Category Archives: Research

Amusing Monday: Amazing images through the magic of LIDAR

Spectacular images produced with the latest LIDAR technology ought to be considered works of art, at least in my humble opinion.

LIDAR software reveals current and historical stream channels for the Sauk River, a tributary of the Skagit.
Image: Washington State Geological Survey

The images on this page, which show geologic features in Washington state, were produced as part of a large-scale project to study the state’s geology. Funded by the Legislature in 2015, the project is largely designed to identify landslide hazards, but the LIDAR data has many wide-ranging uses for scientists, educators and political leaders.

Aside from LIDAR’s practical uses, I cannot get over how beautiful the images are, a feeling enhanced by the knowledge that the fine details reflect actual structures on the ground. All these images and 14 others are available as screensavers on the state’s LIDAR website.

At the Great Bend in Hood Canal, moving glaciers once carved out small hills, known as drumlins.
Image: Washington State Geological Survey

I asked Dan Coe, a GIS cartographer responsible for many of the final images, how much of an artist’s touch he uses when producing such amazing depictions of the landscape. Dan works for the Washington Geological Survey, a division of the Department of Natural Resources.

“There is definitely an artistic touch that is added to these images when they are produced,” he wrote in an email. “While each one is a bit different, depending on the landform featured, most follow a general process.”

LIDAR reveals changing stream channels where the Black and Chehalis rivers merge in Grays Harbor County. // Image: Washington State Geological Survey

LIDAR stands for light detection and ranging. When used from an airplane, LIDAR equipment shoots a laser beam along the ground. Sophisticated equipment and a computer interpret the reflected light as precise differences in elevation.

Dan blends the elevation data with other GIS layers provided by the software, including the outlines of landforms, shaded relief and water bodies.

“I then bring these layers into graphics software (usually Adobe Photoshop or Illustrator), where they are merged together,” Dan said. “This allows me to emphasize the features that are important to the viewer, usually with colorization and blending techniques.”

LIDAR reveals details of Devil’s Slide on Lummi Island in Whatcom County that cannot be seen otherwise.
Image: Washington State Geological Survey

The primary purpose of the images is to translate the science for a nontechnical audience, he said. That’s not to say that scientists don’t appreciate the effort, but the colorful images are somewhat simplified from the more detailed LIDAR data, he added.

“If done well, they are a good example of the ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’ adage,” he said, “and can go a long way to bridging the gap between science and public understanding.”

When it comes to his choice of colors, he acknowledges that he strives for a bit of a “wow!” factor, while enhancing the contrast “to draw the viewers eye and to emphasize the features more clearly.”

The video at right offers a good description of how LIDAR works. Early uses involved examining the topography and geology of an area with the trees stripped away. The surprising images revealed unknown features on the ground — including a piece of the Seattle fault at the south end of Bainbridge Island, where an earthquake raised Restoration Point about 20 feet some 1,100 years ago.

Since then, LIDAR has been refined for greater image resolution, and the improved software is providing new ways to interpret the data. For example, relative elevation models, or REMs, help to better visualize changes in river flows over time. The baseline elevation (0 feet) is defined as the surface of the river, so old river channels emerge as slight changes in elevation. Dan explains the REM process (PDF 16.5 mb) in a poster on the LIDAR website.

The mysterious Mima Mounds southwest of Olympia, as shown with LIDAR
Image: Washington State Geological Survey

The early use of LIDAR for revealing unseen geology has gradually given way to much broader applications. At first, the returning light that reflected off trees and vegetation was considered useless “noise” to be filtered out by computer. Later, scientists discovered that valuable information could be found within that noise — such as the size and type of trees and other vegetation growing in specific areas. These uses are explained in a video called “Introduction to Light Detection and Ranging.” Both videos mentioned in this blog post were produced by the National Ecological Observatory Network, or NEON, which is researching conditions and changes in ecosystems across the country.

A little-known lava flow, called West Crater, can be seen easily with LIDAR. The site is between Mount St. Helens and Mount Hood in Gifford Pinchot National Forest in Skamania County.
Image:Washington State Geological Survey

As Coe and his colleagues find new uses for LIDAR, they are also looking for new ways to encourage the public to understand the process and results. A nice two-page summary about the LIDAR program (PDF 2.6) can be found on the state’s LIDAR website. The website also includes descriptions of how LIDAR can be used in geology, forestry, graphics, navigation, meteorology and fire management, land-use planning, archeology and agriculture.

The page also includes an interactive story map called “The Bare Earth,” which takes you through various geological features. Interesting comparisons between LIDAR images and aerial photos of the same areas are shown in the story map.

Puget Sound report tells the environmental story that took place in 2016

The year 2016 may be regarded as a transition year for Puget Sound, coming between the extreme warm-water conditions of 2014 and 2015 and the more normal conditions observed over the past year, according to the latest Puget Sound Marine Waters report.

Click on image to view report
Photo: Todd Sandell, WDFW

The report on the 2016 conditions was released this past week by the Marine Waters Workgroup, which oversees the Puget Sound Ecosystem Monitoring Program (PSEMP). The report includes data collected in 2016 and analyzed over the past year.

Some findings from the report:

  • Water temperatures were well above normal, though not as extreme as in 2015.
  • A warm spring in 2016 caused rapid melting of mountain snowpack and lower streamflows in late spring and summer.
  • Dissolved oxygen levels were lower than average in South Puget Sound, Central Puget Sound and Hood Canal, with the most intense oxygen problems in southern Hood Canal, although no fish kills were reported.
  • It was a year for the growth of Vibrio parahaemolyticus, a bacteria responsible for 46 laboratory-confirmed illnesses, including intestinal upset, among people who ate oysters in Washington during 2016.
  • Paralytic shellfish poisoning (PSP), diarrhetic shellfish poisoning (DSP) and domoic acid (DA) resulted in shellfish closures in 18 commercial and 38 recreational growing areas. But no illness were reported in 2016.
  • DSP was detected at 250 micrograms per 100 grams in blue mussel tissues sampled from Budd Inlet near Olympia last year. That is the highest level of DSP ever detected in Washington state.
  • Overall, zooplankton populations were high in 2016 compared to 2014, but generally not as high as in 2015.

Conditions, known or unknown, were responsible for various effects on fish and wildlife in 2016:

  • It was the worst year on record for the Cherry Point herring stock, which has been decline for years along with more recent declines in South and Central Puget Sound. Five local stocks had no spawn that could be found in 2016. Herring were smaller than average in size.
  • The overall abundance and diversity of marine bird species in 2015-16 were similar to 2014-15.
  • Rhinoceros auklets, however, were reported to have serious problems, which experts speculated could be related to a low abundance and size of herring. On Protection Island, breeding season started out normal, but fledgling success was only 49 percent, compared to 71 percent in 2015. Auklet parents were seen to feed their chicks fewer and smaller fish than usual.
  • Including the Washington Coast, more than 1,000 carcasses of rhinocerous auklets were found by volunteers. The primary cause of death was identified as severe bacterial infections.

If you are an average person concerned about environmental conditions in and around Puget Sound, the two-page summary and four-page highlights section near the beginning of the report will leave you better informed. To dig deeper, peruse the pages that follow.

The report is designed to be easily compared with previous years:

Could we ever reverse the trend of shrinking Chinook salmon?

Much has been said about the decline of Puget Sound Chinook salmon. Often the discussion focuses on how to increase the salmon population, but I believe a good case can be made for increasing the size of these once-mighty “kings.”

Chinook salmon // Photo: NOAA Fisheries

There are plenty of reasons why we should strive for larger Chinook, not the least of which is the pure joy of seeing — and perhaps catching — a giant salmon. But I’m also thinking about our endangered Southern Resident killer whales, which don’t seem to find Puget Sound very hospitable anymore. As we know, the whales favor Chinook over any other food.

While it might take more energy for a killer whale to chase down a large Chinook versus a smaller one, the payoff in nutrition and energy far outweighs the expenditure, according to Jacques White of Long Live the Kings, who has been thinking about the size issue for some time.

In terms of competition, a giant returning Chinook might be difficult for a harbor seal to handle, and that could give the orcas a special advantage. Still, we are learning that harbor seals create problems for the Chinook population by eating millions of tiny smolts migrating to the ocean before they get a chance to grow up.

Perhaps the major reason that Chinook have declined in size is the troll fishing fleet off the coast of Alaska and Northern Canada, Jacques told me. It is almost simple math. It takes six, seven or eight years to grow the really large Chinook in the ocean. Today’s fishing fleet goes out into the middle of the Chinook-rearing areas up north. The longer the fishing boats stay there, the more likely it is that they will catch a fish that could have grown into a really big one.

Years ago, the fishing boats did not travel so far out to sea, Jacques said. There was no need to travel far when plentiful runs of salmon came right into the shore and swam up the rivers.

“In the old days,” he said, “you didn’t have people risking their necks off Alaska trying to catch fish in all kinds of weather and seas.”

In additional to the trollers, plenty of sport fishermen have taken the opportunity to catch and take home nice trophy fish, putting extra pressure on the biggest members of the fish population. Fishing derbies, past and present, challenged people to catch the biggest Chinook.

Long Live the Kings, a conservation group, once held fishing derbies, Jacques noted. But, after giving it some thought, everyone realized that the effort was counterproductive. “Long Live the Kings is now out of the derby business,” he said.

Gillnets, once common in Puget Sound, entrap fish by snagging their gills. Gillnets tend not to catch the truly giant salmon, because of the mesh size, but they do catch the larger salmon. Often only the smaller ones make it through to spawn — and that breeds another generation of small fish.

Fishing is not the only factor that tends to favor the survival of small fish, but it tends to be a big factor, according to Tom Quinn, a University of Washington professor of aquatic and fishery sciences. The issue is complicated, and every salmon run has its own characteristics, he said.

Hatcheries, dams and habitat alterations all tend to favor fish that can compete and survive under new conditions, and often those conditions work better for smaller fish. Changes in the food web may create a nutritional deficit for some salmon stocks, and competition at sea with large numbers of hatchery fish may be a factor. Check out the study in the journal Plos One by researchers for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

With the removal of two dams on the Elwha River, I’m hoping that experts can make sure that the conditions will be right for larger fish — if they can survive to make it home.

Quinn, along with doctoral student Michael Tillotson, recently published a paper showing how fishing seasons alone can alter the genetic makeup of a population along with the behavior of individual fish.

Although these characteristics are not necessarily related to the size of fish, it directly affects the fitness of the population. When people are fishing on wild stocks during open season, a fish has the best chance of survival if it shows up before the fishing season begins or after the fishing season is over. But that is not nature’s way.

Through evolution, the greatest number of fish tend to come back when environmental conditions are optimal for migration, spawning and smolt survival. If fishing seasons are timed for the peak of the run, that will reduce the percentage of fish taking advantage of the best conditions. Over time, the population gets skewed, as more fish come back during times when conditions are less than optimal.

The result is likely a lower survival rate for the overall population. The real crunch could come in the future as a result of climate change. If temperatures or streamflows become more severe, the fish may be in a no-win situation: If they show up at the most optimal time, they are more likely to get caught. if they come early or late, the environment could kill them or ruin their chances of successful spawning.

“We are reducing the ability of fish to find good environmental conditions,” said Michael Tillotson in a UW news release about the new paper. “We’re perhaps also reducing the ability of fish to adapt to climate change.”

Certain behaviors are bred into wild fish over many generations, and some traits are connected to their timing. Whether they feed aggressively or passively can affect their survival. Some salmon will wait for rain; others will wait for the right streamflow or temperature. Some smolts will stay in freshwater for extended periods; others will move quickly to saltwater. It’s not a great idea when fishing seasons, rather than environmental conditions, dictate fish behavior.

The move to mark-selective fishing — which involves removing the adipose fin of all hatchery fish before they are released — can help solve some problems for wild fish, Tom told me. Under selective fishing rules, fishers are allowed to keep the hatchery fish with a missing fin, but they must release the wild ones that still have all their fins. Some of the wild fish die from injury, but most of them survive, he said.

The key to the problem is a better understanding of the genetic makeup of the individual stocks while increasing the effort to maintain a high-level of genetic diversity. That’s an insurance policy that allows the fish to survive changing conditions.

The genes for giant Chinook have not been lost entirely, as I pointed out in Water Ways on Nov. 25. If we want to have larger Chinook, we must protect the individual Chinook that are larger. That could mean reduced ocean fishing, selective fishing for hatchery populations, and requirements to release fish larger than a certain size. Perhaps it would even be possible to selectively breed larger Chinook in a hatchery for a limited time to increase the size of the fish.

It won’t be easy, because these notions involve messing with billions of dollars in the fishing industry, not to mention complicated international relations. I will save discussions about the Pacific Salmon Treaty for another day. I will just say that this treaty is supposed to be between the U.S. and Canada. But negotiations involve tradeoffs among Washington, Canada and Alaska. Even the Endangered Species Act can’t always protect wild Puget Sound Chinook from being caught in Alaska, with the ultimate outcome that fewer fish make it home to spawn.

Remembering an unusual visit from orcas some 20 years ago

It was 20 years ago that people living on Dyes Inlet and in the surrounding community enjoyed a rare visit from 19 killer whales. The 19 orcas, all members of L-pod, stayed an entire month in one place, something never seen before or since. The whales arrived on Oct. 20 and left on Nov. 19.


Orca Audio Slideshow (Needs Flash)

For me, it was a time of awakening to the amazing social structure of Southern Resident killer whales. I had been writing about orcas for years, but I never got to know the individual whales like I did in the fall of 1997.

It was inspiring to learn how their close-knit families generally stay together for life, how orca relatives often help out with caring for the young, how they work together to find and capture food.

I owe much to Kelley Balcomb-Bartok and Jodi Smith, two young researchers who observed the whales for most of the month the orcas were in Dyes Inlet. Kelley describes his observations in the slideshow on this page. He made the recording on the 10th anniversary of the Dyes Inlet visit. Just click on the whale image above.

I wrote a brief summary of the event in a Kitsap Sun story on Oct. 20, 2007.

The year 1997 was close to the high point for the Southern Resident population, which grew to 98 animals. It took about 25 years to reach that number after a large segment of the population was captured and taken away for aquariums. As the Southern Resident population declined after 1997, the Southern Residents were proposed for listing under the Endangered Species Act. In 2005, they were declared an endangered species. Today, their numbers have declined to 76, the lowest number in 30 years.

Killer whale experts talk about how orcas in the wild can live as long as humans given the right conditions. Yet things have not been going well for the Southern Residents. Of the 19 whales that visited Dyes Inlet 20 years ago, seven orcas are still alive:

  • L-47, a 43-year-old female named Marina, who has three offspring and two grand-offspring. The two oldest were with her in Dyes Inlet, and a younger calf, L-115 named Mystic, was born in 2010.
  • L-83, a 27-year-old female named Moonlight. She is the oldest daughter of L-47 (Marina) and had her first offspring, L-110 named Midnight, in 2007.
  • L-91, a 22-year-old female named Muncher. She is the second daughter of L-47 (Marina). In 2015, Muncher had an offspring of her own, L-122, a male named Magic.
  • L-90, a 24-year-old female named Ballena who was 4 years old in Dyes Inlet with her mother Baba (L-26), sister Rascal (L-60) and brother Hugo (L-71). Her mother died in 2013, her sister in 2002 and brother in 2006.
  • L-92, a 22-year-old male named Crewser who was 2 years old when he was in Dyes Inlet with his mom, L-60 named Rascal, who died in 2002. Now Crewser is often seen with his aunt, Ballena (L-90).
  • L-55, a 40-year-old female named Nugget. Her oldest offspring, L-82 named Kasatka, was with her in Dyes Inlet along with her 1-year-old calf, L-96, who died a short time after leaving Dyes Inlet. Her next calf, Lapis (L-103), was born in 2003, followed by Takoda (L-109) in 2007 and Jade (L-118) in 2011. All are females except Takoda and the baby who died at a year old. Lapis had her first calf, L-123 named Lazuli, in 2015.
  • L-82, a 27-year-old female named Kasatka who was 7 years old when she was with her mom and baby brother in Dyes Inlet. Kasatka had her first offspring, Finn (L-116), a male, in 2010, making Nugget a grandmother.

The Dyes Inlet experience is something I will never forget, and I know many other people in the Puget Sound region feel the same way. I would be happy to publish stories from those who would like to share their experiences. Feel free to write something in the comments field below.

One of my favorite memories from that time was going out at night in a boat on Dyes Inlet with researcher Jodi Smith. All the other boats had gone home. The air was cold and quiet. Jody dropped a hydrophone down into the water, and the speaker on the boat burst forth with all kinds of pops and screeches coming from the whales. You can read the story I wrote in the Kitsap Sun archives and listen to the recording we made that night (below).

      1. Whales in Dyes Inlet

During that time in 1997, I personally got to know some of the leading marine mammal experts in our region. I even developed some ever-lasting friendships. While I wish that things would go better for our beloved orcas, I am thankful, on this Thanksgiving Day, for that time 20 years ago.

Orcas and seals compete for a limited number of chinook salmon

It’s always been troubling to me that the Southern Resident killer whales, which frequent Puget Sound, have struggled to maintain their population, while other fish-eating resident orcas seem to be doing much better.

Killer whale chases a chinook salmon
Photo: John Durbin, Holly Fearnbach, Lance Barrett-Lennard

Now several researchers have analyzed the energy needs of all the seals, sea lions and killer whales that eat chinook salmon along the West Coast, from California to Alaska. The study provides a possible explanation, one that is consistent with what many scientists have suspected all along. Here’s how I explained it in a story written for the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound:

“Puget Sound’s endangered killer whales are waiting at the end of a long food line for a meal of chinook salmon — basically the only food they really want to eat.

“Ahead of them in the line are hundreds of salmon-craving killer whales in Alaska and British Columbia. Even farther ahead are thousands of seals and sea lions that eat young chinook before the fish have a chance to grow to a suitable size for orcas.”

My story contains plenty of numbers to explain what this is all about.

This issue of competition for food is not a simple one to discuss or resolve. But the new paper, published in the journal Scientific Reports, adds an important perspective when trying to answer the question: “Do we have too few salmon or too many marine mammals?”

From a historical viewpoint, the answer must be that we have too few salmon. But from a management perspective, we might have to conclude that the ecosystem is out of balance and that we have been restoring some marine mammal populations faster than we are restoring the salmon that they eat.

In an intriguing study published in March in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution (PDF 840 kb), a group of West Coast researchers investigated whether it is better to recover populations of prey species first, followed by predator species, or if it is better to recover predator species first, followed by prey species.

Protecting predators first — which is usually the way humans do things — may slow the growth of prey species or even trigger a population decline, the report says. That creates a problem for predators that specialize in that one kind of prey as well as for those that have no access to alternative prey.

It may seem logical to rebuild the prey species first, the authors say. But, with some exceptions, recovering prey species first causes the combined predator and prey populations to peak at high levels that are unsustainable in the overall ecosystem.

“In the real world,” the paper states, “transient dynamics like these that result from eruptions of prey populations can lead to surprising cascades of ecological interactions and complex but often mismatched management responses.”

The authors conclude that the fastest way to restore depressed populations is through synchronous recovery of predators and prey by carefully rebuilding two or more populations at the same time.

Management tactics may include culling predators even before optimal population numbers are reached. Such actions require careful study, as culling may produce unexpected consequences, according to the report.

Other options include protecting multiple species within protected geographic or marine areas or focusing on single species by protecting select habitats or reducing human exploitation.

For Southern Resident killer whales, the question will be whether populations of other marine mammals — particularly harbor seals in Puget Sound —should be controlled. If so, how would people go about doing that?

One related issue that needs more study is the effect that transient killer whales are having on the Salish Sea population of seals and sea lions. As the Southern Residents spend less time searching for chinook salmon in the inland waterway, the seal-eating transients are being spotted more and more by people along the shores of Puget Sound.

Some studies estimate that the transients need an average of one to two seals each day to maintain their energy needs, although we know these whales also eat smaller sea otters and larger California and Steller sea lions, as well as an occasional gray whale.

Are the transients culling the population of harbor seals in Puget Sound or at least limiting their growth? Even before the transients were showing up frequently, biologists were telling us that the overall harbor seal population appeared to be peaking and perhaps declining.

It would be interesting to create a future-looking computer model that could account for populations of salmon and marine mammals under various scenarios — including possible management actions by humans and the ongoing predation by transient killer whales.

If we want to keep things more natural while helping out the Southern Residents, maybe somebody could come up with a strategy to attract and maintain a healthy population of seal-eating transient orcas within the Salish Sea.

Amusing Monday: Will new ‘Mythbusters’ be as amusing as the first?

The original “Mythbusters,” starring Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman, included plenty of amusing water-related stunts, such as seeing if a person can learn to walk on water.

That series, one of the longest running shows on the Discovery Channel, ended its 13-year run in March of 2016. It wasn’t gone for long, however, as Discovery’s sister network, the Science Channel, ran a series of programs to identify new hosts for a revived series.

On Wednesday of this week, the new version of “Mythbusters” will air for the first time with new hosts Brian Louden, 32, and Jon Lung, 28. As always, the show will use experiments to test the truth of myths, rumors and wild ideas, including fake stories that have caught people’s attention on the Internet.

Jon is the builder/designer with skills in wood, metal, foam, plastics, fabric, paper, silicone and clay. His career includes graphic design.

Brian worked as a paramedic and received a degree in biology, teaching science at schools and science fairs.

“I can build the things that need to work,” Jon said in an interview with Parade magazine. “I can test things scientifically, and there’s also the aesthetic appeal and the creative process of thinking of insane, crazy ways to build things, or how to test things. And so Mythbusters is the perfect home for me.

“I bring more of the redneck builder with a really strong science background,” Brian said in the same interview. “Together, these things create an insightful look at the myth and the process from a different direction of the old version of the show.”

The first video on this page is a preview of the new show.

I cannot say whether the new guys will provide as much material for Amusing Monday as the old guys did, but I thought this might be a good time to revisit some of the best water-related stunts from the first series.

The second video shows what it takes to get out of a sinking car. It is a tense moment, but the tension is relieved somewhat when you know that divers are standing by to provide air and even rescue, if needed. Adam performed that stunt fairly smoothly and in the controlled confines of a swimming pool.

Adam says the most terrifying moment on the show came when he did the stunt again in a lake to see if he could survive an accident in which the car flips upside down. During the filming, the car flips over again unexpectedly, changing the air pockets inside the vehicle. Watch this video: “Turn Turtle Car.”

This second car-in-the-water show is credited with helping to save the life of a mother and her young child. Their terrifying moment occurred when their car slipped on ice and crashed into a river in Minnesota. Thanks to the show, the mom realized that she would not be able to open the car doors until enough water rushed inside to nearly equalize the pressure of the water pushing from the outside. That story was retold in a Mythbusters video segment.

The difficulty of walking on water made for some amusing moments. And I would not be doing justice to the show if I didn’t offer videos of the two guys blowing stuff up.

The final video on this page features Bremerton’s own Nathan Adrian, a five-time Olympic gold medalist whose swimming skills are tested in a strange way. Nathan participates in an experiment to determine whether it is easier to swim through water than syrup.

Although Nathan’s time was very consistent in water, the syrup appeared to mess up his swimming technique — so much that the Mythbusters could not use the times of his syrup swims. Instead, they went with Adam’s less refined swimming style and concluded that syrup, if not too thick, does not slow down an average swimmer much, if at all.

Puget Sound freshens up with a little help from winter snowpack

In the latest “Eyes Over Puget Sound” report, one little note caught my attention: “Puget Sound is fresher than it’s ever been the past 17 years.”

Jellyfish are largely missing this fall from Puget Sound. Some patches of red-brown algae, such as this one in Sinclair Inlet, have been observed.
Photo: Washington Department of Ecology

At least temporarily, something has changed in the waters of Puget Sound over the past few months. It may not last, but it appears to be a good thing.

The monthly EOPS report, compiled by a team of state environmental experts, lays out recent water-quality data for the Department of Ecology. The report also includes personal observations, aerial photographs and scientific interpretations that keep readers abreast of recent conditions while putting things in historical context.

The “fresh” conditions called out in the report refers to the salinity of Puget Sound, which is driven largely by the freshwater streams flowing into the waterway. The reference to 17 years is a recognition that the overall salinity hasn’t been this low since the current program started 17 years ago.

Dissolved oxygen, essential to animals throughout the food web, was higher this fall than we’ve seen in some time. Hood Canal, which I’ve watched closely for years, didn’t come close to the conditions that have led to massive fish kills in the past. The only problem areas for low oxygen were in South Puget Sound.

Water temperatures in the Sound, which had been warmer than normal through 2015 and 2016, returned to more average conditions in 2017. Those temperatures were related, in part, to the warm ocean conditions off the coast, often referred to as “the blob.” In South Puget Sound, waters remained warm into October.

Why is the water fresher this fall than it has been in a long time? The reason can be attributed to the massive snowpack accumulated last winter, according to oceanographer Christopher Krembs, who leads the EOPS analysis. That snowpack provided freshwater this past spring, although rivers slowed significantly during the dry summer and continued into September.

“We had a really good snowpack with much more freshwater flowing in,” Christopher told me, adding that the Fraser River in southern British Columbia was well above average in July before the flows dropped off rapidly. The Fraser River feeds a lot of freshwater into northern Puget Sound.

Freshwater, which is less dense than seawater, creates a surface layer as it comes into Puget Sound and floats on top of the older, saltier water. The freshwater input fuels the circulation by generally pushing out toward the ocean, while the heavier saltwater generally moves farther into Puget Sound.

“The big gorilla is the upwelling system,” Christopher noted, referring to the rate at which deep, nutrient-rich and low-oxygen waters are churned up along the coast and distributed into the Puget Sound via the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Lately, that system has been turned down to low as a result of larger forces in the ocean.

In an advisory issued today (PDF 803 kb), NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center says a weak La Niña is likely to continue through the winter. For the northern states across the country, that usually means below-average temperatures and above-average precipitation. (It’s just the opposite for the southern states.)

With a favorable snowpack already accumulating in the mountains, experts can’t help but wonder if we might repeat this year’s conditions in Puget Sound over the next year.

Christopher told me that during aerial flights this fall, he has observed fewer jellyfish and blooms of Noctiluca (a plankton known to turn the waters orange) than during the past two years. Most people think this is a good thing, since these organisms prevail in poor conditions. Such species also have a reputation as a “dead end” in the food web, since they are eaten by very few animals.

Christopher said he noticed a lot of “bait balls,” which are large schools of small fish that can feed salmon, birds and a variety of creatures. “I assume most of them are anchovies,” he said of the schooling fish.

I would trade a jellyfish to get an anchovy on any day of the year.

Report reveals struggles and strategies to recover Puget Sound ecosystem

Floodplains in natural condition – Click to enlarge
Source: State of the Sound, Puget Sound Partnership

As always, the biennial State of the Sound report (PDF 60.2 mb), issued this week by the Puget Sound Partnership, reveals mixed results for efforts to protect and restore Puget Sound.

It’s been 10 years since the Washington Legislature created the Partnership with an urgent mission to restore Puget Sound to a healthy condition by the year 2020.

That 2020 deadline, which was the idea of then-Governor Chris Gregoire, has always been a double-edged sword. The clear time frame has created a sense of urgency — which was Gregoire’s goal. But now, with 2020 looming just three years away, the second edge of the sword threatens to create a sense of failure.

Everyone who has followed the issue has known from the beginning that Puget Sound would not be restored to health by 2020, so I don’t intend to belabor that point. But I’ve been asking for several years how the Puget Sound Partnership plans to finesse the “failure” into an ongoing recovery effort, without which Puget Sound could become a lifeless body of water.

“Thousands of projects have been successfully completed, and more are taking place every day,” writes PSP Executive Director Sheida Sahandy in a forward to the latest State of the Sound report. “However, investment in recovery has been a fraction of that needed to reach targets, and it is clear at this point that the work of recovering Puget Sound cannot be completed by 2020.”

Click to download the new report

Sheida repeated in her statement the same thing she has told me several times: “The work of maintaining ecosystem health, much like maintaining human health, is never ‘done,’” she writes. “This is particularly true in light of increasing systemic pressures, like population growth, water acidification and temperatures changes.”

I understand that Partnership staffers are working on a transition strategy to handle the looming 2020 deadline, but I have not heard what they plan to do. One idea is a major overhaul of all the ecosystem indicators, making them better markers for ecosystem health. It’s something many of the scientists have wanted to do, given improved awareness of ecological function.

But if the original indicators were abandoned, we would lose the sense of continuity gained over the past decade. Besides, that would disrupt the latest effort to develop and effectuate “implementation strategies,” which are aimed directly at improving the existing indicators. (Check out the stories in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.)

The simplest idea would be to change the date of 2020 to one or more dates in the future, perhaps with greater thought given to the costs and practicality of meeting the deadline. The original goals were somewhat arbitrary, often referred to as “aspirational” rather than practical. Perhaps the Partnership will adopt an approach somewhere between — with some new indicators, some revised indicators and new dates for those that seem to be good indicators as they are.

While the problem with the year 2020 can be managed, the more serious matter is funding the restoration so that real progress can be made in areas where the ecosystem is in decline. Protecting areas that are still functioning well is widely accepted as the top priority, but protection strategies have been somewhat hit and miss. Improving the monitoring effort to measure the changes is more important than ever.

“We must be willing to conduct an honest, clear-eyed review of where we are and where we are headed,” states a letter from the Puget Sound Leadership Council, the governing body of the Partnership. “Course corrections must be identified and implemented soon to get Puget Sound on an acceptable recovery trajectory. The Puget Sound Partnership is ready to work with all of our partners to improve our own efforts in the recovery endeavor.”

The Leadership Council identifies four overriding problems:

  1. “We are not investing at a level necessary to achieve recovery. We simply have not prioritized Puget Sound recovery at a level that results in adequate spending on restoration and protection projects.”
  2. “Too few people understand that Puget Sound is in trouble. We must do a better job of providing credible, hard-hitting information to our citizenry, whom we are confident cares deeply about Puget Sound and will demand a recovery effort that is successful.”
  3. “While we have appropriately focused much on restoration projects, we have not focused enough on programs designed to protect what we have. We must support our local governments and state and federal agencies as they go about the extraordinarily difficult task of preventing projects and activities that will harm the Sound.”
  4. “We have to ramp up our effort to keep pace with our booming economy. It has been reported that 1,000 people a week are moving into the Puget Sound basin. That means housing, roads, and other supportive infrastructure, which all have the potential to destroy habitat, degrade water quality, reduce stream flows, and lower groundwater tables.”

As I reported this week for the Puget Sound Institute, the Leadership Council is working with Gov. Jay Inslee to instill a greater sense of urgency for the recovery of Puget Sound’s killer whales, which remain on a dangerous path to extinction. That will surely involve efforts to increase the number of chinook salmon, which are not faring well, according to the latest State of the Sound report.

The population of killer whales is one of four indicators that are going the wrong direction, getting worse instead of better. The others are:

  • The amount of forestland being converted for development in ecologically sensitive regions;
  • The quality of marine waters, as measured by dissolved oxygen and related factors; and
  • The total biomass of Pacific herring, considered an important food supply for salmon and other species.

I have to say that the Puget Sound Partnership has gotten better at presenting information about the Puget Sound ecosystem. The 2017 State of the Sound report is fairly understandable to the average reader without sacrificing the technical details necessary to understand the problems and solutions. I also like the graphics, particularly those that represent contrasting views of natural features, namely shorelines, shellfish, floodplains and stormwater runoff. I’ve copied the two floodplain graphics to the top and bottom of this page.

Funding problems are given increased attention in the latest report. Understanding what it will take to expand the protection and restoration effort is critical, especially during the era of President Trump, whose budget proposed eliminating the most important federal funding sources for Puget Sound.

The report also includes recommendations from the Puget Sound Science Panel, established by the Legislature to advise the Leadership Council on science issues. In the latest report, the Science Panel recommends moving from a focus on restoration alone to one of involving increased resilience of natural systems.

As stated by the Science Panel in the report: “The successful restoration of ecosystem functions is an important means to maintain resilience, but is not the end in itself. Resilience also relies on human capacity and ability to respond and adapt.

“Resilience focuses less on conditions as they once existed and more on managing ecosystem processes, patterns, and change to provide the ecosystem benefits we care about into the future.”

Floodplains in degraded condition – Click to enlarge
Source: State of the Sound, Puget Sound Partnership

It was a wet water year; it was a dry water year

Water Year 2017 was a crazy year for rainfall, with a precipitation pattern unlikely to repeat anytime soon, although forecasters say the coming year is somewhat likely to be wetter than normal.

Hansville (click to enlarge)
Chart: Kitsap Public Utility District

If you recall, Water Year 2017 (which began last October) started off soggy with well above average rainfall until December. Last year’s rainfall, represented by the orange lines in the accompanying charts, was not only above average in October and November, but it exceeded the rainfall observed during the wettest year recorded since 1982.

If you follow the chart for Hansville, you can see that last year’s total precipitation stayed above the record year until late January. From there, last year’s total rainfall tracked with the record year until this past May, when the rains practically stopped.

Talk about a dry summer. We got practically no rain until September, with minimal precipitation through the end of the water year on Sept. 30, as shown in these charts provided by the Kitsap Public Utility District.

Silverdale (click to enlarge)
Chart: Kitsap Public Utility District

Hansville’s annual rainfall last year totaled 39.5 inches, about 4 inches off the record of 43.8 inches in 1999. The record would have been broken if the rainfall this past spring and summer would have been normal. The year before — Water Year 2016 — was also a wet one with precipitation totaling 42.5 inches in Hansville.

In Silverdale, which gets a good deal more rainfall than Hansville, the pattern was similar except that last year’s total stayed ahead of the record until early December. The pattern was similar for Holly, one of the wettest areas of the county.

Silverdale’s total for Water Year 2017 was 61.8 inches, well off the record of 76.9 inches set in 1999. Still, the record books show only two wetter years: 1996 with 67.7 inches and 1997 with 64.8 inches.

Holly (click to enlarge)
Chart: Kitsap Public Utility District

Holly’s total for Water Year 2017 was 112.7 inches, second only to 1999, when Holly received 127.5 inches of precipitation. Other wet years were 1995 with 101.1 inches and 1997 with 100.1 inches.

The new water year, starting with the beginning of this month, showed little precipitation at first, then the rains came in mid-October, putting most areas near average, as shown by the blue line in the charts.

Overall, October so far has been a fairly wet month, up to twice the average rainfall in the Puget Sound region. For the nation as a whole, October has been mixed. We’ve seen extremely dry conditions in the Southwest, while up to four times the normal precipitation has been recorded for a swath from the Great Lakes down to the Central states, including the Oklahoma and Texas panhandles. Check out the map from the PRISM Climate Group at Oregon State University.

The outlook for the next three months from NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center shows the likelihood for wetter-than-normal conditions across the northern part of the U.S., although Western Washington should be about normal. Meanwhile, the southern tier states are likely to have drier conditions.

A La Niña watch remains in effect. If conditions in the Pacific Ocean continue to develop, we could see cooler- and wetter-then-normal conditions early next year. So far, there is no indication what the annual precipitation for our area might be. But after last year’s turn of events we should not be surprised by any weather pattern.

Amusing Monday: Calling all citizen scientists to help with online research

Just about anyone with a computer can become part of a scientific research project through Zooniverse, which focuses the intelligence of thousands of people on tasks that are not well suited for computers.

The research projects are real, and prospective citizen scientists can choose from dozens of topics in various fields, including climate, biology, medicine, history, language, literature and the arts. More than 100 published papers have come from the work.

They key is observation, and participants make judgments about images they are given, such as photographs, drawings, hand-written pages and other visuals. Together, the large number of observations help professional researchers find things that they could not easily find alone. In most cases, computers don’t have the observational capabilities of humans, although some of the projects are trying to teach computers to do a better job.

Participants become part of an exclusive research community, as each Zooniverse project includes chat forums for discussion. Citizen scientists can talk among themselves or pose questions to the researchers in charge. I’ve tried out a few of the projects, and I can see how this could become an interesting, amusing and ongoing pastime for some people.

One of the projects that I find interesting is called “Old Weather,” which involves perusing ships’ logs from the 1800s and early 1900s to see what the weather was like on particular dates in various parts of the world. The focus at the moment is on 24 whaling voyages as well as expeditions to the Arctic by the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard. The information is going into a database to help reveal how climate is changing.

The online work involves identifying what the log books have to say about weather, ice and sea conditions. One task involves reading through the books and marking such observations along with time and place. Another task is to transcribe the observations and link them together. Of particular interest is locating sea ice, a primary indicator of climate change.

Other projects:

The Plastic Tide involves looking at photographs of beaches taken from a drone to identify pieces of plastic in the sand and gravel. Researchers in England are using the observations to develop a computer program that can recognize bits of plastic and estimate the amount of plastic on a beach. If successful, global estimates of plastic distribution can be created with the use of unmanned aircraft. Volunteer observations are being used to “train” the computer to identify plastics.

Snapshots At Sea uses pictures of sea creatures taken by professional and amateur photographers to extract information about whales and other marine mammals. Citizen scientists are asked questions about each photograph to classify the images and determine whether a whale expert should take a look. So far, citizen scientists were able to locate an extremely rare killer whale, known as Type D. Meanwhile, they have also helped to locate and identify known and unknown humpback whales and plot their movements with unprecedented resolution off the California coast. By the way, Cascadia Research Collective in Olympia is one of the collaborators on the project.

Notes from Nature digs into the records of natural history museums throughout the world, where handwritten observations are tagged onto all sorts of plant and animal specimens. Volunteers transcribe the notes from photographs of the specimens to help to fill in gaps about biodiversity and the natural heritage of a given region. At the first level, museum staff and others are photographing what are estimated to be 10 billion specimens, including birds, bugs, butterflies and microscopic fossils. At higher levels, researchers are compiling the data to tell a story of ecological change.

Wildwatch Kenya, which started this past summer, asks volunteers to review photos taken with trail cameras placed in two nature preserves in Kenya. Information about wildlife seen in the photos is used to track animal movements, determine what they are doing and help with their conservation. In the first three months, more than 5,000 volunteers were able to retire a backlog of more than 160,000 photographs — about two years’ worth of images. For information, see the news release from the San Diego Zoo, which manages the project.

Steller sea lion ~ 100 is the “sea lion of the month” for October. // Photo: Steller Watch

Steller Watch, like Wildwatch Kenya, uses remote cameras to capture hundreds of pictures of Steller sea lions — an endangered species whose population has declined by 94 percent in the Aleutian Islands. Volunteers help classify — but not identify — animals seen in the photos so that experts can complete the identifications and track the movements of the animals. One feature is the Sea Lion of the Month, who this month is ~100, a sea lion with a somewhat unusual story.

Cyclone Center includes 300,000 images taken from infrared sensors on weather satellites. The colored images reveal temperatures, which are closely related to whether the clouds produce wind, rain and thunderstorms. Volunteers are given a pair of clouds and asked to determine which one is stronger based on the colors. The human eye is better at this job than a computer, experts say. The information is compiled with other data to form a record of storms and to help predict future events.

Shells from Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society of London, 1866

Science Gossip relies on millions of pages of printed text produced in scientific journals, notebooks and other publications from the 1400s to today. Researchers and artists, both professional and amateur, produced the documents during their investigations of science. Cataloging and describing old drawings are helping historians understand who was studying what down through the years. In my first leap into this project, I was presented with the drawing of a scale from an extinct fish. I found myself reading the associated article to learn about a dispute over how to classify the animal, and then I went to other sources to learn about the notable scientist and his work. After that, I completed the questions about the drawing. (I guess this was beyond the call of duty, but I just wanted to know more.)

The Milky Way Project endeavors to locate celestial objects of interest to astronomers by searching through tens of thousands of images from the Spitzer Space Telescope and the WISE satellite observatory. Training is provided to identify bubble nebulae, bow shocks and other notable features.

Solar Stormwatch II involves working with images of solar flares from NASA’s STEREO spacecraft. Volunteers help to classify and describe the intensity of flares by defining their outer edges with the use of a computer mouse. The original project, Solar Stormwatch, contributed to seven scientific publications. The new project will examine images from 2010 to 2016, during which time the sun went through a period of peak activity.