Sunday, May 31, 2009

Pacific threats: no strangers for Hawai'i

Our ocean is at risk.

A new study by Stanford University researchers looked at a vast array of previous studies about the Pacific, and concludes that there's trouble in our Paradise.

(Image: The oceans report's cover. Credit: Center for Ocean Solutions.)

Interestingly, for anyone familiar with issues in the coastal ocean around Hawai'i, most of the conclusions won't come as a surprise: big issues include sewage and runoff from the land, habitat destruction, overfishing, invasive species, climate change.

In the Islands, think of clouds of sediment pouring into the sea after a heavy rain. Think of dredged reefs and ships aground. Think of why you can't count on catching dinner on a shoreline fishing trip. And think of the tangles of invasive limu choking Kane'ohe Bay. Think of eroding beaches and dying corals.

The study by the Center for Ocean Solutions is “Pacific Ocean Synthesis: Scientific Literature Review of Coastal and Ocean Threats, Impacts, and Solutions.” The Center for Ocean Solutions is managed by the Woods Center for the Environment, at Stanford University.

Primary report authors are Margaret Caldwell, Tegan Churcher Hoffmann, Steve Palumbi, Jessica Teisch, Chelsea Tu. It is available here:

One of the issues with scientific research, of course, is that there are lots of researchers studying different pieces of the elephant, but seldom does anyone step back and view the whole elephant.

This report tries to do that.

It “summarizes and distills the scientific literature and highlights common trends in and around the Pacific Ocean regarding threats, impacts and solutions through the review of more than 3400 scientific articles and reports.”

The lead scientists got together and reviewed their work in Honolulu in August last year.

Among their findings: “a review of environmental threats across the Pacific Ocean shows remarkable similarity between the major problems experienced in poor and rich countries or territories alike, in densely settled areas and in rural zones, in populous countries and on small islands. Across these diverse areas, there are three pervasive and serious local threats: pollution from sewage and land runoff, habitat destruction, and overfishing and exploitation. We classify invasive species, which can be considered under both pollution and habitat destruction, as a fourth threat, in a category of its own.”

The final big one, of course, is climate change, which “imperils all Pacific ecosystems.”

An H1N1 “swine” flu analogy may be appropriate here. Ultimately, when people die of this generally mild flu, it's because its symptoms are piled on top of pre-existing medical conditions. Most otherwise healthy folks can handle a flu.

Same with the oceans.

“When marine life is subjected to multiple stressors, including pollution, habitat destruction, overfishing, and climate change, populations of ecologically and economically important species can collapse, from coral reefs to kelp forests to cold water deep seas. In this sense, global climate change is coming at the worst possible time, when many communities around the Pacific—both human and ecological—are threatened by other major problems,” the report's abstract says.

Its recommendations are to act globally on global issues, like climate change, and locally to create a sustainability ethic for local issues, like runoff and overfishing.

© Jan TenBruggencate 2009

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Compact truck fuel economy: tragedy

Fair warning: This is a rant about poor truck fuel economy.

Where is the science of good fuel economy in compact pickups, when, for example, Ford's little Ranger with a 6-cylinder engine gets the same fuel economy as Ford's big F-150 with a V8?

(Image: The old truck, in the woods.)

It's astounding that in the past 20 years, the fuel economy of compact pickup trucks has not seemed to improve, and in some cases has gotten worse.

This is one driver who's looking forward to government-mandated fuel economy standards, because it seems this is one place the industry isn't going on its own.

Mea culpa, I drive a four-wheel-drive pickup.

It's a compact. It's 13 years old, I bought it used, and it replaced a truck that was 15 when I sold it. So I take some credit and blame for not generating a lot of new vehicle construction.

My truck is not some gentrified gleaming plaything. It's a working truck. It hauls construction materials, it tows outrigger canoes, it has pulled other vehicles out of mudholes and, heck, it has even been known to pull out tree stumps. I can't think of another vehicle that accomplishes these tasks as well, and so I have a truck.

My truck has a four-cyclinder engine, and actual fuel use ranges from a low of about 17 on short hauls and 20 on the highway, generally averaging 18-19. I don't put many miles on it.

I'm looking for a replacement truck, and there's the rub.

For one thing, a four-wheel-drive compact truck with a four-cyclinder engine is apparently impossible to sell these days. A few of the major car-makers build them, but they're hard to find on the car lots. At a minimum, you get a six-cylinder. And that generally means still worse fuel economy.

A Toyota Tacoma 4x4 regular cab gets 17 to 22 in a 4-cylinder configuration—if you can find it. I couldn't, and was left with 6-cylinders that get about three mpg worse.

For 4x4 in a Ford Ranger, you need to buy an extended cab. It comes with a 4-liter six, and it gets 16 miles to the gallon (14-19, depending on city/highway and automatic/stick options)

Nissan's similar truck gets similar mileage—16 to 17 on average, Dodge Dakota a little less, Chevy Colorado a little more, according to window stickers and auto web sites.

What's frustrating is the sense that they could do better.

Honking big full-size pickups get fuel not much different from these light trucks.

A 4x4 Chevy Silverado with a big V8 averages 15. A big old 4x4 Ford F-150 with a 5.4-Liter V8 gets 15 on average, and the 4.6-liter V8 kicks it up to 16—right in compact truck territory.

Toyota's 5.7-liter 4x4 Tundra gets 14 to 15, and Nissan's 4x4 Titan with its 5.6-liter V8 is at 14.

I suppose someone has considered pulling the efficient 4.6-liter V8 out of the 5,000-pound F-150 and sticking it in a 3,500-pound Ranger. A 30 percent reduction in weight ought to do wonders for fuel economy.

It might even get mileage as good as my 13-year-old truck.

© Jan TenBruggencate 2009

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Windmills hazardous to wildlife? Compared to what?

Wind energy gets a lot of bad press for its potential to injure and kill birds.

On Kaua'i, particularly, where endangered Newell's shearwaters fly low from mountain nesting sites to the sea, there seems to be a fairly widespread assumption that wind is just too risky a proposition.

But what are the risks of other power sources, and how do they compare?

(Image: wind machine. Credit U.S. Energy Information Administration)

In New York State, an extensive study found that for all the danger to wildlife of those whirling blades, other forms of energy were considerably worse.

The New York State Energy Research and Development Authority produced a report on its study, entitled “Comparison of reported effects and risks to vertebrate wildlife from six electricity generation types in the New York/New England region.” A summary is available here.

A lot of the information isn't directly applicable to the Islands, of course, but it's an instructive study in terms of challenging common assumptions.

The first fact, of course, is that EVERY form of energy production has impacts on the natural environment. And with the exception of photovoltaic power, all have these things in common, the report says: “a turbine must be turned to drive a shaft in a generator. The generator produces electricity by spinning copper coils, or armature, through a magnetic field. A source of energy is needed to turn the turbine.”

The study looks at the impacts of oil, coal, natural gas, nuclear, hydro and wind. All but the middle two play a role in the Hawai'i power grids.

Ultimately, wildlife are arguably equally impacted by the power lines that birds like Newell's shearwaters run into, no matter what source produced the power.

With wind and hydro, once built, the wildlife risks appear entirely associated directly with their operations—streamlife impacted by the removal of water from rivers or being killed in the hydro plant mechanism. With wind, the risk of being struck by the blades.

With oil and coal, once the plants are built, there are toxic compounds released in their exhaust plumes, which promote such things as mercury accumulation in marine organisms, including edible fish, as well as ocean acidification and global warming.

These power plants are also tied to a permanent requirement that fuel be supplied, and all the attending risks associated with extraction and transportation.

This is not just a theoretical risk. In the Aug. 24, 1998, Tesoro oil spill on O'ahu, which drifted to Kaua'i. Hundreds of seabirds of different kinds were oiled, and many died. Some estimates suggested thousands or tens of thousands of seabirds may have been impacted.

The New York report concludes that wind has significant impacts in operation, notably, “high risks of bird and bat collisions with wind turbines during operation.” But when you look at the whole picture, that's not the most significant impact on wildlife, it says.

“Overall, non-renewable electricity generation sources, such as coal and oil, pose higher risks to wildlife than renewable electricity generation sources, such as hydro and wind.”

It may also be that wind energy has more potential for mitigation of wildlife impacts than other forms of power.

An example: Using a windpower firm's money to fence dogs out of a shearwater colony may save more shearwaters in a single season than a windmill will kill in its useful life.

In the case of the massive Kaheawa windfarm on Maui, the firm's website describes the goal of its habitat conservation plan:

“Identify the species likely to be affected and provide an estimate of the anticipated take for each; prescribe mitigation that will provide a net benefit to the species affected.”

And that, ultimately, may be a lot easier and less risky than mitigating the impacts the fossil fuel alternative.

© Jan TenBruggencate 2009

Friday, May 22, 2009

This flu's been around for years: Science

A new report in the journal Science suggests the Type A H1N1 swine flu virus that is spreading around the world is a truly cosmopolitan virus, and may have been present in pigs for a long time before shifting to humans.

The report was released this morning by Science, written by a team of more than 60 researchers, led by Rebecca Garten, of the WHO Collaborating Center for Influenza, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Portions of the genetic material “of this lineage of Eurasian swine viruses were originally derived from a wholly avian influenza virus that is thought to have entered the Eurasian swine population in 1979 and continues to circulate throughout the region,” the report said.

But other portions hail from North America, and still others from Asia. And it is related to a lot of previous flus, since flu viruses regularly swap genetic material.

The first human cases were reported in Mexico only a couple of months ago, but perhaps the newest information is that researchers now believe this virus may have evolved into its current form and been spreading among pigs for a long time before jumping to humans. Because these diseases are not closely tracked among swine populations, it might have gone unnoticed.

“This virus might have been circulating undetected among swine herds somewhere in the world,” the authors said.

They don't know where.

“Several scenarios exist, including reassortment in Asia or the Americas, for the events that have lead to the genesis of the novel A(H1N1) virus. Where the reassortment event(s) most likely happened is currently unclear.”

One of the issues for public health officials today is to keep close track of the virus, to see if it changes again—potentially making moot the work to develop a vaccine to the current form.

“ Worldwide monitoring of the antigenic and genetic properties of the novel A(H1N1) viruses continues for, among other reasons, detecting any changes and thus any necessity for selecting further vaccine candidates.”

© Jan TenBruggencate 2009

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Low cost, high capacity air battery under development

We've heard of the air car, but now there's the air battery.

This new British invention promises a low-weight, high-capacity rechargeable battery that holds big benefits for everything from electronics to electric cars, renewable energy storage, as for wind and solar.

(Image: Diagram of the St. Andrews Air Cell—STAIR—which uses porous carbon that reacts with air from the atmosphere to release an electrical charge. Credit: Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.)

The new battery could have 10 times the storage capacity of existing rechargeables, according to a release from the British Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, which funded the reseach. See their press release here.

The breakthrough appears to be the use of oxygen from the atmosphere to replace the bulky and heavy components of standard rechargeable batteries.

Says the release: “ Improved capacity is thanks to the addition of a component that uses oxygen drawn from the air during discharge, replacing one chemical constituent used in rechargeable batteries today. Not having to carry the chemicals around in the battery offers more energy for the same size battery. Reducing the size and weight of batteries with the necessary charge capacity has been a long-running battle for developers of electric cars.”

Principal investigator Peter Bruce of the University of St Andrews Chemistry Department said his team has been trying to get a battery with five to 10 times more capacity than current lithium rechargeables—a level of improvement that does not appear possible with the lithium battery technology.

“Our results so far are very encouraging and have far exceeded our expectations. The key is to use oxygen in the air as a re-agent, rather than carry the necessary chemicals around inside the battery,” Bruce said.

The carbon used in the process is also much cheaper than the components of standard rechargeable batteries.

Bruce said it will probably take five more years of work to bring the technology to the market. The research team's initial goal is to produce a prototype that will power a cell phone or MP3 player.

The longer term promise of this battery technology is high capacity, compact size, low cost, reduced toxicity. What's not to like?

© Jan TenBruggencate 2009

Monday, May 18, 2009

Life in the clouds? Climate science yields biological clues

How was terrestrial life carried to the remote Hawaiian Islands?

How was terrestrial life carried to the remote Hawaiian Islands?

Cloud researchers have identified a new transport mechanism—ice crystals in clouds.

Biologists have a short list of mechanisms for getting land-based life forms across more than 2,000 miles of ocean to the Islands: drifting on the sea, either as floating seeds or perhaps riding on big pieces of debris, like trees; on the wing, like birds that fly here, and seeds or tiny snails stuck to those birds, and even in bird poop—seeds of things they ate before taking flight; and generally, blowing in the wind—the assumed vehicle for fern spores.

Whichever techniques were employed, they worked. By the time the first humans arrived, the islands were carpeted in life—plants, birds, fungi, snails, butterflies, all kinds of life.

The latest piece of evidence for how those things got here came out of climate research. Scientists trying to learn about cloud formation went up and sampled clouds in the air, and analyzed the cloud ice crystals while still in flight.

Science has long known that dust particles can be found at the core of raindrops. But reporting in the May 17 online journal Nature Geoscience, scientists said that for the first time they found that there's also biological material at the heart of cloud ice crystals.

The paper is “In situ detection of biological particles in cloud ice-crystals,” by Kerri A. Pratt of the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, University of California, San Diego; along with co-researchers Paul J. DeMott, Jeffrey R. French, Zhien Wang, Douglas L. Westphal, Andrew J. Heymsfield, Cynthia H. Twohy, Anthony J. Prenni and Kimberly A. Prather.

The work was done over Wyoming aboard a C130 aircraft operated by the NCAR, the National Center for Atmospheric Research. The ice they were inspecting over Wyoming had particles originating in Asia—suggesting they could have passed near Hawai'i to get to North America. (It has long been known that Asian mineral dust can arrive in Hawai'i on the wind.)

The researchers were trying to learn more about clouds, to help advance climate change research.
They collected ice crystals from non-precipitating clouds, melted them in flight, and studied their contents. While half contained mineral dust, close to a third contained biological material. It included bacteria, pollen and fungi.

Since the biological material was destroyed in the testing, they were unable to determine whether it was alive and capable of surviving when it eventually was rained down onto the land again.

For the climate researchers, the interesting thing is that biological materal may form the “seeds” for cloud droplets, although some microbes may also have burrowed into dust particles that became cloud seeds.

Such work could be done on the ground with raindrops and snow flakes, but there is the possibility that microbes could have been picked up on the way to the ground, rather than having been the droplet seed.

“These were non-precipitating clouds. In theory, one could collect rain and snow and look for microbes and in fact people have done this in the past. The challenging issue in doing this is the microbes could be airborne and just scavenged via the fall by rain drops as opposed to having served as the nuclei themselves,” said co-author Kim Prather via email.

The work also suggests a new means of transport for the “seeds” of life to the distant corners of the world—like Hawai'i.

© Jan TenBruggencate 2009

Thursday, May 14, 2009

When pigs fly: Swine flu a laboratory escapee?

The H1N1 swine flu story is about to enter the crazy phase, in which conspiracy theorists begin joyously messing with the narrative.

The latest wrinkle is the suggestion by an Australian researcher that it could have been launched from a laboratory.

Even this researcher himself admits it's a far-fetched idea, and likely to be wrong—but conspiracists won't be worrying about that.

AIDS has gone through the same pattern, in which dark theories abound about secret laboratories, devious motives, government plots, and insane objectives tied to racial cleansing or sexual preference.

Meanwhile, H1N1 is behaving as a normal virus does. While it's certainly possible it formed in a laboratory—and that's far more likely than its delivery in glowing green test tubes by aliens in airborne saucers—it seems more reasonable to believe that it evolved in animals. Flu viruses evolve all the time. Nothing unique about that.

As of this morning, the Centers for Disease control report the new H1N1 virus has been confirmed in 47 states—including 10 cases in Hawai'i—with 4,298 total cases and three deaths nationwide. The only H1N1-free states so far are Alaska, Wyoming, Mississippi and West Virginia.

People are also still getting other flu viruses. Only about half of the flu cases being reported in the U.S. are this H1N1 strain.

The World Health Organization is reporting it's in 33 countries with 6,497 confirmed cases. Those (ass in the U.S.) are just those whose infection with H1N1 has been confirmed by a lab test. There are thousands or tens of thousands more actual cases for which tests were not done, or not deemed necessary.

If you get a mild case—and in many people this strain has comparatively mild symptoms—you might never go to a doctor, but you still might pass the disease on. The World Health Organization reports that this strain, while often mild, is more contagious than normal seasonal flu.

That means it has the potential to spread more easily to people with underlying medical problems—for whom it can be severe and potentially deadly. That's how this flu could be paradoxically both mild in symptom and high in fatalities.

A retired Australian researcher, Adrian Gibbs, 75, has gained publicity in recent hours and days with the suggestion that the new H1N1 could have escaped from virus laboratory. Gibbs is a virus researcher with good credentials.

Lots of folks will latch onto that. Indeed, hundreds of media outlets have breathlessly reported Gibbs' suggestion.

But Gibbs himself is reported as saying he just mentioned it as a possibility because it is, of course, possible, but that nobody else had already mentioned it.

Possible, but lacking evidence.

"One of the simplest explanations is that it's a laboratory escape, but there are lots of others," he said on ABC news.

And he makes no bones about the possibility that his wild-ass theory could be bonkers.

“This is how science progresses. Somebody comes up with a wild idea, and then they all pounce on it and kick you to death, and then you start off on another silly idea,” Bloomberg News reported him saying.

Active researchers are aggressively poo-poo-ing Gibbs' idea, some of them predictably going too far in the other direction, arguing that it's a crazy idea and absolutely impossible.

This theory is neither probable nor impossible, but on the spectrum of likelihood, it certainly seems nearer the latter.

The first question that comes to mind is how an escaped virus from a presumably sophisticated viral research laboratory gets to a remote rural part of Mexico, where the disease was first confirmed, and where there are lots of pigs.

If you want a simple theory, how about this: if you hear an oink and a grunt in the night, is your first suspicion that there's a viral researcher with a test tube in the bushes?

© Jan TenBruggencate 2009

Monday, May 11, 2009

Swine flu on path to match 1957 flu pandemic

The new flu, whether you call it swine or H1N1, is spreading fast and spreading widely.

And while in its current form its symptoms appear to be comparatively mild, the flu is expected to have a significant impact because it will hit so many people across the globe.

"Our early analysis would suggest this is going to be an outbreak comparable to that of 20th century pandemics regarding the extent of its spread - it’s very difficult to quantify the human health impact at this stage, however," said Prof. Neil Ferguson of Imperial College London.

He is a co-author of a paper published in the journal Science, entitled "Pandemic Potential of a Novel Strain of Influenza A H1N1: Early Findings," by the World Health Organization's Rapid Pandemic Assessment Collaboration.

Science normally keeps a news embargo on its reports until the publication is actually released late in the week, but determined that this information is so new and so important, that it lifted the embargo this morning (May 11, 2009).

The paper notes that it's early to be drawing assessments from this flu outbreak, but that preliminary data do provide some clues. It compares this flu to two earlier pandemics, the one in 1918 and the one in 1957.

“While substantial uncertainty remains, clinical severity (of this flu) appears less than that seen in 1918 but comparable with that seen in 1957,” the paper says.

The 1957 flu killed about 70,000 Americans at a time when the nation's population was 172 million. The 1918 flu killed about 675,000 when the national count was about 105 million.

The preliminary data suggest the death rate from this flu (the term used is CFR, for case fatality ratio) is in the range of 3 to 6 per thousand people infected. That's based on deaths suspected to be from H1N1. If only confirmed cases are counted, it's 10 times less than that.

Investigative techniques suggest the first case appeared in a human about February 15, 2009. Genetic techniques suggest the virus evolved to use humans as a host between November 2008 and March 2009.

In early cases in the Mexican community of La Gloria, in Veracruz, young people caught the flu much more readily than older folks. Those under 15 were twice as likely to become affected as those older than that. Does that mean that older folks have some level of resistance, from exposure to a previous flu strain? That's not known, yet.

“The strong age dependence in clinical attack rates seen in La Gloria is intriguing,” the paper said.

There remain lots of questions. Among them, whether the flu will move aggressively to the Southern Hemisphere during its winter flu season, and whether it will then sweep back into the Northern Hemisphere late this year. Also, whether the flu will hit in waves, as previous pandemics have.

“The future evolution of the transmissibility, antigenicity, virulence and antiviral resistance profile of this or any influenza virus is difficult to predict,” the authors write.

The paper's authors, all members of the World Health Organization's Rapid Pandemic Assessment Collaboration, are from a range of research institutions in England, Mexico and Switzerland. They include Christophe Fraser, Christl A. Donnelly, Simon Cauchemez, William P. Hanage, Maria D. Van Kerkhove, T. Déirdre Hollingsworth, Jamie Griffin, Rebecca F. Baggaley, Helen E. Jenkins, Emily J. Lyons, Thibaut Jombart, Wes R. Hinsley, Nicholas C. Grassly, Francois Balloux, Azra C. Ghani, Neil M. Ferguson, Andrew Rambaut, Oliver G. Pybus, Hugo Lopez-Gatell, Celia M Apluche-Aranda, Ietza Bojorquez Chapela, Ethel Palacios Zavala, Dulce Ma. Espejo Guevara, Francesco Checchi, Erika Garcia, Stephane Hugonnet, Cathy Roth.

© Jan TenBruggencate 2009

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Energy: should we get more buckets, or plug the leak?

An energy analogy:

A boat is sinking. Water inside is rising faster than the buckets and pumps can remove it.

One response: “We need more buckets and pumps.”

Another: We can't pump forever. We need to plug the leak.

Think about energy that way.

The rising water is energy demand. It's incessant, and it's rising.

The buckets and pumps are the sources of energy needed to meet that demand. The supply side of this scenario suggests you could put more people on the bucket line (more power plants), but that's ancient technology and it has its downside (people get tired; fossil fuels exacerbate climate change). You could bring solar and wind-powered pumps online.

The other alternative is the demand side. How to plug the leak/reduce the demand? One way is to cut your use; change your lifestyle. But the elephant in this room is efficiency. Keep the standard of living you have, but use less power to do it. Or another way of looking at it: Suck more useful work out of every piece of energy you pay for.

It's not just something that the major economies can afford.

“The economic case for improving demand-side efficiency is strong. Using solely existing technologies that pay for themselves in future energy savings, consumers and businesses in developing countries could secure savings of an estimated $600 billion a year by 2020. Far from costing money, investing in energy productivity generates energy savings that could ramp up to $600 billion annually by 2020 across all developing regions. Because of their positive returns, energy-efficiency investments are also the cheapest way to meet growing energy needs,” says the McKinsey Global Institute (

Produce the light you need with fixtures that use a quarter the power. Drive cars that get double or quadruple the fuel economy. Cool your food with the most efficient refrigerators possible. Insulate buildings and improve designs to remove the need to cool or heat them.

“Energy efficiency is by far the biggest low-carbon resource available — and it is as limitless as wind, PV, and solar baseload. It is also the cheapest power you can buy, by far,” writes Climate Progress, the climate science blog, which has lots more on climate issues than we're able to cover. (

© Jan TenBruggencate 2009

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Energy ascendant at Legislature

The Hawai'i Legislature appears to have made significant progress on energy and environmental issues during the current session.

With Gov. Linda Lingle's commitment to the Hawai'i Clean Energy Initiative, they seem to indicate a new and significant shift in the state's approach and position on these issues. (Thanks to Jeff Mikulina at Blue Planet Foundation for a summary.)

(Windmill image credit: U.S. Energy Information Administration)

One measure will help fund new clean energy work as well as to support local food production. It's a $1 per barrel (these are 42-gallon barrels) tax on petroleum. It's House Bill 1271 and it's expected to raise as much as $40 million a year.

“If we truly want to rapidly transition Hawaii away from imported oil, we have to be prepared to invest in that preferred future today. This small surcharge will pay handsome dividends over time in helping to create our clean energy future,” said Jeff Mikulina of Blue Planet Foundation.

Another bill, Senate Bill 1202, requires that by the end of 2011, one percent of parking stalls in many parking lots be set aside for electric cars. A little incentive for the early adopters of electric vehicles. It also supports the building of infrastructure to support (read charge up) electric cars.

Here's a no-brainer. Senate Bill 1338 says it's state policy that you can air-dry your clothes if you want. Some condo associations and subdivision homeowners associations find clotheslines unsightly and now ban them.

The Clean Energy Omnibus bill, House Bill 1464, would require utility firms to get to 25 percent renewable energy by 2020 and 40 percent by 2030, which is the level called for by the Clean Energy Initiative. The omnibus would also push energy efficiency, and calls on the state Public Utilities Commission to establish a series of incentives and penalties to see that efficiency happens. One of the bill's interesting features would be a requirement that home sellers in Hawai'i reveal to buyers that last three months of electric bills—the idea being that sellers may make efficiency upgrades to cut power costs, and make their homes more attractive.

You can find more in these bills and their status at the Blue Planet Foundation site:

Or check on bill status by number at

© Jan TenBruggencate 2009

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Ghosts fishing, marine debris, and the international community

In the Islands we've known for years the dangers of ghost fishing.

That's the term for abandoned or lost fishing gear that keeps killing marine life for days, months, years.

(Image: There is marine debris in the form of old fishing gear in this photo amid the rocks and the bottles. Can you find it? Try a net at the lower left corner, the top of a hagfish trap behind the largest bottle, and a Japanese oyster fishery plastic spacer tube at upper left.)

International organizations have now jumped on the bandwagon, declaring ghost fishing a major environmental problem.

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations discusses a new study on the topic at

The study, performed by the FAO and the UN Environmental Programme, discusses the topic using a new bunch of letters, ALDFG, which stands for abandoned, lost or otherwise discarded fishing gear.
The issue with ALDFG is primarily threefold, the report says:

“Continued catches of fish -- known as "ghost fishing" -- and other animals such as turtles, seabirds, and marine mammals, who are trapped and die;
“Alterations of the sea-floor environment; and
“The creation of navigation hazards that can cause accidents at sea and damage boats.”

You can find the actual report, all 139 pages of it, here:

In the Hawaiian Islands, most of the attention to marine debris is given after it comes to shore—either snagging on reefs or washing up on beaches. In both cases, it can be a severe hazard to fish, turtles, seals and seabirds. It can also severely damage the reefs, as waves drive great tangles of rope, net, fishing floats, entrapped boulders and more across the coral.

And the response in the Islands has primarily been to just pick it up. That takes the form of regular beach cleanups, involving volunteers on all islands, and paid crews that scour the reefs and shores of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands to collect tons upon tons of nets and ropes.

The new United Nations report calls for more attention to the source. Most of this stuff is made of plastic, and most of it comes from ships. And it is, of course, against the law to dump plastic at sea—specifically, it violates the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from
Ships (MARPOL).

So how to fishing boats get away with leaving their gear adrift on the ocean? Certainly, in many cases, they have no way of recovering lost gear. And this is recognized in the law. Says the UN report about MARPOL: “The prohibition of the discharge of plastics specifically prohibits the discharge of synthetic fishing nets; however, the Annex does not apply to the accidental loss of such nets, provided that all reasonable precautions have been taken to prevent such loss.”

The study reviews a range of potential responses, including paying fishing fleets for their used and damages nets (so they have a reason to bring them back to shore), using biodegradable gear, and placing radio or acoustic beacons on fishing gear, so it can be found if it's lost.

One of Hawai'i's fishing gear programs got a mention in the report:

“The Honolulu Derelict Net Recycling Program installed a container for reception of ALD nets and material from various origins recovered by the local longline fleet. In the first year, 11 tonnes of material were recovered and transported to the nearby waste-to-energy incinerator. One tonne of such material produces enough electricity to power a home for five months (Yates, 2007). This programme was operated as a public-private partnership, which reduced cost to the public purse and encouraged greater industry participation.”

In remote areas, it can be costly to haul plastic debris in for recycling or disposal, but disposing of it on site isn't always useful, the report said: “In isolated areas, burning may appear to be a convenient alternative, but this can create further problems. The burning of debris collected north of the Hawaiian Islands region was found to produce a toxic gaseous by-product (Marine Debris Workshop, Hawaii, 2000).”

The report recommends, among other things, a program aimed at prevention, mitigation and curative responses. That translates to 1) doing things to minimize the likelihood of fishing gear being lost or dumped at sea; 2) doing things to make it less of a problem, such as biodegradability; and 3) making gear easier to track down and recover, including reporting losses, adding locater information.

There is no single solution, the report says: “Measures to reduce ALDFG may be appropriately taken at the international, regional, national or local level. It is also likely that some measures will need to be legislated and made mandatory, while others need only be voluntary, and indeed may be more effective for being so.”

© Jan TenBruggencate 2009

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Vol. 4: Swine flu: outright lies, hyperbole and grains of salt

As the swine flu (Influenza A H1N1) story settles into the long haul, there are still fascinating diversions to be found in its reporting.

In a man-bites-dog twist, in Canada, they have pigs that have contracted swine flu from humans. In Alberta, a farm worker who got swine flu in Mexico apparently passed it on to Canadian pigs.

There's a bunch of commentators who have used the swine flu issue to prop up their own worldviews, many of them complaining about border security and illegal immigration. Problem is it's legal tourists who have brought most of the cases out of Mexico, not illegal aliens.

A group of New Zealand returning students brought it from Mexico to New Zealand. Spanish beachgoers brought it from Mexican beach vacations. The first Swiss case was a tourist returning from Mexico. Catholic school kids in Queens brought it back from a spring break in Cancun. Most of the Britons with the flu picked it up in Mexico. And so forth.

After panicky reports in the first couple of weeks of the flu outbreak, some reports are now swinging entirely the other way—suggesting that perhaps this is was overblown, a mild flu, perhaps not even as bad as a normal seasonal flu.

The best we can say to that is, be careful.

Flu can come in waves--the first wave relatively mild, and subsequent ones severe. Also, flu can mutate mid-season, and if this one does, it could end up with more severe symptoms, or less severe symptoms, or the mutation could cause other changes in the flu's behavior. Among the clearest descriptions we've found of the murky future is this one:

"Influenza is unpredictable. There are so many unanswered questions. This is a brand new virus. There's so much we don't know about the human infectious with this virus,” said CDC epidemiologist Dr. Tim Uyeki.

Some are arguing that the flu has peaked in Mexico and is on the decline there, but globally, the flu is still adding new countries almost daily. It continues to spread.

How many people have actually had the disease? You see media reports of large numbers, like 1,000 New Yorkers associated with the Catholic schools outbreak there. But as of today, May 3, the the U.S. Centers for Disease Control are confirming just 226 cases in 30 states.

Mexico has reports of 1,300 or more people hospitalized with the disease, but the official number of victims is just a few hundred. The county of people who died from the disease is set at 19 in Mexico, but the unofficial count is between 100 and 200.

What gives?

There have probably in fact been thousands of cases across the U.S. and thousands more in Mexico, but the official numbers include only those that have been confirmed by laboratory tests.

Lab tests are expensive, time consuming, and in many cases not necessary. If your kid comes home from school sick, after being in contact with a confirmed swine flu sufferer in pre-school, and then you and the other kids in the family come down with a flu, and then so do your carpool colleagues, there's no point in testing your family or the carpoolers—it's almost certainly swine flu. So there might be a dozen people there with the bug, but on the CDC list, that would still be just one laboratory confirmed case.

The result is that the actual number of people who've been sick is far, far higher than the official number, like the World Health Organization May 3 report of a total of 787 confirmed cases in 17 countries. To date, the total confirmed worldwide death count stands at 20—19 in Mexico and one in the U.S.

© Jan TenBruggencate 2009

Friday, May 1, 2009

Vol. 3: Swine flu: outright lies, hyperbole and grains of salt

In our continuing series on silliness in the management of, response to and news coverage of swine flu or Influenza A(H1N1), these tidbits:

In an article on the origins of the flu in the New York Times, writer Donald McNeil Jr. makes the strong point high in the story that there's no proof the swine flu originated in pigs.

But after toying with this concept for a while, he concedes that there is only no proof because nobody has finished checking yet.

And fourteen paragraphs into the story, he says, “It presumably is in pigs somewhere, perhaps in Mexico.”

Which is akin to arguing breathlessly that there's no proof humans aren't descended from three-legged aliens from Antares, and then conceding deep in the story that nobody actually thinks there is.

The list of scientifically illiterate countries taking it out on pork is growing. Among them, St. Lucia, Indonesia, Thailand, Honduras, Croatia, Gabon, the Philippines, Kazakhstan, Ukraine, Ecuador and the United Arab Emirates are banning pork sales or pork imports.

Egypt set up farmers' riots by ordering all pigs killed, even though there's zero evidence Egyptian pigs have the flu virus.

And in Australia, the entrepreneurial Australian Crocodile Traders are hoping that fears about pork will lead to surging demand for crocodile meat.

That said, let's be clear: It's people who are spreading the flu now, not pigs. But despite that, pigs are taking a beating.

There's lots of news linking this virus to a specific industrial pig farm in Mexico, and more recently, arguing that this virus is descended from a virus in an industrial pig farm in the U.S. in 1998. There is a fair amount of pushback from the pork industry and others, arguing that this virus is as much a human virus or a bird virus as a pig virus, and that pigs are being unfairly treated.

Said the National Pork Producers Council: “Preliminary investigations have determined that none of the people infected with the hybrid flu had contact with hogs. This virus is different, very different from that found in pigs. The hybrid virus never has been identified in hogs in the United States or anywhere in the world. The hybrid virus is contagious and is spreading by human-to-human transmission.”

Some of that is true, and some is spin. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has concluded that the pig connection is real, even though—just like humans—the virus has a diverse lineage. Asked if the current virus is clearly of pig origin, CDC chief virologist Ruben Donis said, “Definitely.”

As of early today, May 1, the CDC reported that in the United States there were 141 confirmed cases of the flu in 19 states, and one death.

Globally, according to the World Health Organization, there were 365 confirmed cases in 13 countries, and nine deaths—eight in Mexico and the one U.S. victim, who was a Mexican toddler.

Here's a site to check on what's happening on the flu in Hawai'i, where no cases have yet been confirmed:

© Jan TenBruggencate 2009