Friday, February 24, 2023

The international enigma, a baffling sphere on Japan beach, would be no mystery to Hawai'i beachgoers

(Image: Fuji News Network image of the globally baffling sphere on Hamamatsu City beach.)

A UFO. A dragon egg. A communist plot. Another spy balloon.


International media report they’re baffled by a mysterious metal sphere that washed up on a Japan beach.

It wouldn’t be baffling to any Hawai’i beachgoer, because we see them all the time. They wash up regularly, sometimes painted orange or yellow, but most often covered with brown-red rust. Big, hollow (or occasionally foam-filled) steel spheres used in various maritime activities.

The sphere in question, 4-5 feet in diameter, washed up on a long stretch of sand off Hamamatsu City. It caused great consternation, locally and internationally. It was isolated with yellow caution tape. Authorities subjected it to tests to determine it was empty. Eventually they hauled it off the beach and disposed of it.

And international media had fun with it. Perhaps because, after the Chinese balloon and the “pico” balloons shot down over Alaska, Canada and Lake Huron, we were primed for stories about weird round things.

The Guardian breathlessly wondered whether it was a “Spy Balloon, UFO or Dragon Ball” or maybe even a stray mine. 


The BBC called it a “mystery sphere” and said Japan was perplexed, with some folks calling it a “Godzilla egg.” 

Oh my. But, nope.

The British media network Unilad suggested some folks thought it was a devious device sent by China or North Korea. 

Uh, uh.

The India Times reported that February 23, 2023, Japanese authorities confirmed it was “marine equipment” that had washed ashore. 

They wash up periodically on Hawaiian beaches, too. They are industrial buoys, used by maritime industries for various purposes. One popular purpose in Hawai’i is as floats for FADs or fish aggregating devices. They are also used as moorings for ships, with one end chained to an anchor and the other tied to the boat. They are sometimes used to support oceanographic monitoring equipment.

And occasionally they break free and end up as marine debris on beaches.

You can buy them

And they don’t always come as spheres

Many, like the Hamamatsu City sphere, have connection points at both ends

© Jan TenBruggencate 2023

Wednesday, February 22, 2023

Wrapping up the shot-down balloons story: Yes, balloons can crash planes

 We may not learn a whole lot more about the four objects shot down during February 2023 by American jets, other than they appeared to all be balloons carrying some sort of payload.

The first was a Chinese-owned giant balloon that drifted across North America from Alaska to North Carolina, where it was shot down February 4 after it passed the coast into the Atlantic. As best we know, it had surveillance equipment on board, multiple antennas, and presumably the capacity to track and report on U.S. communications. 

U.S. intelligence agencies tracked it from takeoff in south China, all the way to its downing off the Carolinas. We assume that we were able to gather significant intelligence from it while it operated, and more after most of it was recovered from the Atlantic. 

Three more balloons were shot down over the coastal ice in Alaska February 10, the forests of the Yukon in Canada February 11 and over the waters of Lake Huron February 12.

News reports indicate all three of them were most likely very small “pico balloons,” which are much smaller than the Chinese balloon, hard to track on radar, and which normally carry miniature payloads. One standard for these balloons is to carry transceivers that allow ham radio operators to communicate with them, or to transmit messages to them to be retransmitted to other radio operators.

None of the three small balloons was recovered, but an Illinois radio and balloon hobbyist group said the Canadian object was probably theirs.

The Northern Illinois Bottlecap Balloon Brigade said it might have been one of their mylar balloons, with the call sign K9Y0. It had been up for half a year, and had circled the globe nearly seven times. They don’t know for sure that the Yukon object, but they said it stopped transmitting about the time of the reported destruction of an object by a U.S. Fighter’s rocket. Aviation Week reported on it here. 

There may be dozens of similar balloons orbiting our planet at any time, on top of the weather balloons, corporate spy balloons, hot air balloons, party balloons, and nations’ spy balloons. In all, this Scientific American article says there may be hundreds to thousands up over the U.S. at any given time. 

Some have radio transponders so aircraft can detect them, some are reflective so they show up clearly on radar, but some are ghostly hard to detect, yet still dangerous to an aircraft that might suck one into its engine or around its control surfaces.

While plane-balloon interactions are rare, they have occurred. Most result in only minor damage to the plane, as when this Air Canada flight took out a weather balloon in 2019.

But some have caused crashes.

Forty-five people were killed in a 1970s Russian crash after a propellor plane hit a weather balloon. 

In California in 1994, a twin-engine Piper Comanche went down, killing its pilot, after it apparently hit party balloons. 

In 2007 a Cessna lost a wing after hitting the tether line for an inflatable airship. 

And there are near misses, as when this Qatar Airlines Boeing jet managed to dodge a large balloon over Brazil last year. 

© Jan TenBruggencate 2023

Monday, February 13, 2023

Maybe alien, maybe not balloons, speculation rampant about the mysterious shot down objects

 (Image: U.S. Navy assault craft working on the recovery of debris from the Chinese balloon shot down over South Carolina February 4. Credit: U.S. Navy.)

Everything about the mystery objects we’ve been shooting down remains in limbo—partly because we and the Canadians have not completed operations to recover them.

Some American officials say it’s a step too far to suggest they are alien craft from extraterrestrial sources. Others won’t rule that out.

But we won’t have clear indications until we can actually inspect the wreckage. Until then, it’s all Area 51-type speculation.

Much of the February 4 Chinese balloon debris is still reportedly off South Carolina in 50 feet of water. The item shot down February 10 over Alaskan sea ice hasn’t been recovered because of harsh Arctic winter weather. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police are working to get at the debris of the February 11 shoot-down in wild country in the Yukon. And American forces are still trying to get at the debris of the February 12 object, which reportedly fell into Lake Huron in the American/Canadian Great Lakes.

Increasingly, descriptions of these devices are bizarre. One thing that seems clear is that they are very different. Early reports suggest they might not even all be balloons, although that’s what Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer believes they are, according to a Los Angeles Times report.  

They are clearly different things. They fly differently. They look different.

The Chinese balloon drifted at 60,000 feet. The Alaskan and Yukon objects at 40,000 feet, and the Lake Huron object at 20,000 feet.

Descriptions vary. The Chinese balloon appeared spherical and as big as three buses. The Alaskan balloon was the size of a small car. The Yukon object was cylindrical. The Lake Huron object octagonal with strings hanging down.

In descriptions, caution has sometimes veered into the implausible, as when Gen. Glen D. VanHerck, the commander of the Air Force’s Northern Command, was asked if they might be from outside our planet. He said, “I haven’t ruled out anything at this point.” Other Administration officials said there’s no indication of anything from outside the Earth being involved.

It makes the most sense that these would all be lighter-than-air balloons of some kind, but VanHerck in a CNN story said, essentially, not so fast.

"I'm not going to categorise them as balloons. We're calling them objects for a reason… What we are seeing is very, very small objects that produce a very, very low radar cross-section," he said. 

In a CNN report, the government also expressed caution about assuming the Alaskan, Canadian and Great Lakes objects are balloons: "These objects did not closely resemble, and were much smaller than, the [4 February] balloon and we will not definitively characterise them until we can recover the debris," CNN reported, citing a White House National Security spokesperson. 

So, what? Drones? If so, how can they stay aloft for periods long enough to be drifting slowly over hours and days?

China sought to put some perspective into the discussions, saying the United States does a lot of its own balloon work. In an Associated Press article, Wang Wenbin, an official of China’s foreign ministry, said “It is also common for U.S. balloons to illegally enter the airspace of other countries… Since last year, U.S. high-altitude balloons have illegally flown over China’s airspace more than 10 times without the approval of Chinese authorities.”

That suggests the possibility that some of the high altitude objects we’re seeing could be our own vehicles, perhaps drifting post-mission.

But the one thing we know is that the Chinese balloon downed off South Carolina was Chinese, as China has confirmed that. And initial indications are that there was American technology in its electronics package. And in response to that, the U.S. has prevented six Chinese aerospace firms from using American technology without U.S. approval.

In a Washington Post report, the White House suggested China continues to downplay its own actual intrusions into the airspace of other nations.

“This is the latest example of China scrambling to do damage control. It has repeatedly and wrongly claimed the surveillance balloon it sent over the United States was a weather balloon and to this day has failed to offer any credible explanations for its intrusion into our airspace and the airspace of others,” said White House spokeswoman Adrienne Watson. 

China says its balloon was collecting atmospheric data, not spying on the land below.

And meanwhile, China was reporting that it was getting ready to shoot down some kind of flying or drifting object over its own territory. 

“Local maritime authorities in East China's Shandong Province announced on Sunday that they had spotted an unidentified flying object in waters near the coastal city of Rizhao in the province and were preparing to shoot it down, reminding fishermen to be safe via messages,” wrote Forbes, citing China’s state-controlled Global Times.

China urged its fishermen to be alert, and to take photos of any debris that lands nearby.

© Jan TenBruggencate 2023

Sunday, February 12, 2023

A fourth high altitude object shot down, this one over Lake Huron. This is just bizarre.

Is there something new and strange and scary going on in our atmosphere, or are we just hyperalert to stuff that’s been there all along?

Maybe we're now seeing it largely because we're now looking for it. And because we've only recently developed the technology to track it electronically. CNN reported that we've only been able to do do so for the past year. 

After two objects were shot down over Alaska Friday and the Yukon Saturday, the airspace over Montana was closed late Saturday due to a radar signal of something that could not be confirmed by jet, and then today, Sunday, the airspace over Lake Michigan was temporarily closed “for national security reasons.”

Then, minutes before this writing, the military shot down an object over Lake Huron. It is not clear whether that is the same object that caused the airspace closure over Lake Michigan or something else. Lake Huron is just east of Lake Michigan.

We have so little information that it’s difficult to know what to make of all this. But it’s certainly not all a bunch of weather balloons, as some have suggested. That said, it might be a whole lot of different lighter-than-air craft sent aloft by governments, corporations and even individuals.

It has been reported that the “objects” over Alaska and Canada were smaller and different from the Chinese spy balloon shot down off South Carolina a week earlier. That balloon was big and roughly spherical. The Alaskan object was much smaller, did not look like the Chinese balloon and maybe didn’t have intelligence-gathering equipment. The Canadian defense minister said the Canadian object was cylindrical, and one pilot said it had the capacity to interfere with his navigational equipment. Another pilot noticed nothing like that. 

We have no information about the object shot down over Lake Huron. 

Jets scrambled over Montana late Saturday could find nothing at the site of a “radar anomaly” that prompted a short closure of Montana airspace to civilian aircraft. As this is written, we know nothing about what prompted the Lake Michigan airspace closure today (February 12, 2023.) That airspace closure was ended after a few hours. Shortly afterward, the Lake Huron object came down.

There seem to be fleets of Chinese intelligence-gathering balloons drifting in our skies, and over the skies of dozens of nations. Four months ago, the Pentagon said, a Chinese spy balloon crashed somewhere near Hawai’i, but we don’t know whether anything was recovered from it. At the same time the Chinese balloon was drifting across America two weeks ago, another was floating over Central America.

China says they’re just weather balloons, but if so, they are big, expensive weather balloons. The one shot down two weeks ago had a massive solar panel array hanging under it. That would power a whole lot of electronics.

(I have personally recovered weather balloon electronics, which are tiny--little styrofoam boxes the size of a pocket transistor radio. That's not what was hanging from the Chinese spy balloon.)

Every major country uses weather balloons, and some—like China, the United Kingdom and the United States—use spy balloons.

And then there are also private company balloons, like the ones that raised concerns off Hawai’i a year ago, which were aeronautical balloons developed by a South Dakota firm called Raven Aerostar. They had been launched from South Dakota and had been aloft for several months. Raven Aerostar said those balloons were designed to carry electronics that could provide internet service to remote areas, could collect imagery and perform other functions.

The Raven Aerostar website provides some insight into ALL the different lighter-than-air vehicles that are available. They include Thunderhead Balloon Systems for long-duration flights. And Super Pressure Balloons for stratospheric missions. And Zero Pressure Balloons that take payloads to “the edge of space.”  And Sounding Balloons for short duration meteorological missions.

And there are Raven’s Stratospheric Airships, which look more like giant blimps than balloons. They are capable of operating at 60,000 to 70,000 feet and can stay up for months.

Those are different from dirigibles, which are maneuverable lighter-than-air craft. There are also hot air balloons, which have been a “thing” since the 1700s.

Google/Alphabet in 2021 shut down its Loon program, which proposed using balloons to provide internet service to remote areas. 

Lots of stuff drifting across the skies. As mentioned above, there is indication that the United States within the past year or so has increased its capacity to identify these low-speed, high-flying devices. That could be why we’re suddenly seeing more detections.

© Jan TenBruggencate 2023

Saturday, February 11, 2023

UFOs (now UAPs) getting shot down left and right--what the heck is going on?

The three UFOs shot down in the past couple of weeks are hardly alone—the military is reporting that UFO sightings are now running in the hundreds per year.

What the heck is going on?

We've seen strange objects off Hawai'i, and the Air Force has scrambled to check them out. There have been a couple of U.S. corporate balloons, and a Chinese balloon. So far, we haven't shot any down off Hawai'i (as far as wel know.) But policies seem to be changing, particularly when these things appear in skies occupied by passenger aircraft. 

The Chinese spy balloon we shot down two weeks ago already seems fairly mundane in view the bigger story. 

Now we've shot down an unidentified, unmanned object over northern Alaska. And today, another was shot down over the central Yukon in Canada.

The Canadian Minister of National Defense, Anita Anand, reported that the item shot down over Canada today was cylindrical in shape—that doesn’t sound like a balloon. It was flying at 40,000 feet, the same elevation as the object shot down the day before over Alaska.

This year, we have learned of hundreds more UFOs (now called UAPs) being identified over our skies, many by trained military pilots.

“Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAP) reporting is increasing,” said an unclassified report from the federal administration to Congress last month. The Director of National Intelligence issued the report under the title, “2022 Annual Report on Unidentified Aerial Phenomena.” 

Some of the things they’re seeing in our skies are understandable. Weather balloons and such. Some are being found in interesting places, including high security places. There is probably some bias in the data, because there would naturally be a lot more eyes in the sky in such places, but there sure seems to be something else going on, too.

Some of the objects have characteristics of spying activity: “UAP events continue to occur in restricted or sensitive airspace, highlighting possible concerns for safety of flight or adversary collection activity,” that report said.

The U.S. military is taking that seriously, having established the Department of Defense (DoD) All-Domain Anomaly Resolution Office (AARO.) Its goal—Figure out what’s going on. It will link military and intelligence branches of the U.S. government, to work together “against the UAP problem set.”

Canada’s Anand reported today that Canada plans to dramatically increase its own capacity to respond to aerial threats.

There are lots of problems with figuring out UFO/UAP identities, including distance, weather, bad lighting, and confusing sensor data. And due to such issues, some assessments are simply wrong: “a select number of UAP incidents may be attributable to sensor irregularities or variances, such as operator or equipment error.”

But not all of them. Of 366 new reports studied by AARO in less than a year, the organization preliminarily concluded that 26 were some kind of unmanned aircraft, 163 were balloons or objects like balloons (one presumes things like blimps), and six were dismissed as clutter. But that left 171 uncharacterized, and some of them had spooky behavior.

“Some of these uncharacterized UAP appear to have demonstrated unusual flight characteristics or performance capabilities, and require further analysis.”

There was one report that the Yukon UAP may have been interfering with a military jet's sensors. 

Stay tuned. Ufology is suddenly top of mind, has moved clear of the woo-woo set, and is being treated as a significant threat by the U.S as well as Canada.

© Jan TenBruggencate 2023

Have we already seen peak humpback whale populations? Maybe.

 Long-time Hawai’i residents have seen the remarkable increase in humpback whale numbers since the 1960s, but that increase could be over.

Whale numbers dropped catastrophically in the middle of the last decade, and there are suggestions that climate changes mean we may have already seen peak whale numbers. 

Although whales are impacted by lots of things, including entanglement with marine debris, swallowing marine debris, overfishing of prey resources and other issues, the key threat may be reduced food availability associated with a warming climate.

A little background.

The numbers of humpback whales got so low that the International Whaling Commission banned humpback hunting in 1966, although a couple of countries continued hunting them for several more years. They were placed on the Endangered Species List in 1970. 

In 1992, the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary was established to add protection to the Hawaiian Islands breeding grounds for the central North Pacific population of humpbacks. 

Today, there are close to 100,000 humpbacks alive globally, living in 14 identified breeding groups that do not often interbreed. At the peak population, before whaling, there may have been 125,000 to 150,000. See this source.

Around Hawai’i, at their lowest, in about 1965, there were only a few hundred animals. Hawai’i residents back then would spot an occasional spout, but nothing like the great shows of spouting and slapping and leaping that we see commonly today. Today the Hawai’i humpback whales number about 12,000 in the Islands.

The animals summer in their feeding grounds off Alaska, where they feed on the huge schools of small fish and krill, a shrimp-like creature. The whales that come to the Hawaiian Islands winter in shallow coastal waters, where they give birth, mate, and feed their young, but do not eat much. They rely on the fat stores from all that krill they have eaten during the summers up north.

But after decades of increase from their low numbers in the 1960s, the whale numbers stumbled 10 years ago, particularly from 2015 to 2016.

“Numbers then declined, including a precipitous 60% drop between 2015 and 2016,” wrote Adam Frankel, Christine Gabriele, Susanne Yin and Susan Rickards, of the Hawai’i Marine Mammal Consortium in Kamuela.

It seemed to have been linked to warming waters in the feeding grounds. An extended warm period described as “the largest marine heatwave event ever recorded in the Northeast Pacific Ocean” started in late 2013. It caused serious disruption to the ocean ecosystem. These authors didn’t know exactly how that impacted whales, but they suggested that the temperature changes impacted the food web, reducing humpback feeding success.

They are not alone. The authors of this 2022 paper said that North Pacific Heat Wave was associated with fewer surviving female whales, fewer calves, and a lower survival among those calves that were born.

“Calf survival dropped tenfold,” the authors said, and older animals also were impacted. They said “documented changes to the forage fish and zooplankton prey base” were the likely suspect.

Now, a new paper seems to confirm that hypothesis—although in the Antarctic rather than the North Pacific. It was published last month in the journal Global Change Biology, under the title “A surplus no more? Variation in krill availability impacts reproductive rates of Antarctic Baleen Whales.” 

The authors found that “krill availability is in fact limiting and affecting reproductive rates” and that humpbacks “may be at a threshold for population growth.” They said similar issues are occurring with several species of whales, as krill numbers decline in their traditional grounds, and some of them move to different parts of the sea.

That heat wave of a decade ago ended. But researchers say such heat waves have been increasing and are going to be happen more often. And that’s not good for the humpback population.

“Climatic extremes are becoming increasingly common against a background trend of global warming. In the oceans, marine heatwaves—discrete periods of anomalously warm water—have intensified and become more frequent over the past century, impacting the integrity of marine ecosystems globally,” wrote the authors of the 2023 Annual Review of Marine Science.  

These marine heat waves, the authors write, “are emerging as pervasive stressors to marine ecosystems globally.”

© Jan TenBruggencate 2023

Thursday, February 9, 2023

El Nino conditions on track to return after early summer

 There continue to be good odds that oceanic conditions will return to an El Nino state by mid-year, and that could portend a more active hurricane season for the Hawaiian Islands.

The U.S. Climate Prediction Center, in a paper issued today (February 9, 2023), said that the current La Nina is weak and continuing to weaken in the Pacific Ocean near the equator. Warmer waters are appearing in the western Pacific and moving east.

The El Nino phenomenon is often called ENSO, for El Nino Southern Oscillation. It is associated with movement of heat in ocean waters, changes in winds, alterations in rainfall patterns and much more. It seems to cycle every three to five years between El Nino, the warm phase, and La Nina, the cool phase, which we’ve been for the last couple of years.

Within a couple of months, we are expected to transition out of La Nina to ENSO neutral. That should continue until early summer. 

After that, not sure, but it’s starting to look like El Nino is in the cards, according to the latest forecast:

 “There are increasing chances of El Niño at longer forecast horizons, though uncertainty remains high because of the spring prediction barrier, which typically is associated with lower forecast accuracy.” 

Here is a National Weather Service report on the specific impacts of El Nino in Hawai’i. 

Here is the progression of the El Nino/La Nina condition, as reported on this blog: This from December 2022. And this from January 2023.

© Jan TenBruggencate

Monday, February 6, 2023

Surveillance balloons. There's THERE there, but some folks protest a little much

 Lots of drama these days about surveillance balloons after a China balloon sailed across our country and we shot it down.

And now there’s another China balloon over Latin America.

But a lot of the political furor over this is misplaced, or at least uninformed.

There’s a lot to the balloons story, and it’s an old, old tale. And to be clear, the United States has conducted balloon surveillance over both the Soviet Union and China since right after World War II. Many of those were shot down by the other guys. Here’s a technical report on that

It continues to this day, and there are lots of folks engaged in the inflatable wars.

A year ago, Hawai’i was in an uproar when a strange large balloon was spotted drifting off North Kauai, and eventually continued on to O’ahu. It was February 2022. Pacific Air Forces Public Affairs told me: "We are actively monitoring it via joint capabilities and it is under evaluation. In the event the unmanned balloon threatens the U.S. airspace or sovereignty or fails to demonstrate due regard for safety of flight, U.S. Indo-Pacific Command forces are postured to take necessary and appropriate actions in response."

It turned out it was one of two surveillance balloons developed by a company called Raven Aerostar. They had been launched from South Dakota and navigated to Hawaii by rising and falling to ride winds going in selected directions. (Which raises the interesting questions of whether, if we can control our balloons that well, the Chinese government is stretching the truth when it says it had little control over the route of its balloons.)

Raven Aerostar’s Hawai’i balloons supposedly couldn’t image the land below them, but they had others that could, and were used for surveillance and intelligence gathering by Google, NASA and the Air Force.  

But we do a lot of our own balloon work here in Hawai’i, including National Weather Service balloon launches. And big test balloons have also gone up from the Pacific Missile Range Facility at Barking Sands, Kaua’i.

Most balloon surveillance is domestic. It is governments—including ours—surveilling their own citizens or checking out the atmosphere for weather reporting, but they are also used for military purposes—and have been for more than 200 years since the French military established its air spying operations in 1794. (And the Chinese were launching flame-powered floating lanterns 2,000 years ago, but that’s a different thing.)

We launch dozens of weather balloons daily across the country. 

The U.S. Border Patrol has used blimps to keep watch on the U.S.-Mexico border. 

Israel ten years ago was using balloons—they were being called blimps—to allow police a bird’s eye view of domestic disturbances.

The Army calls its balloons system the Persistent Threat Detection System. 

China was using blimps to conduct, one presumes, spying operations in the South China Sea in 2019. 

The U.S. used lighter-than-air devices extensively in the Afghanistan war. 

Twenty years ago, Lockheed Martin had this report on balloons, which they called aerostats: “Using aerostats for surveillance purposes has a long history, from the use of hot-air balloons during the Civil War to the recent deployment of tethered air vehicles to monitor drug-running activity in the Caribbean.” 

Both the Confederate and Union armies used balloons for surveillance.

It’s not surprising that balloons are still being used in an age of satellites and drones: they’re low tech, they’re way cheaper than satellites, it doesn’t cost much if they get shot down or fail, and they stay aloft far longer than any powered aircraft that might operate at similar elevations—including drones.

So for folks with security clearances, whether in Congress or current or past administrations, to say they knew nothing about this balloon business. Well you might take that with a grain of salt. Or you might assume a little political positioning.

© Jan TenBruggencate 2023

Friday, February 3, 2023

Can sea level change promote volcanic activity in Hawai'i? This theory suggests it can.

 There’s this odd thing about Hawaiian volcanic activity—secondary volcanism.

This is the appearance of new eruptions long after the main island-building volcanic activity is done. It is also called rejuvenated volcanism.

Think Diamond Head on O’ahu, Lehua Island off Ni’ihau, and all the cinder and tuff cones around Koloa on Kaua’i, which are clearly different-looking than the landscape around them. And which date much, much younger than the lavas around them.

Why does that new lava suddenly force its ways through million-year-old rock? Traditionally, there are three theories, and rather than going through them here, you can check out Volcano Watch

Now a team of geologists from Hawai’i, Wisconsin and the United Kingdom have proposed an intriguing additional reason: dramatic sea level change.

The new report published by the Geological Society of America was written by Brian R. Jicha of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Michael O. Garcia of the University of Hawai’i, and Charline Lormand of Durham University in the UK. It is entitled, “A possible sea-level fall trigger for the youngest rejuvenated volcanism in Hawaiʻi.”

(Citation: Jicha, Brian R., Michael O. Garcia, and Charline Lormand. "A possible sea-level fall trigger for the youngest rejuvenated volcanism in Hawaiʻi." GSA Bulletin (2023).)

Garcia makes the point that this is not an alternative but an additional theory, and that different rejuvenated volcanic activity might be associated with different mechanisms.

One of their key pieces of evidence, at volcanic hot spots around the globe, is that when sea levels have fallen significantly, geological dating shows that oceanic volcanoes have erupted in this kind of late stage volcanic activity.

During a period 350,000 years ago, sea levels dropped 300 feet below current levels—and there were corresponding eruptions on Kaua’i, Molokai and Ascension Island in the South Atlantic.

When sea levels dropped about 200 feet about 225,000 years ago, there was volcanic activity on Kaua’i.

When they dropped nearly 300 feet 150,000 years ago, volcanoes erupted on Kaua’i and in Samoa.

When they dropped 300 feet about 60,000 years ago, there were eruptions at Ascension Island, Fogo in the Cape Verde Islands, and on O’ahu. The O'ahu eruptions were at Tantalus on O’ahu and in a region called the Koko Rift.

(A caveat: Volcanoes don't always respond this way. There was another low sea level period about 25,000 years ago, when Fogo, Samoa and Tristan de Cunha in the South Atlantic erupted, but Hawaiian volcanoes apparently didn’t engage in rejuvenated volcanism. And there was an unusual Kaua’i eruption about 320,000 years ago when sea levels were comparatively high, which doesn’t follow the trend.)

This kind of volcanic activity seems less likely to occur when sea levels are high. But they do when it’s low. The theory is that lower sea levels create stresses in the earth’s crust, and those let the magma force its way into dikes and sometimes to the surface. 

“Numerical modeling indicates that when sea level falls 40 m (40 meters, or about 120 feet) below the present-day level, the induced tensile stresses trigger dike injections. If sea level continues to fall to -70 or -90 m (210-270 feet) the induced tensile stress is inferred to allow dikes to reach the surface and erupt,” the researchers wrote.

They did extensive work on the Koko Rift, an 18-kilometer line of volcanic activity that runs an axis from Koko Head and Koko Crater across the Ko’olau ridge to Kāohikaipu Island off Makapu’u. All the several volcanoes along that line erupted about the same time, roughly 67,000 years ago: “The Koko Rift eruptions are analytically indistinguishable in age,” they wrote.

The Koko Rift volcanics are also the most recent examples of secondary or rejuvenated volcanism in Hawai’i—younger than the cinder or tuff cones elsewhere on O’ahu or on the other islands.

There have been other suggested explanations for secondary volcanic activity, but this one seems to be a good fit.

“Oscillations in sea level were recently recognized as a potential key mechanism for modulating volcanism by causing crustal stress from loading and unloading in ocean regions,” they wrote.

The low sea level periods are associated with ice ages—periods when vast amounts of the planet’s water is locked up in ice caps, glaciers and snow fields.

Certainly, sea levels aren’t the only cause of eruptions, and as mentioned earlier, there are cases of rejuvenated volcanism outside low stands of the sea. 

And there is certainly plenty of eruptive activity during high sea level periods now, including the ongoing Kīlauea eruption, the recent Mauna Loa eruption, historic eruptions at Kama’ehuakanaloa (formerly Lō’ihi), Hualālai and Haleakalā, and a possible 1956 eruption in the Ka’ie’ie Channel between Kaua’i and O’ahu.

The authors of the rejuvenated volcanism paper concluded: “Future investigations of rejuvenated volcanism in Hawai‘i and globally should also consider the long-term influence of the Earth’s climate system on magmatic processes to better infer past and future eruptive behavior.”

It is also true that advances in science are driving new revelations, Garcia said in an email: "We are continuing to better understand secondary volcanism with an ongoing study of the age and geochemistry of Honolulu lavas. One might think that after more than 100 years of studying these lavas that we would fully understand them but new, more precise analytical methods are allowing us to gain a better understanding."

© Jan TenBruggencate 2023


Thursday, February 2, 2023

Plastic pollution is inescapable, and it contributed to the death of our sperm whale


(Images--above and at bottom--of marine debris from sperm whale belly, courtesy UH Health and Stranding Lab.)

If you’re a fish or a turtle or most any kind of marine life feeding in the Pacific, it’s hard to avoid the plastic.

Almost all of the sea’s creatures end up ingesting some of it, and that includes the massive (56 feet, 50ish tons) sperm whale that washed up at Lydgate Park last week.

The Ocean Cleanup estimates 5 trillion bits of plastic in the ocean. 

And 1.8 trillion bits in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, that vast gyre that runs roughly between Hawai’i and the Aleutians and California. 

The World Economic Forum estimates the ocean has 75 to 199 million tons of plastic. 

So if a critter opens its mouth to take a bite of food, it’s hard to miss getting some plastic as well.

And they do.

There are microplastics in squid

Plastics in all species of marine turtles

Plastics in tuna, including canned tuna meat

Plastics in many kinds of seabirds

The Maritime Aquarium in Connecticut estimates that by 2050, the way we’re going, there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish.  

So, no surprise when an adult sperm whale washed ashore dead last week, it had a bellyful. Of plastic.

“A major finding was the number of manufactured items in the whale’s stomach,” said Dr. Kristi West, director of the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa Health and Stranding Lab. It could have been enough plastic to cause a blockage, and could have contributed to the whale’s death, West said.

In addition to squid beaks and fish skeletons and other natural food remains, they found chunks of plastic netting, plastic bags, bits of rope, monofilament fishing line, a fishing net float, and several of the odd cone-shaped black plastic devices that are the doors to hagfish traps.

This is shocking, but it isn’t news. Whales of many species, including sperm whales, have been stranding all around the world with plastic in their guts. And the filter-feeding Humpback whales that seasonally slap and leap around Hawai'i are not exempt, although they tend to ingest tinier bits of plastic. 

The study into the cause of the Lydgate  whale’s death will continue with laboratory analysis of organ and other body parts, and it may be a long time before a firm cause of its demise is established, if it is.

And as for the plastics, where does it all come from? Certainly a lot from fishing operations—some of the ropes, and monofilament, and nets, and hagfish traps and plastic floats. But it’s estimated far more comes from the land—blowing off the shore, sluicing down storm drains and, the biggest source, washing down big rivers.

© Jan TenBruggencate 2023