Thursday, April 30, 2009

Vol. 2: Swine flu: outright lies, hyperbole and grains of salt

As the real swine (H1N1) flu spreads across the world, the nuttiness of some reports and reactions continues.

The United Arab Emirates just joined a few other nations in banning pork sales. The problem with this: You don't get flu from pork—if you get it, you're most likely to get it from another human.

“It is not pork-borne,” said U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.

Conspiracy theorists are spinning all kinds of unnecessary silliness, from assertions about dead pigs in China (problem: there aren't yet any confirmed H1N1 flu cases in China) to Al Qaeda involvement. In fact, swine flu has moved to humans before, and it doesn't require a conspiracy.

The Associated Press has reported nearly 150 dead of swine flu in Mexico alone, 20 of them confirmed. Meanwhile, in a more recent report, the World Health Organization says there are 8 confirmed deaths--7 in Mexico and the eighth a Mexican child being treated in an American hospital. What's going on? The WHO actually requires proof--the person who died must actually have had the H1N1 strain of flu. Other organizations and nations are not such nitpickers. Another reason to be careful with where you get your information.

News reports have suggested that Mexican officials have identified “patient zero”--the first human who got sick with this flu. Dr. Rich Besser, acting director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, says the first victim has in fact NOT yet been identified.

When you hear frightening numbers about how many people are at risk, keep in mind, as Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said in a briefing today, that the regular annual flu season in this country makes hundreds of thousands of people sick and can result in 36,000 deaths.

The nation has a stockpile of 50 million antiviral medication doses, states have another 20 million or so, and the military has millions more. Hawai'i has enough on hand to treat 25 percent of its population. The primary compounds are Tamiflu (oseltamivir) and Relenza (zanamivir). This medication helps reduce symptoms.

If a person with H1N1 does sneeze on a hand and the touch something, how long can the virus live and remain infective outside the body?

The Mayo Clinic ( reports that they can live as long as two days on surfaces. To protect yourself, you could wipe down with alcohol surfaces like computer keyboards that may have been touched by someone sick, said Dr. Rich Besser, acting director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Frequent handwashing or the use of alcohol gels continues to be a strong recommendation.

This flu virus is still new, and is not a revival of a previous flu virus. “This strain is very different from any previous strain that we've seen,” Besser said.

Its characteristics will be slightly different from the average, but generally, figure that there's about a seven-day incubation period—the period between infection and symptoms showing up. And symptoms can hang around for a few days to a week.

There are still a lot of questions about the characteristics of this particular virus, and about how it will move through the world's populations.

“This is a dynamic situation. It will change,” Sibelius said.

Places to get good information: and

Our previous post on this issue:

© Jan TenBruggencate 2009

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Swine flu: outright lies, hyperbole and grains of salt

Half of what you read about swine flu in the coming weeks will be wrong, and much of the rest you ought to take with a grain of salt.

This doesn't mean you shouldn't be alert, but it does mean the first thing with which you should arm yourself is useful information.

Media are going nuts over this story, and although it's worth the space they're giving it, they're assigning a lot of folks to the flu story who have no understanding of epidemiology and no business writing complicated medical stories.

One thing you'll see is breathless prose about how this is some weird mutant strain of flu virus, a Frankenstein supervirus that combines features of lots of other viruses. Well, no, not exactly.

Here are the exact words of Dr. Richard Besser, acting head of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “This strain is not unlike other new strains that have emerged. It's an assortment -- it's got genetic components from a number of sources, including human, swine, and avian sources. And that's something that you see with new strains.”

The lead flu story in one of the papers today said health officials “fully expect” deaths. Breathtaking news, but of course there are deaths during every flu season—many, many of them—especially among the very old, the very young, the immunocompromised, those with respiratory ailments and so forth.

As of 11:30 a.m. Eastern Time today, the 30th of April 2009, there was one death and 109 confirmed cases in the U.S. The one death was a toddler with other health problems. That's not to say there won't be lots more. There will be. More than in a bad non-swine flu year? We'll see.

Here's a link with a lot of information: That's an important website, and it is probably the safest place to get your information. Check it before acting on anything you hear on the street.

Is this just an outbreak, an epidemic, or even a pandemic? Some sources use these terms interchangeably. Generally, epidemic refers to a fast-spreading disease, and pandemic means it's really widespread.

Flu epidemics aren't unheard-of. In fact, last year's flu season was considered an epidemic for an eight-week period, according to the Centers for Disease Control definitions.

It's early, but this flu seems to be spreading fairly rapidly. The CDC is still calling it an outbreak, but because it's moving quickly, it probably will qualify soon as an epidemic. Not a pandemic, yet, by CDC definitions, but the World Health Organization has in fact designated it pandemic. Most cases are in Mexico and the U.S., but there are also some in Canada, Israel, Spain, Germany, England, New Zealand, Costa Rica and Austria, at this writing.

They call it swine flu, because it originated in pigs, or has some characteristics of swine flu viruses. Pigs get pig flu just as humans get human flu. But influenza is a cagey virus, it can change and suddenly jump across species lines.

So, sometimes, pigs can get human flu, and humans can sometimes get pig flu. Same with birds and avian flu. This swine flu, a form of Influenza A, mutated to also affect humans. It happens. The CDC says nearly a quarter of pig farmers and one in 10 veterinarians have been infected with some variant of swine flu over time.

But at this point, for the most part, the current strain is spreading from person to person. Pigs are not involved in most new infections in the U.S. And you don't get it from cooked pork. A well-cooked laulau is safe—it's the coughing person serving it that you need to be careful about.

We're seeing a lot of pictures of people running around in face masks. Will this protect you? Maybe, maybe not. “Information on the effectiveness of facemasks and respirators for the control of influenza in community settings is extremely limited,” the CDC says.

As woodworkers know, if you take a deep breath through a cheap facemask, the air just sucks in unfiltered through the sides.

Wearing a mask couldn't hurt, and might help, but you're better off adopting a range of precautions, including staying away from anyone who might be sick and getting a little nuts about handwashing.

The primary way most people are getting it is through contact with contaminated droplets of moisture from an infected person's cough or sneeze, or from the moisture on that person's hands after he or she has coughed into it, or from something they've touched.

If the flu gets into your community, then any cough, handshake, doorknob or shopping cart handle is a potential source. If you have touched a possibly contaminated object, keep your hands away from your face until you can thoroughly wash them.

Here are the state Department of Health's guidelines for protecting yourself:

If you get the flu, unless you get tested, you won't be able to tell whether it's swine flu or some other flu. Flu symptoms, although they can vary in severity, are generally the same: fever (often quite high), body aches, headache, cough, fatigue, nasal congestion or discharge, and sometimes vomiting and diarrhea.

It's unlikely most humans have any resistance to this flu. The Type A H1N1 swine virus—which is the designation for the one causing trouble just now—is quite different from H1N1 human viruses. So having had the human equivalent doesn't protect you from the swine form.

There aren't any effective vaccines for this one, but the CDC is working on it. There are a few antiviral drugs that can help once you've gotten it. If you think you're sick and it might be swine flu, call your doctor for instructions. Some of the medication must be taken early to be effective, so don't waste time.

© Jan TenBruggencate 2009

Clear the weeds, native forest adults don't benefit, but the keiki do

What happens to the remaining native plants when you remove alien invaders?

Perhaps not what you expected.

For instance, mature natives like the 'ohi'a (seedling image above right) don't suddenly experience growth spurts.

But opening up the canopy can let dormant native seeds sprout—seeds that might not have sprouted in the shade of dense alien undergrowth.

The researchers who conducted research on this include Rebecca Ostertag, Jodie R. Schulten, Keiko M. Publico, and Jaime H. Enoka, all of the University of Hawai'i at Hilo's Department of Botany, along with, Susan Cordell and Colleen Cole of the USDA's Institute of Pacific Islands Forestry, and Jene´ Michaud of the University of Hawai'i at Hilo's Department of Geology.

Their report, “Ecosystem and Restoration Consequences of Invasive Woody Species Removal in Hawaiian Lowland Wet Forest,” was published in the Springer journal, Ecosystems. (Ecosystems (2009) 12: 503–515 DOI: 10.1007/s10021-009-9239-3)

The team used several wet forest plots in the Keaukaha Military Reservation south of Hilo Airport. The native forest was dominated by ’ohi’a (Metrosideros polymorpha) and lama (Diospyros sandwicensis, along with extensive native undergrowth, but had been invaded by multiple species, including strawberry guava, macaranga, albizia, clidemia and the melastome Melastoma


The non-natives were cleared from a series of test plots, which were then compared over a three-year period with uncleared areas. In the removal plots, where more sun was now able to reach the ground, air temperatures and soil temperatures were higher, humidity was lower, less total leaf litter fell and it decomposed more slowly. Most of that was predictable.

Among the interesting findings was that the native trees, with their competition removed, did not respond by suddenly growing faster. They found no significant difference in the diameter of native trees in their removal plots compared to test plots where no weeds had been removed.

“Despite major environmental changes in the removal plots, native species’ diameter growth and litterfall productivity were not significantly greater after removal, testifying to the slow response capabilities of native Hawaiian trees,” the authors wrote.

“Our results are consistent with the expectation that native species are conservative in regards to resource use and may not strongly respond to canopy removal, at least at the adult stage.”

They did find that while 'ohi'a and some other native trees did not regenerate in the dense shade of alien-dominated forests, their seedlings did sprout in the more open forest created after clearing.

“We conclude that canopy opening is critical to avoid complete conversion of these forests to exotic-dominated systems,” they wrote.

And that's critical to saving the forest for native birds and other species that rely on native habitats.

© Jan TenBruggencate 2009

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Can plastics be green, and just what does that mean?

Is it possible for plastic to be “green,” and if so, just what does that term mean?

Well, there are whole industries out there working on this, and there are certainly plastics being marketed as green.

(Image: Just how green is this stuff? That depends on what "green" means. Credit: EPA.)

But as a definitive term for plastic products, “green” is pretty useless.

In the words of Lewis Carroll, (through his character Humpty Dumpty), the term “means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”

In its broadest definition, green is meant to refer to plastic that is in some way easier on the environment than other kinds of plastic.

Several broad categories of “green” come to mind.

One is plastics that are recyclable—reformulable into new products. Some plastic products are made of mixes of products that cannot later be broken down and put into molds to form new consumer items. But realistically, in most communities, many kinds of even the technically recyclable plastics are not accepted for recycling—so simply having the recycling symbol is meaningless.

The Daily Green has a nice rundown on plastic recycling symbols and what they mean here.

A second green category would be plastic products actually made from recycled plastic.

Still another “green category” is those plastics not made from petroleum products at all, like corn-based plastics. Some folks call these bioplastics, and argue that their net addition of carbon dioxide to the environment is dramatically lower than that of oil-based plastic. Largely, that's because the plants from which the product is derived suck up carbon dioxide while they grow, while petroleum products simply take stored carbon out of the ground and dump some of them into the atmosphere.

Fourth, there are “biodegradable” plastics. We put quotes around the word, because some require quite specialized conditions before they biodegrade. This blog discussed that issue earlier.

Some companies are trying to hit as many of these “green” buttons as possible. An example is the Biogreen Bottle, which claims to be “biodegradable, recyclable, reusable and made from recyclable material.” You can drill down through the various claims at the website,

Our worry, given the results of our corn-based “biodegradable” plastic experiment, is that it's hard to test the Biogreen claims, which say they require one to five years of deep landfill microbial action for full conversion of the plastic into humus and methane.

All in all, with plastics, a consumer needs to be alert, wary and pretty well educated to make sense of all the claims.

And when you're reaching into a plastic shopping bag, cutting open a box sealed with plastic tape, ripping through a plastic clamshell container to get at your plastic product inside, you might need to wonder just what in heck you're doing.

©2009 Jan TenBruggencate

Monday, April 20, 2009

Of straw men, red herrings and climate change

There's your straw man, your red herring, your stalking horse—the techniques people use when they don't have a supportable position.

They have no place in debate over serious public policy issues—but of course, they're all over the place in the debate over serious public policy issues.

What prompts this particular post is U.S. House Minority Leader John Boehner's amazing statement this weekend on carbon dioxide and climate change.

What he said, in a discussion with George Stephanopoulos, was this: “The idea that carbon dioxide is a carcinogen that is harmful to our environment is almost comical. Every time we exhale, we exhale carbon dioxide. Every cow in the world, you know, when they do what they do, you’ve got more carbon dioxide.”

Nobody thinks carbon dioxide causes cancer.

So Boehner was using a classic straw man—saying the scientific world is nuts when it claims something it doesn't claim.

Or it's a red herring—get people thinking about cancer when they ought to be thinking about climate.

Or maybe Boehner is a stalking horse—consciously making a fool of himself while something else is going on under cover.

One supposes it's possible Boehner was doing none of these things—that he simply is so stunningly ill-informed that he doesn't know the difference between cancer and climate.

And at some level, it doesn't matter. What matters is that he's stupendously wrong—and that there are people out there listening to him.

We're reminded of the old lawyer's maxim: If you have the facts, argue the facts. If you have the law, argue the law. If you have neither, pound the table.

Boehner, and so many other climate deniers, are resorting to pounding the table.

(The straw man technique is first to misrepresent an opponent's position, and then to ridicule or knock down the misrepresentation. The straw man is by definition easy to knock down.
(A red herring is a false proposition set forth to misdirect the reader or listener from the truth.
(A stalking horse is used to attract the attention while someone else skates by below the radar, often with nefarious intent.)

© Jan TenBruggencate 2009

Friday, April 17, 2009

Is it as "green" as they say? Mostly, nope.

You knew this, right? When most companies tell you they're “green,” they're lying—at least a little.

(Image: Is it really green? This image represents the "greenwashing" Sin of Vagueness. Source: Terrachoice Environmental Marketing.)

The technique is called “greenwashing,” and it's designed to convince consumers that the product is somehow better than competitors, or is safer, or has reduced negative impact on the environment.

The environmental marketing firm Terrachoice has issued its 2009 version of the Sins of Greenwashing.

You can read it yourself at the link above, but as we're here to do some of the work for you, here are some highlights.

Terrachoice identified seven “sins” of greenwashing, and then went out and checked more than 2,200 products sold in North America. Its conclusion: 98 percent committed at least one sin.

Put another way, that means that only one product out of 50 is actually as environmentally friendly as it says it is.

And what are the Terrachoice seven sins? Here they are, from the Greenwashing Sins report.

One, the hidden trade-off. Saying paper from a sustainably harvested forest is actually greener may be false if that paper is produced with higher levels of greenhouse gases or water pollution.

Two, no proof. Some products claim recycled content, for example, that nobody has checked.

Three, vagueness. “All-natural” doesn't mean safe, or green. Botulism is natural, as is lead and also radioactive plutonium. (Yep, "radioactive" plutonium commits a kind of sin, since most any plutionium you're likely to find will be radioactive.")

Four, irrelevance. Terrachoice uses the example “CFC-free.” It's kind of meaningless, since CFC content is illegal. Makes as much sense as a label saying “Contains no nuclear weapons” on a bottle of beer.

Five, lesser of two evils. Like, organic cigarettes are better for you than regular ones.

Six, fibbing. Making claims that are outright false. Thankfully, this sin is the least common, Terrachoice says.

And the newest addition to the list, Sin Seven: worshipping false labels. This can take several forms, among them posting some kind of meaningless “certification” image. Some companies use logos that don't actually have any certification process behind them.

The whole business challenges consumers to do more than read labels, but also to think about them.

If a can of beans says “eco-friendly,” you can legitimately ask, “Says who?”

If a shaker of baby powder says “all natural,” you can ask, “But what about allergens and toxicity?”

And lots of products say they're biodegradable. But this puts the burden on the buyer, because unless you subject the product to the exact conditions it needs to biodegrade, it won't. Example: biodegradable plastics made from corn require fairly high heat and moisture to break down. An average backyard compost bin won't degrade it very quickly, and if it goes to the landfill, it may not degrade in your lifetime.

When you do see a logo, pay attention. These are the ones Terrachoice has determined have some validity: Design for the Environment, U.S. EPA; EcoCert; EcoLogo; Energy Star; Epeat; Forest Stewardship Council (FSC); Green Seal; Greenguard; Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI); USDA Organic; WaterSense.

These aren't all the legit certification logos, so don't reject a product simply for the lack of one of these. On the other hand, encourage firms to convince you with real data rather than a slogan and a picture.

“In the absence of a reliable eco-label, remember the Seven Sins of Greenwashing ( and choose the product that offers transparency, information and education,” said Terrachoice.

© Jan TenBruggencate 2009

Thursday, April 16, 2009

New call for study of false killer whales around Hawai'i

An apparent crash in the population of false killer whales around the Hawaiian Islands has prompted a call for new research into whay that's happening.

One of the questions is whether and how much fishing is affecting the whales.

(Image: NOAA photo of false killer whales off Hawaii by Robin Baird.)

The Marine Mammal Advisory Committee of the Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council met last week in Honolulu and called for a series of studies into whale populations.

Among the reviews recommended: aerial counts, photo identification and genetic work on the population; assessments of the impact of longline and shortline (longlines less than a nautical line in length) fishing on the whales; determining to what degree the whales are impacted by being shot by fishermen and ingesting hooks when they go after bait or hooked fish; getting the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument to study the whales in its waters; and more.

It's generally concluded that the large dolphins known as false killer whales have two distinct populations around Hawai'i. One is a group of several hundred whales that remain around the islands, and the other is the pelagic stock that ranges long distances through the eastern North Pacific.

As far as the National Marine Fisheries Service knows, Hawai'i's longline fleet catches fewer than six animals a year, but there is not enough information on whether that has a significant impact on the local population.

“There is also no data available on the current productivity rate or on the current population trend of the Hawaii stocks. Furthermore, additional injury and mortality of false killer whales is known to occur outside of the EEZ by US and international longline operations, and the potential effect on the Hawaii pelagic stock is unknown,” the fishery council said in a news release.

There are some 6,000 foreign longline ships working the Pacific. About 125 are based in Hawai'i. But additionally, there are many largely unregulated recreational and nearshore shortline fishing boats working from Hawai'i harbors.

There was some information at the meeting, generally anecdotal, that some of the unregulated fishers deliberately shoot false killer whales that come into contact with their fishing gear.
For more information see the fishery council website.

For more information on false killer whales, see this NOAA website, or visit

© Jan TenBruggencate 2009

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Dramatic greenhouse cuts necessary and also possible

If you want to help save the world as we know it, it will take more than incremental changes, according to new research.

A switch from an 18-mile-per-gallon car to a 20 mpg car won't do it. That's just a 10 percent improvement. We need 70 percent, according to new research.

(Image: New computer simulations show the extent that average air temperatures at Earth's surface could warm by 2080-2099 compared to 1980-1999, if (top) greenhouse gases emissions continue to climb at current rates, or if (bottom) society cuts emissions by 70 percent. In the latter case, temperatures rise by less than 2°C (3.6°F) across nearly all of Earth's populated areas. However, unchecked emissions could lead to warming of 3°C (5.4°F) or more across parts of Europe, Asia, North America, and Australia. (Graphic courtesy Geophysical Research Letters, modified by UCAR.)

New research, as the caption indicates, is suggesting we need a 70 percent cut in greenhouse gases to stabilize climate change, reduce flooding potential in Waikiki, minimize droughts, and so forth.

For the car, 70 percent means going from an 18 miles per gallon to a 60 miles per gallon vehicle--but that's just one way to do it.

For the 60 watt lightbulb, switching from incandescent to fluorescent will work, since it cuts emissions about three-quarters for the same amount of light.

In other areas, the saving are more difficult to attain, and more difficult to calculate. You can't readily cut your food consumption by 70 percent, but by eating locally grown produce, you could reduce significantly the among of travel energy inherent at the kitchen table, for instance.

It still won't prevent the loss of the world as we know it, but it could help keep the world from being too different, said researchers who report in the April 21 issue of Geophysical Research Letters, a publication of the American Geophysical Union (AGU).

"This research indicates that we can no longer avoid significant warming during this century. But, if the world were to implement this level of emission cuts, we could stabilize the threat of climate change and avoid catastrophe," said lead author Warren Washington, a scientist with the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR).

The AGU in a press release noted that global temperatures are up nearly 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit in the last century, much (but not all) of it the result of human activities. And there's a suggestion that this level of change may put the globe near some kind of climate tipping point.

The paper is entitled, "How much climate change can be avoided by mitigation?" Its authors are Washington, Gerald A. Meehl, Haiyan Teng, David Lawrence, Lawrence Buja and W. Gary Strand, all of NCAR in Colorado; Reto Knutti: Institute for Atmospheric and Climate Science, ETH, Zurich, Switzerland; and Claudia Tebaldi: Climate Central, Princeton, New Jersey and Palo Alto, California.

Computerized climate models are favorite targets for frothing climate change deniers, but Washington and his associates got some interesting information out of them, using NCAR's Community Climate System Model, running on supercomputers.

They assumed that the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which has already risen from 280 to 380 parts per million since the start of the industrial age, will rise to 450. That's viewed by the U.S. Climate Change Science Program as a reachable goal if significant conservation programs are enacted. If not, the numbers is 750 by 2100.

At 450, they calculated that temperatures would go up another degree Fahrenheit by 2100, that sea level rise would still happen but could be reduced by three inches or so. Fisheries would be preserved by fish not moving to new waters where temperatures were more to their liking. And dramatic droughts in the American Southwest and floods in the Northeast could be limited.

The result, the authors say: “The climate system would stabilize by about 2100, instead of continuing to warm.”

"This study provides some hope that we can avoid the worst impacts of climate change -- if society can cut emissions substantially over the next several decades and continue major cuts through the century," Washington said.

It's not impossible; not even that difficult. If you want to keep the gas guzzler, just invite your neighbors to commute to work with you. Put three one-person-per-car commuters into a single vehicle together, and you cut emissions close to two-thirds.

And it may help prevent the accident you get into, chatting with each other on the cell phone while commuting.

How many other ideas for 70 percent cuts in energy production can you come up with?

© Jan TenBruggencate 2009

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Hawaii hotspot theory: the moving pencil writes...

The latest in the complex geophysics of tectonic plates and hotspots, which has direct application to the Hawaiian-Emperor chain of islands and seamounts, is that both can move.

(Image: The Hawaiian Emperor Seamount Chain, with the Hawaiian Islands at lower right and the bend clearly visible, roughly halfway to Japan. The arc at the top, where the Emperor Seamounts terminate, is the northern edge of the Pacific Plate. Credit: NOAA.)

Here's a simplified analogy.

If you repeatedly tap a pencil on a piece of paper, it makes a dot.

If you drag the paper as the pencil is tapping, it makes a line of dots.

If you start moving the pencil as the paper is being dragged, the line of dots changes direction.

There's been lots of speculation about how that works on the earth's surface. In this case, the piece of paper is the Pacific Plate—the vast chunk of the Earth's crust that underlies most of the Pacific Ocean. The pencil is a hotspot, which repeatedly pokes through the plate to form volcanoes.

Current theory is that the Pacific Plate is adrift, moving slowly to the northwest, with islands popping through as it goes over the hotspot. The nascent island Loihi and the Big Island are being formed now, fed directly by the hot spot. Maui is a million or so years old, O'ahu two or three million and Kaua'i five million years and 300 miles from the hotspot.

On it goes in roughly a straight line out to beyond Kure Atoll, where the Hawaiian archipelago takes a distinct northward turn, and it becomes the Emperor Seamounts. There's long been talk about how the change in direction took place, but most folks have settled on a change in the direction of the Pacific Plate's movement.

The newest theory is presented in Science: “The Bent Hawaiian-Emperor Hotspot Track: Inheriting the Mantle Wind,” by University of Rochester geophysicist John Tarduno, and fellow scientists Hans-Peter Bunge, Norman Sleep and Ulrich Hansen. You can find a rundown at

The upshot is that they argue that the hotspot was moving south as the Pacific Plate moved northwest, and the bend is the result of the hotspot dramatically slowing down. In the pencil-paper analogy, as the paper is being dragged by its upper left corner, the tapping pencil is being moved down, and then stops and continues tapping in place.

The science of why the hotspot moved are beyond the scope of this piece, but it's not just a theory; there is science beyind it.

One piece of compelling evidence is that geological testing can indicate how far north a volcanic rock was formed. If a hotspot were stationary, then all the rocks of the Hawaiian Emperor chain would have signs of being formed at the latitude where Loihi is now being formed.

They don't. The oldest seamounts in the Emperors were formed farther north. Tarduno, quoted in ScienceDaily, says: "The only way to account for these findings is if the hotspot itself was moving south.”

There's some background on hotspot theory at

The science paper: John Tarduno, Hans-Peter Bunge, Norm Sleep, and Ulrich Hansen. The Bent Hawaiian-Emperor Hotspot Track: Inheriting the Mantle Wind. Science, 2009; 324 (5923): 50 DOI: 10.1126/science.1161256.

© Jan TenBruggencate 2009

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

How many 100-mile-per-gallon car models? X-Prize says maybe 136 of them.

There might not be a big selection of cars with superb fuel economy at the local car dealer in Hawai'i, but there should be soon.

(Image: Some of the X-Prize entries are shown off. Credit: Progressive Automotive X-Prize.)

The Progressive Automotive X-Prize today announced it has an amazing 111 qualified entrants, prepared to prove they can build safe, production-capable cars that consumers will buy—and which get the equivalent of 100 miles a gallon. The builders have 136 car designs.

That's more than four times the average fuel economy of American cars.

The payoff: the winning car designer, to be selected next year, gets $10 million.

Entrants from 25 states (there is no Hawai'i entry) and 11 nations represent individuals, car makers, universities and a range of groups.

A quarter would build full-on electric cars. Nearly another quarter gasoline or diesel cars. And another quarter gas or diesel hybrids. The remaining cars include multi-fuel, natural gas, compressed air, various biofuels and variants—one is even a combined human-gas-electric powered vehicle.

In appearance, they run the gamut. There are cars that look like traditional cars, and ones that look like golf carts. Ones that look like three-wheeled motorcycles, and like high-tech plastic spiders. Some are real spacey.

And a couple look like something the kid down the street made out of junk parts.

There are two classes. For your standard suburban driver who doesn't want to stand out too much, there's the Mainstream Class: “Mainstream Class vehicles must carry four or more passengers, have four or more wheels, and offer a 200 mile range.”

For those with an edge, there's the Alternative Class: “Alternative Class vehicles must carry two or more passengers, have no constraints on the number of wheels, and allow for a 100 mile range.”

There's also a Demonstration Division that doesn't qualify for the cash prize, in which established big car makers can show off their most fuel efficient design efforts.

Says Progressive: “In the coming months, Registered Teams will undergo Design Judging based on a detailed Data Submission package, which will provide information on their vehicle's features, production capability, safety and business plans. Those that pass Design Judging will move into the performance testing phase and partake in a series of competition events that will begin as early as May 2010.”

For more information visit

See our last post on the X-Prize here. For more RaisingIslands stories on efficient transportation, click the "efficient transportation" link in the right-hand column.

© Jan TenBruggencate 2009

Monday, April 6, 2009

Albatrosses adapted to wind, feeding conditions; at risk in changing climate

A large team of researchers has found that albatross body shape and relative wing size is linked to where they nest and how far they fly to feed.

And also, how well they may adapt to changing global climate conditions.

(Image: Albatross in flight. NOAA photo by Capt. Budd Christman, NOAA Corps.)

The team found that albatross species with smaller wings compared to their body size do not generally range as far for feeding as those with higher wing-to-body ratios—and that this may limit the ability of rare species to expand their range.

The article, “Wind, Waves, and Wing Loading; Morphological specialization may limit range expansion of endangered albatrosses,” was published in the online journal PloS ONE by Oregon State researcher Robert M. Suryan, along with a team from across the country and Japan that included David Anderson, Scott Shaffer, Daniel Roby, Yann Tremblay, Daniel Costa, Paul Sievert, Fumio Sato, Kiyoaki Ozaki, Gregory Balogh and Noboru Nakamura.

Albatrosses, of course, are famous for flapless flight. They are consummate at soaring, a flight technique that requires far less energy than wing flapping. Four of the important Pacific albatrosses are all in the genus Phoebastria.

The researchers noted that a couple of the Pacific albatross species with larger bodies, the short-tailed and waved albatrosses, have the smallest breeding ranges. They tend to breed near rich feeding waters, so the don't need to go too far.

Short-tailed albatross breed on islands in the northwest Pacific near Japan and feed in the relatively nearby rich Kuroshio and Oyashio currents. Waved albatrosses breed mostly in the Galapagos and feed in the relatively nearby Peruvian upwelling.

Of the two, the short-tailed albatross has smaller wings, but operates in an area with generally higher wind speeds, which appear to help keep it aloft. When it ventures into feeding regions with lower wind speed areas, they tend to be near the nesting area, so shorter flights can make up for the energy cost of more energetic flying.

The waved albatross has much larger wings compared to its body size, which appears linked to to low wind speeds in its feeding area.

“Waved albatrosses encounter low wind speeds year-round. Fittingly, the waved albatross had aerodynamic performances more similar to smaller albatrosses, requiring less wind to stay aloft than the short-tailed, despite being similar in body size. Hence, the waved albatross appears adapted for low wind speed and wave height environment, and, indeed, is the only albatross to breed in a tropical ocean.”

Meanwhile, albatrosses with smaller bodies and comparatively large wing surface areas, fly over much larger swaths of ocean when feeding. Satellite tag studies have found Laysan albatrosses that fly thousands of miles in a single feeding trip—going as far on a single foray as from the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands to San Francisco Bay and back.

“Smaller-bodied black-footed and Laysan albatrosses primarily nest on islands in the central North Pacific and traverse large expanses of open ocean during the breeding season to feed in the sub-Arctic transition zone and along continental shelf regions of the California and Alaska Currents,” the authors said.

Among the impacts of this study is the realization that as climate change and sea level rise threaten their current nesting islands, short-tailed albatrosses won't be able to travel long distances through low-wind areas to new nesting areas, and the waved albatrosses may not be able to traverse high-wind areas.

“Restoration of remote, predator-free, and higher elevation island habitats may be particularly important for the long-term conservation of Phoebastria species; especially islands within productive continental margins for the two endangered species that show specialization for breeding in these regions,” the authors write.

©2009 Jan TenBruggencate

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Climate catastrophes loom, Hawai'i task force proposed

The pace of climate change appears to be increasing, according to several scientific reports of the last few weeks.

It now appears that there will be significant, disruptive and expensive changes to the face of the planet within the lifetimes of most people alive today.

It's a gathering storm, and most of us haven't even bothered with an umbrella.

The Hawai'i Legislature is considering mandating what appears to be a good first step in the establishment of a Climate Change Task Force:

Senate Bill 266 would put the task force in the Department of Health, and it would be charged with the necessary but unenviable task of figuring out the impacts of climate change and sea level rise on the island's economy, infrastructure, people and natural systems.

The task force would be required to make recommendations to the Legislature and governor on preventing shoreline erosion, protecting the visitor industry, protecting and where necessary moving public infrastructure, handling health emergencies and protecting native ecosystems.

The 29-member task force will be made up of politicians and bureaucrats, representatives of industry and government, a few engineers and the military, community representatives of surfing and fishing groups, along with a single specialist in climatology or geophysics and a single environmental engineer.

It is to provide a preliminary report to next year's Legislature and a final report to the 2011 Legislature.
There are increasingly good reasons to be paying attention, and for the appointing bodies to put thoughtful representatives on this task force, presuming the Legislature passes the bill and the Governor signs it.

A couple of those reasons have been identified on RaisingIslands:

There are other new issues.

Increasingly, science is identifying evidence that warming is happening faster than anticipated, that seas are rising faster than previously estimated, that oceans are acidifying at alarming rates.

The British Antarctic Survey reported that thousands of square miles of ice shelf have disappeared in recent years. The Wordie Ice Shelf is entirely gone and the Larsen Ice Shelf is shrinking fast.

"The rapid retreat of glaciers there demonstrates once again the profound effects our planet is already experiencing -- more rapidly than previously known -- as a consequence of climate change," said U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar.

A new estimate suggests the Arctic Ocean could be ice-free in as little as 30 years, half a century earlier than previously expected.

"In recent years, the combination of unusual warm temperatures from natural causes and the global warming signal have worked together to provide an earlier summer sea-ice loss than was predicted," said NOAA's James Overland.

The Dutch are estimating sea levels could be higher by two feet in 40 years, and others suggest several feet by the end of the century. Small island nations are begging the world to make greenhouse gas emissions cuts to slow the process.

With increasing amounts of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere turning into carbonic acid in the oceans, scientists are just beginning to tally the effects on fisheries, coral reefs and other marine ecosystems of the changing oceans.

"Ocean acidification is a serious threat to our environment and to our marine life. Changes in ocean chemistry, caused by carbon dioxide, will affect our food supply and the health of our oceans, yet research on ocean acidification is still in its infancy," said Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg (D-NJ).

"The scientific findings about climate change are frightening," said Federated States of Micronesia representative M.J. Mace, in a Reuters piece.

As researchers learn more about sea levels, one bit of information for places like Waikiki and New York (parts of Manhattan are just 5 feet above sea level) is that it's important not to focus only on the flat-water sea level.

For low-lying areas, it takes only a few inches of rise above current levels before a storm surges drive salt water into the streets, parking garages and utility conduits.

The small island nations are calling on the world to reverse the rise in greenhouse gases, so that the impacts can be reversed.

But there are still powerful forces arguing for doing nothing about the problem, other than learning to live with it.

The OPEC cartel says oil isn't the problem; it's the nations that burn it that are the problem. And besides, the world ought to keep burning oil and simply adapt to changing climate.

“OPEC considers that efforts should not be limited to mitigation, but should increasingly encompass adaptation to climate change, in particular for developing countries,” said Mohammed Barkindo, Acting for the OPEC Secretary General, in 2006, in a statement to the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Nairobi.

More recently, current OPEC Secretary General, Abdullah al-Badri, expressed similar sentiments, although he said OPEC would be willing to help fund research into carbon-capture technologies.

©2009 Jan TenBruggencate

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Population crash in Hawai'i false killer whales

Researchers have identified a disturbing crash in the population of false killer whales around the Hawaiian Islands.

Recent aerial surveys, compared with surveys in 1989, suggest a significant decline in numbers of overall whales as well as in the sizes of their pods.

(Image: NOAA photo of false killer whales off Hawaii by Robin Baird.)

The most recent reports were published in the journal Pacific Science by Randall Reeves, Stephen Leatherwood and Robin Baired, under the title, “Evidence of a Possible Decline since 1989 in False Killer Whales (Pseudorca crassidens) around the Main Hawaiian Islands.”

The animals are large members of the dolphin family, and evidence suggests there is a permanent population in the waters around Hawai'i that is genetically distinct from other false killer whale populations.

The 1989 survey found massive pods—some of which had far more whales in it than the entire statewide known population today.

“Groups of more than 300 individuals were seen on three different days, with minimum counts of 380, 460, and 470 individuals in these groups.

“The encounter rate, relative species ranking, and average group size from the 1989 survey were all substantially greater than those from more recent aerial and ship-based surveys.

“The largest group observed in 1989 (470) contained almost four times as many whales as estimated for the entire main Hawaiian Islands from recent aerial surveys,” says the paper abstract.

Current population surveys suggest it's not that all whale species have declined, but that this species has suffered particularly.

“In the 1989 general surveys off the island of Hawai‘i, the false killer whale was the third most frequently sighted species of the nine documented, representing 17% of all sightings.

“In 369 days of boat-based surveys around all the main Hawaiian Islands from 2000 through 2006, undertaken throughout the year, false killer whales accounted for only 1.5% of odontocete groups sighted, and the false killer whale was the 11th most frequently encountered species of odontocete,” the paper says.

What isn't clear is why the decline has taken place—are they short of food because of increased human fishing pressure, or is it something else? That's not yet clear, the researchers say.

For more information on false killer whales, see the NOAA website,, or visit

© Jan TenBruggencate 2009