Thursday, January 26, 2012

Tracking the great Japan tsunami debris field: wood blocks and satellites

In order to better understand the flow of marine debris from the Japan tsunami last year, a team of researchers is using...marine debris.

That is, they have deposited near the leading edge of the debris field a series of satellite-reporting buoys and hundreds of wooden blocks imprinted with a website address and phone number, where beachcombers and boaters who find them can report their location.

(Image: One of the wooden blocks. If you find one, please report where you located it. The address to use is Credit: IPRC.)

The preliminary data from the program is indicating that the debris currently is flowing west-to-east somewhat north of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, and thus far has not started coming ashore. More on that at the end of this report.

The marine debris survey is designed to help better understand the likely impacts of the millions of tons of material that was washed into the sea by the March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami in Japan.

“One thing is certain: the debris is hazardous to navigation, marine life, and when washed ashore, to coastlines,” said a press release from the International Pacific Research Center at the University of Hawai`i.

Researchers thus far have largely depended on already deployed floaters and computer current and wind models to make estimates of the debris field’s location. They’ve been helped by reports from a few ships that have transited the field.

The models suggested that debris could be arriving in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands this winter, hitting Midway Atoll and the islands of the Papahānaumokuākea National Marine Monument. Ship reports as early as September showed the debris field just 250 miles northwest of Midway.

Teams from the University of Hawai`i at Mānoa and at Hilo, the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and the Ocean Recovery Alliance, developed a plan to deploy a drifter array across the front of the debris field. They developed 11 satellite-tracked buoys that are designed to mimic the motion of different kinds of debris, and put them in the water between Midway and the debris field. The satellite signals from the buoys will help researchers understand how the field is moving in the local currents of the region.

In a decidedly lower-tech program, they also deployed 400 wooden blocks in the water, each branded with information on how people finding them can respond.

“If boaters, fishermen and beachgoers find these blocks and contact the scientists by the information on the blocks, they will also increase understanding of the motion of debris and currents in this remote region,” the release said.

It added: “Among the most important results of the expedition was the recognition that tsunami debris has recently not advanced towards Midway, but instead has been flowing eastward well to the north of the atolls.

“Analysis of the ocean-current field shows why: For the past weeks, the general flow around all Hawaiian Islands has been from the southwest, producing a front located 300-400 miles northwest of the Midway. This front and associated northeastward jet keep the tsunami debris north of the least for the time being.”

Learn more about the debris tracking project here.

The researchers on the project are Nikolai Maximenko and Jan Hafner of IPRC, Doug Woodring of Ocean Recovery, Luc a Centurioni of Scripps Institution of Oceanography and Hank Carson of the University of Hawai`i at Hilo.

© Jan TenBruggencate 2012

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Mauna Kea: in Kamehameha's time, it was always white

It’s news when the first winter snow falls on Mauna Kea—news because it’s not always snowy up there.

But an intriguing new book on the volcano’s sister mountain, Mauna Loa, suggested that as little as 200 years ago, it WAS always snowy up there.

(Image: Winter snow on Mauna Kea, February 1971. Credit: Donald A. Swanson, USGS.)

Mauna Loa and the Mauna Loa Observatory get credit for being major players in the understanding of climate change, but Mauna Kea may also have a role to play.

During the lifetime of Kamehameha I, according to one of Kamehameha’s confidants, Mauna Kea was perpetually covered with snow. In this period before the Industrial Revolution and the dumping of carbon dioxide from fossil fuels into the atmosphere, this little bit of Hawaiian anecdotal history would suggest the climate was, indeed, cooler.

The book, by Forrest M. Mims III, is Hawai`i’s Mauna Loa Observatory: Fifty Years of Monitoring the Atmosphere, just published by the University of Hawai`i Press. Mims, a prolific technology writer, is the co-founder of the firm that developed the Altair 8800, the first kit microcomputer. Bill Gates helped write the software that ran it; Steve Jobs cut his teeth on it as Apple was being developed.

Mims writes a detailed history of the mountain and of the observatory that made it famous in climate circles. It was there, up on the shoulder of Mauna Loa, that Charles David Keeling began in 1958 taking measurements of the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The record of those continuing measurements, known as the Keeling Curve, show the steady and continuing buildup of CO2, largely the result of humanity’s burning of fossil fuels.

Keeling was just one of many brilliant scientists who used the unique site for atmospheric and other research, and the book covers all of them in a readable way that puts meat on the bones of one of Hawai`i’s premier scientific research sites—one of worldwide importance.

But a little piece of information early in the book is both interesting and telling. In the early 1800s, when explorer-scientists were still bleeding from lava cuts, puking from elevation sickness and generally risking their lives to climb these mountains, one of the researchers in the Islands was the Scottish botanist James Macrae, who arrived in 1825 with Lord Byron on the HMS Blonde.

Macrae never climbed the mountains, but reports, almost as an afterthought, a conversation with old-timer John Young: “During the 26 years that Mr. Young has been on the island, he has never seen Mouna Kaah (Mauna Kea) free from snow, but has not seen snow on Mouna Roah (Mauna Loa) in summer, and on this he bases his theory of the greater height of Mouna Kaah.”

John Young was left on Hawai`i by the British ship Eleanora in 1790. An exceedingly important Western advisor to Kamehameha, Young was known to Hawaiians as Olohana. He built ships for the king, and commanded the king’s cannons during war. He later became Kamehameha’s governor of Hawai`i Island.

Macrae was on the Big Island in May, and reported in his diary that he clearly saw snow on Mauna Kea. While Macrae was more interested in the snow as an indication of elevation, Mims recognized that the report was “an intriguing observation about the climate of Hawai’i two centuries ago.”

The late 1700s and early 1800s were the tail end of a climate period commonly known as the Little Ice Age. And the perpetual snow also accounts, of course, for the name: Mauna Kea, White Mountain.

For more on Mauna Kea, see the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory page on the mountain.

For more on Mims’ book, see this University of Hawai`i Press site.

The publisher writes: “Hawai‘i’s Mauna Loa Observatory should be read by atmospheric science students to gain an appreciation for the enormous effort required to generate high quality data. Much more than a strict scientific biography of Mauna Loa, this work will also be appreciated by anyone interested in a highly accessible history of the human side of atmospheric observations at a remote, high-altitude observatory.”

© Jan TenBruggencate 2012

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Global food crisis: How Hawai`i responds

The possibility of a global food shortage is just one of the arguments in favor of locally produced food.

Several new data points suggest that such shortages are looming. How does one respond? Support local farmers. Grow your own garden. And pay attention to what it takes to feed you.

(Image: Locally grown jabong, a cousin to oranges and grapefruits, known to science as Citrus grandis.)

There are multiple benefits of addressing the local food issue, not the least being that you know what you’re eating and what’s gone into it. More on that later.

First, some food shortage data points.

The Consumer Price Index indicates that the cost of food is rising faster than the rest of the economy. (So is energy which, of course, is needed to ship food to us.) And this isn’t just an inflationary trend at restaurants. The cost of food eaten at home has gone up much faster than food eaten out.

Here’s now the Bureau of Labor Statistics folks phrased it: “The index for food at home has risen 5.9 percent over the past year with all six major grocery store food groups up at least 4.4 percent.”

Not counting food and energy, the 12- month general inflationary number was half that, at 2.2 percent. (These numbers are for November 2011, the most recent ones available. December’s numbers are due out in a couple of days.)

Why are the numbers going up? Perhaps because we’re not keeping up with demand. In 2011, the world produced record grain crops, and still, worldwide supplies of grains fell. Supply has failed to match demand in seven of the last 12 years.

Global grain stores, according to that source, are at 75 days. In the 80s and 90s, they averaged nearer 100 days.

“In 2006, stocks bottomed out at 62 days, setting the stage for the 2007—08 food price spike when international grain prices doubled or tripled in a short amount of time.” wrote Janet Larsen of IPS/Earth Policy Institute, in an article this week.

There’s plenty of apocalyptic prediction out there. Even as staid a publication as Scientific American in 2009 asked, “Could Food Shortages Bring Down Civilization?”

In some parts of the world, the crisis is already underway.

So what does that mean in terms of Hawai`i? There’s the likelihood that feeding ourselves will be much more expensive, and the possibility that some foods won’t be available or at least won’t be affordable for some of us.

There are multiple initiatives in the Islands that provide responses. The Slow Food movement is one. It supports diverse, locally produced foods.

Foodcapes Hawai`i talks about edible landscapes and growing at least some of your food at home.

Food security is a focus of Hawaii Homegrown Food Abundance, and its website is a nice tutorial on why it’s important and how to go about growing it. The site has a bunch of useful links.

The state is replete with organizations like Mālama Kaua`i, which supports food sustainability and works for “relocalizing our food, energy, goods an services.”

One nice challenge: eat a meal now and then that includes only locally grown food, and none that comes from off your island.

© Jan TenBruggencate 2012

Thursday, January 5, 2012

A solution to honeybee Colony Collapse Disorder? Doubt it.

The world’s honeybees are suffering from a disastrous ailment—millions of bees are suddenly failing to return to their hives. Some beekeepers have lost more than half their hives.

Hawai`i beekeepers are also suffering with an array of intractable threats to their bee colonies.

Dozens of researchers have “solved” the problem. Don’t believe them. Nobody yet knows for sure what’s causing the mysterious Colony Collapse Disorder. And, one tip—don’t trust the headlines that suggest someone does.

The latest culprit in CCD is a parasitic fly, whose larvae get into bees and confuse them—causing them to lose their way home. Some headlines are categorical. Here’s one: Parasitic Fly to Blame for Honeybee Population Decline.

Maybe. But then there was the report that Colony Collapse bees have different genetic makeups from regular bees.

And perhaps it’s a new class of nicotine-based pesticides, which is outlined in the movie, “Nicotine Bees.”

The neonicotinoid pesticide theory has this intriguing bit: When Italy banned the nicotinoid pesticides, its bees reportedly started to recover:

“In 2009, Italy's neonicotinoid-free corn sowing resulted in no cases of widespread bee mortality in apiaries around the crops. This had not happened since 1999. The European Research Center, Youris, reported that Moreno Greatti, from the University of Udine stated, `Bee hives have not suffered depopulation and mortality coinciding with maize sowing this year. Beekeepers from Northern Italy and all over the country are unanimous in recognizing that the suspension of neonicotinoid- and fipronil-coated maize seeds.’” That’s from TreeHugger.

Some suggest CCD is the result of poor management by beekeepers, but that wouldn’t explain why unmanaged wild bee hives have gone virtually extinct in many parts of the world.

Some folks blame cell phones—a theory that apparently originated from a German study of whether cordless phones could impact bee learning. The author of the study itself says there’s no connection to colony collapse disorder: "If the Americans are looking for an explanation for colony collapse disorder, perhaps they should look at herbicides, pesticides and they should especially think about genetically modified drops," said Stefan Kimmel, who co-authored the German study, in a New York Times report.

Kimmel emailed Associated Press to further assert that there is “no link between our tiny little study and the CCD-phenomenon ... anything else said or written is a lie."

Then there are the predations by varroa mites, nosema disease, tracheal mites or even a combination of all of these things.

A University of Florida Extension Service scientific report has a pretty evenhanded review of the problem.

The upshot right now is that there’s a lot of research going on, there are tons of theories, and there are no definitive answers.

And if anyone claims to have one, be suspicious.

© Jan TenBruggencate 2012

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

No joy in recent reports on climate future for Hawai`i

There is no current scenario that looks good for Hawai`i when you study climate and energy.

A quick start-of-the-year review of the most recent research on energy use, climate change, and sea levels makes one long for the days when we still had the opportunity to do something about what’s coming.

The International Energy Agency’s recent global energy report said this:

“`If we don’t change direction soon, we’ll end up where we’re heading’... There are few signs that the urgently needed change in direction in global energy trends is underway.”

Oil prices bounced around in the $30 range from the late 1980s to the late 90s, and then began an inexorable climb. Prices broke through the $40s in the first third of the century’s opening decade, the $60s in the second third, and around the $80s late in the decade, with a burst to near $150 a couple of years ago.

It was bouncing around $100 in recent months.

Why has it been rising? Could it be because world energy demand is climbing just as inexorably?

World primary energy demand was about 9,000 Mtoe in 1990. (Mtoe: That’s million tonnes of oil equivalent.) The demand passed 10,000 Mtoe by 2000, passed 11,000 Mtoe before 2005 and was more than 12,000 Mtoe by 2010. And it’s still apparently rising. That’s all from the International Energy Agency’s (IEA) World Energy Outlook 2010.

The IEA just released their 2011 outlook. It views things as worse, not better.

It’s worse in part because even at $100 a barrel, fossil fuels in many countries are subsidized, so in comparison to its real cost, it’s still cheap. What do you do? The 2010 IEA World Energy Outlook said this: “Getting the prices right, by phasing-out fossil-fuel subsidies, is the single most effective measure to cut energy demand.”

But in 2010, according to the executive summary of the 2011 report, “Subsidies that encourage wasteful consumption of fossil fuels jumped to over $400 billion.”

What does all this mean, besides high-cost energy, international restiveness, and economic malaise? Of course, because high oil and coal consumption dump carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, it means that climate change, already evident around the globe, gets worse.

A few years ago, folks were talking about maybe enacting strict policies that might keep global temperature rise to 2 degrees Centigrade. Virtually nobody did what was needed.

“The door to 2°C is closing,” the 2011 IEA report says. And without significant new policies around the globe, it’s on track to 6°C, it says.

What’s that mean for the Islands? For the bad news check out the University of Hawai`i Coastal Geology program’s sea level website.

It means that within the lifetimes of many of us, ocean levels will be significantly higher—feet higher—than they are now. The impact:

“Most of the buildings will probably still be inhabited and residents will have to time their movement between the tides, just as they do today in Mapunapuna. Back up in the McCully and Makiki areas residents won't see any seawater, they will see the wetlands of the 19th century reemerging as the water table rises above ground level in some areas (not all areas). Under these conditions, when it rains, we will have a real problem. The runoff will raise the water table, the storm drains will be full of seawater except at the very lowest state of the tide, and standing pools of water will accumulate throughout the region without a place to drain. Travel will be limited and many lands will turn to wetlands, there may be some areas of permanently standing water,” writes the Hawai`i sea level site author, Chip Fletcher.

And his scenarios envision warming of significantly less than 6 degrees. It's hard to imagine how bad it could be if sea level rise goes significantly higher--and there are scenarios that predict that.

And as for a classic Hawaiian day at the beach? It’s likely that public policy will protect onshore development before it protects beaches, he argues.

“Beaches will be mostly gone and we'll have built large seawalls lining most of our shores,” Fletcher wrote.

The impacts of all that, to the tourism economy, property values, groundwater, to our coastal transportation systems, including harbors, low-lying airports and the rest, are impressive to consider.

And the impacts on our natural resources, including changes in rainfall patterns, the loss of green sea turtle nesting sites, the loss of monk seal pupping and haulout beaches--they make some of our current planning and regulation initiatives seem ill-considered and short-sighted.

© Jan TenBruggencate 2012