Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Cool Hawaiian science: blend up some healthy leaves, spray on sickly plants, and create healthy plants

We are not alone, and we can’t be.

Whether human or plant or other species, we all live by John Donne’s rule: “No man is an Island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the Continent, a part of the main.”

(Image:  The native mint P. kaalaensis in flower, with fungal
infection (white spots on leaves). Credit: Geoff Zahn.)

University of Hawai`i researchers, in an elegant new piece of work, show that even plants in the garden depend on a community of other organisms to protect them. Some of these natural allies live in the soil and root, in the stems and leaves, and even on the stems and leaves.

In this case, working with a native mint called Phyllostegia kaalaensis, professor Anthony Amend and researcher Geoff Zahn found that they could transplant disease resistance into a plant that otherwise was a severe risk of fungal attack.

The mint, which was once thriving in the wild, has been extinct in the wild since 2015. The ones still living in nurseries were extremely weak--perhaps because they were sprayed regularly with fungicides to prevent fungus attack. The fungicide kept them alive but also kept them weak, said Zahn.

As long as the plants remained so vulnerable, there was little hope of restoring them to the wild, where they would immediately be killed off.
Healthy native mint in the wild. Credit: Vincent Costello.

All it took was to blend up (actually blend, in a blender) the leaves of a related wild plant, which presumably contained whatever protective organisms lived with the wild plant. The donor plant was a related endangered Hawaiian mint from Molokai, Phyllostegia hirsuta

They sprayed the blended stuff onto nursery plants. And the plants that had been given this “transplant” of beneficial organisms were suddenly able to fight off fungal attack. The beneficial organisms are called endophytes, which are forms of life like fungi and bacteria that live inside the plant. 

Here’s now the University of Hawai`i press release put it:

“They took leaves from a closely related wild that plant was healthy and contained a typical mix of endophytes, blended them into a smoothie and sprayed the mixture onto the leaves of (the native mint)  to see if beneficial microbes could be transplanted from one species to another. They then subjected these plants, along with a control group, to the deadly powdery mildew. The plants that received the microbial spray were able to resist disease, those that didn’t receive the spray soon died.”

The research is simply remarkable. Nursery plants, generally planted in sterile media, are “alone.” They don’t have their natural biological communities around them. And as a result they are severely vulnerable. 

In this case, Amend and Zahn weren’t sure which of the constituents of the blended spray did the anti-fungal work, so they tested for it.

“Using DNA barcode sequencing to identifying which species were inside leaves before, during, and after the disease, Amend and Zahn determined the beneficial fungus that was most likely responsible for protection from disease: the yeast Pseudozyma aphidis. Those treated plants did so well, that they have since been planted out in the wild, and now represent the only wild population of P. kaalaensis on the planet.”

Zahn said this yeast can live both on the leaf surface and inside the plant's tissues. When they prepared the leaves for blending, they cleaned the exterior, so the protective fungus came from inside the tissues of the hirsuta

The National Science Foundation and the Army funded the research. Anend and Zahn were associated with the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa botany department and the O'ahu Army Natural Resources Program. Zahn has since moved on to Utah Valley University.

Amend continues the work in Hawai`i, and also works with University of Hawai`i researcher Nicole Hynson, who is studying, among other things, beneficial organisms in the roots of plants.

This remarkable research builds on a growing understanding of the relationship between diverse life forms. 

Some years ago, researchers were able to save an exceedingly rare native orchid on Molokai.

The orchid did poorly in captivity, and did poorly when planted out in the wild. But when it was planted in soil that had been inoculated with soil from places where it had once grown, it did fine.

Growing with the soil organisms on which it depended, it survived. Alone, it did not.

We’re not even going to go here into the relationships between humans and their gut organisms. But whether you go by “no man an island” or “it takes a village,” the message is clear.

 © Jan TenBruggencate 2017

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Kalalau ridge see-through hole got bigger this summer

Keanapuka feature at center bottom.
Credit: Photo by Jan TenBruggencate
A ridge on Kalalau Valley’s northeast wall has long had a hole punched right through it, but the hole is now much bigger and more visible than it once was--thanks to a series of landslides this summer
That’s the conclusion from numerous Kalalau veterans about a feature known as Keanapuka. It is identified by that name on old maps.

The name Keanapuka itself—meaning cave with a hole—suggests the existence of the feature. But a series of rock slides earlier this year—likely late this summer—expanded its size.

Steve Perlman, a researcher with the state Plant Extinction Prevention Program, has spent many hours rappelling down the Kalalau cliffs, locating and preserving native plant species. He and longtime botanical partner Ken Wood arguably know the Kalalau cliff faces better than anyone alive.
And he knows Keanapuka well.

“There was always a smaller puka there on that ridge. But a few months ago, about 3, there were major rock slides with a much larger hole now,” Perlman said in an email.

Others, responding on Facebook, confirmed that they were aware of the long-existing smaller hole.
Kimberlee Stuart thought the size had changed: “Saw this last spring- not sure if it was that big though.”

Paul Clark, who has operated by boat along Na Pali Coast, said it has been visible from the sea: “Have seen this by boat and pointed it out since 1995 - (sure it was there before then too).”

And Wayne Jacintho, a longtime hiker in Kaua`i’s uplands, said that the hole can sometimes in the late afternoon be a lens through which the sun shines from the west, creating a window of light on the valley wall next door to the east.

“It's an old hole. If you're down the ridge on the left (southwest) side of Kalalau Valley, at the correct time of the year, in the afternoon, (looking northeast) you'll see the sun shine thru the hole and illuminate the wall to the right in the ravine,” Jacintho wrote. (I slightly edited his post for clarity.)

Keanapuka place name on the Kauai Recreaation Map of the
Na Ala Hele Hawai`i Trail & Access System. 
The site is noted on the Western Kauai Recreation Map of the Na Ala Hele Hawai`i Trail and Access System.

Keanapuka is not easily visible from anywhere accessible by road. The best view is late afternoon from the Pihea Trail along the back (southeast) end of Kalalau Valley. The trail starts at Pu`u O Kila, a promontory and lookout at the end of the Koke`e Road.

As we noted in a previous post, there are many examples of such voids or arches in the volcanic ridges of the Islands, where a narrow middle section of a rock feature breaks away, but leaves the rock arch overhead.

© Jan TenBruggencate 2017

Monday, November 6, 2017

Hole in Kalalau ridge visible in unique light

Hole in Kalalau ridge at Keanapuka. Author photo,
enlarged and color corrected by John Wehrheim

The Hawaiian Islands are constantly eroding, and an example of that erosion is a huge hole through one of the prominent ridges of Kalalau Valley on Kaua`i—a window through a rock wall.

For most people viewing it, it looks like something brand new, because they haven’t seen it in that location before. But perhaps it’s not so new, and only being noticed now because it is only readily visible in absolutely perfect lighting.

The nearly circular hole on the northeast wall of the valley is a distinct feature visible near sunset this week from along the Pihea Trail, which runs along the cliffs at the back Kalalau Valley.

It is only barely visible from the Pu`u O Kila Lookout, from which the pierced ridge is viewed nearly end-on. Most of the popular photos of the valley are taken from the lookout. 

The hole is best viewed when the ridge can be viewed from the side--a half mile or so from the lookout along Pihea Trail.

Was it always there, with the light just perfect in late afternoon on November 5, 2017, so that it was suddenly visible?

Famed Isle photographer John Wehrheim said he has viewed the same ridge from the same vantage point and from closer, and he never noticed the big hole or puka. But the name of that part of the valley wall, Keanapuka, (cave open at both ends) suggests there was at least some feature like it at that location.

“I’ve not seen it before and I’ve experienced this view many times and from much closer vantages.  But that light is uniquely perfect for separating the puka from the ridge. My guess is that the puka can only be seen clearly and obviously at this time of year with its long low angle of light,” Wehrheim said.

His enlarged and color corrected version of my image is shown ar the top of this story

So, a sheet of rock fell out of a narrow ridge, creating an opening—at some point. But did it happen recently, or decades ago, or was it an existing feature that got bigger?

Geologist Chuck Blay reviewed the images and said it may be an unnoticed older feature in a particularly thin ridge on the Hawaiian landscape.

“I can see why the hole in the ridge may have been there without notice for some time.  The lighting seems to be just right for it to be noticeable at the time you saw it.  From its shape and location it doesn't seem probable that it just all of a sudden developed,” Blay said.

The key to the visibility this week is that the near face of the ridge is in late afternoon shadow, but the cliff face behind it is in full sun, so the window-like brightness emphasizes the feature. Otherwise, the greenery of the near side of the cliff would be indistinguishable from the greenery immediately beyond it.

Also, the sunlight is at the perfect angle to illuminate the rock that forms the inner wall of the puka. That helps put a pale gray border around the hole and enhances its visibility.

These kinds of features—holes right through a rocky ridge—are not uncommon in the islands. But they are also transient, as the islands’ lava cliffs, piers and pillars erode from wind and water, and even from feral animal traffic.

There is a feature on Kaua`i that was commonly called the Hole in the Mountain, although it has mostly closed because of a collapse of its roof. It was famous in Hawaiian legend as a hole pierced in the mountain by a prodigious spear-throw from a Hawaiian hero.

Along the Na Pali Coast, there is a hole through a ridge that separates the two beaches of Honopu Valley.

On the Big Island, there is the Holei Sea Arch in Hawai`i Volcanoes National Park, and there was the Onomea Arch north of Hilo, which has since collapsed.

On Molokai’s north shore, there is a walk-through cave called Keanapuka just along Hakaaano. There are arches on Lana`i, Lehua, South and East Kauai, and elsewhere in the Islands.

And there are lots more in these dynamic islands. Why does the rock of the Islands erode so quickly? Geologist Blay has an answer.

“The shield volcanics in Hawaii are rather chemically metastable owing that they were derived from the melting of upper mantle material which is stable at high temperature and pressure but unstable at earth surface temperature and pressure,” he said.

And in that is a caution. Hawaiian cliffs are notoriously crumbly and risky to walk under or climb on.

“The lava rocks of Kauai are mostly pretty rotten,” Blay said.

“There is a good reason that sand size lava rock fragments are rather uncommon in most of the beaches of the island.  They fragment and dissolve before they get to the coastal zone.

“We all know that rock climbing is not a good idea in areas like Na Pali and Waimea Canyon,” he said.

© Jan TenBruggencate 2017

Friday, November 3, 2017

New federal climate report: it just keeps getting worse

A new federal climate report rejects the positions of much of the U.S. government’s executive branch under President Donald Trump, and slaps down climate denial.

The New York Times said the U.S. Global Climate Change Program’s Climate Science Special Report was approved for release by the White House, but the Times quoted scientists who wonder how the Administration squares its climate positions with the science.

“This report has some very powerful, hard-hitting statements that are totally at odds with senior administration folks and at odds with their policies. It begs the question, where are members of the administration getting their information from? They’re obviously not getting it from their own scientists,” said Philip B. Duffy, president of the Woods Hole Research Center, quoted in the Times. 

The climate report is unequivocal. Not only is human activity “extremely likely” to be causing climate change, but there is no longer any rational alternative explanation for what we’re seeing in climate, the report says.

For the Hawaiian Islands, the report presents a bleak outlook. For example, while Hawaii coastal geology experts have presented alarming predictions of the impacts of a 1-4-foot rise in sea levels, the new Climate Science Special Report says 8 feet is not impossible by the end of the century.

That would entirely reshape Island coastlines, drowning some of our most expensive properties, destroying harbors and flooding airports, and driving saltwater intrusion into our groundwater reservoirs.

The report’s conclusions suggest possible consequences far worse than the scenarios being considered by the Hawai`i Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptation Commission. 

That commission is charged with overseeing the state’s response to climate change, and its first task is the development by the end of 2017 of a sea level rise and adaptation report.

University of Hawai`i coastal geologist Chip Fletcher said that just a few years ago, 3 to 4 feet of sea level rise was a worst case scenario, but climate change has advanced so fast that it’s now a mid-range view.

“We need to model two meters (more than 6 feet) of rise and see what that looks like,” Fletcher said.

Perhaps the most frightening suggestion in the new federal climate report is that things are changing so fast that there may be impacts we can’t predict—ones we don’t see coming.

“There is significant potential for humanity’s effect on the planet to result in unanticipated surprises and a broad consensus that the further and faster the Earth system is pushed towards warming, the greater the risk of such surprises,” the report says.

“That’s been one of our concerns: feedbacks that we can’t predict,” Fletcher said.

Here is some of the opening language of the Climate Science Special Report, prepared by more than a dozen agencies of NOAA, NASA and the Department of Energy, operating together as the U.S. Global Climate Change Program.

“This assessment concludes, based on extensive evidence, that it is extremely likely that human activities, especially emissions of greenhouse gases, are the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century. For the warming over the last century, there is no convincing alternative explanation supported by the extent of the observational evidence.”

For Hawai`i, the report’s key statistics are sobering, and familiar. We will focus on the actual language of the report to minimize suggestions that they are being overstated.


It says sea levels have risen 7 to 8 inches in the past century, and the rate of rising is increasing. It has come up 3 inches since 1993.

“The incidence of daily tidal flooding is accelerating in more than 25 Atlantic and Gulf Coast cities,” the report says.

And for the future?

“Global average sea levels are expected to continue to rise—by at least several inches in the next 15 years and by 1–4 feet by 2100. A rise of as much as 8 feet by 2100 cannot be ruled out.”


“Changes in the characteristics of extreme events are particularly important for human safety, infrastructure, agriculture, water quality and quantity, and natural ecosystems. Heavy rainfall is increasing in intensity and frequency across the United States and globally and is expected to continue to increase.”

Because of incomplete data, the report did not make specific predictions for heavy rain events in the Hawaiian Islands.


“Over the next few decades (2021–2050), annual average temperatures are expected to rise by about 2.5°F for the United States, relative to the recent past (average from 1976–2005), under all plausible future climate scenarios…

‘Without major reductions in emissions, the increase in annual average global temperature relative to preindustrial times could reach 9°F (5°C) or more by the end of this century. With significant reductions in emissions, the increase in annual average global temperature could be limited to 3.6°F (2°C) or less.”


“The rate of acidification is unparalleled in at least the past 66 million years. Under the higher scenario the global average surface ocean acidity is projected to increase by 100% to 150%.”

“Increasing sea surface temperatures, rising sea levels, and changing patterns of precipitation, winds, nutrients, and ocean circulation are contributing to overall declining oxygen concentrations at intermediate depths in various ocean locations and in many coastal areas.”


“In 2014 and 2015, emission growth rates slowed as economic growth became less carbon-intensive. Even if this slowing trend continues, however, it is not yet at a rate that would limit global average temperature change to well below 3.6°F (2°C) above preindustrial levels.”

The University of Hawai`i’s Fletcher said he was surprised that the report was publicly published in spite of the Trump administration’s antipathy to climate science.

“I think it shows that they haven’t yet swept the staff wholesale out of these agencies,” Fletcher said.

© Jan TenBruggencate 2017

USGCRP, 2017: Climate Science Special Report: Fourth National Climate Assessment, Volume I [Wuebbles, D.J., D.W. Fahey, K.A. Hibbard, D.J. Dokken, B.C. Stewart, and T.K. Maycock (eds.)]. U.S. Global Change Research Program, Washington, DC, USA, 470 pp.