Sunday, April 26, 2015

Ahupua`a: Water and Land Lessons From Ancient Hawai`i

Water & Watersheds

By John Shepard

Dr. Kawika Winter closed his eyes for a few moments to center himself. Then he began a melodic, full-throated chant in his native Hawaiian that gave me goosebumps. His voice reverberating through the dense foliage of Kauai's verdant north shore, Winter stood facing an 800-foot waterfall that had come into view. When he was finished chanting, Winter explained that he was giving thanks for the gifts of the forest and announcing our presence before we continued our hike toward one of Hawaii's most pristine environments.

Ground Zero for Endangered Species

In the reaches above the waterfall, so rugged and remote that you need a helicopter to get there, the National Tropical Botanical Garden's Limahuli Garden and Preserve protects an enclave of rare plants and animals that is virtually unrivaled in a land that ranks as ground zero for endangered species in the United States. It's a place where a reviving culture's ancient history has lessons that can enlighten our thinking today.

Hawai`i, with less than one percent of the U.S. land mass, has 30 percent of the country's endangered species. Visitors may be lucky enough to encounter an endangered Nēnē (a distant relative of some Canada geese that 500,000 years ago wandered far off course to eventually become the Hawai`i state bird) or an endangered monk seal (Ilio-holo-i-ka-uaua in Hawaiian, which becomes "dog that runs in rough water" in English).

The endangered Nēnē..

But because Hawai`i is so lush with flora and fauna, the extensive degradation of Hawaii's ecosystems that has given rise to so many endangered species would be news to most. It is news that rarely makes it onto the golf courses and spectacular beaches. It also wouldn't occur to most hikers navigating among exotic looking, but mostly non-native, plants and animals. Equally obscure is the ironic fact that the ancient Hawaiians worked out some extraordinary strategies for living sustainably—even thriving—in a world of palpably finite resources.

The Ahupua`a System

Though there is lively debate over the size of Hawaii's population in 1778, when Captain James Cook arrived in this most remote of the world's archipelagos, the British explorer's estimate was about 400,000 people. That population would have given an average density of about 62 people per square mile—which in practice would have been greater due to an abundance of uninhabitable mountain throughout the islands. In the 1,000 years (again, estimates vary) since the islands were first colonized by Polynesian sea farers in double-hulled canoes, the Hawaiians had mastered a number of land- and water-management strategies that sustained them as if their survival depended upon it, which it did in ways that we would do well to consider today.>

Kauai's Ahupua`a and bio-cultural zones (© Kawika Winter).

The islands were divided into more than 1,800 sections called ahupua`a. Three-quarters of these land units ran from mountain top to the sea. Each ahupua`a was managed communally and overseen by an konohiki, or chief. Interestingly, for those who see value in "thinking like a watershed," in some places ahupua`a were actually defined by watershed boundaries. This was most often the case on Kaua`i, the oldest of the major islands and the place where research suggests that the concept of ahupua`a originated in about 1400 CE.

Kauai's plunging valleys and razor-sharp ridges, and you can't help but notice how watershed boundaries assert their presence. This dramatic landscape has been sculpted by five million years of erosion since Kauai's birth as a dome-shaped volcanic island that looked much like Hawai`i does today. The Hā`ena ahupua`a, which includes the Limahuli Garden and Preserve, was one of those defined by watershed boundary. But even for most of those that weren't, in ancient times the ahupua`a concept sustained communities by providing access to diverse local resources and by instituting ways of maintaining them. Ahupua`a that ranged from mountain peaks to coastal waters extended through as many as five bio-cultural regions that were shaped largely by elevation and climate. These regions offered riches from the sea, areas suited for terraced agriculture, flora and fauna found only in dense forests, and, that essential life resource, fresh water—all without having to leave home.

In the video accompanying this post, Dr. Winter, who holds a PhD in botany and is director of the Limahuli Gardens and Preserve, introduces some key ideas that helped maintain resources within ahupua`a. Stay tuned for more on the subject as CGEE continues to develop learning resources in partnership with the National Tropical Botanical Garden and our other Kaua`i education partners: cultural-historical preservation consulting group Nā Hōkū Welo, and the Ke Kula Ni`ihau O Kekaha Learning Center.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Hydrogen Just Around the Corner


by Kevin Clemens

Hydrogen Just Around the Corner

My friend Dennis Simanaitis likes hydrogen as a transportation fuel source. Dennis traded his PhD in Mathematics for a three-decade career as the Engineering Editor at Road and Track magazine, so I tend to listen when he predicts the future. He recently retired from R&T and writes a blog for car guys and techno-geeks called

Although Simanaitis admits that he has been a hydrogen fuel cell fan “since the early 1990s,” he also acknowledges that hydrogen has been called “great technology, but always ten years away.”

4 Miracles for Hydrogen to be a Fuel Source
In my book The Crooked Mile (2009, Demontreville Press) I admit I was somewhat dismissive of hydrogen’s chances. I said that there were four miracles that had to happen before you would be fueling your family car with the stuff. First, you have to make hydrogen. Most of it today comes as a byproduct of oil refining, so if you were looking at it as a way to move away from fossil fuels, that’s a non-starter. You can break down water into two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom using electricity through electrolysis, but breaking water’s atomic bonds requires significant energy. Still, with large solar arrays or wind turbines dedicated to the task, it could be possible.

Secondly, once you have hydrogen you have to transport it. Natural gas commonly travels around the country through welded steel pipelines, but hydrogen embrittles welds, causing them to eventually crack and fail. Moving gaseous fuels by tanker trucks is possible, but expensive and the specter of an accident when huge amounts of hydrogen is transported can’t be ignored. In addition, the gaseous fuel doesn’t have the energy density of liquid gasoline, so a forty-four ton truck that can carry enough gasoline to fuel 800 cars can only carry enough hydrogen to fuel eighty vehicles.

Storing hydrogen on-board the vehicle itself is also difficult. Hydrogen atoms are tiny and have a habit of slipping through seals over relatively short periods of time. BMW found that their -253°C cryogenic tank would lose half of its hydrogen after nine days. There are a variety of other ways to store hydrogen and some have real potential for vehicle use.

The last miracle that hydrogen needs is a reduction in cost for the fuel cell that converts gaseous hydrogen into electric to drive the vehicle. Twenty years ago, these were NASA-space shot level of cost and complexity. Thanks to continuing materials research, the costs began to come into line with what carmakers say they need to build profitable cars. Seven years ago, in 2008, Honda introduced the first “production” fuel cell vehicle, the FCX Clarity with a $600 per month lease cost. Others followed and Dennis points out that Hyundai will soon introduce its 2016 Tucson Fuel Cell with a 36-month lease at $2999 up front and $499/month, including hydrogen fuel and maintenance. Great if you live in California, which is the only place it is available.

In 2009, when I wrote that hydrogen as a fuel would require four miracles, I also tempered that comment with the idea that engineers are really clever and that we could count on them to find solutions to at least two of the miracles. I’m not sure that even two have been solved yet, but as my friend and colleague Mr. Simanaitis points out, the hydrogen fuel cell niche is flourishing.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

45 Years and Counting


by Edward Hessler

April 22, 2015
3 Sunnyside Place

Earth Day #45.  This celebration as well as opportunity for reflection and action was founded by Gaylord Nelson, when he was a U. S. Senator from Wisconsin.
Designed by Freepik

Following the first Earth Day in 1970, Senator Nelson received a stream of letters from students across the United States.  About these letters, he wrote, "These young people are asking why their elders have taken such a beautiful world and are spoiling it for their children and grandchildren. They are asking ...'What are me and you gonna do?'"

Some of these letters became a wonderful book, What Are You and Me Gonna Do?: Children's Letters to Senator Gaylord Nelson About the Environment.  The letters, as Senator Nelson noted, are charming, poignant, and most of all direct.  Here is an example from an exasperated student. It was written in cursive!

Dear Sir:

     I'm ten years old and very worried about our growing environment. I wish I could feel free to breathe the air I do breath, swim in the eater I do swim in, look at the ugely diseased, or burnt down trees that were once beautiful. I sometimes wonder if you really do anything about it?  Why, and you ask what do you mean why?  Well, I mean, why just stand (or sit) there reading my letter!! DO SOMETHING!!! [underlined 3 times]

Call the President!
Do anything, but STOP POLLUTION!!!! [underlined 4 times]

A concerned fourth grader,
[see book for name]

p. s.
the birds, giraffes, and other high animals can't live with air pollution. I am a very, very, very healthy little girl. What am I to do?

On this Earth Day, I am still thinking about a New York Times article on carbon dioxide emissions for 2014, one that caught me by complete surprise.  In the words of John Schwarz, "they stalled."  And in a time of an expanding global economy!  An expert on climate change, Dr. Minda Berbeco, National Center for Science Education (NCSE) has a great post on some meanings about this N of one.

What do you make of these data?

There is still more than enough for us to do. Some are small and personal (e.g., lifestyle changes). Others are large, aimed at broad sociocultural change (e.g., pressing leaders to promote and pass legislation that reduces impacts from anthropogenic climate change).

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Alaska's Wild Rivers


by John Shepard

Like a splash of glacial water to the face, Alaska’s waterways wake you up to the importance of rivers left wild and free. The 49th state has more than 12,000 rivers—so many flowing through so much wild, sparsely inhabited country, that only 9,728 of them have been officially named, according to the US Geological Survey. And on all of these rivers there exist only 167 dams. Alaska’s lack of dams stands out in a world where, according to the International River Network, only one third of the largest 177 rivers flow free and only 21 rivers longer than 1,000 kilometers run unfettered to the sea.

Braided channels of the Teklanika River in Denali National Park.
Braided channels of the Teklanika River in Denali National Park.

I recently had an opportunity to explore several magnificent and wild Alaskan rivers, following them for many miles by train, bus, and small airplane; and observing them up close on foot, and—on the Nenana River just outside Denali National Park—in a one-person raft small enough to fit into a day pack.

What struck me most immediately about these silt-ladened, glacially-fed rivers was the many places where they morphed into multiple, exuberant, wildly braided channels. It was as though the river had split into dozens of clones, each setting off on its own merry adventure, only to merge momentarily with another, and then divide again.  Beneath and among these complex, ever-shifting strands of water were the tons of silt and gravel they carried from mountains that are ever so slowly washing into the sea. These sediments are constantly rearranged by river currents that pulse with variations in flow from rains and melting snows. 

The results of this relentless river-bed sculpting can be surprising. Once when canoeing a heavily braided section of the Coppermine River on its run toward the Arctic Ocean in Canada’s Nunavut Territory, I looked up from the channel I was in to see that the less-eroded channel beside me appeared to have mysteriourly risen several feet higher in elevation, only to dip down to my level again within a few hundred yards. These kinds of living-geology experiences are rarely to be had on rivers that have been tamed and harnessed for human use—rivers constrained by levees and dams, whose reservoirs submerge the braided channels and gradually fill with deposits of water-borne sediments once destined to bring nourishment to biologically rich river deltas and the seas beyond them.

Of course, our civilization has benefitted in multiple ways from the restructuring of waterways. Dams and levees have reduced flooding impacts on human communities; provided hydropower; created water reserves for drinking, agriculture, and industry; and greatly enhanced commercial navigation of rivers like the Mississippi. Southern California would be a sparsely inhabited semi-desert without dams, canals, and reservoirs. Texas, with more reservoirs than Minnesota has lakes, would never be able to support a population projected to grow from 20 million in 2000 to 40 million by 2050 without the extensive damming of its rivers. But in the U.S. and worldwide, such benefits have come with great ecological and human costs. These include major impacts on migratory fish and other aquatic organisms (including species extinctions), loss of farmlands and forests, destruction of wetlands, disruption of groundwater recharge, and lack of sediment to nourish biologically rich and economically vital estuaries and other coastal environments.  

While large dam construction in the U.S. has become historical legacy, and the removal of antiquated, useless dams is a growing trend (see, for example, the recent film DamNation), the building of major dams continues in China, India, Brazil, and elsewhere.  A trip to wild Alaska—or to any place where streams still run free—offers an important reminder of how wonderful an unconstrained river truly is.

Monday, April 20, 2015

What Are You Doing Here?


by Kevin Clemens

If I told you that I spent the first “half” of my career working as an engineer in the automotive industry and then as a journalist covering the latest and greatest in high performance automobiles, you might find it strange that I will be writing in a blog dedicated to global environmental education. It’s not that I had a sudden epiphany and gave up my love of cars—in fact it is my passionate interest in transportation that has brought me to Hamline University’s Center for Global Environmental Education (CGEE) as the Energy and Transportation Fellow.

The reality is that transportation is the second largest source of carbon dioxide emissions in the U.S. and accounts for 70 percent of oil consumption in this country. Globally, the numbers are similar and by 2050 the number of vehicles on the road is expected to double while global transportation demand grows by 50 percent. So an ever increasing world population whose demand for energy intensive transportation will likely overwhelm the traditional view of conservation of natural resources and environmentalism.

Engineers & Environmentalists Working Together
It is easy to be opposed to transcontinental oil pipelines, mountain-top removal coal mining, fracking for oil and natural gas, and arctic and off-shore oil drilling based upon the dangers that they present to the environment. But I like when the lights come on at the flip of a switch at my house and that my car can effortlessly transport me to a meeting across town or a vacation at a National Park. As third-world countries develop, is it fair for me to deny their citizens the same simple convenience in their lives?

The reason then for an engineer to be placed among CGEE’s group of committed natural scientists and environmentalists is that a love and abiding respect for the outdoors is no longer sufficient if we are to protect the diversity and vital nature of the only planet we have, while also maintaining a way of life that most of us would find difficult to abandon.

In the past there was a hard line between engineers and environmentalists—an “us and them” attitude.  The future we face however will not be easy: environmentalists can’t make decisions without considering the engineering side of the equations, and engineers must learn to be much better environmentalists. We are all in this together and it is time to start acting like it.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Mississippi River Institute Tuesday, July 29: Geology Inquiry and Macroinvertebrates

Day Two - Tuesday, July 29, 2014

by Steven Beardsley

Where we were for the last two days of the three-day institute

Reflection Sharing and Blue River Activities
Today, we were at the Thomas C. Savage Visitor Center at Fort Snelling State Park. We began the journey of our day by seeing a few deer up the path and a couple of turkeys walking around the center. We spent the morning sharing the reflection paragraphs that we wrote about yesterday’s events. The reflection was a great way to do an open-ended assessment, which also led to conversations about using multimedia like iMovie and iMovie Trailer to create reflections after a class period.

Next was a fun activity outside, simulating the flow of a river. Participants formed various tributaries, sending representative colored beads to the end of the river. We simulated seasons of rainfall from winter to spring to summer, and had fun adding a source of point pollution that simulated contamination along the waterways. We learned that the activity could be adapted to include other man-made creations along rivers, like locks, dams, and even storm drains.

Participants share their reflections
River activity from Project Wet

Geology Inquiry with Stream Tables
The rest of the day involved geology inquiry and macroinvertebrates. Participants were able to choose which activity they wanted to do in the morning and in the afternoon. For instance, I had the opportunity to experience stream tables with Ed and Sil in the morning. Sil first demonstrated how water flows down an elevated surface, letting participants make guesses about where watersheds would form.

Next we did stream tables, and though I was able to do them at the St. Croix River Institute last month, I learned more about the importance of modeling development along the river.

For instance, we got to identify different parts of rivers that formed in our stream table while creating various communities along it. The modeling raised questions about how communities manage to get clean water and what happens if the river floods and ends up toppling a bridge.

We then talked about our communities and discussed a video, Wolves in Yellowstone, exploring how the introduction of wolves back into Yellowstone Park influenced the river. Finally, Ed and Sil gave us a chance to walk around the park and see how water interacts in the real world.

Bridge collapse and houses getting soaked
Sil leading “What is a Watershed?” activity

Open Inquiry and Macroinvertebrates

The next part of the day involved driving down to the beach to study macroinvertebrates. This part of the institute was an example of "open inquiry," because participants were asked to come up with a question to study and then to determine how they would study it in a one-hour period. My group explored how the biodiversity of the river changed more and more the further we were from the shoreline. The best laid plans often go awry. We ended up spending more time looking at the macroinvertebrates that we found furthest from the shore. We found a variety - from dragonfly nymphs to caddisfly larva. Did you know that caddisfly larvae wrap materials from the environment around their bodies to make a home? Many of the caddisfly larvae we found looked like little stick leaves.

David, Carl, and Sam leading Macroinvertebrates
Using a black tarp to gather macroinveterbrates
A dragonfly larva was my group’s biggest find


Final Thoughts

Today was a great day filled with geology and macroinvertebrate inquiry. I found myself enjoying both the opportunity to see what lives in the Mississippi River and the chance to model developments along a river. Overall, I think the experience taught a great deal about how people influence and are influenced by the Mississippi River, and it provided important activities teachers can use to guide students in their own experience and learning about the environment around them.

Part of Dichotomous Key used to identify macroinvertebrates

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

That Sinking Feeling: Land Lost and Land Gained in the Mississippi River Delta


By John Shepard

Meraux Foundationʻs Arlene Meraux River Observation Center at Docville Farm.
You might think that in one of America’s most important ports—the world’s fourth busiest by bulk tonnage—the crucial link to the sea would be prominent, obvious, maybe even celebrated. But in and around New Orleans, the Mississippi River isn’t much to be seen. I wonder how the fate of the river delta’s beleaguered natural systems might be different if the river, whose sediments have built and sustained one of most biologically rich coastal environments on the planet, were more accessible, or even just more visible. 

St. Bernard Port in-stream transfer terminal.
I write this from a rare window on the river where it flows past a shining new River Observation Center at the Meraux Foundation’s Docville Farm in St. Bernard Parish, where a CGEE River Institute is planned for this coming summer. The view before me from an upper level of the five-story building constantly draws my attention. The New Orleans skyline is visible about ten miles upstream. A parade of large cargo vessels pass by, visible over the top of the massive US Army Corps levee and the trees just beyond it that line the riverbank (a Panamanian crude oil tanker with the intriguing name Esteem Splendour just passed by heading downstream). These ships and their crews are in a world apart, and I can’t help but wonder what it’s like for the pilots as they keep an eye on currents and monitor other traffic while navigating the twisting river bends. I have met many people whose livelihoods are tied directly to the river delta’s amazingly fertile lands and waters—yet for almost all of them the river itself is not part of their direct experience.

The same levees that obstruct views of and access to the river protect human communities from the damages of river floods. But they have also been depriving the delta’s wetlands of sediment carried by the river. Here, in a nutshell, are the dynamics of the situation: 

Louisiana coastal wetlands from above.
For millenia, the slurry-like sediment that makes up the Delta’s land mass has been regularly replenished with vast amounts of new material every time the Mississippi flooded—usually, each spring and fall. This land naturally oozes into the Gulf of Mexico in a process called subsidence. For almost 100 years, however, levees have disrupted the land-loss/land-building process. Instead of replenishing delta wetlands, the levees contain the river-borne sediment, which is carried through the delta to the Gulf, where it disperses into the abyss off of the continental shelf. Sea-level rise compounds matters. While the world’s seas have been gradually rising for hundreds of years, our changing climate is exacerbating the rate at which shoreline is disappearing. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s coastal management plans anticipate a rise in sea level in the Gulf of 1.5 feet between 2000 and 2050. More recent studies suggest that these plans may be too conservative.

Diverting sediment from the river and transporting dredge material into the surrounding wetlands are widely recognized core strategies for saving the delta—strategies that are central to the current Louisiana coastal restoration Master Plan. However, there is much controversy over which strategy is best, and where and when they should be used. Last year we made an excursion by boat from a landing in Venice near the end of the Mississippi’s navigation channel to witness the land-building that diversions—in this case a half-mile-wide levee breech—can bring about. Here’s a short video of that trip to the West Bay Diversion:

It’s a shame more people can’t witness first hand such age-old processes that the river has wrought, and even sit a while by its banks to take in its swirling currents. When next summer’s contingent of teachers come together at Docville Farm, we’re planning to build into their experience a direct introduction to the river flowing with such power just beyond the levee.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

What’s Next?


by Kevin Clemens

When I first went to the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah with an electric motorcycle in 2011 to set a land speed record, I had an ulterior motive. I had been told by car company executives that 75 percent of the issue with the acceptance of electric cars was not technical but one of education: people needed to learn that electric vehicles were more than just glorified golf carts. I thought that, in my own small way, I could help show that electrified transportation could be fun, exciting and practical.

After setting a National Record my first time out, my efforts in subsequent years grew with more complicated and sophisticated electric motorcycles and a larger support team of family and friends. The Salt Flats became our yearly family vacation destination and months of evenings and weekends the entire year prior would be spent in the workshop, building new machines to challenge the salt.

Racers have been going to Bonneville for more than 100 years, and the period since the Second World War has seen organized events on the nearly perfect surface of dried salt that forms every summer when the relentless sun dries a briny lake into a seemingly endless expanse. Arrow straight courses of up to 12 miles in length allow some of the world’s fastest and most unusual vehicles to reach their top speeds and set national and world land speed records.

At first, it was enough to just be there and to fly the flag of electrification. Of the 45-600 motorcycles that would show up to compete, each year only 3-6 of them would be electrically powered—we were pioneers staking out a new frontier.  Eventually, the need for speed crowded into my motivation and the hunt for national and even world records became important goals.

Ironically, in the past five years, the general public has begun to accept the veracity of electric vehicles. Almost 120,000 electric vehicles were sold in the U.S. in 2014, a 23 percent increase from the previous year. The Nissan Leaf, Chevrolet Volt, BMW i3 and the Tesla Model S have made their mark proving that electric vehicles can be a viable alternative to traditional gasoline engine vehicles. Although U.S. sales of electric vehicles are still less than 1 percent of the total yearly vehicle sales, the public is at least aware that they exist, and resistance to them is slowly decreasing.

In my own, very small and seemingly insignificant way, we can consider our effort with electric motorcycles at Bonneville to be a success. Yes, we have set some records, many of which have been or will be broken by other teams, but we have also done our part to make people aware that alternatives to gasoline do exist and that pushing out new frontiers needn’t be only the purview of large and well-funded corporations. We have done our part and will return this year in 2015 to try to go a bit faster and set another record—watch this space and come along for the ride…