Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Sea levels increase in stairstep fashion--slow, then real fast.



Sea levels are on the rise pretty much everywhere, but not at the same rate.

There is new information coming out of the University of Hawaii that suggests that in areas where the rise has been smallest, it can accelerate quickly.

An example: In the 1990s, the North Indian Ocean didn’t rise much at all. But since 2003 it is catching up—rising at twice the global rate.

That’s from a paper in the Journal of Geophysical Research, written by a team including Philip Thompson, of the University of Hawai`i Sea Level Center in the School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology, and Mark Merrifield, Eric Firing, Christopher Piecuch and Julian McCreary.

The changes are due to a combination of winds and water temperatures.

“Wind blowing over the ocean caused changes in the movement of heat across the equator in the Indian Ocean. This led to suppression of sea level rise during the 1990s and early 2000s, but now we are seeing the winds amplify sea level rise by increasing the amount of ocean heat brought into the region,” Thompson said.

Hawai`i has similarly experienced less sea level rise than the global average. And that could also come to an end with faster-than-expected rising following the slow period. We reported on that last year in RaisingIslands. 

Thompson called this a staircase effect.
 
“What we are learning is that the interaction between the ocean and atmosphere causes sea level to rise like a staircase instead of a straight line – starting and stopping for many years at a time. What we’ve done here is described one stair, which will help us better understand and plan for the future,” he said.

© Jan TenBruggencate 2016

Monday, September 19, 2016

Using genetic techniques to kill mosquitoes, prevent disease, save forest birds--this is a bad thing?



In a democracy, we listen to everybody, respect everybody’s opinion, but we go with the majority.

That’s not to say the majority is always right, because we know that’s not the case. 

But a lot of the time, the minority is just plain off-base. And sometimes there are minimal risks that you’re willing to take for a major benefit. 

In Florida, there’s a minority that’s fighting the use of genetically modified mosquitoes in fighting the Zika virus. (Spend some time looking at the comments on that article from the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.)

And there have already been murmurings in the Hawaiian Islands about fighting any effort to use genetic techniques to fight mosquitoes.

Ouch.

Here are three of the options. (There are others)

One. Do nothing, and let children be born with crippling brain damage associated with Zika. 

Two. Spray insecticides throughout the community. This also has the beneficial effect of damaging roach, spider and ant populations, but will also impact birds, pollinators and others.

Three. Then there is this targeted mechanism for attacking only the individual species about which we’re concerned. Here’s the website of one of the companies working on genetic modifications designed to reduce mosquito populations.

Essentially, they release male mosquitoes that have been bred to produce offspring that can’t survive. The males mate with wild females. And the resulting mosquitoes die before they can breed or bite.

I’ve already heard an early, still-soft drumbeat of people in Hawai`i opposing the use of genetically modified mosquitoes in the Islands.

But let’s look at some facts about skeeters in the Islands. 

Mosquitoes are not from here. They are not native to the Islands, so there’s no rare and endemic species issue with disappearing them.

They are annoying as heck, buzzing around your ears at night, sucking your precious bodily fluids from any bare skin they can locate.

They spread disease to humans. Diseases like dengue and Zika. And, oh shucks, let’s name a few more. Chikungunya, Yellow Fever, Malaria, West Nile Virus, several kinds of encephalitis, and the horror of filiariasis and the resulting disease, elephantiasis. 

Mosquitoes spread disease to rare native birds, almost none of which have resistance to mosquito-borne diseases like avian pox and avian malaria. It may be the primary cause of the loss of our native forest birds.

Have you experienced the heartbreak of a dog suffering from heartworm? Yes. Mosquito-spread.

If you reduce the mosquito count, it’s hard to imagine anyone or anything that might be negatively impacted, besides some mosquito-eating fish.

It’s not as if this is an untested process. It has already been deployed in three South American countries and has dramatically reduced the populations of the Zika mosquito, Aedes aegypti. And without negative impacts. 

But the opposition is firm. Helen Wallace, of the British environmental group GeneWatch , pulls no punches in this quote from The New Yorker.

“This mosquito is Dr. Frankenstein’s monster, plain and simple. To open a box and let these man-made creatures fly free is a risk with dangers we haven’t even begun to contemplate.”
 
You can find the entire litany of anti-GM technology regarding mosquitoes at GeneWatch’s fact sheet

One of them: Don’t kill these mosquitoes, or other mosquitoes might benefit. 
Another: What if people swallowed one? 
Another: If you release a lot of mosquitoes, there will be more mosquitoes around for a while.
Another: Maybe something else could be causing Zika, too, so study that before trying to kill off mosquitoes.

There is a whole paralysis by analysis issue. You can always find a new question, no matter how many have already been answered. 

GeneWatch’s position seems to be to do nothing, but continue studying until GeneWatch can come up with no more questions. 

It’s not clear what the alternatives are. Letting people get sick? Clouds of pesticides around homes? Irradiated mosquitoes? 

In every major public issue, there are impacts of action and impacts of inaction. On this one, the balance seems clearly to weight in favor of action.

© Jan TenBruggencate 2016

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Random science and supersocial Hawaii birds

This blog is at its heart a science blog, and we’ve mostly limited it to natural sciences in Hawaii.

But perhaps we haven’t sufficiently described our deep love for science, and how important it is to our lives. 

We could not understand our world, our bodies, out universe and all the rest in the sophisticated way we do without this remarkable system of inquiry.

Science is a systematic way of observing, compiling information and explaining what you’re seeing.

Some of this stuff has no immediate usefulness that most people can see. Some of it does. Some is a building block to later useful discoveries. Some builds tools that can be used to beneficial effect later. Some may never have any direct application.

But there’s even value in satisfying curiosity, solving mysteries. 

I went through just one day’s supply of new science stuff.

Not sure how useful this is to anyone, but some scientists have been able to make suppositions about the habitats of dinosaurs from the coloring of the big lizards. 

“These studies suggest that Psittacosaurus sp. inhabited a closed habitat such as a forest with a relatively dense canopy,” the authors wrote.

Here, researchers looking at meteorites—or a class or meteorites called chondrites—posit about the Earth’s formation from some complex chemistry on these astral travelers. 

That stuff is all very nice, but there’s also research that has direct beneficial effect.

Like a study that suggests a diet that will reduce ovarian cancer. 

And while all sorts of government agencies are beginning to regulate the use of e-cigarettes, there are a couple of new studies that suggests electronic smokes actually do help people quit smoking. They are here and here.

Here’s one. It’s some scientific work that suggests that the droughts of California in the past couple of decades are something Californians will need to get used to, in a world of changing climate. 

You might scoff at researchers taking core samples in ancient lake beds, but they can provide useful clues about how our behavior today can impact the lives of our grandchildren. 

In this case, scientists compared lake sediments in the Sierra Nevada mountains with marine sediments in the Pacific. They found relationships between periods when the planet was warmer and when California dried up.

“These data provide evidence of a persistent relationship between past climate warming, Pacific sea surface temperature shifts and centennial to millennial episodes of California aridity,” the paper says. 

Some of those dry spells lasted several decades, and some lasted thousands of years. UCLA professor Glen MacDonald, quoted in ScienceDaily, said that given the progress of climate change, there are some California predictions you can make: 

"In a century or so, we might see a retreat of forest lands, and an expansion of sagebrush, grasslands and deserts. We would expect temperatures to get higher, and rainfall and snowfall would decrease. Fire activity could increase, and lakes would get shallower, with some becoming marshy or drying up."

Finally, because we are a Hawai`i science blog, an odd little piece from Hawaii research that suggests introduced Kalij pheasants behave in interesting ways when overcrowded. 

While pheasants are not normally known to do this, researchers found that in Hawai`i Volcanoes National Park, both male and female pheasants—even unrelated birds—participate in raising chicks. 

The study was published in The Auk, a publication of the American Ornithologists’ Union,n by Lijin Zeng, John T. Rotenberry, Marlene Zuk, Thane K. Pratt and Zhengwang Zhang. The reseachers are from Hawai`i, Texas, Minnesota, California and China.

Pheasants don’t normally display this behavior but at the park, they seem to form communities, and individual birds conduct activities that support the community.

“All adults exhibited cooperative behavior, including caring for chicks, agonistic behaviors against conspecific intruders, and vigilance against predators,” the authors wrote.

They suggest that the behavior may not be as rare among pheasants and other similar birds as previously assumed, and that overcrowding may help promote the communal behavior.

© Jan TenBruggencate 2016

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

New fishes galore at Papahānaumokuākea, including Obamafish



You want to find new stuff? Look where you haven’t looked before.
 
When Steven Perlman and Ken Wood of the National Tropical Botanical Garden started rappelling down the sheer faces of Hawaiian verdant cliffs, they found dozens of previously unknown plants.

The plants were always there, but nobody had ever used ropework techniques to inspect those cliffs. 

(Image: the new marine butterfly Prognathodes basabei , located 180 feet down in the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. (Credit: NOAA.)

So it’s no big surprise that when research scientists used previously-unavailable deep diving equipment to inspect unprobed ocean depths of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, they found cool stuff.

The most recent announcement is the find of a gorgeous new butterfly fish.

A week ago, researchers announced they’ll be naming a different new fish species, which is in the genus Tosanoides, after President Barack Obama. 

(It’s not the first Obamafish. There’s a Tennessee River darter called Etheostoma obama. )

The timing of that announcement of the newest Obamafish was linked to Obama’s visit to the Islands and to the massive convention of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. 

(Image: The unnamed Obamafish in genus Tosanoides. Credit: Richard Pyle.) 

The new Obama Tosanoides will be officially named later this year in a scientific paper.

And there have been some other new fishes found around Papahānaumokuākea. The great diver and NOAA naturalist Randy Kosaki had this to say about it:

"Discoveries such as this underscore how poorly explored and how little we know about our deep coral reefs. Virtually every deep dive we do takes place on a reef that no human being has ever seen.”

© Jan TenBruggencate 2016

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Sea level can drive temperature change--this is weird but it explains a lot.



Scientists have long tried to calculate sea level rise from estimates of temperature rise, but now researchers believe they can work the other way.

They think they can predict global temperatures from sea level change.

Based on their calculations, they figure air temperatures will be up half a degree, Fahrenheit, by the end of this year (2016) from 2014. Half a degree in two years; that’s a lot.

It indicates a higher-than usual rise in global atmospheric temperatures, which is bad news. But the research also helps explain a long period of low temperature rise a decade ago--a slowdown that critics of climate theory used to suggest global warming was a hoax. More on that at the end of this post.

The new paper. Pacific sea level rise patterns and global surface temperature variability, is published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters. It was written by Cheryl Peyser, Jianjun Yin and Julia Cole of the Department of Geosciences, University of Arizona, and Felix Landerer of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. 

“We find a significant and robust correlation between the east-west contrast of dynamic sea level in the Pacific and global mean surface temperature variability on both interannual and decadal time scales,” they wrote, with typical scientific impenetrability.

The fact that sea level rise and atmospheric temperatures are linked is no surprise. Warmer weather causes polar ice and glaciers to melt, adding water to the seas. Rising atmospheric temperature transmits energy into the ocean, and warmer water expands. Both thing make sea levels go up.

But apparently it works the other way, too. Changes in ocean temperature patterns impact the atmosphere. When you think about it, that makes perfect sense. 

Science Daily summarizes the new paper here.

“We're using sea level in a different way, by using the pattern of sea level changes in the Pacific to look at global surface temperatures -- and this hasn't been done before," Peyser said.

They found that when sea levels in the western Pacific rise more than usual, worldwide surface temperature rise slows. And when sea levels drop in the Western Pacific but go up in the eastern Pacific, global air temperatures jump. Apparently that’s because a lot of ocean heat is lost back to the atmosphere.

Water appears to slosh back and forth across the Pacific east to west and west to east. Strong tradewinds pushing water westward is part of that sloshing phenomenon. (Sloshing back and forth may not be the best analogy, since some of the sea level rise isn’t from movement of water but from the expansion in volume of warmed water. But it helps visualize the activity.)

There was a period from about 1998 to 2012 when conservative pundits were touting a slowdown in global temperature rise as proof that climate change wasn’t happening. It now turns out that slowdown was associated with a dramatic slosh to the west, when sea levels in the western tropical Pacific were significantly higher than average global sea level change.

Now it’s sloshing back, and atmospheric temperatures are rising faster again. 

The research helps explain why atmospheric temperature rise slows and speeds up at various times.

“Our research shows that the internal variability of the global climate system can conceal anthropogenic global warming, and at other times the internal variability of the system can enhance anthropogenic warming,” said paper co-author Yin.

© Jan TenBruggencate 2016