Category Archives: Research

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.”

Mountains of Pluto
may be formed on ‘bedrock’ of water-ice

Finding “youthful” mountains on the surface of Pluto has come as a great surprise to the Geology, Geophysics and Imaging (GGI) team studying the distant body since the New Horizons spacecraft flew past.

This image of mountains was taken by New Horizons just 1.5 hours before the spacecraft's closest approach to Pluto. Image Credit: NASA-JHUAPL-SwRI
This image of mountains was taken by New Horizons just 1.5 hours before the spacecraft’s closest approach to Pluto. // Image Credit: NASA-JHUAPL-SwRI

I was not planning to write anything about Pluto. After all, this blog is about water. Water on Mars is one thing. I did not expect to find relevance to a dwarf planet covered in frozen methane and frozen nitrogen.

But I can’t ignore the findings of scientists who studied images from New Horizons to announce a discovery of mountains rising as high as 11,000 feet and a region near Pluto’s equator that may still be geologically active. This conclusion comes from a lack of craters on the surface, said GGI team leader Jeff Moore of NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif.

One would expect that Pluto would be scarred from all the space debris falling to the surface over billions of years — unless recent geologic activity had erased the pockmarks, according to a report posted today by NASA.

“This is one of the youngest surfaces we’ve ever seen in the solar system,” Moore said.

Pluto has practically no gravitational interaction with another planetary body, which is believed to be why mountains have risen on the moons of giant planets. On Pluto, other forces must be at play.

“This may cause us to rethink what powers geological activity on many other icy worlds,” said GGI deputy team leader John Spencer of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colo.

The mountains are likely made of a water-ice “bedrock,” because frozen methane and frozen nitrogen are not strong enough to form mountains, the researchers say.

“At Pluto’s temperatures, water-ice behaves more like rock,” said deputy GGI lead Bill McKinnon of Washington University in St. Louis.

The scientists have been waiting nine years for New Horizons to reach Pluto, and now it is over. Yesterday, the spacecraft zoomed by at 30,800 miles per hour while seven instruments collected all sorts of information. Now all those data will be analyzed and discussed, adding to our knowledge of the solar system and beyond.

One mystery solved is the Pluto’s actual size — 1,473 miles in diameter — somewhat smaller than many earlier estimates. Pluto’s atmosphere complicated the estimates.

“The size of Pluto has been debated since its discovery in 1930,” McKinnon said in a report from NASA. “We are excited to finally lay this question to rest.”

The size revision means that Pluto is less dense than presumed earlier. The amount of ice in the interior is greater, and the lowest layer of the atmosphere — the troposphere — is shallower that once believed.

Pluto’s largest moon, Charon, lacks a significant atmosphere, so observations from New Horizons confirms previous estimates of 751 miles across.

The next two smaller moons were too small for researchers to estimate their size until now. Hydra appears to be about 30 miles in diameter, and Nix is about 20 miles across. Mission scientists believe that ice may be making their surfaces extra bright.

Pluto’s two smallest moons, Kerberos and Styx, are harder to measure but researchers expect to make estimates later.

Pluto and its largest moon, Charon, shown just above the Earth's surface in this graphic. Graphic: John Hopkins University APL
Pluto and its largest moon, Charon, placed just above the Earth’s surface in this graphic to show their relative sizes.
John Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory

Studies of bottom fish help fill in key portions of Puget Sound food web

In a new video, Dayv Lowry of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife does a great job explaining how scientific trawling provides information about the kinds of creatures that hang out on the bottom of Puget Sound.

The video shows a big net being brought to the surface filled with crabs and all sorts of strange creatures, which are then sorted and measured right on the deck of the Chasina. This research, which has been going on for years, provides information about how populations of marine species are changing over time.

Two years ago, I joined Dayv and his crew aboard the same trawler while working on the Kitsap Sun series “Taking the Pulse of Puget Sound.” With most of the attention focused on salmon, I thought it was important to highlight lesser-known fish that play a key role in the Puget Sound ecosystem.

You may wish to check out my story, “Problems with bottom fish are coming into view.” While you’re at it, maybe take a look at the graphic “Ten Puget Sound fish you may not know much about.”

Click on image to see interactive graphic. Kitsap Sun graphic
Click on image to see interactive graphic.
Kitsap Sun graphic

I hate to say it, but one reason that many marine fish get short shrift, compared to salmon, is that they are not as commercially valuable — but that does not mean they are not important.

Overfishing, combined with degraded habitat conditions and pollution caused many of these species to decline through the years. Three species of rockfish are now federally protected under the Endangered Species Act. For a recent update on rockfish, check out Water Ways from June 18.

It is encouraging to know that forage fish, including herring, will receive increased scrutiny with a $1.9-million boost from the Legislature, allowing studies on population, habitat and viability. Reporter Tristan Baurick wrote about this new appropriation in Tuesday’s Kitsap Sun. The money should allow researchers to provide a nice status report, and I hope money will be available for ongoing monitoring into the future.

As for those species of fish caught by trawling, it’s time to figure out what role they play in the Puget Sound food web and what it will take to improve their conditions.

During the 1970s, new-fangled fish-finders and commercial fishing gear allowed for more intense fishing than ever before. State resource managers made a critical mistake in assuming that because fishing was going well, populations of bottom fish must be doing OK. Managing fishing using a steady-state fishing rate without adequate monitoring has been the downfall of fish populations throughout the world.

In Puget Sound, “the first sign of a problem came when there were no fish,” Dayv told me, only slightly exaggerating the problem.

Now the effort is to rebuild the populations, and it will likely take more than a trawler to understand where certain species reside and what is posing the greatest threat to recovery. Surveys using remotely operated vehicles, or ROVs, have become an important tool, shedding light on fish living in shallow water and rocky areas where the trawler cannot go.

One thing that is still needed, however, is a map of the various types of underwater habitat throughout Puget Sound. Knowing the locations and extent of rocky versus sandy or muddy bottoms could provide a basis for estimating entire populations of marine species. Researchers are working on a computer model to do just that, but more underwater surveys are needed.

If residents of this unique region hope to restore Puget Sound to health, we must not forget about the bottom fish, which for many people tend to be out of sight and out of mind.

Four ‘missing’ orcas return to San Juans;
L-54, where are you?

Welcome back Racer, Ballena, Crewser and Fluke!

And would anyone like to write new words to an old song that we could use to invite the last five orcas to the party in the San Juan Islands? (Read on for details.)

A 29-year-old female named Racer (L-72) and her 11-year-old son Fluke (L-105) are among the four orcas spotted in the San Juan Islands this week. It was the first time the group was seen in inland waters this summer. One group of five still has not returned. Photo by Dave Ellifrit, Center for Whale Research NMFS PERMIT: 15569/ DFO SARA 272
A 29-year-old female named Racer (L-72) and her 11-year-old son Fluke (L-105) are among four orcas spotted this week in inland waters.
Photo by Dave Ellifrit, Center for Whale Research
NMFS PERMIT: 15569/ DFO SARA 272

I reported last week in Water Ways (July 1) that nine Southern Resident killer whales had not yet returned to the San Juan Islands this year. I’d like to update you with the news that four of the nine have now been seen, so we’re just waiting for the final group of five.

Dave Ellifrit, Lauren Brent and Darren Croft with the Center for Whale Research did an amazing job Sunday tracking down 65 killer whales in and around Haro Strait in the San Juan Islands. Meanwhile, Ken Balcomb photographed another 11 from the porch of the Center for Whale Research on San Juan Island. Read Dave’s report of the encounters on the center’s website, listed as Encounter Number 59.

“Due to forest fires in several different places in British Columbia, there were dark clouds coming out of the northwest which made the sun red and the lighting a weird shade of brown-yellow.,” Dave reported in his notes. “A little after 0930, we left the L group and headed about a half mile north to a male who was foraging by himself. This was K21 and we saw him actively chase a salmon before he headed off to the west.”

The four “missing” whales spotted for the first time this year in inland waters are known to travel together. As I reported in last week’s blog entry, the groups of orcas have grown smaller and more spread out, apparently because their prey — chinook salmon — are not arriving together in significant numbers.

The latest four arrivals are Racer (L-72), a 29-year-old female, and her son Fluke (L-105), an 11-year-old male; Ballena (L-90), a 22-year-old female; and Crewser (L-92), a 20-year-old male. Ballena is Crewser’s aunt, and they are the last two members of what was once an extended family.

Yet to arrive to the party in the San Juans is a group known as the L-54’s. Some of you might remember a sitcom from the early 1960s about two New York cops, Toody and Muldoon. Anyway, the name of the show was “Car 54, Where Are You?” and it had a catchy theme song (See YouTube) that featured prominently the title of the show.

It just occurred to me that we could rewrite the words to the song, which would ask the question: “L-54, where are you?” If anybody wants to take this challenge, I’ll post your new words on this blog.

As for the group itself, L-54 is a 38-year-old female named “Ino.” She is closely followed by her 9-year-old son, L-108 or “Coho,” and her 5-year-old daughter, L-117 or “Keta.”

Also traveling with the L-54 family is L-84, a 25-year-old male named “Nyssa.” This orca is the last surviving member of what was once called the L-9 subpod.

Another lone male, L-88 or “Wave Walker,” is 22 years old. He is the last surviving member of what was once called the L-2 subpod, and he now travels with the L-54’s as well.

This group — presumably all five — was last seen in March in the western end of the Strait of Juan de Fuca and in February in the Pacific Ocean near Westport.

Ken tells me that NOAA Fisheries funds his census work for exactly 42 days, and the funding has now run out with more work to be done. His nonprofit organization is continuing the search for the “missing” whales mainly with contributions, including memberships. See “SupportingThe Center for Whale Research.”

With the disbursed pattern of orcas in recent years, some changes are needed, Ken said. Perhaps he can get some additional funding to search for the whales later in the year, travel to coastal waters or contract with researchers already working in the ocean.

Another option is to provide an annual list of the whales identified in inland waters when the 42 days of funding runs out, he said. That idea would not allow a complete census each year, but the whales would eventually show up and could be counted at that time. That’s the system used for counting Northern Residents in upper British Columbia, Ken said, noting that researchers up north often don’t see all the orcas in any one year.

Increased funding for research projects, including census counts, could come as a result of the new “Species in the Spotlight” campaign launched this spring by NOAA. The Southern Residents, listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act, are among eight well-known species considered at the greatest risk of extinction.

Eileen Sobeck, assistant NOAA administrator for NOAA Fisheries, made this statement when announcing the new campaign:

“Of all the species NOAA protects under the ESA, these eight species are among the most at risk of extinction in the near future. For some of these species, their numbers are so low that they need to be bred in captivity; others are facing human threats that must be addressed. If we act now with renewed commitment and intensified efforts, we can help these species survive and thrive.”

The other seven “Species in the Spotlight” are Gulf of Maine Atlantic salmon, Central California Coast coho salmon, Cook Inlet beluga whales, Hawaiian monk seals, Pacific leatherback sea turtles, Sacramento River winter-run chinook salmon and California Coast white abalone.

The campaign, which ends next May, will follow a detailed five-year plan to be unveiled in September.

Coastal researchers launch blog to share findings about ocean

It’s an interesting time for researchers to begin writing a blog about ocean conditions off Oregon and Washington, an area undergoing some fascinating changes in oceanography and sealife.

The colors reveal that sea surface temperatures are significantly higher than the long-term average. Click on the map to view a six-month animation. Graphic: NOAA OSPO
Colors indicate that sea surface temperatures (°C) are significantly higher off the West Coast than the long-term average. Click on the map to view a six-month animation.
Graphic: NOAA OSPO

Scientists from NOAA Fisheries and Oregon State University launched their new website, “Newporter Blog,” last week. It’s named after the Newport Line, an area of study off the Oregon Coast where researchers have monitored changes for the past 20 years.

“This year, the ocean has been very different,” wrote blogger Jennifer Fisher in the blog’s first post on June 23. “Anomalously warm surface water dubbed the ‘warm blog’ moved onto the continental shelf off Newport in September 2014. A very large harmful algal bloom (HAB) spanning from British Columbia to California is occurring off the coast right now. El Niño conditions are occurring at the equator, and NOAA is forecasting a 90-percent chance that an El Niño will persist through the Fall.”

The next blog post last Thursday was by researcher Cheryl Morgan from the Canadian fishing vessel FV Frosti “somewhere off the coast of the Pacific Northwest,” where researchers are looking to see how juvenile salmon are doing. They were taking note of anything picked up in their nets in the upper 60 feet of water.

“Watching the trawl come in is like the anticipation of opening a Christmas gift,” Cheryl wrote. “What could be in there? How many? How big? Have we ever caught any of them in the net?

“We always hope for some juvenile salmon, since that is the main point of the survey, but we also like to see something different, strange, or unusual to spice things up,” she continued.

Juvenile jack macherel Photo: Newporter Blog
Juvenile jack macherel
Photo: Newporter Blog

The next post on Monday revealed that fish being caught were of a kind seen in Northwest waters only when the temperatures rise. They included pompano and jack mackerel. The researchers were especially surprised to find bottom-dwelling flatfish in their net some several hundred feet off the bottom.

“What is a fish that lives on the bottom, one side down, doing in the water column?” she asked. “Perhaps they are lost, could not find the bottom or they are chasing some dinner. Most strange, however, was the catch of nearly 3,330 Pacific sanddabs … in ONE trawl. That was a first for even the fishing crew.”

The team also brought up a juvenile red octopus, a species normally found among rocks on the bottom — “another creature that is a long way from home.”

The research fishing will continue from Newport to the upper corner of Washington state. The scientists are taking note of any birds preying on fish before they begin their daily trawl. Plankton also are scooped up to see what the fish might be eating and to provide new data about the harmful algal bloom.

The work is being funded by NOAA and Bonneville Power Administration.

The researchers/bloggers said they would share their findings as they go along. I, for one, look forward to learning about ocean conditions and how the warm water is affecting all sorts of sealife along the West Coast.

Orca census shows increase in Southern Resident population

A census of the killer whales that frequent Puget Sound is due today, and it appears that the total population of the three Southern Resident pods is 82, up from 79 last year at this time.

But that’s not the end of the story, because two small groups of orcas have not been seen recently — so a final count must wait, according to Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research, which conducts the annual census.

J-36, a 16-year-old female named Alki, swims with her young calf J-52 (middle) and her sister, J-50 (far side). Both of the young orcas were born within the past year. Photo: Dave Ellifrit, Center for Whale Research, NMFS permit 15569/ DFO SARA 272
J-36, a 16-year-old female named Alki, swims with her young offspring J-52 and her sister, J-50. Both of the young orcas were born within the past year.
Photo: Dave Ellifrit, Center for Whale Research
NMFS permit 15569/ DFO SARA 272

The three Southern Resident pods, well defined years ago, are no longer the same, Ken told me. The tendency the past few years is for the whales to split up into smaller groups of one or more families, known as matrilines. Immediate families tend to stay together, but larger groupings such as pods and subpods are becoming less certain.

“They’ve decided to mix it up,” Ken said. “This is definitely different. If we were trying to determine pod structures right now, we couldn’t do it. It’s all mix and match.”

The Center for Whale Research records the annual census on July 1 each year and reports it to the federal government by October.

Four orca births can be reported since the last census was taken:

  • J-50 a female calf born to J-16, named Slick, last December
  • J-51 a male* calf born to J-41, named Eclipse, in February
  • L-121 a male* calf born to L-94, named Calypso, in February
  • J-52 a female male calf born to J-36, named Alki, in March

*Update: Sexes not confirmed by Center for Whale Research, and J-51 likely a male. (See comments.) I’ll update later.

These were the first births among Southern Residents to be reported since August of 2012. Some people see these newborns as a hopeful sign for the future of the population, which is listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act.

So far, one death has been confirmed over the past year. That was J-32, an 18-year-old female named Rhapsody, who was found dead on Dec. 4 floating near Courtenay, B.C. The young whale was pregnant, and experts believe that the death of the fetus inside her body could have led to her death as well. For more details , see Water Ways from Dec. 7 and from Dec. 12.

While there is no reason to believe that any other deaths have occurred over the past year, nobody can be sure, at least not until the last two groups of whales can be observed. If any animals are truly missing after their family groups are carefully observed, we could see one or more whales added to the death list.

In all, nine whales have not been seen this spring or summer since returning to the San Juan Islands. One of the two groups of whales was spotted off the Washington Coast in February, when all the whales were present. One of the uncertain groups was reported yesterday near San Juan Island, but I have not heard whether any “missing” whales were identified.

Since the census report is not due until October, there is time to see whether any more whales have died this past year. If any more deaths are identified, the researchers will need to make a judgment about whether the death occurred before or after the July 1 census cutoff. We can certainly hope that all the whales will be accounted for.

Ken suspects that the pod groupings are becoming less distinct because of the changing pattern of available prey, primarily chinook salmon. When large schools of wild chinook head back to the rivers, killer whales can work together to herd the fish and gain an advantage.

Ken says hatchery chinook may not school together as much as wild chinook, so the advantage goes to smaller groups of orcas if the majority of salmon are from hatcheries.

“The prey field has changed for them,” he said. “Back when we named the pods, the bulk of the fish were wild, and they were coming through in pulses. All these fish were related and from the same river system. Now with the hatchery program, there are less pulses and the fish are more spread out.”

The chinook also are much smaller than they used to be, he said, so it takes more effort to get the same nutritional benefit.

The Center for Whale Research, now in its 40th year, conducts its census work in Puget Sound under a grant from the National Marine Fisheries Service. The grant is fairly limited, so the center began offering memberships a few years ago to raise money for additional research.

This year’s membership drive is nearly halfway toward its goal of 750 members, with 329 members signed on as of yesterday. An individual membership costs $30 a year. For details and special member benefits, go to “Supporting the Center for Whale Research.”

In a related development, Ken recently took a trip into Snake River country in Eastern Washington, the source of upstream habitat for many of the salmon that come down the Columbia River. His experience and what he has learned about the Snake River dams has placed him among advocates for dam removal in this hotly contested debate.

After returning from his trip, Ken wrote an essay posted on the National Geographic blog “Voices: Ideas and Insights from Explorers.” Here are some excerpts from the blog post:

“Until recently, dam removal was against my conservative nature…

“In truth, already well known to others but not to me, these four Snake River dams are obsolete for their intended purposes and are being maintained at huge taxpayer expense for the benefit of a very few users. Plus, they are salmon-killers in a former river (now a series of lakes) that historically provided spawning and rearing habitat for millions of chinook salmon…”

“The technological fixes for the dams have not improved wild salmon runs, and there is nothing left to try. As a nation, we are dangerously close to managing the beloved Southern Resident killer whale population to quasi-extinction (less than 30 breeding animals) as a result of diminishing populations of chinook salmon upon which they depend…

“Returning the Snake River to natural condition will help salmon and whales, and save money. Please do not wait until all are gone. Call or write your representatives today!”