Category Archives: Research

Amusing Monday: Rare octopus has variety
of tricks up its sleeves

The surprise trick of coming up behind someone and tapping him or her on the opposite shoulder is a technique that seems to work especially well for the larger Pacific striped octopus.

This is how the octopuses often catch a shrimp for dinner, as you can see from the first video on this page. For a little more emotional drama, watch this same video with a musical soundtrack added by UC Berkeley Campus Life.

The larger Pacific striped octopus seems to be the odd one out, according to recent observations by marine biologist Roy Caldwell of the University of California at Berkeley. Findings reported this month by Caldwell and colleagues in the open-access journal “PLOS ONE” confirm strange stories told about the octopus over the past 30 years — behaviors far different from those of most octopuses.

Two years of observations of live large Pacific striped octopuses in Berkeley laboratories and elsewhere have confirmed behaviors never seen among most octopuses. Activities include unusual beak-to-beak mating, which looks like the animals are kissing; males and females shacking up together, sharing food and having sex for days at a time; and females living long beyond the time they lay their first clutch of eggs, as they continue to eat, mate and lay more eggs.

Male larger Pacific striped octopus stalks its prey. Photo: Roy Caldwell
Male larger Pacific striped octopus stalks its prey.
Photo: Roy Caldwell

The paper also discusses the possibility that these odd octopuses may live together in colonies, as observed by scuba divers, and come to recognize each other based on unique color patterns and postures.

As for tapping a shrimp on the shoulder, “I’ve never seen anything like it,” Caldwell told Robert Sanders of Berkeley News, the media outlet for UC Berkeley.

“Octopuses typically pounce on their prey or poke around in holes until they find something,” he continued. “When this octopus sees a shrimp at a distance, it compresses itself and creeps up, extends an arm up and over the shrimp, touches it on the far side and either catches it or scares it into its other arms.”

In addition to Caldwell, authors reporting observations in the paper are Christine L. Huffard of Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute; Arcadio Rodaniche of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute; and Caldwell, Huffard and Richard Ross, all of the California Academy of Sciences.

The larger Pacific striped octopus is perhaps the oddest of an odd group of creatures, with their shifting octopus shapes, mesmerizing eyes and uncanny intelligence, Richard Ross told Associated Press reporter Seth Borenstein.

“They’re aliens alive on our planet,” Ross said, “and it feels like they have plans.”

MORE VIDEOS FROM THE JOURNAL PLOS ONE

Two larger Pacific Striped Octopuses appear to embrace and kiss in a unique mating ritual.

Sometimes these octopuses move along by bouncing across the bottom of the ocean.

These octopuses can change their coloration along a bilateral line while twirling their arms.

NASA researchers measure sea levels, predict faster rise

A new worldwide map of sea level rise, plotted with precision satellite instruments, shows that the Earth’s oceans are rising faster with no end in sight.

Sea levels have gone up an average of 3 inches since 1992, with some locations rising as much as 9 inches. Meanwhile, some limited areas — including the West Coast — have experienced declining sea levels for various reasons.

Sea level change over 22 years. Map: NASA
Sea level change over 22 years. (Click to enlarge) // Map: NASA

Two years ago, climatologists released an international consensus, which predicted a sea-level rise of between 1 and 3 feet by the end of this century. It was a conservative estimate, and new evidence suggests that ocean waters are likely to meet or exceed the top of that range, possibly going much higher, according to four leading researchers speaking at a news conference yesterday.

The implications are huge and growing more important all the time. At a minimum, waterfront property owners and shoreline planners need to begin taking this into consideration. It doesn’t make sense to build close to the shoreline if extreme high tides will bring seawater to one’s doorstep.

If we hope to avoid local extinctions of key intertidal species, we must start thinking about how high the waters will be in 50 to 100 years.

For clues to the future, we can watch Florida, where vast areas stand at low elevations. Even now, during high tides, Miami is beginning to see regular flooding in areas that never got wet before. This is the future of low-lying areas in Puget Sound, such as estuaries. In the Pacific ocean, the threat of inundating complete islands is becoming very real.

Along the West Coast, sea levels have actually declined over the past 20 years, largely because of the cooling effect of the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, a warming/cooling cycle that can remain in one phase for decades. The cycle appears to be shifting, with the likely effect that sea levels on the West Coast will soon rise as fast or faster than the worldwide average, according to Josh Willis, an oceanographer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

Global sea level has been measured accurately and continuously by satellites since 1993. Graphic: Steve Nerem, University of Colorado
Global sea level has been measured accurately and continuously by satellites since 1993.
Graphic: Steve Nerem, University of Colorado

The cause of sea level rise is attributed to three factors. Scientists estimate that roughly one-third of the rise is caused by thermal expansion of ocean waters, which absorb much of the energy from global warming. Another third comes from the melting of the massive Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets. The remaining third comes from the melting of mountain glaciers throughout the world. Researchers at yesterday’s news conference said they expect the melting to accelerate.

Measuring the change in sea-level rise has become possible thanks to advanced technology built into altimeters carried aboard satellites. The instruments can distinguish changes in elevation as small as one part in 100 million.

“The instruments are so sensitive that if they were mounted on a commercial jetliner flying at 40,000 feet, they could detect the bump caused by a dime lying flat on the ground,” said Michael Freilich, director of NASA’s Earth Science Division.

While sea level rise can now be measured, predicting the rate of future rise is difficult, because much of the melting by ice sheets occurs out of sight under the water.

The Greenland ice sheet covers 660,000 miles — nearly the size of Alaska. Satellite measurements have shown that an average of 303 gigatons of ice have melted each year over the past decade. The Antarctic ice sheet has lost an average of 118 gigatons per year, but some new studies suggest it could begin to melt much faster.

In Greenland, researchers are reporting that one of the largest chunks of ice ever to break away from land cleaved from the Jakobshavn glacier in a “calving” event that left researchers awestruck. More than 4 cubic miles of ice was loosed quickly into the sea. Check out the news release by the European Space Agency.

“This is a continuing and evolving story,” glaciologist Eric Rignot said during yesterday’s news conference. “We are moving into a set of processes where we have very tall calving cliffs that are unstable and start fracturing and break up into icebergs …

“We have never seen something like this on that scale before,” said Rignot, associated with JPL and the University of California at Irvine. “Personally, I am in awe at seeing how fast the icefall, the calving part of the glacier, is retreating inland year by year.”

Other new information from NASA, including lots of graphics:

The following video tells the basic story about sea level rise.

Swimming a river called Green/Duwamish to open our eyes to the promise

By swimming the entire Green/Duwamish River in King County, Mark Powell hopes to show that the river’s full length — roughly 85 miles from the mountains to Puget Sound — is a single system worthy of protection and restoration.

I believe that most people have heard about the Duwamish Waterway in Seattle, a channelized, industrialized section of the lower Duwamish River where decades of pollution are being cleaned up, one step at a time. But how much does anyone know about the upper end of the river, which begins as a trickle of crystal clear water in the Cascade Mountains south of Snoqualmie Pass?

Mark Powell
Mark Powell

“Almost nobody knows the river well, not even the people who live along the river,” Mark told me.

Mark, the Puget Sound Program director for Washington Environmental Council. said the idea of swimming the entire river came to him during the kickoff of a new Green/Duwamish Watershed Strategy by King County and Seattle. The plan is to identify all the significant problems in the watershed (map, PDF 1.1 mb) and to increase restoration efforts where needed.

“I thought this would be an interesting way to connect with people,” Mark said. “I’m a guy who likes to get outdoors, so this is a personal commitment I could make.”

Mark swam around Bainbridge Island in the winter of 2008-09. ““By swimming the whole coastline, I’m not just diving to the pretty spots. I’m forced to look at the gross parts,” he told reporter Michelle Ma in a story for the Seattle Times.

So far, Mark has been swimming the upper and middle portions of the Green/Duwamish River. He said his biggest surprise is finding pockets of good habitat everywhere he goes.

Earlier this month, he was accompanied on the river by Sheida Sahandy, executive director of the Puget Sound Partnership, and Martha Kongsgaard, chairwoman of the partnership’s Leadership Council. A few days before they swam the river near Auburn, the Leadership Council approved new “vitals signs” indicators for “human health” and “human well-being” to emphasize the human connection to the Puget Sound ecosystem. See “Water Ways” July 30.

The human connection was still on Sheida’s mind when I talked to her about a week after her trip to the Green River. The most “eye-opening” part of the swim for her was the condition of “this incredibly beautiful natural element coursing through a very urban landscape.”

She saw evidence of people living along the river in less-than-desirable conditions, she said. There were barbecues and trailer houses but no suggestion that people had any connection to the river — except that some individuals apparently were using it as a toilet, she said.

“I haven’t quite wrapped my head around that, but it feels very right that we are considering human well-being,” she explained. “On the one hand is what we have done to the river. On the other hand is what we have done to ourselves. We need to figure out how it all links together.”

Mark’s adventures on the river are chronicled in a blog called “Swim Duwamish.” He hopes to swim every section of the river where he is allowed to go and be safe. A portion of the Green River controlled by the city of Tacoma has no public access, because it is a source of the city’s water supply. Rapids in the Green River Gorge are said to be dangerous, so Mark will look for a guide to help him. And because of heavy marine traffic in the Duwamish Waterway, he may use a boat to escort him on his approach to Seattle’s Elliott Bay.

The Green/Duwamish River may be the most disjointed river in Puget Sound, both physically and psychologically. People who have seen the industrialized lower river find it hard to visualize the near-pristine salmon stream spilling clean water down from the mountains. It is the upper part that provides the inspiration to clean up the lower part, Mark told me.

“If there was a reason for sacrificing a river, you could find it in the Duwamish,” he said. “But we can’t afford to sacrifice even one river. To me, this is what protecting Puget Sound is all about. By the time the pollution gets to Puget Sound it is too late.”

If salmon can make it through the gauntlet in the lower river, they may have a fighting chance to spawn and produce a new generation of Green River fish. Improving their migration corridor is not an impossible dream.

I suggested to Mark that the name of the river be officially changed to “Green/Duwamish” or “Green-Duwamish” to help people recognize that this is a single river from the mountains to Puget Sound. After all, the name “Salish Sea” has helped some people realize that we share an inland waterway with Canadians. The other name-change option would be to call it Duwamish all the way.

Until I started reading about the Duwamish, I didn’t realize how this river once captured water from the Black River and the White River as well as the Green River and the Cedar River. But the system has changed drastically over the past century or so.

Map

As you can see in the map on this page, the Green River once joined the White River and flowed north, picking up waters from the Black River. The Black River, which took drainage from Lake Washington, picked up water from the Cedar River.

Where the Black River merged with the White River, it became the Duwamish all the way to Puget Sound.

Two major events changed the rivers’ flow and subsequently the nomenclature. In 1906, a flood diverted the White River to the south into the channel of the Stuck River, which flowed into the Puyallup River. Shortly after that, the White River was artificially confined to keep it flowing south. Because the river flowing north contained water only from the Green River, the name “White” was changed to “Green” downstream to where the Duwamish began.

The other big event was the construction of the Lake Washington Ship Canal in 1917 to connect the lake with Puget Sound. The construction lowered the lake by more than 8 feet, with the lake level controlled by the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks. The Black River, which had taken the discharge flow from Lake Washington before construction, then dried up. The Cedar River, which had flowed into the Black River, was diverted into the lake.

Following those changes, the Green River and the Duwamish became essentially the same river, with the total flow perhaps one-third as much as it had been before the changes. If you are interested in this history and other geological forces at work in the area, check out the 1970 report by the U.S. Geological Survey (PDF 53.1 mb).

Have we turned the corner on Puget Sound bulkhead construction?

It’s hard to describe the surprise I felt when I first glanced at a new graph plotting bulkhead construction and removal along Puget Sound’s shoreline since 2005.

On the graph was a blue line that showed how new bulkhead construction had declined dramatically the past two years. But what really caught my eye was a green line showing an increase in bulkhead removal. Amazingly, these two lines had crossed each other in 2014, meaning that the total length of bulkheads removed had exceeded the total length of bulkheads built last year.

Graphic: Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife
Graphic: Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife

Not only was this the first time this has ever happened, it was totally unexpected. Few people really believed that bulkhead removal could exceed construction anytime soon. I was happy to write up these new findings in the latest newsletter for the Puget Sound Institute, where I’m now employed part-time.

“It was pretty shocking — in a good way,” said Randy Carman of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, who coordinated the data based on state permits. “It makes me optimistic going forward.”

Randy helped develop the “vitals signs indicator” for shoreline armoring, along with a “target” approved by the Puget Sound Partnership. The target called for the total length of armoring removed to exceed the total length constructed for the 10-year period from 2011 through 2020.

Like many of the vital signs indicators, this one for shoreline armoring was far from a sure thing. In fact, like most of the indicators, the trend was going in the wrong direction. Some people believed that the Puget Sound Partnership was setting itself up for failure.

These were “aspirational” targets, Randy recalled, and meeting them would be a tremendous challenge for many individuals, government agencies and organizations.

As I described in some detail in the article for PSI, the number of new bulkheads has declined, in part because of new government rules. Meanwhile, the number of bulkheads removed has increased, in part because of government funding.

But something else may be afoot, as pointed out by Sheida Sahandy, executive director of the Puget Sound Partnership, and David Price, habitat program manager for WDFW. A new “culture” may be taking hold in which people realize that bulkheads are neither good for the environment, attractive nor functional when it comes to people enjoying their own beach.

Before and after composite view of a 2013 bulkhead-removal project at Penrose Point State Park in Pierce County. Original photos: Kristin Williamson, South Puget Sound Salmon Enhancement Group
Before and after composite view at the site of a 2013 bulkhead-removal project on the shore of Penrose Point State Park in Pierce County.
Composite: Kris Symer, PSI; original photos: Kristin Williamson, South Puget Sound Salmon Enhancement Group

When talking to shoreline property owners who have removed a rock or concrete bulkhead, often the first thing they tell me is how much nicer their beach has become. No more jumping or climbing off a wall. No more rickety stairs. One can walk down a slope and plop down a lawn chair wherever the tide tells you is the right spot.

“The factors are all in place for a paradigm shift,” Sheida told me. “When people see the geotech reports for their own beach, they can see there is a different way. People can take off their shoes and put their toes in the sand.”

Getting contractors and real-estate agents to understand and support new methods of beach protection and restoration is one strategy being considered. Personally, I was impressed with the change in direction by Sealevel Bulkhead Builders. Check out the story I wrote for the Kitsap Peninsula Business Journal.

It takes a little land to create the right slope to dissipate wave energy without any man-made structure. In some cases, large rocks and logs — so-called “soft shore protection” — can help reduce erosion. In some situations where land is limited and wave energy is high, a solid wall may be the only remedy. No matter which option is used, one must consider the initial cost and long-term maintenance — including consideration of sea-level rise caused by global warming.

“The secret,” said Dave Price, “is less about the strong arm of regulation and more about helping people understanding what they are getting.”

Scientific evidence about the damage of bulkheads has been building for several years. Among the impacts:

  • Loss of beach and backshore, which reduces the area used for recreation, shellfish, bird habitat and forage-fish spawning.
  • Loss of slow, natural erosion, which helps maintain the quantity and quality of sand and gravel along the shoreline.
  • Alteration of wave action, which can impede natural movement of sand and gravel and scour the beach of fine sediment, leaving hardpan and scattered rocks.
  • Increased predation of juvenile salmon by larger fish where high tides leave deep water along the bulkhead, plus fewer insects for food caused by loss of shoreline vegetation.

See Washington Department of Ecology’s Frequently Asked Questions (PDF 640 kb)

Bulkheads can cause a coarsening of a beach over time, with harder and harder substrate becoming evident. Damage from one bulkhead may be slow and limited, experts say, but alterations to more than 25 percent of the shoreline, as we see today, has taken a serious toll in some parts of Puget Sound.

Dave told me about the time he stood next to a concrete bulkhead and watched the tide coming in. Large fish, such as sculpins, were able to swim right up to the wall.

“I stood there and watched these fish come right in next to shore,” he said. “These were big fish, and they came up right next to the bulkhead. There was nowhere for the juvenile salmonids to get out of there.”

The cartoon below was part of this week’s “Amusing Monday” feature, and it illustrates the situation that Dave described. I could say much more about changing trends in bulkheads, given new studies funded by the Environmental Protection Agency, but that can wait for future blog posts.

Killer whale experts will watch over young orca troubled by fishing lure

UPDATE 8-7-15
Good news from the Center for Whale Research:

“We went out yesterday with the mission of checking up on J39 who was seen earlier this week with a fishing lure hanging out of his mouth. As of yesterday we were able to determine that his new found accessory was no longer attached. Whether he swallowed it or it fell out on it’s own, we may never know. He appeared fine yesterday, and was behaving normally.”

—–

Killer whale experts will be closely watching J-39, a 12-year-old male orca named Mako, to see how he manages to get along with fishing gear caught in his mouth. So far, he does not appear to be injured.

Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research said it is likely that the young orca swallowed a fish on the end of the fishing line and may have swallowed the hook as well. It appears a white flasher — a type of lure — is still attached to the line just outside the whale’s mouth.

A 12-year-old orca named Mako seems to be caught with fishing gear in his mouth in this photo taken Saturday west of San Juan Island. The whale does not appear to be injured. Photo: Barbara Bender/All Aboard Sailing via AP
A 12-year-old orca named Mako seems to be caught with fishing gear in his mouth in this photo taken Saturday along the west side of San Juan Island. The whale does not appear to be injured.
Photo: Barbara Bender/All Aboard Sailing via AP

Ken said killer whales often swim in and around fishing gear, though he has never seen a whale with a fishing lure dangling from its mouth.

“I don’t think it is a major issue to their survival,” he said. “They are pretty tough.”

Assuming the fisherman who lost the gear was fishing legally, it would be a barbless hook, which might allow it and the flasher to come loose. Ken said it might be helpful for the fisherman to come forward to describe the setup on his line.

Ken said a male orca designated L-8 was found to have a large mass of fishing gear in his stomach when he was examined after death in 1978. The fishing gear was not what killed him, however, Ken said. The whale was caught in a gillnet and drowned. (Today, the articulated skeleton of that whale, named Moclips, is on display at The Whale Museum in Friday Harbor.)

NOAA Fisheries, which has responsibility for managing marine mammals, has hired the Center for Whale Research to locate and observe J-39 to see whether he is free of the fishing gear or has trouble getting enough food. Experts will look for a depression behind the blowhole to see if the whale is losing significant weight. The condition is called “peanut head” because of how the depression appears.

“We need to see what the whale’s condition is and if it gets peanut head,” Ken told me.

Howard Garret of Orca Network said he has not heard of any recent sightings J-39 or J pod, one of the three groups of killer whales listed as endangered. A photo taken Saturday near False Bay (west side of San Juan Island) was provided to Orca Network by Barbara Bender of All Aboard Sailing. Orca Network forwarded the information to NOAA Fisheries.

Lynne Barre, chief of the Protected Resources Branch in NOAA Fisheries’ Seattle office, said the following in a news release issued this afternoon:

“We’re obviously very concerned about the lure and how it might affect J-39’s feeding and behavior. We appreciate the reports from whale watchers who first noticed this and we will work with our partners on the water to watch J-39 carefully.”

It appears too early to decide whether a direct intervention would be helpful or advisable, but I wouldn’t rule it out as a last resort. NOAA Fisheries officials are hoping the fishing line will come loose on its own, but they will use any new observations and photographs by the Center for Whale Research to consider options for helping the animal.

—–

Meanwhile, in other orca news, Saturday will be Orca Network’s annual commemoration of the killer whale captures 45 years ago, when more than 100 orcas were herded into Whidbey Island’s Penn Cove.

The younger orcas were sent to marine parks throughout the world. By 1987, all but one had died in captiivity, but the one survivor — Lolita — still inspires an effort to bring her back to her native waters.

Saturday’s commemoration will be from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. at Penn Cove and Coupeville Recreation Hall. Speakers include John Hargrove, author of “Beneath the Surface,” David Neiwart, author of “Of Orcas and Men,” and Sandra Pollard, author of “Puget Sound Whales for Sale.” Music includes the Derik Nelson Band.

The day’s events will be followed by an evening ceremony involving the Sammish Tribe. For details and ticket info, visit Orca Network’s webpage.

How did one magazine article generate such a tsunami of public alarm?

I am still baffled, as are the folks at the University of Washington’s Seismology Lab, why people freaked out over the earthquake article, titled “The Really Big One,” published this month in New Yorker magazine.

Could it be that Northwest residents were unaware or had forgotten about the risk of earthquakes in this area until a national magazine called attention to the problem?

Was it the lack of credible details about earthquake risks in the original article, which included this quote from an emergency-management official: “Our operating assumption is that everything west of Interstate 5 will be toast.”

Or maybe it was the rapid spread of information via social media and the huge number people living in other parts of the country who texted, tweeted and inundated Facebook with worries about their relatives in the Pacific Northwest.

“I don’t really know what it was,” said Bill Steele, my longtime contact at the UW’s Seismology Lab. “We are a bit baffled by it. There is nothing really new.”

Hazard maps are used by structural engineers to design building to withstand shaking. This map depicts maximum ground acceleration (measured in gravitational pull) predicted in a rare earthquake with a 2 percent chance of occurring in the next 50 years. Hazard maps of more likely earthquakes are similar but with less emphasis on the Seattle and subduction fault zones. Kitsap Sun graphic
Hazard maps are used by structural engineers to design buildings to withstand shaking. This map depicts maximum ground acceleration (measured in gravitational pull) predicted in a rare earthquake with a 2 percent chance of occurring in the next 50 years. // Kitsap Sun graphic

Although the author, Kathryn Schultz, left out specifics about which areas might be affected more than others, she did tell a compelling — and fairly accurate — story about what could happen when the North America plate breaks free of the Juan de Fuca plate, which is sliding underneath it.

I was pleased to see that she came back this week with a follow-up article describing where the greatest shaking would occur and which areas would be at greatest risk from a tsunami unleashed by slippage along the Cascadia subduction zone. She also suggests steps that people can take to protect themselves and their property — something I have always felt is a mandatory part of any story I write about earthquakes. Review a webpage put together by the Kitsap Sun.

I’ve been very fortunate to have worked as a news reporter during a time when many important discoveries were made in Northwest seismology. I accompanied researchers digging in swamps, riverbanks and man-made trenches, where they found traces of ancient earthquakes. That work and much more comprises a body of evidence across many disciplines that helps us understand how bad our “big one” could be.

In 1999, I paused from covering individual discoveries about earthquakes to write a story for the Kitsap Sun focusing on a few of the researchers and their key findings. We called the story “Finding Fault: 13 Years of Discoveries.”

I can’t begin to recount all the stories I’ve written about earthquakes through the years, but I do recall warning people a few years ago to get prepared after the massive Japanese earthquake made headlines across the the globe (Kitsap Sun, March 11, 2011):

“While Japan struggles to recover from one of the greatest earthquakes in world history, West Coast seismologists are warning that a quake just like it could occur at any time off the Washington and Oregon coasts.

“In broad-brush terms, ‘the two earthquakes are very similar,’ said John Vidale, director of the Pacific Northwest Seismograph Network at the University of Washington. ‘As a first guess, what might happen here is what happened there.’

Of course, we have had our own earthquakes that should give us plenty of reason to get prepared. The 6.8-magnitude Nisqually earthquake on Feb. 28, 2001, occurred in the Puget Sound region and served as a powerful wakeup call for many people.

During the 2001 Nisqually earthquake, many roads were damaged. Here, Janine Morris, right, and her daughter, Erin, 12, explore a section of Highway 302 near Victor in Mason County. Kitsap Sun file photo, 2001.
During the 2001 Nisqually earthquake, many roads were damaged. Here, Janine Morris, right, and her daughter, Erin, 12, explored a section of Highway 302 near Victor. // Kitsap Sun file photo, 2001.

The Nisqually quake was called the “miracle quake” because nobody was killed, although one man died from a heart attack that could have been related to the event. About 400 people were injured and damage estimates ranged up to $4 billion. (U.S. Geological Survey)

In the Puget Sound region, the shaking from the Nisqually quake could be something like area residents will experience in a Cascadia subduction-zone quake, though shaking from a subduction quake is expected to last longer, depending on how much of the plate breaks free. Things will not be the same in all places, and communities closest to the Olympic Mountains might experience the most damage from a subduction quake.

Five years after the Nisqually quake, Phyllis Mann, who was director of Kitsap County Department of Emergency Management at the time, was still wondering why many people were not prepared for an earthquake in Kitsap County.

“Kitsap has never depended on the federal government as part of its plan,” Phyllis told me in a Kitsap Sun story published Feb. 28, 2006. “The federal government can’t be with us the day of the disaster. With the exception of the military, which is part of our community, you can’t count on the feds early on.”

Mann used our interview to direct pointed questions at Kitsap County residents:

“Why aren’t you ready? What is it going to take? We keep asking this question and finding out that people aren’t prepared. Where is your food and water for three days? (A week is the latest recommendation.) Where are your reunion plans? Is it my responsibility as the county emergency manager to make sure everyone does it?”

The New Yorker article failed to mention an earthquake threat that should be of equal concern to residents of the Puget Sound area. You may have heard of the Seattle fault, which runs from Seattle across Bainbridge Island and Central Kitsap to Hood Canal.

Although the frequency of huge earthquakes on the Seattle fault appear to be less than those along the Cascadia subduction zone, we must not forget that a quake on the Seattle fault about 1,100 years ago lifted up the south end of Bainbridge Island by 21 feet and created a tsunami that inundated shorelines now occupied by people. By contrast, a tsunami coming from the ocean after a subduction quake might raise the water level quickly in Puget Sound but probably no higher than what we see with daily tides.

In a way, the Seattle fault put the Kitsap Peninsula on the map with a red bull’s-eye, which I wrote about five years ago. See Kitsap Sun, May 8, 2010, along with the map on this page.

Bill Steele told me that he is sure that Kenneth Murphy, regional director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, regrets saying, “Our operating assumption is that everything west of Interstate 5 will be toast.” That may be a good “operating assumption” for an agency trying to plan for the worse possible emergency, but it is not a very good description of what seismologists predict by modeling various scenarios.

Bill said many people failed to read the New Yorker article carefully and took the comment to mean that most of Western Washington would be hit with a 50-foot wall of water — something that could not be further from the truth.

“The good news for us is that we have a pretty good 10,000-year history of what happened on the fault,” Bill said. “We know how the shaking will be distributed.” Again, look at the hazard map on this page and note the strip of red along the coast.

While many earthquake experts are surprised by the reaction to the New Yorker article, it has accomplished one goal of those who understand the risks: getting people to create earthquake kits, secure homes on their foundations and other things that could help prevent damage and get people through the emergency.

“You have to take your hat off to the author,” Bill told me, “because she got a lot of people thinking. It is not like the New Yorker has that many subscriptions.”

Emergency managers may be studying the cascading events triggered by the New Yorker article, including the initial publication, the ripples running through social media and the public alarm that rose up and eventually died down.

Directing public concern into action is what folks like Bill Steele and others are doing right now. Check out the video in the player below for Bill’s appearance on “New Day Northwest,” and visit the webpage of the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network for basic information and scheduled discussions about earthquake risks. One public forum is scheduled for Tuesday at the University of Oregon, and other forums are under consideration at the UW.

Vital sign indicators revised to reflect human values for Puget Sound

When it comes to restoring the Puget Sound ecosystem, human beings really do matter — in some ways that are obvious and in some ways that are fairly subtle.

The Puget Sound Leadership Council, which oversees the restoration of Puget Sound, acknowledged this fact yesterday when adopting a new set of ecosystem indicators to measure how Puget Sound influences the health and well-being of humans.

It’s often said that people have damaged the Puget Sound ecosystem through years of abuse. They say it will take years of restoration — by people — to return things to a healthy condition. But why do we care? Are we spending millions of dollars on restoration just to benefit fish and wildlife, or are we doing it for ourselves?

The answer, which comes from studies of economics and human behavior, appears to be that helping fish and wildlife — by putting the ecosystem back together — also benefits humans in a variety of ways.

When the Washington Legislature told the Puget Sound Partnership to go forth and lead the way toward restoring Puget Sound to health, our lawmakers understood that people would be the primary beneficiaries. The first two goals assigned to the partnership, as articulated by RCW 90.71.300:

  • A healthy human population supported by a healthy Puget Sound that is not threatened by changes in the ecosystem;
  • A quality of human life that is sustained by a functioning Puget Sound ecosystem;

The other three goals are related to native species, habitats and water supplies.

Sometimes goals related to human values conflict with goals to restore ecological functions. For example, one cannot build a house on undeveloped land without altering the ecosystem in some negative ways. Sometimes human values are aligned with ecological values, such when we reduce pollution to clean up streams and drinking water. In any case, these new ecosystem indicators will help people understand the tradeoffs and opportunities of various actions.

As I pointed out last month in Water Ways, the Hood Canal Coordinating Council has completed a plan and associated website that highlights connections between human well-being and natural resources in the Hood Canal region. Hood Canal became a pilot project for the indicators approved yesterday for all of Puget Sound. Some of the same folks — including social scientist Kelly Biedenweg of the Puget Sound Institute — were involved in creating nine new “vital signs” with indicators to track human-related changes in the Puget Sound ecosystem.

Unlike the original human health and human well-being indicators adopted in 2010, these new indicators have undergone an extensive review by scientists and other experts to ensure their validity and reliability. That is, these new indicators have real meaning in connecting human beings to the ecological functions of Puget Sound.

In yesterday’s meeting, Martha Kongsgaard, chairwoman of the Leadership Council, said the human dimension is often ignored in favor of empirical science.

“This is a hard thing to do,” she said about developing the new indicators. “This is sort of a brave new world, and I think it is true that we live in this world whether we call it out like this or not.”

Council member Stephanie Solien said she would like to see more discussions about human health and well-being issues — not because they are more important than species and habitats, but because they make connections to average people.

“People are self-interested,” she said. “They care about their health, their family’s health, the health of their communities. The more we can draw those connections to Puget Sound and healthy watersheds, I think we will be more successful in our work around ecosystems and saving species.”

Hear the full discussion on TVW in the video player on this page, and download the resolution and backup documents (PDF 2.9 mb) from the Puget Sound Partnership’s website.

Here are the four new vital signs and associated indicators related to human health:

1. OUTDOOR ACTIVITY: Measured by 1) Percent of swimming beaches meeting bacterial standards (one of the existing indicators), 2) Average hours people spend having fun outdoors, 3) Average hours people spend working outdoors.

2. AIR QUALITY: Indicators to be determined from existing data.

3. LOCAL FOODS: Availability of wild foods, such the ability to catch fish, collect shellfish, harvest plants and hunt for game.

4. DRINKING WATER: Indicators to be determined from information about water systems.

Here are the five new vital signs and associated indicators related to human well-being:

5. ECONOMIC VITALITY: Measured by 1) Value of natural resources produced by industry, including commercial fishing, shellfish harvesting, timber production, agriculture, mining and tourism; 2) Value produced by natural-resource industries compared to gross domestic product of all other industries in the region; 3) Number of jobs in natural-resource industries.

6. CULTURAL WELL-BEING: Percent of residents who feel they are able to maintain traditions associated with the natural environment.

7. GOOD GOVERNANCE: Percentage of people who feel they have 1) the opportunity to influence decisions about Puget Sound, 2) the rights and freedom to make decisions about managing natural resources, 3) trust in local and regional governments to make the right decisions about Puget Sound, 4) been well represented by government leaders, 5) access to information about natural-resource issues.

8. SENSE OF PLACE: Percentage of people who feel: 1) a positive connection to the region, 2) a sense of stewardship for the watershed, 3) a sense of pride about being from Puget Sound.

9. PSYCHOLOGICAL WELL-BEING INDEX: Percentage of people who experience: 1) inspiration from being in nature, 2) reduced stress, calm or relaxation from being in nature, 3) Overall life satisfaction based on criteria in national studies.

A new vital sign wheel will add indicators for human health and well-being. Graphic: Puget Sound Partnership
A new vital sign wheel will add nine indicators for human health and well-being. Two indicators were moved to another area.
Graphic: Puget Sound Partnership

Leadership Council member Jay Manning, former director of the Washington Department of Ecology, said he supports the indicators. His only concern is that some are beyond the control of the Puget Sound Partnership, and some may have nothing to do with people’s connection to Puget Sound.

Jay makes a good point, but the social scientists who developed the indicators stressed that there will be no targets or goals associated with human values. What will be interesting to watch is whether people feel better or worse about the restoration effort as time goes on, and how the leaders choose to respond to any changes in public opinion.

Much of the information that will fit into the new indicators will be the result of phone surveys yet to be conducted. Other information will be teased out of ongoing research studies. The partnership has received funding from the Environmental Protection Agency to hire a consultant to continue work on the human-related indicators until the numbers are finalized.

None of the new information about human health and well-being will be included in the State of Puget Sound report to be issued later this year, according to Kari Stiles, staff scientist for the partnership. But some information could go into the Vital Signs wheel within the next year.

A few random thoughts about reporting and environmental science

After leaving the staff of the Kitsap Sun, I was profoundly thrilled and honored this year to have my environmental reporting career recognized by two organizations that I greatly respect.

The two awards got me to thinking about the role that environmental reporters can play in bridging the gap between scientists studying the Puget Sound ecosystem and residents wishing to protect this beloved place.

Great Peninsula Conservancy, which plays a central role in acquiring and protecting vital ecosystems on the Kitsap Peninsula, chose to honor me with its Conservationist of the Year Award. The award is especially humbling, because I see myself as a storyteller, not a conservationist. But I was reminded that stories can help bring people together to accomplish great things. One major project that involves GPC and its many partners is the Kitsap Forest and Bay Project, a major land-acquisition effort in North Kitsap.

gpc logo

When I attended GPC’s annual fund-raising dinner in April, it felt like some sort of reunion. People I had known for years from all sorts of organizations and agencies came up to shake my hand. Some I knew very well. For nearly everyone, I could look back over more than 35 years of reporting and recall their connection to one or more environmental stories. It was a bit overwhelming.

The second award, from the SeaDoc Society, was equally satisfying, since it recognized my work across the Puget Sound region. The Octopus Award acknowledges groups and individuals outside SeaDoc who have advanced the organization’s goal of protecting the health of marine wildlife.

seadoc logo

SeaDoc’s director and chief scientist, Dr. Joe Gaydos, a veterinarian, has a rare ability. He not only conducts research with a precision required to advance science, but he also communicates general scientific knowledge in ways we can all understand. I cannot count the times I’ve asked Joe to help me put some ecological issue into perspective.

Joe teamed up recently with author Audrey DeLella Benedict to write an informative and entertaining book about the inland waterway that extends from Olympia, Wash., to Campbell River, B.C., including Puget Sound and the Strait of Georgia. The title is “The Salish Sea: Jewel of the Pacific Northwest.”

Unlike my experience at the GPC dinner, I knew only a handful of people at SeaDoc’s annual fund-raising auction on Orcas Island two weeks ago. I was able to become acquainted with many wonderful people who seemed interested in all aspects of the Puget Sound ecosystem. I was SeaDoc’s guest for the entire weekend, which turned into a much-needed mini-vacation. It was the first time I’ve been able to get away this year.

For whatever success I’ve had in my career, I owe a debt to all the scientists willing to give their time to help me understand their research. Science is a journey of discovery, and I’ve been privileged to hitchhike with all sorts of researchers on their way to understanding how the world works.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the teaching of science and the need to encourage future researchers. Although I have a degree in biochemistry, I’ve never worked as a scientist — unless you count the year I toiled as a lab assistant growing tomato plants. It was a research project designed to figure out how the plants protect themselves from damaging insects.

I grew up believing that science was a particular set of facts that explained the workings of nature. For the longest time, I failed to see that the most important thing about science was formulating the right questions about things we don’t know. Science teachers should, of course, convey what is known, but I believe they should also lead their students to the edge of the unknown, revealing some of the questions that scientists are attempting to answer right now.

That is what much of my reporting on Puget Sound has been about. We’ve known for years that the health of the waterway is in decline. It has been rewarding to help people understand why things have been going wrong and what can be done to reverse the downward trends. While there is much work to do, we’re at a point where we can expect Puget Sound residents to limit their damage to the ecosystem and become part of the restoration effort.

Finally, I have some advice for science reporters and scientists alike. I feel like I’ve been lucky to be able to connect well with researchers, though I’ve heard it said that the relationship between reporters and scientists can be rough at times.

I’ve known reporters who are more interested in getting a scoop than in learning, more interested in getting to some perceived conclusion than in understanding the whys and hows. I’ve also known scientists who are convinced that their research is too complex for reporters to grasp, not to mention write about accurately.

For myself, it has always worked to follow my curiosity wherever it takes me. Gathering far more information than I need for today’s story, I find that this wandering gives me a better understanding of the big picture while identifying future stories. Thanks to those who have tolerated my detailed questioning.

Scientists also can take steps to make sure they are well understood. Spell out key points for reporters, go over the essential elements more than once, and even put information in writing if a reporter seems to need some extra help.

When this kind of collaboration is successful, the result is a story that captures the imagination, provides accurate information and sometimes even changes the way people see the world.

‘Missing’ L-pod orcas spotted; all Southern Residents accounted for

Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research has confirmed that Paul Pudwell of Sooke Whale Watching located the five missing killer whales that have not been seen in U.S. waters this year. The whales were spotted July 15 off Sooke, B.C., which is west of Victoria on Vancouver Island.

Photo: Paul Pudwell
L-54 near Sooke, B.C., last week
Photo: Paul Pudwell

Paul was able to get pictures of all five whales suitable for identification by Ken and company.

By my reckoning, this should account for all the Southern Residents. While four new orca babies are thriving, we have had just one death to mourn over the past year. That brings the population to 82, up from 79 last year at this time. That number includes Lolita, a Southern Resident being kept at Miami Seaquarium. For a full accounting of the population, see Water Ways, July 1 and Water Ways, July 7.

To see the ID photos, check out the Facebook page of Sooke Coastal Explorations.

By the way, nobody has come up with new words to my proposed song, “L-54, Where Are You?”

Inslee to decide whether to revise water-pollution standards for the state

Identifying and eliminating sources of water pollution — a process involving “chemical action plans” — is a common-sense idea that never faced much opposition among legislators.

Capitol

But the Legislature’s failure to act on the idea this year cut the legs out from under Gov. Jay Inslee’s anti-pollution plan, which included updated water-quality standards along with authority to study and ban harmful chemicals when alternatives are available.

Although chemical action plans make a lot of sense, the idea of coupling such planning to water-quality standards never quite gelled. Inslee argued that water-quality standards alone would not solve the pollution problem, because the standards address only a limited number of chemicals.

Furthermore, while the water-quality standards define an acceptable level of pollution for a body of water, they are limited in their regulatory control. The standards generally limit discharges only from industrial processes and sewage-treatment plants. In today’s world, stormwater delivers most of the pollution. Legal limits for stormwater discharges are nonexistent, except in rare cases where a toxic-cleanup plan has been established.

Environmentalists and tribal leaders were disappointed with the governor’s proposed water-quality standards. They believed he should be calling for much more stringent standards. While most people liked the idea of an ongoing program of chemical action planning, the governor received limited support for his legislation, House Bill 1472, among environmental and tribal communities.

Inslee

We can’t forget that Inslee had publicly stated that if the Legislature failed to act on his full pollution-cleanup program, he would revisit the water-quality standards — presumably to make them stronger. So the governor kind of boxed himself in, and that’s where we stand today.

Republican legislators acknowledged the value of chemical action plans. Their concerns seemed to center around a distrust of the Department of Ecology, reflecting the views of the chemical industry and others who could find themselves under greater regulatory control.

The House stripped out a provision in the bill that would allow Ecology to ban chemicals without legislative approval. And the key committee in the Senate — the Energy, Environment and Telecommunications Committee — went further by limiting Ecology’s ability to study safer chemicals when a ban is under consideration.

The governor ultimately shifted his support away from the bill that emerged from the committee, as I described in a story I wrote in April for InvestigateWest. The bill never made it to the floor of the Senate, and it ultimately died, along with funding for a wider range of chemical action plans.

“Not only did we not get additional policy help, but we also didn’t get funding to implement the chemical action plans that were already done,” noted Rob Duff, the governor’s environmental policy adviser.

In all, about $3.8 million for toxic cleanup efforts was cancelled along with the legislation.

Plans have been developed to reduce toxic releases of five classes of persistent, bioaccumulative toxics, or PBTs, including polychlorinated biphenyls and mercury. But carrying through on cleanup ideas spelled out in those plans has been slow without targeted funding, and many toxic chemicals of concern, such as pharmaceuticals, are not considered PBTs.

“We aren’t going to throw up our hands,” Rob told me. “Under the PBT rule, we can do PBTs. We will continue to push toward source reduction, although we did not get additional authority from the Legislature.”

Educational programs and voluntary efforts by industry remain in play, pending a further try at legislation next session. Meanwhile, the governor will review the proposed water quality standards, according to Duff.

Rule note

“We will put everything on the table and see what is the best path forward,” he said. “We will have the governor briefed and the necessary discussions over the next two weeks.”

The governor’s proposed water-quality standards have gone through public hearings and must be approved by Aug. 3, or else the process must start over.

Meanwhile, the Environmental Protection Agency is developing its own water-quality rule, which could impose stronger standards upon the state. Water-quality standards, which are a concentration of chemicals in the water, are based on a formula that accounts for how each chemical is assimilated through the food web and into the human body.

One factor involves how much contaminated fish a person is likely to eat. For years, states across the country have used the same fish-consumption rate of 6.5 grams a day, which is less than a quarter of an ounce. This number was long recognized as grossly underestimating the amount of fish that people eat, especially for Northwest residents and even more so for Native Americans who generally consume large quantities of fish.

If adopted, the new water-quality standards would raise the daily fish-consumption rate to 175 grams, or about 6 ounces. If all other factors stayed the same, the new fish consumption rate would raise the safety factor by 27 times. But, as the update moved along, several other factors were amended as well.

Inslee’s proposal was to raise the allowable risk of getting cancer after a lifetime of eating 175 grams of fish each day. The proposal was to increase the risk factor from one case of cancer in a million people to one case among 100,000 people. Inslee included a “no-backsliding” provision, so that the allowable concentration of chemicals would not be increased, no matter what the formula came up with.

Environmental advocates and tribal leaders cried foul over the cancer risk, and Dennis McLerran, regional administrator for the EPA, said he did not want the cancer risk to be increased for any state under his authority.

I covered these issues in a two-part series for the Kitsap Sun:

The EPA expects to have its proposed standards for Washington state ready this fall, possibly November. EPA officials will review the state’s proposal when it is final, but that won’t stop the agency from completing its work, according to a written statement from the EPA regional office.

“We continue to work closely with Governor Inslee’s office and the Washington Department of Ecology to see water quality standards adopted and implemented that protect all residents of the state, as well as tribal members, who regularly and often consume fish as part of a healthy diet,” according to the statement.

Industry officials and sewage-treatment-plant operators have argued that the technology does not exist to meet some of the water-quality standards that would result from a cancer-risk rate of one in a million if the other factors stayed the same. PCBs is one example of a pollutant difficult to control. Besides, they argue, stormwater — not their facilities — is the primary source of PCBs in most cases. That’s why eliminating the original sources of PCBs is so important.

McLerran, who seems to support the more stringent standards, has mentioned that facilities can apply for variances, relaxed compliance schedules or other “implementation tools,” to get around strict numerical standards impossible to meet with today’s technology.

Environmental groups are calling on the governor to tighten up the proposed water-quality standards, rather than let them go into effect, given the Legislature’s failure to approve his overall plan.

“Gov. Inslee must do everything in his power to protect the most vulnerable — babies and children — from the devastating health effects of potent neurotoxins like mercury and carcinogens like PCBs,” stated Chris Wilke, executive director for Puget Soundkeeper.

“Ecology’s draft rule provides only the appearance of new protection while manipulating the math, leaving the actual water quality standards largely unchanged,” he said. “This is simply unacceptable. Without the veil of a new source control package from the Legislature, the Governor’s plan clearly has no clothes.”

Others maintain that the governor has been on the right track all along, and they warn that the state could face lawsuits if it imposes standards that are too strict.

Bruce Hope, a retired toxicologist, wrote a guest editorial for the Seattle Times that included these statements:

“Taking an achievable approach like the one in the Department of Ecology’s draft rule would reduce the risk that municipal wastewater treatment plants or industrial facilities are subject to standards that couldn’t be met…

“Developing the right approach to water-quality protection for Washington will thus require various interests continuing to work together to find common ground.

“Washington’s rules for protecting our waters need to be established by the people elected by Washington voters. The EPA’s Region 10 office should simply not be threatening to circumvent or supersede the standard-setting authority granted to the state under the Clean Water Act.”