Thursday, May 31, 2012

Last chance to support science through Scifund!

The Scifund Challenge ends in about 12 hours. This is the last chance to support this alternative way of funding science and to fuel the great projects proposed by students, post-docs and university faculty.

So far, SciFund had raised over $90,000 for research. But a number of really facsinating projects - a webcam to track penguins in Antarctica, looking for fracking contaminants in birds, studying the DNA of a long-lost race of people - are still short of their fundraising goals. Take a look at their videos.

Thanks to all the contributors to Scifund so far, including the fuellers of my Kiribati research project. The funds for our project will go directly to pay all the i-Kiribati co-workers and to pay ships costs. I'm actually just going through bills this week. We're still well short of the goal and appreciate any final day contributions.

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Monday, May 28, 2012

A really good excuse for not posting more about Kiribati

As a PhD student, I learned a lot about this tropical virus called dengue fever. A fellow student had developed a pretty impressive model that simulated the effect of climate, basically heat and rainfall, on the spread of Aedes Aegypti, the mosquito that transmits dengue. I consumed so many practice presentations and read so many draft papers that the symptoms of dengue became pretty much permanently stored in my brain, along with some atmospheric physics, coral ecology, useless sports trivia, the names of Canadians in Hollywood, etc.

So when the dangerously high fever, nausea, roller-coaster level dizziness, and random back and knee pain suddenly struck on Abaiang Atoll two weeks ago, I may have barely known who I was or where I was, but I certainly know what I had. The worst is now over, thanks to the numerous people, especially my caring i-Kiribati colleagues and the doctors in Tarawa. Safe to say, I have first-hand evidence why people at home might want to fear the northward spread of dengue as the planet warms.

Once the headaches and residual fatigue pass, I'll write a bit more about the research we did in Kiribati. In the mean time, I appreciate any more donations to the field research via Scifund. Only three days left!!


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Monday, May 14, 2012

Dispatch from Kiribati II: The slow boat to Butaritari

Tarawa, Kiribati - For new readers, this is an update on our field research in Kiribati. This month, you can contribute through Scifund to help us do another round of monitoring next year. All the funds will be spent here in Kiribati. Spread the word if you can.

We returned a couple days ago from boat trip to Butaritari, at the northern end of the Gilbert Islands chain here in Kiribati. That's it on the left. Try squinting. Atolls are hard to see from a distance, but more on that later.

Butaritari is an atoll apart. Though only 200 km N of the Kiribati capital of Tarawa, it has a very different climate. The plentiful rainfall - two to three times what you get close to the equator - allows more crops to grow (bananas, squash, pawpaw), or at least grow well. It also does not experience the same amount of El Nino driven variability.

That's why this awkward to access atoll is so critical to our scientific work. Butaritari allows us to compare the effect of different levels of past temperature variability on individual corals and coral communities. We already have strong evidence that higher temperature variability can make corals more resistant to bleaching - that's the subject of our recent paper, and the discussion on Quirks and Quarks. I'm now looking at how the temperature experience influence what corals survive on the reef, and how that changes over time.

This year, getting there with the dive gear required bunking on the government "research" vessel, actually an old fishing ship that even the captain says has seen some better days (er, decades). The Kiribati tourism slogan is "for travellers, not tourists". Travel here can be fun, provided you dispense with all, I mean ALL, "western" expectations. We left Tarawa with several large drums of fuel, stacks and stacks of cargo (unloading a ship was like unloading a clown car), two fish aggregating devices, a whole load of extra passengers such that there was little floor space, a few motorbikes, dive gear, a dive compressor (it's BYO everything if you are diving in Kiribati) and a one massive tub of seaweed.

En route, in a triangular sense, we stopped in Marakei, a neighbouring atoll, to drop off some cargo, a fish aggregating device, and a number of passengers. As a first time visitor, I did the traditional tour of the key sites around the island, which is this case, was literally around the island. Marakei is a complete oval, the world as a Mobius strip. As is tradition, I left offerings to the four ancestral spirits (that's one of the statues). I guess the ancestors protected us from the wildly rolling seas on the overnights to and from Butaritari (it's a bad sign when the locals laugh and say, "phew, that was rough"). Shame I didn't get my GPS, which conked out for reasons unknown, blessed as well.

In Butaritari, after a day of negotiations for fuel, a boat and a drive, we headed out to conduct coral and fish surveys, using underwater transects and a lot of photography, at a variety of sites along the western rim. I owe a great thanks to my fish expert Toaea for coming on every exhuasting long day in the boat, and to Timon and Tonana for chipping most days.

I also learned the key lesson to never draft a group of guys to help carry a large, heavy fiberglass boat into the water, at low tide no less, without first checking whether the proprietor is willing to also rent the engine. Never assume anything when doing a field project. We got our workout, and a good laugh, that day.

Being a scientist, I'm naturally reluctant to comment much on what we found until the numbers have been crunched. I'll say that, in general, we saw what looked to be rapid recovery from the 2009-10 El Nino, which caused severe heat stress in the region.  There were still many large dead coral colonies, like this table, topped with a few young colonies. Elsewhere, there appeared to have been some impressive coral growth, like in the photo taken by Toaea, albeit often restricted to certain species.

On the final day, with a bit of air left in our tanks, Tonana and I had the chance to dive around a Japanese plane from WWII sunk in the lagoon. This relic of the war is probably only known to the people of Butaritari. I'll upload the video to my Youtube channel when I get home.

We returned nine days later with a whole different set of passengers, an large empty tub, lots of reef data including many GB of coral photos and video, a broken GPS, a wonky CTD (oh, pH data, we'll miss you), enough bananas to challenge the global cartel, bags and bags of root crops, four pigs, the unloading of which is an image that will unfortunately be emblazoned on my brain for many years, and one seriously exhausted i-Matang from Canada.

After a rough night on the open passage from Butaritari, where the winds have 1000s of kms to stir up a good well, there was much excitement when Tarawa first appeared on the horizon.

That's it in the photo. Don't see anything? The old i-Kiribati mariners, and many fishermen today, navigate between the thin, flat atolls by looking at the clouds. The shallow lagoons of the Central Gilberts shimmer an amazing greenish-blue. That green can often be seen reflected in the low clouds. It's fairly easy after a bit of practice, especially if you have a pair of polarized sunglasses.

The reflection is only one of the many tricks for navigating in this flat part of the planet. The cloud formations themselves are a good key, as are the currents, the birds and possibly also the fish, if you're got a line in the water.

For a real pro, it it easiest to navigate at night, when the sky is full of stars. I managed to work out was north and south, thanks to the Southern Cross, still visible this close to the equator, and the Big Dipper which points to where the North Star would be if we were further north. But that's amateur hour. As Tonana and others relayed with great pride, the old i-Kiribati mariners were experts at navigating by the night sky. That knowledge was all passed down orally, and much is being lost with today's generation. It takes time and patience to learn such skills, something that's in much shorter supply today, even in Kiribati.

I'm off again shortly to survey Abaiang, another key site for the coral research.

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Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Dispatch from Kiribati: Can you "see" sea level rise?

Tarawa, Kiribati - This is my fifth time visiting Kiribati for research. I'm here working on a coral monitoring project together with my colleagues at the local government. For more, check out my Scifund site, which is dedicated to raising funds for the in-country side of the coral research. People at home often ask whether I have seen changes in the islands. I don't think the questioner is interested stories about new maneabas, the emergence of kava as a social beverage, or the increased availability of vegetables. Back home, we do seem to have a morbid fascination with seeing the islands that are "sinking" due to sea level rise, never mind the fact that the islands aren't "floating" in the first place. I'll spare everyone a lecture on colonialism, race and definitions of vulnerability - there are, after all, towns in the Greater Vancouver Area with similar population to Tarawa and even less topographical relief - and get to the physical question.

The short answer, I suppose, is yes. I can point to many shorelines that don't look the same as they did seven years ago. The long answer, however, is that the change is quite often not what you might expect on a planet with a rising ocean. In many cases, there's more land.  The reason is that shorelines are constantly changing in response to natural variability and human disturbance, in addition to the global trend. That's the subject of my recent article in EOS and our video "Lessons of Bikeman".

Case in point: The above photo is of a house in Bikenibeu, a south Tarawa islet, during the 2005 storm I mention in the paper. My first trip to Kiribati happened to coincide with that El Nino-driven storm, the strongest Tarawa had experienced in ~30 years. Winds peaked right at high tide. The beach "should" be about the edge of the photograph. The combination of a high astronomical tide and 40 mph+ westerly winds blowing across the unprotected lagoon slammed waves into homes and buildings and over the causeways between islets.

I went by that house a couple days ago and snapped another picture, around but not exactly at high tide. It's not from the same angle, and some new foliage is obsuring the house, but you can still see the kitchen, and you can get a sense of the beach slope. That storm, and some subequent storms, scoured a lot of the sand off the beach, leaving the back part of the house perched more on coral rock (a bit hard to make out; the equatorial sun makes lighting photos difficult!). But, overall, seven years later, the house is not really much closer to the sea.

Is sea level rise a hoax? Of course not. There's overwhelming evidence that the global sea level is rising, and that humans are the cause. But that doesn't mean you can fly to Kiribati and find "proof". As I write in the conclusion of the EOS paper.

The coastal environment, like the weather, is evolving because of natural climate variability and direct human disturbance, as well as a global trend. A particular flood event, whether it occurs in a low- lying atoll like Tarawa or in New York City, cannot be blamed on global sea level rise any more than a particular heat wave can be blamed on climate warming.
Instead of incorrectly attributing individual flood events or shoreline changes to global sea level rise, scientists and climate communicators can use such occurrences to educate the public about the various natural and human processes that affect sea level, the shoreline, and the shape of islands. This would better prepare the public and policy makers for the changes that societies are likely to experience as global sea level rises in the coming decades.


I'll try to write more about our work here before hopping on a boat for the outer atolls.

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