Monday, December 19, 2011

Solar power: a fringe electric source no more

Solar power, which was once laughed off as a fringe electricity source for true believers who lived far off the grid, is running rampant through renewable energy discussions.

Used to be, it was horrendously expensive—appropriate for satellites and mountain cabins that needed little more than lighting.

It was only in the 1970s that solar photovolaic cells dropped in price from $100 a watt to $20 a watt.

That still meant that an average Hawai`i home using 500 kilowatt-hours monthly needed more than $80,000 in $20/watt panels ($20,000/kW) alone. Here’s how we came to that: 500kW/30days/5hours/.8efficiency x 1000 (to convert kW to watts) x $20. With installation, costs were approaching the century mark.

By 2005, panels were down to $3-$4 a watt. And in 2009, First Solar announced it could manufacture photovoltaic cells at less than $1 a watt. And if you buy enough of them, the retail price for quality panels today is about $1.25.

You can get the very cheapest panels in bulk even now at $1, and the consulting firm Ernst & Young predicts retail prices generally at $1 within two years. New science is promising even better results.

And the prices are still falling.

This means extreme disruption in the solar business. Deciding when to buy and install is like trying to catch a falling knife. It might be way cheaper next month. Do you buy now or wait...and if the latter for how long?

More than one solar firm has gotten into trouble with a business plan based on building $3/watt panels, when global prices suddenly drop to $1.50.

“Research and development spending is high and this is driving the development of different photovoltaic technologies to lower cost points and higher efficiencies. In the foreseeable future, photovoltaic electricity will become cheaper than grid electricity in an increasing number of markets, creating further demand,” said Ernst & Young in this report.

Not long ago, the biggest chunk of your solar installation cost was the panels. The racks, wiring and inverters (to change panel DC power to grid AC) were the smaller portion. Now, that has been turned upside down. An installer recently told me that with $1.25/Watt panels, he was putting in large systems at about $3/Watt complete. (Home systems, being smaller, have higher per-watt installation costs—maybe their total is around $5/Watt—and it could be more depending on site issues.)

Let’s say you put 2 kilowatts of solar on your roof for $10,000, take state and federal tax credits totaling 65 percent, your cost is $3,500. You’re producing 240 or so kilowatt-hours a month at 5 hours of useful sunshine a day and 80 percent efficiency (including passing clouds, wire losses and such—the dirty truth is that you never achieve useful AC electricity anywhere near your system’s rated capacity.)

At $.35 per kilowatt-hour, you’d pay the utility $84 for that power. That pays back the $3,500 in less than four years. If you produce more than you need, utilities in Hawai`i through various programs will buy the power for roughly $.20 per kilowatt-hour. The payback is longer if you’re selling power rather than displacing your own usage. If you do a good job of shifting load to sunlight hours, you save more money.

It’s still challenging to make a case for going entirely off-grid—since battery prices have not yet taken the same dive that photovoltaic panels have taken. But there may be specialized situations—remote locations, significant daytime loads and so forth—in which the economics work out.

But one of the interesting features of the current situation is that with high oil prices, utilities in many cases are buying solar power from developers at slightly cheaper than their cost of diesel-fired power. The Kaua`i Island Utility Cooperative is setting up a subsidiary to produce its own power, and company CEO David Bissell figures he can make it for significantly less than oil-fired power.

And that, as Ernst & Young suggested above, can do something about Hawai`i’s outsize power bills—even if oil prices remain stable at current levels.

© Jan TenBruggencate 2011

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Japan tsunami debris field approaches Hawai`i

The Japanese tsunami of March 11, 2011, dumped millions of tons of debris into the ocean, setting it adrift on the surface of the North Pacific—and some will be in Hawai`i soon.

(Image: Computer model of the Japan tsunami debris field on Dec. 13, 2011. Credit: IPRC/SOEST, University of Hawai`i.)

Some of that material should get to the Hawaiian Islands via a fairly direct southern route, while some will sweep across the northern Pacific, down the West Coast, and back to Hawai'i.

The first pulse of that stuff should arrive in the Hawaiian archipelago from the west this winter, and a second major pulse could arrive on the trades from the northeast in three or four years, according to Nikolai Maximenko, oceanographer with the University of Hawai`i's International Pacific Research Center.

The federal government's best guess for when it hits our beaches in the main islands is 2014 to 2015, said Carey Morishige, Pacific Islands Regional Coordinator of NOAA's Marine Debris Program.

And with respect to radioactivity from Japan's nuclear powerplant disasters, the residual radiation might be detectable with extremely sensitive laboratory equipment, but should be no health hazard to anyone in the Hawaiian Islands, said radiochemist Henrieta Dulaiova, of the University of Hawai`i's Department of Geology and Geophysics.

They spoke Dec. 10, 2011, at a Kaua`i conference sponsored by the Surfrider Foundation.

An estimated 20-25 million tons of debris was estimated by the Japanese government to have been created when the tsunami hit Japan's shores. Of that, Maximenko said, a third to a quarter was pulled into the ocean. And a lot of that material likely sank. More has dispersed widely, and it's likely that a large amount of what's left will be trapped in the massive Eastern Pacific gyre known as the Great Garbage Patch.

A 15-year progression of how the debris is likely to move can be found here.

You can see it catching the fringes of the Main Hawaiian Islands, and settling in the Garbage Patch.

Maximenko said the first of the remaining debris could be arriving at the western end of the Hawaiian archipelago any day now. A Russian sail training ship spotted debris 250 miles from Midway Atoll in September. The material spotted included lumber, household appliances like refrigerators and televisions, washbasins, boots and other stuff. They even picked up an empty Japanese fishing boat, drifting amid the debris.

Maximenko said the debris should move inexorably down the chain, first Kure and Midway, then the nearer islands of the Papahanaumokuakea refuge, and then Kaua`i.

“From the times of arrival and composition, we hope to learn much,” Maximenko said. His model for how the debris may be moving can be found here.

A number of frequently asked questions are answered at this NOAA marine debris site. Basic information about marine debris is here.

Surfrider and the NOAA marine debris program will be monitoring the coastlines and setting up programs to deal with the arrival of Japan tsunami debris. RaisingIslands invites folks with information on the subject to add to the comment selection on this post.

© Jan TenBruggencate 2011

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Hawaiian volcano science: why Kilauea sits on Mauna Loa, but is a sister of Mauna Kea

A pair of important new papers on Hawaiian volcanoes shed light on several intriguing geology questions, including why the islands haven't formed in a single line.

Study of the chemical composition of lavas suggests that there are two parallel lines of Island volcanics, which researchers call the Loa trend and the Kea trend. They get their names from their biggest mountains, Mauna Loa being of one line and Mauna Kea the other.

(Image: Much of the work discussed in these papers involves study of the chemistry of lavas. Here, the robot arm on the JASON2 submarine, operating 10,000 feet below sea level, collects a lava sample from Mauna Loa. Credit: University of Hawai`i.)

One paper in June in the journal Nature Geoscience, was written by Maxim Ballmer and Garrett Ito of the University of Hawai`i School of Ocean and Earth Sciences and Technology, Jeroen van Hunen of Durham University in the UK and Paul Tackley of the Swiss Institute of Geophysics in Zurich. It is entitled, “Spatial and temporal variability in Hawaiian hotspot volcanism inducted by small-scale convection.”

The other paper, published in Nature Geoscience in November, is by Dominique Weis, Mark Jellinek and James Scoates of the University of British Columbia, Michael Garcia of the University of Hawai`i's Department of Geology and Geophysicsand Michael Rhodes of the University of Massachusetts. It is entitled “Role of the deep mantle in generating the compositional asymmetry of the Hawaiian mantle plume.” You can find the University of Hawai`i's press release on this paper here.

The traditional theory about how the Hawaiian archipelago was formed involves a molten “hot spot” which pushes magma up from the Earth's mantle, popping periodically through the ocean floor as the Pacific tectonic plate grinds slowly to the northwest.

But there are problems with that theory, including the parallel lines of volcanoes, as well as what's called the rejuvenated stage or secondary volcanism—which involves why features like Diamond Head and Punchbowl develop a couple of million years after most of the islands' mass has been erupted.

Ballmer and his associates proposed a new model, in which asymmetric melting in the mantle, uneven heat transfer, and a washboard model of the underside of the Earth's crust help explain what's seen on the surface.

It suggests that the rising plume of magma divides in two, feeding the Loa line and the Kea line separately, which explains why Loa lavas tend to be chemically different from Kea lavas. In part that's because the magma feeding the Kea side is hotter, they say.

“Lavas with these distinct characteristics have erupted in parallel along the Kea and Loa trends for at least 5 million years,” writes the Weis team. They argue that the differences in the composition of the lavas may be because the different sides of the magma plume are remelting different kinds of rock as they rise toward the surface.

The Kea line includes Kilauea, Mauna Kea, Kohala, Haleakala, West Maui and both sides of Moloka`i. The longer Loa line includes Lo`ihi, Hualalai, Kaho`olawe, Lana`i, Ko`olau, West Ka`ena and Kaua`i.

Mauna Loa is so darn big that while its caldera is on the Loa line, its slopes extend all the way to the Kea line, which is why Kea-fed Kilauea appears to lie on the slope of Mauna Loa.

Issue two: Why isn't the Hawaiian archipelago one long continuous ridge rather than a series of islands separated by deep channels? Perhaps because of the washboard effect on the bottom of the crust. The volcanoes are able to pour out large amounts of lava where the crust is thin, but not where it's thick.

Issue three: Ballmer and his associates argue that secondary volcanism is associated with a melting zone under older islands that drags nearly 200 miles downstream of the main hot spot activity. That explains why small eruptions at cinder cones like Diamond Head occurred a few hundred thousand years ago, far from the main activity at that time at Hawai`i Island.

A side note: A few decades ago, one of the fun questions for volcano freaks who chase eruptions was this: Is it technically possible for Mauna Loa and Kilauea to erupt at the same time. The theory then was that each was fed by the same plume, so maybe only one could erupt at a time.

But in 1984, Mauna Loa erupted during a Kilauea eruption, setting the question to rest. Now there's a good theory on why that's possible. One is a Loa and one is a Kea.

© Jan TenBruggencate 2011

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Pacific climate phases occasionally "lock" into phase

Like waves on an ocean, different climate cycles will occasionally synchronize—but two Pacific cycles not only briefly synchronize but then “lock” into phase.

This locking synchronization was described in the September issue of Physical Review Letters by Karl Stein, a University of Hawai`i at Mānoa PhD student, and Axel Timmermann and Niklas Schneider, professors at the UH Mānoa International Pacific Research Center and the Department of Oceanography.

Two of the known cycles in the equatorial Pacific are the seasonal variation in temperatures and the El Niño-Southern Oscillation, which operates on a cycle ranging from 2 to 7 years in length.

The scientists identified patterns in which these difference cycles occasionally fall into synchronization and seem to lock there for a period of time, while at other times, they simply cross paths and fail to synchronize.

It suggests that in Niño and in the tropical Eastern Pacific annual cycle, there is some feedback going on, such that once they coincide, they somehow remain in synch for a period of time, rather than continuing on their own cycles.

The next question is why that happens and what it means.

“The newly discovered sporadic phase-locking behavior of El Niño and the annual cycle will have significant impacts on current understanding of the seasonal predictability of large El Niño events. The scientists are eager to test how well state-of-the art climate models reproduce the nonlinear interaction between these two dominant modes of climate variability,” the authors said in a press release.

They said this kind of phase locking was first described in 1673 by the Dutch scientist Christiaan Huygens. It is the kind of thing that infrequently happens, for example, when an applauding audience suddenly starts to clap in unison and continues doing so for a period of time.

Citation: Karl Stein, Axel Timmermann, and Niklas Schneider, 2011: Phase Synchronization of the El Niño-Southern Oscillation with the Annual Cycle, Phys. Rev. Lett., 107, issue 12.

The research was supported by the Office of Science (BER) of the U.S. Department of Energy, and by NASA, NOAA, and the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology which sponsor research at the International Pacific Research Center.

© Jan TenBruggencate 2011

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Russian ship finds UHawai`i-projected tsunami debris field

It’s cool when your computer-based model runs into real world testing, and ends up right.

And a new University of Hawai`i program tracking the debris from this year’s Japan tsunami has experienced that kind of cool.

(Image: The Russian sail training ship STS Pallada. Credit: Pallada.)

At the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa’s International Pacific Research Center, senior researcher Nikolai Maximenko and scientific computer programmer Jan Hafner have been using computers to track the likely route of the massive pulse of debris from the March 11 tsunami, as it travels on the morth Pacific currents.

They sent the results of their computer modeling to the Russian sail training ship Pallada, which was crossing from Honolulu to Vladivostok. The sailors kept an eye out, and sure enough, when they sailed a distance past Midway, heading northwest, they came across a complex field of tsunami-caused debris.

Pallada information and education mate Natalia Borodina reported on Sept. 27 that stuff that matches what they would have expected to find. They tested for radiation from the damaged Japanese nuclear plant, but did not identify raised levels of radiation.

“We keep sighting everyday things like wooden boards, plastic bottles, buoys from fishing nets (small and big ones), an object resembling wash basin, drums, boots, other wastes. All these objects are floating by the ship,” she emailed.

They even came across a Japanese fishing boat, a 20-footer whose wheelhouse bears inscriptions indicating it came from Fukushima Prefecture, which suffered severe damage from the tsunami. The boat was brought on board the Pallada.

(Image: Adrift Japanese fishing boat hoisted aboard STS Pallada. Credit: Pallada)

The debris was within the debris field predicted by the models of Maximenko and Hafner.

The researchers project that the debris may hit Midway and other parts of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands this winter, and could reach the main Hawaiian Islands later.

© Jan TenBruggencate 2011

Two major new climate research efforts at UHawai`i

Hawai’i is increasingly active in the science of the Pacific, with island-based researchers contributing to global research efforts.

Two new federally funded research efforts have just landed in Hawai`i.

Recently, the University of Hawai`i announced that NOAA has committed up to $95 million for a five-year program to study coastal and marine resources in connection with changes to the environment.

It will run through UH’s Joint Institute for Marine and Atmospheric Research (JIMAR), to be headed by oceanographer Mark Merrifield. It will be one of 18 such cooperative institutes across the country.

Among the specific projects: “assessment of local fish stocks, monitoring and ecosystem-based management policies for coral reef ecosystems including the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, development of remediation strategies for endangered Monk Seal populations, monitoring of global sea level rise and local sea level impacts, modeling of volcanic smoke and haze (VOG), improved forecasts of hurricane intensities, projections of ENSO variability and impacts on Pacific island states, and provision of water level observations for tsunami warning.”

Meanwhile, the Interior Department announced that it will fund the development at UH of the Pacific Islands Climate Science Center, one ofseveral such climate centers across the U.S. This one will be a joint project of University of Hawai'i at Mānoa, the University of Hawai'i at Hilo, and the University of Guam.

Again, its goal will be to help our nation cope with climate change and “other landscape-style stressors impacting the nation’s natural and cultural resources.”

“The new climate center will serve as a resource for federal agencies and other stakeholders in providing the necessary science input into policy decisions. It will also support research and graduate student training on a variety of environmental concerns with a primary scientific focus on understanding the effects of climate change and variability on island ecosystems,” said Kevin Hamilton, the director of the UH’s International Pacific Research Center, who iwill head the new Pacific Islands Climate Center.

The university expects initial funding to be in the neighborhood of $3 million over 5 years, and anticipates the Department of Interior will station several federal scientists in Hawai`i to work with the project.

© Jan TenBruggencate 2011

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Energy and just getting along

No single energy technology will solve the world’s issues with renewable energy.

That’s a key message of the Asia Pacific Clean Energy Summit and Expo, which was held Sept. 13-15 at the Honolulu Convention Center.

It’s not a new message, certainly, but it’s apparently one a lot of folks still need to learn.

“We need technology-agnostic approaches...There is no one-size-fits-all,” said Chris Myers, vice president for international business development and energy markets for Lockheed Martin.

And yet, the rifts were obvious. Wind versus geothermal. Ocean thermal versus solar.

And there were even battles within sectors. This wind generator versus that one. Utility-scale photovoltaic versus distributed rooftop photovoltaic.

Lt. Gov. Brian Schatz said the state’s initiative to reduce dependence on imported fossil fuels requires those divisions be set aside.

“We have the most aggressive public policy in clean energy in the nation,” he said. And then he added: “If we’re going to get to 70 percent clean energy, we need everything and everyone.”

Sempra Generation’s Mitch Dmohowski, whose firm plans large-scale solar, said cost should be one deciding factor.

“At the end of the day, renewables have to make sense from a cost basis,” he said.

Technological capability is another key determinant of what works, said T.J. Glauthier , former deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Energy. There may be lots of interesting energy technologies, but the ones that will make a difference are the ones that can be taken to scale, he said.

And ultimately, one message of the sessions was that it’s not just about supply. There’s efficiency. And conservation. Michael Trovato of Johnson Controls said energy retrofits can yield major savings.

Specific programs can help get people to invest, even when they lack the resources to do so independently. The Tennessee Valley Authority’s Energy Right program helps people put in heat pumps by guaranteeing bank loans, which can be paid off through the electric bill. Here’s how the city of Aloca, Tennessee, does it.

And a big issue is simply managing energy more appropriately. On this point, a smarter grid is key, said Glauthier. He argued that a smart grid is long overdue: “It is the last major part of our economy to be computerized.”

© Jan TenBruggencate 2011

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Rising seas top threat to Northwestern Hawaiian Islands

When researchers looked into the most significant threats to the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, the top threat was a slam dunk: rising seas.

That’s because most of the islands of the northwestern end of the Hawaiian archipelago are low, sand and coral islands. A foot of sea level rise could erase entirely much of the dry land.

(Image: A map ranking human impacts in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. From

And with that, the stunning repercussions for wildlife: Something like 90 percent of all the Hawaiian green sea turtles nest on the sandbars of French Frigate Shoals; entire species of seabirds and a few land birds rely on these specks of land for nesting habitat; Hawaiian monk seals, already threatened, would lose their haulouts and pupping places.

This threat research is documented at a new website, which documents research being done in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. Those islands, which lie beyond Kaua`i and Ni`ihau, are managed as the Papahānaumokuākea National Marine Monument.

“Those interested in the exciting and dynamic research coming out of HIMB now have an easy to use forum and site to access information,” said Robert Toonen, principal investigator for the HIMB Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Research Partnership.

The website has gone “live” this week.

Just one of the pieces of research on it involves the mapping of cumulative impacts of human activity. The team talked to 25 experts about the various threats, and ranked them.

We used a novel index of ‘ecological vulnerability’ that accounts for five ways a human activity can adversely impact a coral reef: the area and frequency of impact, the number of species impacted, the biomass lost and the recovery time following the impact,” the site says.

From the biggest threat to the least problematic, here’s how the ranking went:

Sea level rise, sea temperature rise, marine debris, alien species establishment, increasing ultraviolet radiation, ghost fishing, sea water acidification, ship groundings, coastal engineering, land-based runoff, ship waste input, pelagic long-lining and net fishing, anchor damage, lobster trap fishery, research wildlife sacrifice, sport fishing, trampling damage, vessel strikes, diver impacts, research manipulations, bottom fishing, indigenous fishing, aquarium collecting, and non-fishing non-diving recreation.

The report said that while the islands are protected from many direct human impacts, global threats put them at serious risk.

© Jan TenBruggencate 2011

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Warming seas, invading king crabs, bad news for life that evolved without them

Good news for crab lovers, bad news for less robust critters like sea lilies, brittle stars, asteroids and sea urchins.

(Image: The invasive king crab, Neolithodes yaldwyni, from the Antarctic shelf waters. It’s similar looking and is related, but is a different genus and species from the Alaskan or red king crab, Paralithodes camtschaticus. Photo courtesy University of Hawai’i.)

University of Hawai’i oceanography professor Craig Smith is part of a team that found that king crabs have invaded across the West Antarctica continental shelf and now inhabit the Palmer Deep along the west Antarctic Pensinsula. Their paper on the subject is here.

And lots of creatures that should be there, aren’t.

“This is a very interesting discovery for several reasons,” Smith said

“First, it provides evidence that king crabs can now disperse across the Antarctic shelf, and reproduce in at least some Antarctic shelf waters. It also suggests that these predatory king crabs will cause a major reduction on seafloor biodiversity as they invade Antarctic habitats because they appear to be eating all the echinoderms in the Palmer Deep.”

Smith recently joined researchers from Duke University, Ghent University, Hamilton College and Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in Antarctica. They used a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) to inspect the seafloor life in the area. They found that a king crab species called Neolithodes yaldwyni is dramatically altering the ecosystem.

The result is the demise of a whole ecosystem that had developed in the absence of crushing predators like big crabs. Echinoderms like the stars and urchins are common in most of the Antarctic ocean, but they’re not now found in the parts of the Palmer Deep where the king crabs are found.

The researchers believe the rapid pace of ocean warming has allowed the crabs to move into the new habitat, where they dig into oceanfloor sediments and feed on seafloor animals there.

Smith and the team said they believe the continued warming will allow the king crabs to further expand their range within as little as 20 years at the expense of the native creatures that compose Antarctica’s unique seafloor animal life. The team hopes to use genetic tests to track the continuing colonization of the crabs.

Their research has been funded by the National Science Foundation and the Special Research Fund of Ghent University.

The University of Hawai’i release on the issue is here.

More images and story here.

© Jan TenBruggencate 2011

Friday, September 2, 2011

Nihoa to repopulate Laysan's millerbird habitat.

One of the mantras of conservation is that a tiny population in a single location is inherently at risk.

That’s why conservation agencies are working this week to establish a population on Laysan Island of the Nihoa millerbird.

(Image: Nihoa millerbird, which will help create a new population of millerbirds on Laysan. Credit: Robby Kohley via U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.)

This has been done before with another single-island species from Nihoa, the Nihoa finch, which now has a backup population on Pearl and Hermes Atoll. And it’s been done with the Laysan duck or teal, which now also exists on Midway Atoll.

The new transfer is a joint effort of the U .S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the American Bird Conservancy, with the help off the group Pacific Rim Conservation. All the islands are within the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, which covers the islands, reefs, seamounts and atolls of the remote northwestern end of the Hawaiian archipelago.

A team working from the motor vessel Searcher is on Nihoa this week, seeking to collect 24 millerbirds for the transfer. Millerbirds have previously existed on Laysan, but not for nearly a century. The birds will be taken aboard the ship, which will power to the northwest to Laysan, a 650-mile voyage.

The two islands had different varieties of the the millerbird. The one on Laysan was Acrocephalus familiaris familiaris and the one on Nihoa is Acrocephalus familiaris kingi. They were very similar. Laysan’s millerbird went extinct during a period when introduced rabbits destroyed virtually all green vegetation on Laysan Island. The rabbits were eventually eradicated, and some of the original vegetation is back now.

The insect-eaters are active gray-brown birds that forage among low shrubbery on Nihoa. What are the risks for them? Nihoa is a tiny rock island, and fire, rats, disease-carrying mosquitoes, storm or any number of threats could wipe them out. Even rabbits.

The world expert on millerbirds is University of Hawai’i zoologist Sheila Conant, who studied them extensively in the 1980s and has watched the population whipsaw from as many as 800 birds to as few as 30. She is a strong proponent of translocation.

“For thousands of years, the Nihoa Millerbird miraculously survived low numbers, catastrophes including a severe brush fire in the late 1800s, and, most importantly, existence on a single tiny island.

"These threats are as serious today as they have ever been, and are compounded by the potential for non-native predators and diseases to be introduced to Nihoa. This translocation could more than double the total number of birds by establishing a second population on another island, and provide insurance for the species,” Conant said.

Read more about the millerbirds at the American Bird Conservancy site.

For more on the translocation project, see here.

© Jan TenBruggencate 2011

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Digital data can replace dog-eared notebooks in forestry

There are big steps, but often to get to the big steps, there need to be a lot of little steps.

These don't get much attention, but they're important.

A group of forest researchers in Hawai`i recently challenged the old paradigm of marching into the woods to measure forest productivity with little more than a dog-eared notebook, a pencil, and some measuring tools.

Their goal: to see whether the digital age could be brought to forestry fieldwork.

Their conclusion, yes, it can, and it can save significant amounts of time, but you need to take precautions against downpours, dropped equipment, system crashes and dead batteries.

The researchers are Faith Inman-Narahari and Lawren Sack of the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Department at University of California Los Angeles ,Christian Giardina and Susan Cordell of the Institute of Pacific Islands Forestry of the USDA Forest Service in Hilo, and Rebecca Ostertag of the Department of Biology at the University of Hawai`i at Hilo. The published their findings in the journal Methods in Ecology and Evolution, under the title “Digital data collection in forest dynamics plots.”

With the caveats that you use tough field computers, that you pay attention to battery life issues, and back up your data on drives that don't die with battery failure, they said going digital makes sense.

“Use of digital methods resulted in an average 11-8% reduction in total effort due to reduced secondary data entry time,” they wrote.

That means you save all the time transferring data from those dog-eared notebooks to your computer, since the information is already in digital form.

This all may seem obvious, but most researchers continue to use paper notebooks, the authors say, because of those issues of data loss.

“Electronic data collection holds great promise for enhancing ecological research capacity, yet researchers may be reluctant to adopt digital methods for many reasons including concerns of losing large amounts of data, the money and time needed to buy and implement a new system, the weather-resistance of electronic devices, and the lack of familiarity with digital options,” they wrote.

In fact, the advent of waterproof, shock-resistant computers with all-day batteries should be able to resolve many of those issues, and the time savings may outweigh the financial cost off the equipment.

© Jan TenBruggencate

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Want to keep your brainpower? Exercise, Hawai`i!

Hawai`i has among the most active citizens in the nation, but there's way more to do, according to a cluster of recent scientific and research reports.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control reports all four counties in the Islands have among the lowest rates of physical inactivity in the nation.

Is there a benefit to that exercise? The CDC study says it's good for reduced diabetes risk, but new studies indicate it's also significant for a healthy brain.

Regular physical activity is linked to lower loss of cognitive function in older adults, according to two studies in Online First by Archives of Internal Medicine, a JAMA/Archives journal.

There has long been an association between exercise and good mental function, but much of the previous research has been based on self-reported data and thus questionable. The newest information addresses those shortfalls and still comes to a similar result.

In a French study, researchers followed a group of nearly 3,000 women with risk factors for heart disease, part of the Women's Antioxidant Cardiovascular Study. They found increased exercise resulted in reduced brainpower loss. The lead researcher was Marie-Noël Vercambre, of Foundation of Public Health, Mutuelle Generale de l'Education Nationale, Paris.

Briefly, the report found that something equivalent to a half-hour walk daily was associated with a statistically reduced risk of cognitive function loss.

"Various biologic mechanisms may explain the positive relation between physical activity and cognitive health," said Vercambre's group, in a press release from the Archives of Internal Medicine, of the Journal of the American Medical Association. "If confirmed in future studies, physical activity recommendations could yield substantial public health benefits given the growing number of older persons with vascular conditions and their high risk of cognitive impairment."

A second report looked at 197 participants averaging nearly 75 years of age in the Health, Aging and Body Composition study in Canada. Researchers were led by Laura E. Middleton, of the Heart and Stroke Foundation Centre for Stroke Recovery, Sunnybrook Research Institute, Toronto.

Interestingly, these researchers subtracted the individuals' resting metabolic rate from their total energy expenditure. They found that the participants who had the highest net energy expenditure tended to have the lowest cognitive loss.

"The mechanisms by which physical activity is related to late-life cognition are likely to be multifactorial,” Middleton's group said. "We are optimistic that even low-intensity activity of daily living may be protective against incident cognitive impairment."

Find the studies here: Arch Intern Med. Published July 19, 2011. doi:10.1001/archinternmed.2011.282; doi:10.1001/archinternmed.2011.277.

In an Alzheimer's study, exercise was listed as one of the keys to reducing the likelihood of suffering from the disease. A report in the journal Lancet said the key risk factors internationally for Alzheimer's disease are, in this order: low education, smoking, physical inactivity, depression, hypertension in midlife, diabetes and mid-life obesity. They are associated with half of all cases of Alzheirmer's.

Mental health researcher Deborah Barnes, of the San Francisco VA Medical Center, analyzed data from a massive pool of patients internationally—hundreds of thousands.

Among Americans, physical activity rises to the top as the biggest single modifiable risk factor listed in the study.

"What's exciting is that this suggests that some very simple lifestyle changes, such as increasing physical activity and quitting smoking, could have a tremendous impact on preventing Alzheimer's and other dementias in the United States and worldwide," said Barnes, who is also an associate professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco.

She had one caution about the research: "We are assuming that when you change the risk factor, then you change the risk," Barnes said. "What we need to do now is figure out whether that assumption is correct."

In the Islands, although we do well on the activity scale, we can do far better.

According to the state Department of Health's Hawai`i Physical Activity and Nutrition Plan:

“In 2005, almost 48 percent of adults in Hawaii did not meet the recommended guidelines for physical activity (moderate intensity physical activity for at least 30 minutes on five or more days of the week or vigorous intensity physical activity for 20 or more minutes on three or more days per week).”

© Jan TenBruggencate 2011