Deep-sea bamboo corals also produce growth rings much as trees do, and can provide a much-needed view of how deep ocean conditions change through time,” said Richard Spinrad, NOAA’s assistant administrator for Oceanic and Atmospheric Research. “These corals may be among the first marine organisms to be affected by ocean acidification.”

Some of the corals, still alive, may be 4,000 years old—that's nearly as old as the oldest of the reputed oldest living things on Earth, the bristlecone pines.

The research team, which included University of Hawai'i scientist Christopher Kelley and NOAA researcher Frank Parrish, sought to predict where dense deep coral colonies could be found and studied growth rates of corals. Among their finds, atop a seamount, was a field of dead coral, of a species not previously found in Hawai'i, and which may have died hundreds of thousands of years ago.

The research was conducted in party by the Hawai'i Undersea Research Laboratory, sponsored by NOAA and the University of Hawaii, with the Pisces V submersible. It worked at depths nearly a mile deep.

©2009 Jan TenBruggencate

Monday, March 2, 2009

Incredible shape-shifting corals, and how they make conservation tough

You can neither tell a book by its cover, nor a coral head by its appearance.

The coral, in fact, might be the stranger of the two, according to research by a team of University of Hawai'i scientists.

Not only can two corals look very different but be essentially the same genetically. But very similar-looking corals can also be very different genetically.

(Image: These two corals from Maui, Porites lobata (yellow) and Porites compressa (bluish-purple), look very different in both color and form, but genetically they are nearly the same. Is one a hybrid or is this coral just very susceptible to different forms? That's not clear. Credit: Zac Forsman.)

The team, Zac H. Forsman and Robert J. Toonen of the Hawai'i Institute of Marine Biology, Daniel J. Barnis of the Zoology Department and Cynthia L. Hunter of the Biology Department, wrote “Shape-shifting corals: Molecular markers show morphology is evolutionarily plastic in Porites,” which appeared in the Biomed Central open access journal Evolutionary Biology. The press release is here.

Corals are now generally identified by their appearance, but the new paper suggests that's not nearly good enough. They expanded standard genetic testing into new areas to try to better understand the corals.

With Porites lutea, which has been treated as a single species, the researchers found that genetically, it could be broken up into at least three distinct genetic groups that the authors say are “deeply genetically divergent.

In other cases, they found that different-looking corals with, say, a branching appearance or a mounding appearance, were almost impossible to tell apart at the genetic level—like the two species pictured above.

In part, this means that some corals that you'd expect to be quite distinct may actually be capable of interbreeding. And some species may just be real shape-shifters, inherently capable of taking different looks.

That has a number of impacts.

One is that you might have assumed a unique-looking coral in a given environment was endemic or unique to that locale. But in fact, it might simply be just another a natural form of that coral.

And other corals, which might look the same in different locations, might actually represent unique adaptations.

“This ‘coral species problem’ is an impediment to understanding the evolution and biodiversity of this important and threatened group of organisms,” the authors write.

In a challenging environmental age, in which coral reefs are threatened by warming oceans, by rising waters, by pollution, by alien species invasions and more, this makes it all the more difficult to develop strategies to protect the corals.

Indeed, until you can accurately tell one coral from another, or identify siblings, your reef could be experiencing change or losing things without you knowing it.

In the words of the scientists: “Species definitions based solely on evolutionarily labile, polymorphic, or phenotypically plastic traits are likely to be misleading and confound attempts to identify, understand, and conserve coral biodiversity or to recognize its loss.”

©2009 Jan TenBruggencate