Sunday, January 27, 2013

Using tech to better understand Hawaiian weather

It wasn’t all that long ago that we didn’t know a hurricane was headed our way unless a ship had sailed through it and radioed a warning.

Satellite technology—allowing us to see tropical storms develop from infancy to powerful systems with distinct eyes—has changed all that.

But a satellite—the ability to see water vapor and heat signatures from a distance—doesn’t tell us everything we need to know. That’s why pilots and crews put themselves at risk to fly into the heart of cyclones to gather data.

The June-to-November hurricane season is of concern, but in winter, the Islands  face different weather systems that also have the ability to cause massive damage—like fronts that bring intense downpours, sweeping flash floods down narrow valleys. They can close roads, wash away homes and cars, and flood vast lowlands.

Kaua`i knows that more than most. Falling trees and rocks regularly close roads during rainstorms, and residents of the North Shore know too well the problems of a highway under feet of muddy water.

We still need understand some of these weather systems better.

As this story is published, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, is sending one of its hurricane-hunter aircraft on regular flights into the North Pacific to better understand the genesis of severe weather patterns over the ocean. It is a mission that has been underway winters since 1999.

A specialized NOAA jet, a twin-engine Gulfstream IV-SP, is flying into the North Pacific out of Hickam Air Force Base through Feb. 27 and then from Anchorage, Alaska, through March 10.

On each of multiple trips, the plane will release multiple recording devices called dropsondes.
Each device will fall for 17 minutes before broadcasting the data it has collected. That data will include recordings of pressure, temperature and humidity four times per second, and the GPS location and wind speed and direction twice per second.

The direction of the flights will be dictated by the National Centers for Environmental Prediction, a branch of the National Weather Service.

The recorded data will be immediately available to weather forecasters in the Islands, said Jack R. Parrish, flight director and meteorologist with NOAA’s Office of Marine and Aviation Operations.
The data is valuable in part because it establishes a three-dimensional view of the weather, rather than a satellite image, which only looks down from on high.

 “These additional targeted observations, combined with data from other observing systems, enhance the accuracy of the forecasts, especially for high impact winter weather events. By improving our forecasts, we can alert the public, emergency managers, air carriers, utility companies and others sooner so they can prepare more effectively for significant storms, and save lives, property and money,” said NCEP Chief Science Officer Barry Choy.

Whether a ship at sea or a dropsonde falling from a jet, the best weather data still comes from folks actually traveling in the storm.

DROP-IN: If you want to follow what’s happening in the weather on social media, see

© Jan TenBruggencate 2013

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Saved from goats, silversword succumbs to climate change

The impacts for Hawai`i of climate change are numerous and troubling.

They range from coral death due to warm waters, to coastal inundation from sea level rise, to changes in ecosystems due to weather pattern changes, to dramatic reductions of rainfall.

(Image: The impressive bloom of a Haleakala silversword, Argyroxyphium sandwicense, against a background of its volcanic Maui home. Credit: USGS; Paul Krushelnycky, UH-Manoa.)

Those are macro kinds of changes. At a micro level, looking at a single iconic plant, the issues come into focus.

The Haleakala silversword, that unearthly spiked globe that dots the high volcanic desert on Maui, is likely to be a victim of the changing environment. Indeed, it is already a victim, its numbers declining now for nearly a generation. Previous studies have shown that high-elevation Hawaiian rainfall has been reduced significantly in recent decades.

Not the first time the silversword has been threatened (goats were killing them off in the early to mid 1900s), but after a significant rescue effort, they now face a new problems that fences won’t solve.

“Despite the successful efforts of the National Park Service to protect this very special plant from local disturbance from humans and introduced species, we now fear that these actions alone may be insufficient to secure this plant's future,” said Marcia McNutt, director of the U.S. Geological Survey.

Researchers are finding that since the 1990s, they have once more begun to decline, due to more frequent drought conditions on the Maui mountaintop where they live. Silverswords are adapted to high elevation, and extreme solar radiation, and well-drained cinder. But heat and extreme dry periods are increasing the threats faster than they can adapt further.

They are dying from moisture stress, and that’s a caution for many other plants that might not be so well studied, and thus whose response to changing conditions haven’t been identified.

“The silversword example foreshadows trouble for diversity in other biological hotspots,” said University of Hawaii biologist Paul Krushelnycky, of the College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources.

“Even well-protected and relatively abundant species may succumb to climate-induced stresses,” he said.

A scientific paper on the research into climate impacts on the silversword is entitled “Climate-associated population declines reverse recovery and threaten future of an iconic high-elevation plant.” It is published in the scientific journal Global Change Biology. The authors are Krushelnycky, Lloyd Loope, Thomas Giambelluca, Forest Starr, Kim Starr, Donald Drake, Andrew Taylor and Robert Robichaux.

The continuing work is funded by the new U.S. Department of the Interior Pacific Islands Climate Science Center, one of eight such centers throughout the country.

The paper abstract is here
The USGS news release is here

© Jan TenBruggencate 2013

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Recycle plastic at home, and make new stuff out of it

One of the hassles about managing recycling in the Islands is our isolation—you’ve got to send the recyclables long distances to be reformed.

And plastics are a problem for long-distance recycling: they’re light and they take up a lot of space. That’s a big problem when shipping costs are determined more by size than weight.
(Image: Filabot’s logo.)

A couple of inventions—one new and one newer—offer hope.

The first is the 3D printer. In one format, it uses filaments of plastic to form plastic objects. A broken part? If it can function in plastic, you can “print” it.

Here are a few examples. 3D Systems  is one leader. Stratasys  calls their system fused deposition modeling.

3D printers are now available in desktop models for a few hundred to a few thousand bucks. The problem is that you still need to import rolls of plastic filament to feed them.

Along comes Filabot, a device that lets you dump your old soda bottles and other plastics into it, and make the filament for your 3D printer.

So you can recycle your plastic at home. Save shipping two ways: you don’t have to ship your recyclable plastics out, and you don’t have to ship your 3D printing filament in. (And to the degree that your electricity to run it comes from renewables, so much the better.)

Filabot describes itself like this: “Filabot is a desktop extruding system, capable of grinding various types of plastics, to make spools of plastic filament for 3D printers. Not only is it user friendly, but it is also environmentally friendly. The Filabot can process things such as: milk jugs, soda bottles, various other types of plastics, and bad prints, to make new filament for a future print.”

So, bust your cell phone case? Pick up a couple of soda bottles off the side of the road, dump them in your Filabot to make filament, and then print a new case in your 3D printer.

There’s a nice video about the system at the bottom of this page.

Apparently Filabot is still in final testing. They got their funding through Kickstarter, a crowdfunding program, in which members of the public who believe in an idea can kick in some of the cash to develop it.

CNET’s  review of Filabot starts like this: “A common criticism of 3D printing is this: how much more plastic junk do we need in this world? Filabot, a Kickstarted device that turns household and printed plastic into printable filament, might have the answer.”

We haven’t tested the product, thus we’re not vouching for it, but as a concept, Filabot is cool. And for an isolated place like Hawai`i, where both recycling plastic and getting spare parts is a problem,  it’s way cool.

© Jan TenBruggencate 2013

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Polynesian migration: Western atolls populated East Polynesia?

One of the problems of Polynesian migration theory is that a direct eastern Polynesian connection from Samoa just doesn’t sound quite right.

Doesn’t sound right, meaning that from a language standpoint, Eastern Polynesian—including Hawaiian, Tahitian and Marquesan—has a lot more similarities to the Polynesian Northern Outlier islands of the Western Pacific than it does to the Samoa area of the central Pacific.

In a densely researched review of the dialects of Polynesia, William H. Wilson of the University of Hawai`i at Hilo suggests that Eastern Polynesians are comparatively distant, language-wise, from Samoa.

“Anthropologists and linquists have long assumed that East Polynesia was first settled from Central Western Polynesia, most likely from Samoa. Presented here is a very different history,” writes Wilson in his paper,“Whence the East Polynesians? Further Linguistic Evidence for a Northern Outlier Source,” published in the December 2012 issue of the journal “Ocean Linguistics.”

One of the problems Wilson identified is that recent archaeological evidence suggests most of eastern Polynesia was occupied by 1000 AD, give or take a couple of hundred years.

“It has become increasingly difficult to explain how East Polynesian languages could have come to be as different as they are from Samoan over such a short period of time,” he said. 

Two of the Pacific’s premier scientists, Australian linguistics professor Andrew Pawley and noted Berkeley archaeologist Patrick Kirch, said Wilson’s work identifies valuable new avenues of research, but may not be the final answer to the Polynesian migration problem. Their comments below.

Language comparisons involving the dozens of dialects of the Polynesian language across the Pacific, point to a dramatically closer connection between Eastern Polynesia and the Polynesian outlier atolls far to the northwest of Samoa, than with the language of Samoa itself, said Wilson, a professor of Hawaiian Studies and Linguistics at the university’s Ka Haka ʻUla O Keʻelikōlani College of Hawaiian Language.

His conclusion: “The ancestors of the East Polynesians—Hawaiians, Tahitians, Easter Islands, New Zealand Maori—did not come directly from Samoa as long thought be anthropologists. Instead they entered East Polynesia by way of tiny Polynesian Outlier atolls far to the northwest of Samoa.”

Following the language, he said, suggests that while the Fiji-Tonga-Samoan area may be the place where the unique Polynesian culture matured, it did not hop directly from there into eastern Polynesia.
Instead, Wilson argues that voyagers swept north and west first—to the Polynesian outliers of the Solomons  and atolls around them, where they developed something much closer to the eastern Polynesian dialect, and also developed a mature fishing culture that is missing from Samoan culture.
And then, perhaps passing through now-uninhabited islands of the Phoenix and Line Islands groups, they moved into the eastern Pacific.

“Descendants of early atoll dwellers would have taken a well developed fishing technology with them when they settled East Polynesia, explaining the distinctive fishing artifacts of early East Polynesian archeological sites,” Wilson writes.

He found dozens of both vocabulary and grammar similarities between the languages of the residents of the northern atolls and the eastern Polynesians. “All of these unique words and grammatical features go back to an ancient Northern Outlier ancestral language that gave birth to Proto East Polynesian, the unifying ancestor of Hawaiian, Tahitian, Marquesan, Rapanui, and Māori,” Wilson said in an email.

Working against the Samoa-to-east Polynesia hypothesis, in part, he said, is “no linguistic data has come to light specifically connecting the Samoa-centered area with East Polynesia.”

Wilson argues that a “northern pathway” from the northern atolls over the northern side of Samoa was a likely source of the population of eastern Polynesia.

“The shared innovations of (the early Northern Outliers and Eastern Polynesian) stand in stark contrast to the lack of comparable linguistic data supporting the commonly assumed settlement of East Polynesia along a southern pathway originating in Samoa or in Western Polynesian archipelagos relatively close to Samoa such as Tokelau or Tuvalu,” Wilson writes.

He says that understanding the connections is critical, because the evidence of those connections is at risk.

“Today all the Northern Outlier atolls are threatened with ocean inundation due to global warming.  The Northern Outlier peoples, their languages, and the archeological sites on the islands are all highly endangered. Also threatened are archeological sites in the Phoenix and Line Islands that likely show early evidence of the settlement pathway into East Polynesia,” Wilson said.

Wilson’s Northern outliers include Kapingamarangi, Nukuoro, Taku`u, Luanguia and others. Other Polynesian outliers near or in the Solomons include Pileni-Taumako, the Rennell Islands, Tikopia and others. The eastern Polynesian languages include Maori, Tahitian, Hawaiian, Marquesan, Rarotongan, Tuamotuan and Rapa Nui’s dialect.

Pawley, an emeritus linguistics professor at the Australian National University, said there may be more complexity to the situation than Wilson suggests.

“He (Wilson) finds that Eastern Polynesian languages share a number of changes to Proto Polynesian uniquely with the Northern Outliers (those Polynesian languages situated on atolls north of the Solomons and on the fringes of Micronesia). This indicates that these languages share a more recent common origin with each other than with Samoan. I think he is right about this,” Pawley said. 

But he said there are still problems, including the fact that the outlier atolls would not have had high island trees, but eastern Polynesian languages include the names of those trees. 

“Wilson argues that mobile atoll-dwelling sailors would have been very familiar with high island trees but I rather doubt this.  So while Wilson's paper is an advance, it is not the last word on this matter,” Pawley said.

Kirch said that Wilson’s connections between the distant regions fail to convincingly prove the theory that the Northern Outliers were the source of East Polynesians. He said there may be an alternative solution: that both the Northern Outliers and the Eastern Polynesian islands were inhabited from a place that spoke a language no longer in existence.

“I'm very skeptical about a direct migration from the Outliers to East Polynesia. More likely that East Polynesia and the Outliers have a common source in Western Polynesia. This could as likely have been a ‘Samoic-Outlier’ dialect that is no longer in evidence, such as what would have been spoken on 'Uvea or Niuatoputapu around A.D. 1000 (both those places were later heavily affected by Tongan influence),” Kirch said.

The citation: Oceanic Linguistics Volume 51, Number 2, December 2012 pp. 289-359 | 10.1353/ol.2012.0014

© Jan TenBruggencate 2013

Friday, January 4, 2013

Hawaiian gobies suck to climb waterfalls

Young Hawaiian goby fish are able to climb waterfalls using  a remarkable adaptation related to their feeding mechanism.

A new study on the `o`opu nōpili, one of Hawai`i’s five freshwater gobies, reviews the adaptation under the impenetrable title, “Evolutionary Novelty versus Exaptation: Oral Kinematics in Feeding versus Climbing in the Waterfall-Climbing Hawaiian Goby Sicyopterus stimpsoni.”

The authors are Heiko Schoenfuss of Saint Cloud State University in Minnesota and Joshua Cullen, Takashe Maie and Richard Blob of Clemson University in South Carolina.

They note that species that live in extreme habitats—like the steep, rugged, rocky Hawaiian streams with their tendency to flash flooding—often develop specialized traits to handle those conditions.

In the case of the nōpili, also called the rockclimbing goby, they adapted existing physical features to new uses. An oral sucker used to scrape algae off rocks for food, in the nopili’s case, is also used to help them “inch” up waterfalls.

Like other gobies, fused ventral fins provide them with a belly-side sucker that helps them cling to rocks. But the nōpili has something more. Instead of having a mouth that faces forward like many fish, the nōpili mouth faces down, and when traveling, it uses that mouth to hold on to the surface.

Is it a feeding mechanism adapted for climbing waterfalls, or a waterfall climbing feature that also happens to help the animal feed? That’s not clear, but it is clear that the downward-facing, sucking mouth gives the nōpili a nice advantage. And it is different from the other Hawaiian gobies.

While the others tend to suck their food off the rocks, the nōpili’s unique mouth allows it to scrape the algae. That means it eats a somewhat different diet from the others—that it has its own ecological niche.

It also lets it get to unique places:

“The oral sucker facilitates use of a novel mechanism for accessing upstream habitats above waterfalls. This form of locomotion has been termed ‘inching’ and requires alternate attachment of oral and pelvic discs to the rocky substrate, providing a slow, but steady, method of climbing that, in the Hawaiian species S. stimpsoni, allows individual fish to scale waterfalls up to 100 m tall,” the authors write.

For more on the `o`opu nōpili, the state Department of Land and Natural Resources has a page on the anatomy of the nōpili here

Here is a University of Hawai`i website with some images of the Hawaiian gobies.

© Jan TenBruggencate 2013