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You are here: /main/research/NOWRAMP 2002/features/real science


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Real Science
Posted by Mark Heckman, Educator, Waikiki Aquarium/ University of Hawai’i – Manoa

My definition of science is simple, “science is the search for verifiable reality”.

By this I mean that it is the same for you, me, or someone from a different country that does not speak the same language or even think in the same fashion. Science gives us common ground to work from. An apple is an apple is an apple – no matter what we call it. If I put one apple on a table, and I say, “here is one, 4 inch apple”, it will be hard for anyone to disagree on that basic information. Each observer can measure and count that apple and come up with the same result.

Then we can decide what to do. If we know how many apples there on that table and how large, what kind they are and so on; we can make reasonable decisions about them. If someone takes one, we will know. Perhaps we all want to eat the apples; but then we would have no more. Perhaps we will want to save them for tomorrow, or plant the seeds for future generations.

The Northwestern Hawaiian Islands are still a largely unknown wilderness. When we try and talk about them, everyone tends to have their own impressions and ideas. We need some basic facts. We need the science. How many fish are there? How big are they? Is the bottom mostly sand, reef, or rock? What is so special about the place and why should it be protected for us and our children? With science, we can at least start with some common ground.

To do this, the NOWRAMP 2002 has assembled a diverse group of experts working on a variety of projects. To learn more about these projects, click on the highlighted words below.

REA diver.  Photo by Jim WattREAs (Rapid Ecological Assessments)
Would you like to dive in uncharted waters? Think about being part of an REA team. These divers do three work dives a day trying to get a grip on the basic ecology of the reefs by evaluating the fish, corals, invertebrates, and seaweeds (algae). At night they just have time to enter their data and process their specimens, before falling into bed before another full day. Typical work days on the boat are from 6:30 am – midnight.

Is swimming is too slow for you? Towboards (NOWRAMP 2000 Preliminary Findings Report (PDF file, 2.6 MB) ) allow a fast survey over a much greater distance per dive in a variety of habitats. Two divers with video cameras mounted on towboards are pulled behind a boat. The divers maintain distance of one meter above the reef. Towboards cover large amounts of territory and help locate areas that need further study.

Multispectral Imagery
Just how good and how useful are satellite images? Our multi-spectral and satellite imagery group has to go diving too. The word here is “ground-truthing”. Images taken by satellite or special cameras need to be verified or corrected by divers who match various features seen via the remote sensing devices with the actual features found underwater.

Coral Cores
As they grow, corals lay down layers of skeleton like tree rings that can tell us quite a bit about the past. How fast has the reef been growing? Is it slowing down now or actually accreting faster? We really don’t know. A coral core gives us a snapshot of the past history of a reef and better ideas about what the future has in store.

Permanent Transects
Rapid Ecological Assessments give one kind of information. Permanent transects (lines) that can be checked for future changes, year after year; give another equally important type of information.

Anchor at Kure Atoll.  Photo by Hans Van Tilburg.Maritime Archeology
Maritime cultural resources (Laysan Shore Survey), are important as well. Locating shipwrecks (A New Submerged Site at Laysan), anchors (The Footprints of Ships: Notes About Anchors), and other maritime artifacts give us information of the history of an area. Maritime archeology (On Finding Wrecks ) helps us understand it in a more complete fashion.

Terrestrial Ecology
These tiny islands and atolls are intimately linked to the sea. The beaches and land areas are filled with the calls of nesting shorebirds and seabirds (The Value of Tranquility). Green sea turtles (The Language of the Sea) haul out on the beaches to bask and nest. Monk seals (The Language of the Sea) have their pups here. Native plants (Loulu: The Giving Seed ) flourish if given a chance. Terrestrial work is just as important as the marine surveys.

Education, Media and Documentation
If we do not share the information, no one knows it exists and we might as well never have been here. Our Education team works to get the information out to school groups (Video Clips) and the general public (Counting Sharks). Many of the articles and videos on the web site are from various parts of our education team. Scientists will also write reports for other scientists.

The Media (News) group reaches an even larger audience with short but vital announcements. Keeping photo, video and written images of all that is done on a research cruise is also critical.
Images, video, written accounts by the Documentation (NOWRAMP 2002) group and research data collected by the science teams on the cruise will be available to all to view and use to understand just how special these islands really are.

Hot Links:
How many languages can you say “apple” in? On our boat, we came up with “mela” (Italian), “ciao” (Nepalese), “manzana” (Spanish), “rlingo” (Japanese), “apfel” (German), “pomme” (French), or in the international language of science, “fruit of a tree in the genus Prunus.”


(2) To REA page (Education/Day 15/feat_rea_091502)

Remote Sensing
Satellite images of reefs can assist in management of coral reefs. Varying types of reef, coral, algae, sand, and soft mud bottoms reflect light differently. Specialized satellite images capture these differences and group them by type. On the ground teams then need to calibrate or make sense of the spectral groupings, categorizing the light wavelengths reflected back to the satellite with reality in the field. To do this, teams first take pictures in the field with cameras that capture wavelengths similar to what the satellites are gathering. The field teams build a “library” of information that relates reflectance to a particular reef type, such as coral cover, sand cover, mud, rubble and so on, to reflected wavelengths. Depth and clarity of water plays a part here as well. Once the library is built, the information is fed back into the satellite data to make the first round of maps.

The first round of maps are taken back into the field for “groundtruthing”. It is critical to check the maps with reality and see if the information fed back into the mapping process is accurately portraying the situation on the reef. This is time consuming initially, but will pay off in the end with better and better maps.


Coral Cores
Some corals may live for hundreds of years. At Kure Atoll (9/26/02) the coring/monitoring tean found a living finger coral colony that was 33 feet across and 10 feet high that must be hundreds of years old. Within their skeletons corals carry vital information of the history (and possible future) of the reef. Part of this information is available through the skeletal growth bands. As corals grow, they periodically put down a new base layer of calcium carbonate. This layer may be laid down seasonally or more often.

Coral scientists can read these bands and gain a large amount of information from them. Historic growth rates become available. These show not only what the average growth rate of a coral and its part of reef building or accretion is; but can also give information as to when the rate increased or decreased. Rates of growth and reef accretion are vital to help us understand the response of reefs to environmental conditions such as water temperature, light, and ocean chemistry.


Permanent Transects
Along with all of their other duties, the Coral team has been averaging one new permanent transect per day this trip. Stainless steel stakes are pounded and expoxied into the bottom to create a permanent 50 meter long study site. Once in place, high quality photo images are taken continuously along this transect, covering a minimum of one meter of substrate along the line.

Permanent transects provide a variety of long term data. Percent coral cover, median colony size and diameter, estimated diversity (number of types of different corals), presence and amount of coral bleaching, coral disease, and coral growth over time - all become available. Permanent transects also provide information on population size distribution. For example: Are all of the corals in an area young? What happened to the old corals or is this site a relatively new colonization.

Permanent transects allow the resurvey (either yearly or biannually) of the exact same areas of reef and individual corals. These can be carried out indefinitely, possibly for decades or longer. This information is vital for effective management of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.


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Halimeda algae.  Click for more details.
Halimeda algae

Spotted Knifejaw.  Click for more details.
Spotted Knifejaw

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