Category Archives: Research

Climate Sense: The last four years are the warmest four on record

I would like to share five items about climate change.

Item 1

“The website you are trying to access is not available at this time due to a lapse in appropriation,” states several websites about climate and climate change managed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

I hit that dead-end trying to find out how the year 2018 stacked up for global warming. It would also be nice to report data on national, regional and state trends collected by NOAA and NASA, which usually announce their findings about this time of year. It appears that this year we’ll need to wait. As an alternative, I turned to the Climate Change Service of the European Union.

Here are some of the findings announced yesterday by CCS in a press release:

  • The last four years have been the warmest four on record, with 2018 being the fourth warmest, not far short of the temperature of the third warmest year 2015.
  • 2018 was more than 0.4°C (0.72°F) warmer than the 1981-2010 average.
  • The average temperature of the last 5 years was 1.1°C (1.98°F) higher than the pre-industrial average (as defined by the IPCC).
  • Europe saw annual temperatures less than 0.1°C (0.18°F) below those of the two warmest years on record, 2014 and 2015.
Item 2

Washington Post reporters Chris Mooney and Brady Dennis report the findings by an independent research firm under the headline: “U.S. greenhouse gas emissions spiked in 2018 — and it couldn’t happen at a worse time.”

UPDATE, Jan. 9: I’m adding a second article on this topic by Robinson Meyer in The Atlantic: “U.S. carbon pollution surged in 2018, after years of stasis.”

Item 3

Maryland Sea Grant produced an eight-minute video (this page) about Smithville, a community on Maryland’s eastern shoreline that supported a population of more than 100 people a century ago. The loss of industry and advancing marsh waters has reduced the community to just two homes. The story of the changing waters and community response provides a perspective on conditions that could be in store for many communities as a result of climate change.

Item 4

In Washington state, the quest for national political leadership merges with efforts to address climate change, as Gov. Jay Inslee weighs the prospects of running for president while pushing ahead with a state initiative for climate change.

Check out the article by Edward-Isaac Dovere in The Atlantic titled “Jay Inslee is betting he can win the presidency on climate change” and watch the interview with Inslee by Chris Hayes on MSNBC.

Item 5

Looking back: Royal Society Publishing compiled an extensive description of feedback processes that increase or decrease the rate of global warming. Feedback effects are critically important aspects of climate change. A brief introduction to feedbacks was offered on the website “Carbon Brief” by Eric Wolff, a research professor at The Royal Society, which is Great Britain’s national science academy. Wolff is also the lead author for an introduction to a special issue of a journal called “Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A” dated Nov. 13, 2015. If you’re ambitious, you can read the details about various feedback responses in chapters of the journal itself.
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“Climate Sense” is my attempt to share some of the important research, political developments, fascinating viewpoints or inspiring opinions that I come across during my reading. For a further explanation, read my first Water Ways post of 2019: “Climate Sense: I would like to share what I learn during this coming year.”

Climate Sense: I would like to share what I learn during this coming year

In October, I was grabbed by a headline on a column by Margaret Sullivan, who writes about media issues for the Washington Post: “The planet is on a fast path to destruction. The media must cover this like it’s the only story that matters.” See Water Ways, Oct. 23.

Margaret Sullivan
Photo: Michael Benabib

As I wrote in my blog post, “Climate change is not a subject that generates happy news. It is not a subject that most politicians wish to address in any form, but it is one subject that separates those who care about the future of the planet from those who care only about short-term economic benefits or political gains.”

Nearly every time I write about climate change, someone reaches out to me to ask that I keep telling the climate story in my blog. I do a lot of reading about water-related issues, of course, and I am constantly learning about climate change — from detailed studies by scientists to government plans to address a future with greater floods, larger forest fires and extensive loss of marine life.

I have decided this year to share some of the more fascinating, ground-breaking or inspiring reports that I come across during my reading. I may provide just a link to an article or scientific report with a brief commentary, as opposed to a full-blown discussion. I’m going to label these brief references “Climate Sense” — as in the headline on this blog post. I hope we can all become better informed about this issue so vital to the future of humanity. (As always, one can subscribe to this blog in the column to the right.)

On Sunday, NBC’s Meet the Press devoted its entire program to Climate Change — the science, the damage, the cost and the politics. Watch the entire show at Meet the Press online, or check out the individual segments on YouTube.

It is difficult for a Sunday-morning program to tackle a singular topic, especially in this era of Donald Trump, said anchor Chuck Todd at the beginning of the news show. Climate change, he noted, is an “Earth-changing subject that doesn’t get talked about this thoroughly, on television news at least.”

I was impressed when Chuck Todd threw down the gauntlet by emphasizing that his hour-long program would not devote any time to a debate over the existence of climate change.

“The Earth is getting hotter, and human activity is a major cause — period,” he said. “We’re not going to give time to climate deniers. The science is settled, even if political opinion is not.”

What Americans think about climate change from a political perspective was covered in a segment called “Digital Download,” the first video on this page. I also found it interesting to hear how some experts thought they could better engage the public in climate change, as shown in the second video.

Whether Congress will seriously address climate change in the next two years is yet to be seen, but we know that the debate is coming to the Washington Legislature, with Gov. Jay Inslee leading the charge. Check out the governor’s announcement or read my interview with state Sen. Christine Rolfes, which I wrote after Washington voters rejected a carbon-tax proposal on November’s ballot.

I would like us to always remember the words about climate change from Washington Post columnist Margaret Sullivan:

“There is a lot happening in the nation and the world, a constant rush of news. Much of it deserves our attention as journalists and news consumers. But we need to figure out how to make the main thing matter.

“In short, when it comes to climate change, we — the media, the public, the world — need radical transformation, and we need it now. Just as the smartest minds in earth science have issued their warning, the best minds in media should be giving sustained attention to how to tell this most important story in a way that will create change.

“We may be doomed even if that happens,” she concludes. “But we’re surely doomed if it doesn’t.”

Japan allows commercial whaling, withdraws from international pact

Frustrated by international condemnation over its whaling activities, the Japanese government has decided to allow commercial whaling outright within its territorial waters and exclusive economic zone.

Japanese officials announced this week that the country would withdraw from the International Whaling Commission, which oversees international agreements for managing whales — including a worldwide ban against killing nearly all whales.

As a result, the Japanese whaling fleet will no longer travel to the Antarctic to kill whales, which the government justified for years under an exemption for “scientific” whaling. That whaling program, which killed 333 minke whales last year, failed to meet the requirements of scientific studies, according to a ruling by the International Court of Justice and findings by a scientific panel for the International Whaling Commission. See Water Ways, March 31, 2014.

Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said the move was a necessary consequence of the IWC’s failure to recognize its dual mandate of protecting whales and allowing an “orderly development of the whaling industry.” For 30 years, the Japanese government has been collecting information to show that whales can be sustainably harvested, Suga said in a statement, but it has become clear that the IWC is now focused only on conservation.

Most environmental groups condemned Japan’s pullout from the IWC.

“By leaving the IWC but continuing to kill whales in the North Pacific, Japan now becomes a pirate whaling nation, killing these ocean leviathans completely outside the bounds of international law,” said Kitty Block, president of Humane Society International and acting president of the Humane Society of the U.S.

“For decades Japan has aggressively pursued a well-funded whaling campaign to upend the global ban on commercial whaling,” she said in a news release. “It has consistently failed, but instead of accepting that most nations no longer want to hunt whales, it has now simply walked out.”

In Australia, Foreign Minister Marise Payne and Environment Minister Melissa Price said the government was “extremely disappointed” with Japan’s action.

“Their decision to withdraw is regrettable, and Australia urges Japan to return to the Convention and Commission as a matter of priority,” they said in a joint statement. “Australia remains resolutely opposed to all forms of commercial and so-called ‘scientific’ whaling. We will continue to work within the Commission to uphold the global moratorium on commercial whaling.”

Concerns with Japan’s withdrawal include the possibility that Japan will no longer report the number of whales killed and the potential of other countries following suit and starting whale hunting without consultation with the IWC.

“We are very worried that it might set a precedent and that other countries might follow Japan’s lead and leave the commission … especially South Korea where there is an interest in consuming whale meat in South Korea,” Astrid Fuchs of Whale and Dolphin Conservation told BBC News and reported in The Guardian.

“The oversight that the IWC was having over Japan’s whaling will now be lost,” she added. “We won’t know how many whales they are catching, we won’t know how they will report it. It might spell doom for some populations. There is an endangered population of Minke whales off Japan, which is already under threat.”

Most groups acknowledged that ending whaling in the Antarctic would be a good thing, and Capt. Paul Watson of Sea Shepherd took a celebratory posture about the prospect.

“I’m not quite sure why so many whale conservationists are upset by today’s announcement by Japan that they will be leaving the IWC,” Paul said in a Facebook post Wednesday. “After 16 years of intervening against Japan in the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary, I see this as a very positive development. It means that the whale war in the Southern Ocean is over and we and the whales have won. What we have fought for has been achieved — an end to whaling in the Southern Ocean.

“Japan leaving the IWC will allow the IWC to vote and pass the establishment of the South Atlantic Whale Sanctuary,” he added. “This means that the entire Southern Hemisphere will be free of whalers for the first time in history.”

Whaling remains illegal, Paul said, and Sea Shepherd will continue to oppose whaling with a variety of tactics. Now, it will be easier to build opposition, because Japan can no longer pretend that it is advancing scientific knowledge with its whaling operations. The only whaling nations left on Earth, he said, are Japan, Norway, Denmark and Iceland, and “they have been driven back to their own shores; the whalers of the world are in retreat.”

Sea Shepherd has not engaged the whaling fleet in “whale wars” — direct ship-to-ship confrontations — for the past two years, but the group claims to have driven up costs for the whalers, who have relied on government security boats and high-tech equipment to elude the anti-whaling activists. Those extra costs may have contributed to Japan’s decision to withdraw from the IWC. Also on the line was a discussion about whether the Japanese government should build a massive new ship for processing whale meat, a ship that won’t be needed in Japanese waters.

I’ve been reading about this situation in all kinds of publications, including English-language newspapers based in Japan. I would like to know if Japan intends to allow whalers to take the full self-imposed allotment of 333 minke whales during the current whaling season. The whaling fleet reportedly left for the Antarctic in early November and may be hunting for whales now. I have not yet learned whether the whaling fleet will come back early or take 333 whales before Japan pulls out of the IWC on July 1.

“With the Japanese whaling fleet hunting whales in our Southern Ocean, the Australian Government must demand they bring their fleet home immediately and take legal action if they don’t,” said Darren Kindleysides, CEO of the Australian Marine Conservation Society. In a written statement, he called it a “bittersweet victory” to get whaling out of the Southern Ocean but with “unchecked” commercial whaling to take place in Japan’s waters.

The IWC called a halt to commercial whaling in 1982. Japan complied with the moratorium at first but then developed scientific criteria to promote whaling under a special exemption. Scientists associated with the IWC, as well as the International Court of Justice, found that the criteria failed to meet true scientific standards and should not be allowed.

In September, Japan tried to persuade the IWC to relax its voting rules to allow changes to international rules on a simple majority vote, rather than three-fourths. That would have allowed Japan to rally a lot of non-whaling countries to support a resumption of commercial whaling, but the proposal was rejected along with a direct plan to allow commercial whaling.

In October, Japan agreed to stop the hunting of endangered sei whales in the North Pacific until its research program could be revised to comply with CITES — the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. A standing committee of CITES found that Japanese “research” whaling on sei whales actually contributed to an illegal sale of endangered species, according to a news release and report on the findings (PDF 1.2 mb). Sei whales are killed outside of Japan’s home waters, so the market is considered international.

The Japanese government contended that the sales were not a violation of CITES’ conventions, because all the proceeds were put back into research. Still, those officials said a new plan will be submitted for approval.

The issue is scheduled for review at the committee’s next meeting in May to determine if Japan has carried through on its commitment to stop commercial trade in sei whale meat. Japan had been planning to allow a harvest quota of 134 sei whales per year.

As for whaling off the coast of Japan, an offshore operation will be based at Shimonoseki in Yamaguchi Prefecture, while coastal operations will be based at Abashiri and Kushiro on the island of Hokkaido and four other seaports.

Although whale meat was an important staple for Japan following World War II, few Japanese people eat whale meat today. In some ways, however, whaling is still a matter of tradition for many Japanese people. Some have speculated that Japan’s withdrawal from the IWC is a face-saving way for the government to reduce its expenses for whale hunting while asserting its traditional right to take whales in its own waters.

A 2014 survey by the national Asahi Shimbun newspaper found that 60 percent of those questioned supported the “scientific” whaling program, yet only 10 percent eat whale meat “fairly frequently.” Another 4 percent said they eat whale meat “sometimes.” Nearly half (48 percent) said they have not eaten whale meat for “a long time,” while 37 percent said they never eat it. The survey was reported by the news portal Phys Org.

In a recent article, Asahi Shimbun reported that companies involved in the fishing industry are not eager to resume whaling.

“We have no plans to resume the whaling business,” a public relations official of Maruha Nichiro Corp. told the newspaper. The company, previously named Taiyo Gyogyo K.K., had been engaged in commercial whaling in the Antarctic Ocean. Retailers also expressed apprehension about selling more whale meat.

In 1962, about 233,000 tons of whale meat were consumed in Japan, according to the article. Today, annual consumption ranges between 3,000 tons and 5,000 tons.

BBC reporter Rupert Wingfield-Hayes tackled the issue two years ago and found that many Japanese were smoothly transitioning to beef. His story and video report show him sampling a chunk of whale meat, which he finds chewy with a gamey flavor. For older folks in Japan, Rupert discovers that whale meat is simply a taste of nostalia.

New online magazine describes life in and around Puget Sound

John F. Williams, a Suquamish resident who has been creating dramatic underwater videos for years, recently launched a new online publication called Salish Magazine. Its goal is to help people to better understand the ecosystem in the Puget Sound region.

For those of us who live in the region, John and his Still Hope Productions have helped us visualize and understand what lies beneath the waves and up the streams of Puget Sound. The video “Is this where Puget Sound starts?” (shown below) is a good example of the video production. Other videos can be found on Still Hope’s website.

The new online publication shifts to the use of more words, along with photos and videos, to explain the connections among living things. The first issue includes extensive articles on sea anemones, barnacles, sea stars, mussels and glaciation, spiced up with art, poetry and personal stories. Download the magazine as a huge PDF (56.6 mb) file or open it in iBooks.

The second issue of Salish Magazine is about the importance of forests, with articles on forest character, forest restoration, barred owls and more, as well as poetry, essays and lots of photos, all combined in a web design that combines variable scrolling with pull-down menus.

As John describes it, “A key focus of the magazine is to illustrate the interconnectedness woven through our ecosystems, using lenses of history, science, and culture.”

The first two issues are free, although a subscription is expected to be announced next year. Meanwhile, one can sign up for newsletters on the Subscribe webpage. Salish Magazine is published by the nonprofit firm SEA-Media.

Speaking of environment news, I hope everyone is familiar with Puget Sound Institute and its online newsletters. The December issue includes a quiz on Pacific herring and articles on rockfish, Puget Sound vital signs, the Clean Water Act and recent research papers.

Puget Sound Institute, an independent organization affiliated with the University of Washington, strives to advance an understanding of Puget Sound through scientific synthesis, original research and communication. PSI receives major funding from the Environmental Protection Agency.

One can subscribe to the PSI newsletter, blog and alerts to articles in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound on the Subscribe webpage.

Full disclosure: I am employed half-time by Puget Sound Institute to write in-depth articles about scientific discoveries and ecological challenges in the Puget Sound region.

Further note: A previous version of this post stated incorrectly that Still Hope Productions is a nonprofit company.

Major funding advances for restoration projects in Hood Canal region

More than $20 million in ecosystem-restoration projects along the Skokomish River in Southern Hood Canal could be under construction within two years, thanks to special funding approved by the Army Corps of Engineers.

Meanwhile, Washington state’s Salmon Recovery Funding Board announced this morning that it would provide $18 million for salmon restoration projects statewide — including a portion of the funding needed to purchase nearly 300 acres near the mouth of Big Beef Creek in Kitsap County.

Skokomish watershed (click to enlarge)
Map: Army Corps of Engineers

The Army Corps of Engineers has secured $13.6 million in federal funds for restoration on 277 acres in the Skokomish River watershed. Included in the work are levee removals, wetland restoration and installation of large-woody debris, said Mike Anderson, chairman of the Skokomish Watershed Action Team, known as SWAT. About $7 million in state matching funds is moving toward approval in the next Legislative session.

“We’re really happy and a little surprised,” Mike said. “We’d just gotten the design funding through the Corps earlier this year, and we were sort of expecting that we would get into the Corps’ 2020 budget for construction.”

The Corps chose Skokomish for some nationwide nondiscretionary funding to move the entire project to construction, he added, attributing the extra funding to ongoing cooperation among the various parties involved.

Projects approved for funding (click to enlarge)
Graphic: Army Corps of Engineers

Approval of the federal funds marks the culmination of many years of planning by members of the SWAT — including the Corps, Mason County, the Skokomish Tribe, state and federal agencies, nongovernment organizations and area residents, said Joseph Pavel, natural resources director for the Skokomish Tribe.

“The water and salmon are central to the life, culture, and well-being of the Skokomish community, and we are pleased and encouraged to be taking this next great step in the restoration, recovery, protection and management of the salmon resources we depend upon,” Pavel said in a prepared statement.

Specific projects to be funded by the Army Corps of Engineers with distances measured upstream from the estuary on Hood Canal:

Confluence levee removal: This levee was built with old cars at the confluence where the North Fork flows into the mainstem of the Skokomish. Some 5,000 feet of the levee would be removed. A small channel would be created to allow water from the mainstem to flow into the North Fork and return at the existing confluence. Large woody debris would help direct water into the channel. Estimated cost: $7.5 million.

Wetland restoration at river mile 9: The existing levee would be breached in four locations, and a new levee would be built some 200 to 300 feet farther away. The levee would allow for minor over-topping but would not increase the flood risk. Estimated cost: $2.4 million.

Wetland restoration near Grange: Larger breeches are planned for the levee near the Grange hall at river mile 7.5 to 8 . A new levee, up to 10 feet tall and 2,900 feet long, would be constructed 1,200 feet farther back with no increase in flood risk. Estimated cost $3.3 million.

Side channel connection near Highway 101: An old remnant channel between river mile 4 and 5.6 would be restored to take water from the mainstem at high flows. Woody debris would help define the inlet and outlet to the channel, which would become a ponded wetland at low flows. Estimated cost: $3.1 million.

Large woody debris: Upstream of the confluence with the North Fork, large woody debris would be installed. Large clusters of trees with root wads, as well as some single trees, would be placed between river mile 9 and 11. Estimated cost: $3.2 million.

State matching funds would be provided through grants, including the Puget Sound Acquisition and Restoration Fund and Floodplains by Design Fund, which depend on legislative appropriations, along with the Salmon Recovery Fund.

Another major project in the Skokomish Valley is a bridge and culverts where floodwaters often cover the West Skokomish Valley Road. The $1.2 million project is designed to reconnect wetlands on opposite sides of the road. Much of that needed funding has been secured through the Federal Lands Access Program. The project will be in an area where salmon can be seen swimming across the road during high flows.

See also Skokomish River Basin Ecosystem Restoration (PDF 7.5 mb) by the Army Corps of Engineers.

As announced by the Salmon Recovery Funding Board, the purchase of 297 acres on Big Beef Creek near Seabeck — including the University of Washington’s Big Beef Creek Research Station — will protect the important salmon stream and could provide public recreation in the future, according to Mendy Harlow, executive director of the Hood Canal Salmon Enhancement Group, which will take ownership of the property owned by the UW.

Big Beef Creek Research Station is part of 297 acres to be purchased from the University of Washington by Hood Canal Salmon Enhancement Group.
Photo: Brandon Palmer

The site includes a fish trap operated by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife as well as research facilities used for salmon spawning and rearing studies.

“We would like to continue the research there,” Mendy told me. “We’re going to be pulling together multiple agencies and other fish organizations to see if we have the capacity to keep a facility like that.”

The goal will be to balance ecosystem restoration with the potential of future research and salmon-enhancement efforts, she said. It is possible that trails or other recreation facilities could become part of a long-term plan.

The $430,000 provided by the Salmon Recovery Funding Board is a relatively small, yet important, part of the $4.3 million needed to acquire the property, she said. That total amount includes surveys, studies and appraisals as well as the cost of the property.

The project was awarded $980,000 from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s National Coastal Wetlands Program. Other funding could come from the state’s Puget Sound Acquisition and Restoration Fund and Washington Wildlife and Recreation Fund.

The $18 million in statewide salmon funding will go to 95 projects in 30 of the state’s 39 counties. Money will be used for improving salmon migration in streams, restoring stream channels and vegetation, improving estuaries and preserving intact habitat. About 75 percent of the projects will benefit Chinook salmon, the primary prey for the endangered Southern Resident killer whales. For details, download the document (PDF 393 kb) that lists the projects by county.

“This funding helps protect one of our most beloved legacies,” Gov. Jay Inslee said in a news release. “Together we’re taking a step forward for salmon, and in turn dwindling Southern Resident orca whales, while also looking back to ensure we’re preserving historic tribal cultural traditions and upholding promises made more than a century ago.”

Amusing Monday: Bill Gates talks toilets again

Microsoft founder Bill Gates remains obsessed with human waste — in a good way, of course. His goal is to improve sanitation throughout the world and thereby reduce suffering from disease.

Poop is a subject that never goes out of style with comedians, and Ronny Chieng of “The Daily Show with Trevor Noah” is right on top of the subject. In a conversation with Bill Gates, shown in the first video, Chieng demands to know why Gates has been carrying around a jar of human feces.

“Toilets are something that we take for granted,” Gates responds, “but billions of people don’t have them.”

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is funding a major campaign to get engineers and other smart people to design a small-scale treatment device that generates energy while producing useable water. It’s called the Reinvent the Toilet Challenge.

Ronnie Chieng is asking some good questions, but I’m not sure why he needs to blurt out a bunch of four-letter words, when five-letter words like “waste” and “feces” work quite well.

“We’ve put several hundred million into this to show it can be done,” Bill says.

“Several hundred million dollars?” Ronnie responds. “Oh my god, is Bill Gates literally flushing his fortune down the toilet?”

Those who have been following Bill Gates’ efforts for a few years won’t be surprised at his desire to improve sanitation in places around the world where flush toilets are just a pipe dream.

Last month, Gates carried a jar of human feces onto the stage with him in Beijing where he addressed an audience at the Reinvented Toilet Expo.

“This small amount of feces could contain as many as 200 trillion rotavirus cells, 20 billion shigella bacteria and 100,000 parasitic worm eggs,” Gates said, as quoted by National Public Radio. His prepared speech can be found on the website of the Gates Foundation, along with a press release.

About 20 exhibitors were able to show off their inventions, including household toilets capable of internally processing small amounts of waste as well as commercial-sized treatment plants that turn waste into drinking water, electricity and ash.

Sedron Technologies, based in Sedro Woolley, is working at both ends of the spectrum. On the larger scale, its Janicki Omni Processor dries out solid waste and uses it as fuel. On the smaller scale, its new Firelight Toilet was just unveiled at the recent expo and explained in a news story by reporter Julia-Grace Sanders of the Skagit Valley Herald.

Gates discusses what he calls “clever toilet” technologies in the second and third videos on this page. In addition to NPR, the Expo was covered by Popular Science and The Hindu, which localizes the story for its audience in India where sanitation is a monstrous issue.

As I said, Bill Gates has been obsessed with this issue for quite awhile. In 2015, I featured a video about the “ultimate taste test” using sewage effluent. The tasters were Gates and Jimmy Fallon of “The Tonight Show.” See Water Ways, Feb. 9, 2015.

Hydrophones open a world of underwater sound to people at home

Listening to the sound of whales in Puget Sound from your computer at home is becoming easier than ever, thanks to a new hydrophone on Whidbey Island and its connection to a more sophisticated computer network.

Organizers anticipate that thousands of human listeners could add a new dimension to scientific studies, raise awareness about the noise that orcas endure and perhaps alert authorities when sounds are loud enough to harm marine mammals in the vicinity.

The new hydrophone (underwater microphone) at Whidbey’s Bush Point was installed last summer, but it stopped working soon after it was announced to the world in early November, when news stories appeared in print and on radio and television. The timing couldn’t have been worse, said Howard Garrett of Orca Network, a partner in the venture.

“We finally got the word out just as it crashed and just as J pod came into Puget Sound,” Howie told me. “We got it working after J pod had left.”

It appears that there was a problem with both the hydrophone itself and the power supply that runs a critical computer, experts say. I decided to wait and write about the new hydrophone when readers could go right to the Orcasound webpage and listen to the live sounds of underwater activity. With Whidbey’s hydrophone back in operation, one can now listen to sounds from two hydrophone locations using a web browser:

  • Orcasound Lab: This location on the west side of San Juan Island is a major thoroughfare for the endangered Southern Resident killer whales as they come east through the Strait of Juan de Fuca or south from the Strait of Georgia.
  • Bush Point: This location on the west side of Whidbey Island picks up the orcas as the enter or leave Puget Sound through Admiralty Inlet, their primary route to and from Central and South Puget Sound.

Sounds from hydrophones in several areas of Puget Sound have been available for years, thanks to the efforts of Val Veirs and his son Scott, affiliated with Beam Reach Marine Science, along with a host of other volunteers and organizations who have helped maintain the hydrophones. In the past, network users would need to launch a media player, such as iTunes, on their computer to receive the live audio stream. The new browser-based system requires no additional software.

Photo courtesy of Beamreach.org

One can also listen to a hydrophone at Lime Kiln Lighthouse, a favorite spot of the orcas on the west side of San Juan Island. The Lime Kiln live stream, a project of SMRU Consulting and The Whale Museum, can be heard on SMRU’s website. I’m hoping that Scott can add the hydrophone to his list. Orcasound, which is managed by Scott, still has a link to Lime Kiln that requires iTunes or another player.

At the moment, hydrophones that had been in operation at Port Townsend Marine Science Center, Seattle Aquarium and Neah Bay are out of operation for various reasons, Scott said, but he is working with folks at each location to see if the hydrophones could be brought back online using his new browser-based software. He would also like to expand the network with more hydrophones to pick up whale movements.

Scott’s vision of this hydrophone network involves using the technology to organize people to improve our understanding of orcas and other marine mammals while building a community concerned about the effects of underwater noise.

Scott said he has been surprised at the number of average people who have caught on to specific calls made by the whales. By identifying the calls, one can learn to tell the difference between fish-eating residents and marine-mammal-eating transients. More advanced listeners can distinguish between J, K and L pods. Check out Orcasound’s “Listen” page for information about sharing observations, learning about orca calls, and listening to archived recordings of calls.

One story I’ve never told goes back to 1997, when 19 orcas from L pod were in Dyes Inlet. It involves a phone call I received from my wife Sue. I was working at the Kitsap Sun office and away from my desk when the call came in. When I checked my voicemail, I heard what I thought was the mewing of tiny kittens. That made sense, I thought, because we had recently adopted two one-day-old kittens whose mother had abandoned them at birth. But the sound on my phone was not kittens after all but killer whales. My wife was in a boat on Dyes Inlet helping researchers who had lowered a hydrophone to listen to the orcas. Sue was holding up her cellphone and leaving me a voicemail from the whales.

The sound I heard on my phone was something like the following call, although multiplied by many voices:

      1. K-pod-S16-stereo

Scott told me that he would like to come up with names instead of numbers for the various calls. The one above is already being called “kitten’s mew,” although it is better known as “S16” among the scientific community. See the website “Listening for orcas” or the longer “Southern Resident Call Vocabulary.”

Orca Network is well known for collecting information about whale sightings, but now people are also reporting in when they hear the sounds of whales. That is especially helpful when visibility is poor. Both the sighting and sounding information can at times be useful to researchers who follow the whales at a distance and collect fecal samples to check out their health conditions. Observers can send notes via Orca Network’s Facebook page or via email.

Photo courtesy of Beamreach.org

Howard Garrett of Orca Network mentioned that many people are tuning in to the underwater sounds even when whales are not around. They may listen for hours with an expectation of hearing something interesting, but listeners also come to understand the world occupied by the whales.

“You get to experience what the orcas’ lives are like,” Howie told me. “It’s a noisy world for the killer whales.”

Scott agreed. “The most powerful thing that these live streams do is inspire people to listen. What they come to understand is what quiet is and that ships are the dominant source of noise out there.”

Knowing where a hydrophone is located, one can go to MarineTraffic.com and identify one or more ships that may be making the noise. “I do want people to call out outlier noise polluters,” Scott said.

Because federal funds for running the hydrophones has mostly dried up, Scott launched a Kickstarter campaign to design and get the new system up and running. It was great to learn who the supporters are, he said, noting that he knew only about a third of the people who are regular listeners. One woman in Romania became an expert in listening to the whales and wrote a paper about how to improve the hydrophone network.

“We are poised to become a much better organizer of people,” Scott said. “One option is for notifications. We can send out notifications using a new app that allows people to tune in when the whales can be heard.”

Notifications are not yet an option, but I told Scott that I would let people know when this option becomes available.

Computer programs have been developed to recognize the sounds of orcas, record various data and send out an alert, but the human brain has unique capabilities for understanding sound. Together, computers and human listeners can capture more information than either one alone. Scott said.

“I think we might have a friendly competition between humans and machines,” he noted.

Most hydrophones are designed for listening in the human range of hearing, but Scott would like to install more advanced devices capable of capturing the full vocal range of an orca. Such sounds could then be more completely analyzed. Perhaps someone will discover the still-hidden meanings of the orca vocalizations.

Amusing Monday: Colorful sea slugs reveal evolutionary strategies

In conjunction with National Sea Slug Day last Monday, the California Academy of Sciences released colorful photographs of 17 newly identified nudibranch species.

Striking colors and unusual color patterns were given a special focus in a genetic study that is helping to group the nudibranch species and understand how they evolved. Hannah Epstein, affiliated with the California Academy, was the lead author on the research paper published in the Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society.

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Amusing Monday: Ig Nobel prizes make us laugh, then think

Roller coasters and kidney stones; voodoo dolls and abusive bosses; and wine with fruit flies were all part of this year’s Ig Nobel Prize ceremony at Harvard University.

The annual ceremony recognizes seemingly off-the-wall research, most of which is published in actual scientific journals. Judges are looking for studies that first make them laugh and then make them think, according to Marc Abrahams, who founded the Ig Nobel awards in 1991.

Abrahams, the master of ceremonies, serves as editor of the “Annals of Improbable Research,” a publication that seeks out oddball investigations in science and other fields.

As usual, the ceremony shows that researchers really do have a sense of humor. This year’s theme was “the heart,” as reflected in a heart trophy and an opera performed during the ceremony. The full show, presented in the video on this page, contains skits, stunts and demonstrations.

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Increase in harbor porpoises shifts Puget Sound’s food web

Most of us have heard that harbor seals eat Chinook salmon, which are the preferred food for our beloved Southern Resident killer whales, an endangered species whose long-term survival could hinge on getting enough Chinook.

The number of harbor seals in the inland waters of Washington state now totals somewhere around 10,000 or slightly higher, according to the latest estimates by Steve Jeffries, a marine mammal biologist with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Harbor porpoise surfing in a boat wake in Burrows Pass, off Fidalgo Island.
Photo: ©Cindy R. Elliser, Pacific Mammal Research

But did you know that harbor porpoises, which eat many of the same things as harbor seals, now number around 11,000 in the same general area? That’s according to a recent study for the Navy led by research consultant Tom Jefferson.

I have to say that those numbers came as a major surprise to me, and I began to ask questions about what all these porpoises in Puget Sound might be doing to the food web, which involves complex interactions between salmon, seals, porpoises, orcas and many other species.

The result of my inquiry is a story published this week in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.

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