Category Archives: Science

My latest in Smithsonian Air & Space

TMT: Big Glass and the Changing Focus of Astronomy

http://www.airspacemag.com/space/big-astronomy-how-built-180960364/

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Creating Corals that can Survive Climate Change

See my Washington Post story on Ruth Gates and her research on the assisted evolution of coral in the latest @PostHealthSci

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Solar Impulse

See my interview with Solar Impulse pilots Bertrand Piccard and Andre Borschberg in Smithsonian’s Air & Space Magazine.

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Can Hawaii Feed Itself?

See this story in Hawaii Business Magazine.

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The Next Wonder Drug

See story in Hawaii Business Magazine.

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The Hidden Ocean Patch that Broke Climate Records

Check out my climate change story in Nautilus:

http://nautil.us/issue/23/dominoes/the-hidden-ocean-patch-that-broke-climate-records

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Tasty Mutants: The History of the Triploid Oyster

Check out my latest at The Atlantic: http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2014/09/todays-oysters-are-mutants/380858/

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Hibiscus and the Ghosts of Hawaii Past

hibiscus-mdThe other day, I was scrolling absently through the abstracts in a recent issue of Pacific Science, when a paper by Hiroshi Kudoh made me do a double-take. Its subject was the typically modest question of modern evolutionary biology: how to explain the loss of seed buoyancy in Hibiscus glaber, a species of hibiscus found in the subtropical Ogasawara Islands, a Japanese owned archipelago about 1,000 kilometers south of Tokyo. The paper compares H. glaber with H. tiliaceus, its pan-tropic progenitor, and finds that the air spaces in the seeds of H. glaber are smaller than those in the seeds of H. tiliaceus. Kudoh et al. attribute this to a shift in habitat as H. glaber moved inland. Presumably, seed buoyancy becomes less valuable the farther a plant gets from the sea.

But it wasn’t the paper’s science that got my attention. It was the title of the paper: “Loss of Seed Buoyancy in Hibiscus glaber on the Oceanic Bonin Islands.”

The Bonin Islands–another name for the Ogasawara Islands–share a largely forgotten connection with Hawaii, one that has fascinated me since I chanced upon fragmentary memoir of the lonely archipelago. Here it is, in brief:

Although the Bonin Islands are well served with the basic necessities of life–abundant fish, arable soil, reliable sources of water–they were situated far from traditional sailing routes in the Pacific. Consequently, even though they were claimed at various times by Spanish, English and American explorers, and apparently visited by a Japanese expeditionary force as early as 1670, the islands had no permanent inhabitants until well into the 19th Century–just the occasional shipwrecked sailor anxiously awaiting rescue. The word “bonin,” in fact, is an archaic version of “bunin”, meaning “no people,” or “uninhabited.”

That changed in 1830, when a group of colonists arrived by sloop from Honolulu. Honolulu was already common port of call for whalers, and apparently,there was quite a bit of talk among the sailors and merchants about the “newly discovered islands” ever since the uninhabited archipelago was claimed by the British explorer Captain Beechey three years earlier. With the support of the British Consul to Hawaii,¬† a group of Western adventurers, included two Americans, a Dane, and a man variously listed as Italian or Croatian, set sail for Bonin in early May, arriving a month later. Most accounts of the Bonin Islands add, almost as an afterthought, that these Westerners were accompanied by as many as 25 Native Hawaiians, or Kanaka, including seven women. These 30 to 35 settlers, (accounts vary as to the exact number), along with an assortment of castaways and beachcombers who joined them over the next two or three decades, became the progenitors of what ethnologists call the Bonin Islanders. Their story is an interesting one.

Much of what we know about the settlers and their heirs comes from The History of the Bonin Islanders, an account by Lionel Cholmondelely, the Anglican chaplain to the British Embassy in Tokyo, who visited the islands sixteen times between 1894 and 1922. According to Cholmondeley, the longtime leader of the Bonin colony was a former American sailor named Nathaniel Savory. Savory, who, despite his nationality, spent most of his early life working on British ships, apparent became stranded in Honolulu, in 1829, after being injured in a shipboard accident. While recovering from surgery, he joined in with a group of Westerners that were trying to get the British consul to support an expedition to the newly discovered islands. Surprisingly, the Consul agreed–maybe because of Bonin’s strategic location close to the then mysterious country of Japan–and helped provide for and provision a ship.

Once they arrived, there were conflicts between the colonists. The ostensible leader of the group, Matteo Mazzaro, the Italian (or Croat) fought with Savory. There were arguments about property and leadership and personal conflicts as well. Nevertheless, Mazzaro remained the titular leader of the colony for several years. But when Mazzaro died in 1848, Savory married his widow, and became the undisputed leader of the Islanders until his death in 1874 at the age of 80. Much of the history of the island is tied up in his interactions with the ships that visited the port, especially the incursions by pirates and marauding crews of some whalers. There also continued to be conflict among the islanders themselves.

But the biggest challenge for the original Bonin Islanders and their descendants came with the arrival of Japanese colonists, beginning with a failed expedition in 1861, and followed by a more successful waves of settlers starting in 1875. Japan’s claim on the islands was tenuous, but dated back more than 200 years. Nevertheless, their proximity made them much more likely colonizers than Spain or England, both of which may have had prior claim to the islands. In time, the growing number of Japanese settlers would swamp the small population of Bonin Islanders. Eventually, the Bonin Islands were subsumed into the Japanese Empire (despite a visit from Commodore Perry, who even bought a stretch of land along the harbor to help insure American title) and the Islanders were made citizens of Japan.Gradually, they intermarried with the Japanese population, and, bit by bit, the culture and language of the Bonin Islanders changed. But it’s fascinating to reflect on the little we now know about it.

First, in this polyglot group of early settlers, Native Hawaiians predominated. As a consequence, the Bonin Islander culture seems to have had a distinctly Hawaiian flavor, including a taste for lei and a kind of local version of hula. Maybe more interesting is the lingua franca of the Islands, a kind of English dominated pidgin that shared a lot of the features of Hawaiian pidgin. That may also be partly because of the predominance of the descendants of Savory, who, like the early missionaries in Hawaii, was a New Englander. Finally, it’s intriguing to find that the Hawaii connection didn’t end with Bonin’s colonization. There seems to have been a steady (well, as steady as the Age of Sail allowed) correspondence between the two archipelagos. In fact, Mazzaro made at least two separate trips back to Honolulu to try to secure more support from the English Consul, and at least two more Native Hawaiians made the trip to Bonin. Savory also maintained contact with some of the merchants in Hawaii. (He also kept of a lengthy and fascinating correspondence with his relatives in New England.)

The tail end of the Bonin story is also fascinating. Bonin would play an important role in WWII. At the outset of the war, the Japanese removed all the Bonin Islanders back to Japan and fortified the Islands as a supply base. In fact, the larger geographic entity, the Ogasawara Islands, include the famous Iwo Jima. When George Bush was shot down as a Navy pilot, it was within sight of Chichi-jima, the largest of the Bonin Islands, which was also the site of one of the most notorious Japanese prisoner of war camps. War crimes trials, after the war, led to the hanging of several Japanese officers on Chichi-jima.

Amazingly, though, many of the Bonin Islanders were rounded up after the war and returned to Bonin, which, like many Pacific Islands post WWII, fell under the administration of the U.S. Navy. This was a kind of hey-day for the Bonin Islanders, who, for the first time in nearly a century, once again predominated in the local population. It was a time of interest, among ethnographers and linguists, in their unique heritage. But it wouldn’t last.

In 1963, without consulting the Bonin Islanders, the Navy restored ownership of the archipelago to Japan. Not surprisingly, many of the former inhabitants and their children began to return. Quickly, the population of ethnic Japanese once again overwhelmed that of the Bonin Islanders, and, over the ensuing five decades, the unique island language and culture has begun to vanish. Travelers say you can still find a few of the old-timers who, despite the dilutions of intermarriage and the dominance of Japanese culture, still maintain a bit of their peculiar, and ever so slightly Hawaiian, heritage. Just not for much longer.

 

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Hawaii: The Most Isolated Archipelago?

Johnston Atoll

Johnston Atoll

It’s one of those things we say: “The Hawaiian Islands are the most remote landmass on earth.” The truth, as usual, is more complicated than that.

First, let’s deal with the simplest facts. The Hawaiian Islands, by virtue of being an archipelago, many parts of which are actually within eyesight of one another, simply cannot include the most remote landmass on earth. That title, it turns out, belongs to Bouvet Island, a tiny spit of rock in the South Atlantic that, curiously enough, belongs to Norway and is 994 miles from its nearest neighbor, Queen Maud Land Antarctica. Of course, no one lives in Queen Maud Land. Bouvet’s nearest inhabited neighbor, the island of Tristan da Cunha, is 1,404 miles away.

Hawaii isn’t even the most remote archipelago. That distinction belongs to the same Tristan da Cunha, which is 1,740 miles from South Africa, and is part of the British Overseas Territory of Saint Helena, Ascencion and Tristan da Cunha. (Napoleon died in exile in Saint Helena, proving this South Atlantic island to be much more remote than Mediterranean Elba.) Tristan da Cunha is also the most remote inhabited island in the world.

Most of this remoteness data comes from a fascinating (but is it accurate?) Wikipedia entry called “Extreme points of Earth”. In this article, you’ll also learn that the South Pacific Oceanic Pole of Inaccessibility–the point in the ocean farthest from any landmass, also known as Point Nemo, in deference to Jules Verne–lies 1,670 miles from Dulcie Island, which is part of the Pitcairn Islands. Pitcairn, because of the story of the Mutiny on the Bounty, has become a kind of metonym for remoteness at sea, much like Timbuktu has come to represent remoteness on land. (Dulcie was briefly occupied by the starving¬† survivors of the Essex, a whaleship whose sinking by a sperm whale in 1820 served as the inspiration for Melville’s Moby Dick.)

That’s not to say Hawaii’s not remote, of course. Honolulu, for example, is the most remote city in the world of at least 500,000 people. San Francisco, the next city of comparable size, is 2,387 miles away. And, although Easter Island, 2,180 miles off the coast of Chile, is usually considered the island farthest from a continental land mass, Midway, in the Northwest Hawaiian Islands lies 2,500 miles from Tokyo and 3,200 miles from San Francisco. Anyway you look at it, that’s remote.

But the most compelling measure of the remoteness of Hawaii isn’t in miles, but it genes. Hawaii’s isolation has made it the world capital of endemism. For its size, Hawaii has the highest percentage of species that exist nowhere else on Earth. (Sadly, this also makes it the extinction capital of the world; if a species disappears here, it has probably disappeared everywhere.) This high level of endemism is fueled, of course, by the Islands’ remoteness. Few species were able to survive the long float or flight to get here (let alone get here as a mating pair for non-cloning species.) This permitted the rapid speciation that accounts for the wild variation in Hawaiian honeycreepers. But it also limits the number of potential immigrant species.

The genetic remoteness of Hawaii is highlighted in an astonishing paper in Global Ecology and Biogeography. In this paper, Sara Wood, of the University of Bristol, and her colleagues use computer modeling techniques to predict the “global connectivity” of coral species. Basically, they try to account for the likely routes of the colonization of coral reefs around the world. To do this, their model takes into account biological factors, such as the “competency” of coral larvae (coral larvae are only viable for a short window of time,) biogeographic factors (ocean currents and distances limit the potential successful dispersal of coral larvae,) and time frames (coral spawn a limited, albeit enormous, number of times per year.)

Woods computer model of coral distribution is a convenient stand-in for real world remoteness. By her measure, the region surrounding the South Pacific Oceanic Pole of Inaccessibility represents the most genetically remote place on Earth. As she puts it: “The central Pacific was an almost complete barrier to dispersal, only rarely breached westward from the Galapagos to Marquesas Islands.”

According to Woods, though, as far as coral dispersal patterns go, Hawaii is nearly as remote. The great distances and unfavorable currents that separate Hawaii from its nearest neighbors almost completely isolate our local reefs from the potential colonization from elsewhere. Almost.

And here’s the most amazing finding from Wood’s modeling of coral dispersal: Johnston Atoll is “the sole ‘stepping stone’ into Hawaii.” That means, if her study is correct, every species of coral found in Hawaii descends from a species that arrived in the Islands from tiny Johnston Atoll. Were it not for this “stepping stone”, Hawaii might have no coral at all. How’s that for remote?

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Marine Protected Areas

MiloliiI see in the latest Hana Hou, Michael Shapiro took the left turn off Mamalahoa Highway on the Big Island, and “went down Milolii”. This hard scrabble community, which many bill as “the last traditional fishing village in Hawaii,” really is a piece of the past. For example, there’s no electricity. That, as Shapiro notes, is largely by choice–the village elders trying vainly to hold onto their heritage. But, once you make the trek down Milolii Road to the seaside, it’s pretty clear you’re far away from anywhere else. 220 volts wouldn’t change that.

Shapiro made the trip, it seems, to check out the Milolii Lawaia Ohana Camp, a sort of summer camp intended to help sustain traditional fishing practices. This year, more than fifty kids and their families attended. It’s a big celebration for a community that practically exists because of traditional fishing.

Missing from Shapiro’s piece is a detail that makes remote Milolii part of a vast and growing world community. In 2006, the Hawaii State Legislature approved a bill that made the waters off this scruffy fishing village one of the first Marine Managed Areas in the state. Since then, the community has been working with nonprofit groups, like the Community Conservation Network (now, the Hawaii Community Stewardship Network) and the community’s own Paa Pono Milolii, to draft the rules and principles for a community managed marine area–one in which near shore marine resources are protected through traditional management techniques.

Milolii is just one of nearly two dozen Hawaii communities, on all the major islands, that are trying to bring marine conservation to a local level. For mostly Native Hawaiian communities, like Milolii, fishing and access to fish is a key part of sustaining traditional culture. But this isn’t just a local issue. Community-base marine protected areas are now scattered across the Pacific. This controversial model of conservation is intended to revive and sustain reef fisheries by establishing no-take zones where fish populations can recover from the pressure of over-fishing. They take many forms. One vision of the Milolii community managed marine area would require all fishermen within its bounds to use traditional fishing techniques. That would mean fishing for opelu, the main fishery for the village, from wooden outrigger canoes, which would essentially mean only locals could fish there–sport fishermen in their big fiberglass boats with powerful outboards would be banned. Other communities use different strategies: complete take-free zones, seasonal fishing restrictions, community member fishing only etc.

As remote coastal communities in the Pacific compete for fewer and fewer fish, these types of arrangements will likely become even more common. Just along the Kona Coast of the Big Island, Milolii, Honokaa and Honaunau all are seeking some kind of community control of their near shore marine resources. And if traditional fishermen in other communities want have a nearshore fishery in the future, they’ll be trying to do the same thing soon.

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