Tag Archives: Greenland

Iridescent giant clams could point the way to safety, climatologically speaking

Giant clams in Palau (Cynthia Barnett)

These don’t look like any clams I’ve ever seen but that is the point of Cynthia Barnett’s absorbing Sept. 10, 2018 article for The Atlantic (Note: A link has been removed),

Snorkeling amid the tree-tangled rock islands of Ngermid Bay in the western Pacific nation of Palau, Alison Sweeney lingers at a plunging coral ledge, photographing every giant clam she sees along a 50-meter transect. In Palau, as in few other places in the world, this means she is going to be underwater for a skin-wrinkling long time.

At least the clams are making it easy for Sweeney, a biophysicist at the University of Pennsylvania. The animals plump from their shells like painted lips, shimmering in blues, purples, greens, golds, and even electric browns. The largest are a foot across and radiate from the sea floor, but most are the smallest of the giant clams, five-inch Tridacna crocea, living higher up on the reef. Their fleshy Technicolor smiles beam in all directions from the corals and rocks of Ngermid Bay.

… Some of the corals are bleached from the conditions in Ngermid Bay, where naturally high temperatures and acidity mirror the expected effects of climate change on the global oceans. (Ngermid Bay is more commonly known as “Nikko Bay,” but traditional leaders and government officials are working to revive the indigenous name of Ngermid.)

Even those clams living on bleached corals are pulsing color, like wildflowers in a white-hot desert. Sweeney’s ponytail flows out behind her as she nears them with her camera. They startle back into their fluted shells. Like bashful fairytale creatures cursed with irresistible beauty, they cannot help but draw attention with their sparkly glow.

Barnett makes them seem magical and perhaps they are (Note: A link has been removed),

It’s the glow that drew Sweeney’s attention to giant clams, and to Palau, a tiny republic of more than 300 islands between the Philippines and Guam. Its sun-laden waters are home to seven of the world’s dozen giant-clam species, from the storied Tridacna gigas—which can weigh an estimated 550 pounds and measure over four feet across—to the elegantly fluted Tridacna squamosa. Sweeney first came to the archipelago in 2009, while working on animal iridescence as a post-doctoral fellow at the University of California at Santa Barbara. Whether shimmering from a blue morpho butterfly’s wings or a squid’s skin, iridescence is almost always associated with a visual signal—one used to attract mates or confuse predators. Giant clams’ luminosity is not such a signal. So, what is it?

In the years since, Sweeney and her colleagues have discovered that the clams’ iridescence is essentially the outer glow of a solar transformer—optimized over millions of years to run on sunlight and algal biofuel. Giant clams reach their cartoonish proportions thanks to an exceptional ability to grow their own photosynthetic algae in vertical farms spread throughout their flesh. Sweeney and other scientists think this evolved expertise may shed light on alternative fuel technologies and other industrial solutions for a warming world.

Barnett goes on to describe Palau’s relationship to the clams and the clams’ environment,

Palau’s islands have been inhabited for at least 3,400 years, and from the start, giant clams were a staple of diet, daily life, and even deity. Many of the islands’ oldest-surviving tools are crafted of thick giant-clam shell: arched-blade adzes, fishhooks, gougers, heavy taro-root pounders. Giant-clam shell makes up more than three-fourths of some of the oldest shell middens in Palau, a percentage that decreases through the centuries. Archaeologists suggest that the earliest islanders depleted the giant clams that crowded the crystalline shallows, then may have self-corrected. Ancient Palauan conservation law, known as bul, prohibited fishing during critical spawning periods, or when a species showed signs of over-harvesting.

Before the Christianity that now dominates Palauan religion sailed in on eighteenth-century mission ships, the culture’s creation lore began with a giant clam called to life in an empty sea. The clam grew bigger and bigger until it sired Latmikaik, the mother of human children, who birthed them with the help of storms and ocean currents.

The legend evokes giant clams in their larval phase, moving with the currents for their first two weeks of life. Before they can settle, the swimming larvae must find and ingest one or two photosynthetic alga, which later multiply, becoming self-replicating fuel cells. After the larvae down the alga and develop a wee shell and a foot, they kick around like undersea farmers, looking for a sunny spot for their crop. When they’ve chosen a well-lit home in a shallow lagoon or reef, they affix to the rock, their shell gaping to the sky. After the sun hits and photosynthesis begins, the microalgae will multiply to millions, or in the case of T. gigas, billions, and clam and algae will live in symbiosis for life.

Giant clam is a beloved staple in Palau and many other Pacific islands, prepared raw with lemon, simmered into coconut soup, baked into a savory pancake, or sliced and sautéed in a dozen other ways. But luxury demand for their ivory-like shells and their adductor muscle, which is coveted as high-end sashimi and an alleged aphrodisiac, has driven T. gigas extinct in China, Taiwan, and other parts of their native habitat. Some of the toughest marine-protection laws in the world, along with giant-clam aquaculture pioneered here, have helped Palau’s wild clams survive. The Palau Mariculture Demonstration Center raises hundreds of thousands of giant clams a year, supplying local clam farmers who sell to restaurants and the aquarium trade and keeping pressure off the wild population. But as other nations have wiped out their clams, Palau’s 230,000-square-mile ocean territory is an increasing target of illegal foreign fishers.

Barnett delves into how the country of Palau is responding to the voracious appetite for the giant clams and other marine life,

Palau, drawing on its ancient conservation tradition of bul, is fighting back. In 2015, President Tommy Remengesau Jr. signed into law the Palau National Marine Sanctuary Act, which prohibits fishing in 80 percent of Palau’s Exclusive Economic Zone and creates a domestic fishing area in the remaining 20 percent, set aside for local fishers selling to local markets. In 2016, the nation received a $6.6 million grant from Japan to launch a major renovation of the Palau Mariculture Demonstration Center. Now under construction at the waterfront on the southern tip of Malakal Island, the new facility will amp up clam-aquaculture research and increase giant-clam production five-fold, to more than a million seedlings a year.

Last year, Palau amended its immigration policy to require that all visitors sign a pledge to behave in an ecologically responsible manner. The pledge, stamped into passports by an immigration officer who watches you sign, is written to the island’s children:

Children of Palau, I take this pledge, as your guest, to preserve and protect your beautiful and unique island home. I vow to tread lightly, act kindly and explore mindfully. I shall not take what is not given. I shall not harm what does not harm me. The only footprints I shall leave are those that will wash away.

The pledge is winning hearts and public-relations awards. But Palau’s existential challenge is still the collective “we,” the world’s rising carbon emissions and the resulting upturns in global temperatures, sea levels, and destructive storms.

F. Umiich Sengebau, Palau’s Minister for Natural Resources, Environment, and Tourism, grew up on Koror and is full of giant-clam proverbs, wisdom and legends from his youth. He tells me a story I also heard from an elder in the state of Airai: that in old times, giant clams were known as “stormy-weather food,” the fresh staple that was easy to collect and have on hand when it was too stormy to go out fishing.

As Palau faces the storms of climate change, Sengebau sees giant clams becoming another sort of stormy-weather food, serving as a secure source of protein; a fishing livelihood; a glowing icon for tourists; and now, an inspiration for alternative energy and other low-carbon technologies. “In the old days, clams saved us,” Sengebau tells me. “I think there’s a lot of power in that, a great power and meaning in the history of clams as food, and now clams as science.”

I highly recommend Barnett’s article, which is one article in a larger series, from a November 6, 2017 The Atlantic press release,

The Atlantic is expanding the global footprint of its science writing today with a multi-year series to investigate life in all of its multitudes. The series, “Life Up Close,” created with support from Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education (HHMI), begins today at TheAtlantic.com. In the first piece for the project, “The Zombie Diseases of Climate Change,” The Atlantic’s Robinson Meyer travels to Greenland to report on the potentially dangerous microbes emerging from thawing Arctic permafrost.

The project is ambitious in both scope and geographic reach, and will explore how life is adapting to our changing planet. Journalists will travel the globe to examine these changes as they happen to microbes, plants, and animals in oceans, grasslands, forests, deserts, and the icy poles. The Atlantic will question where humans should look for life next: from the Martian subsurface, to Europa’s oceans, to the atmosphere of nearby stars and beyond. “Life Up Close” will feature at least twenty reported pieces continuing through 2018.

“The Atlantic has been around for 160 years, but that’s a mere pinpoint in history when it comes to questions of life and where it started, and where we’re going,” said Ross Andersen, The Atlantic’s senior editor who oversees science, tech, and health. “The questions that this project will set out to tackle are critical; and this support will allow us to cover new territory in new and more ambitious ways.”

About The Atlantic:
Founded in 1857 and today one of the fastest growing media platforms in the industry, The Atlantic has throughout its history championed the power of big ideas and continues to shape global debate across print, digital, events, and video platforms. With its award-winning digital presence TheAtlantic.com and CityLab.com on cities around the world, The Atlantic is a multimedia forum on the most critical issues of our times—from politics, business, urban affairs, and the economy, to technology, arts, and culture. The Atlantic is celebrating its 160th anniversary this year. Bob Cohn is president of The Atlantic and Jeffrey Goldberg is editor in chief.

About the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) Department of Science Education:
HHMI is the leading private nonprofit supporter of scientific research and science education in the United States. The Department of Science Education’s BioInteractive division produces free, high quality educational media for science educators and millions of students around the globe, its HHMI Tangled Bank Studios unit crafts powerful stories of scientific discovery for television and big screens, and its grants program aims to transform science education in universities and colleges. For more information, visit www.hhmi.org.

Getting back to the giant clams, sometimes all you can do is marvel, eh?

Café Scientifique (Vancouver, Canada) November 29, 2016 talk: Climate change and moving mountains

Vancouver (Canada) Café Scientifique’s next talk is at Yagger’s Downtown (433 W. Pender). From the November 19, 2016 notice received via email,

Our next café will happen on Tuesday November 29th, 7:30pm in the back room at Yagger’s Downtown (433 W Pender). Our speaker for the evening will be Dr. Michèle Koppes, from the Department of Geography at UBC. The title of her talk is:

Can climate change move mountains?

Climate change is causing more than warmer oceans and erratic weather. It can also change the shape of the planet. Glaciers are a fundamental link between climate and the tectonic and surface processes that create topography. Mountain ranges worldwide have undergone large-scale modification due the erosive action of ice, yet the mechanisms that control the timing of this modification and the rate by which ice erodes remain poorly understood. We find a wide range of erosion rates from individual ice masses over varying timescales, suggesting that modern erosion rates exceed long-term averages by two to three orders of magnitude. We also see that glaciers in Patagonia erode 1000 times faster than they do in Antarctica today. These modern rates are likely due to the dynamic acceleration of these ice masses as air and ocean temperatures warmed and they retreated over the past few decades. The repercussions of this erosion add to the already complex effects of climate change in polar and high mountain regions. Shrinking and accelerating glaciers destabilize slopes upstream, increasing the risk of landslides, and deposit more sediment in downstream basins, potentially impacting fisheries, dams and access to clean freshwater in mountain communities. And the dramatic increase in modern erosion rates suggest that glaciers in the Canadian Arctic, one of the most rapidly warming regions in the world, are on the brink of a major shift that will see them speeding up and eroding faster as temperatures warm above 0ºC.

Michele Koppes is an Assistant Professor in Geography at UBC, a Canada Research Chair Tier II in Landscapes of Climate Change, a faculty affiliate at IRES and a Senior TED Fellow. Her passion is forensic geomorphology: the art of reading landscapes to decipher the forces that shaped them.  Her particular expertise is in glaciers, and their impact in shaping mountains and polar regions at a variety of time scales, from last year to the last million years. Her research focus is two-fold: to determine the efficacy of glaciers as agents of erosion, and to determine the climatic and oceanic drivers of glaciations in high mountains and coastal settings. She has current field projects in high places all over the world, from BC to Patagonia, Alaska, the Himalayas, Greenland and Antarctica, where her team combines detailed field observations with numerical modeling of ice-ocean dynamics and glacier mass balance.

Have fun!

ScienceNordic opens its doors

I got an exciting announcement today about a new science portal. From the Nov. 16, 2011 announcement,

ScienceNordic is a news service with science news in English covering the Nordic countries. Two Nordic science media, one Danish and one Norwegian, have joined forces to launch ScienceNordic.
The Norwegian Minister of Research and Higher Education Tora Aasland, who opened ScienceNordic.com, says she expects the new portal to make Nordic research more visible on the global arena.
The international science press is dominated by news from Anglo-American research institutions and periodicals –because they are published in English. [emphasis mine] But the scientific results created in the Nordic countries are just as strong and newsworthy, and ScienceNordic will report on them.
“This leaves a huge gap in the market for science news from the region, communicated to a broader audience in English. We intend to fill this gap,” says Vibeke Hjortlund, editor-in-chief at Videnskab.dk.
“We will, naturally, focus our efforts on areas where Nordic researchers have their particular strengths. This includes areas such as green technology, climate and the environment, oil and offshore technology, biotechnology, gender equality and the welfare state and its economy, says Nina Kristiansen, editor-in-chief at Forskning.no.
ScienceNordic will target the academic environment, the business community, international organisations and decision-makers with interests in scientific development, science journalists and members of the general public with a strong interest in science.
ScienceNordic will cover Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland and Iceland – with an eye on Greenland, the Faroe Islands and Åland which are also part of the Nordic region.
Nordforsk, The Ministry of Education and Research in Norway and The Ministry of Science, Innovation and Higher Education in Denmark has provided funds to establish ScienceNordic.

I quite agree about research published in English dominating science discussion. I often long for the ability to read more languages so I can better understand what is happening internationally; this new portal is very welcome news.

Here’s a sampling of what you can hope to find at ScienceNordic,

  • When a glacier calves into the ocean scientists see the same patterns that are found in brain impulses
  • Norwegians are still in a state of shock. How will the terrorist attacks on July 22 change the country?
  • Male circumcision leads to a bad sex life, according to new study.
  • Your smartphone can scan your brain, if you install the new Danish app.
  • How did a French, 13th century gold ring end up in inside a stone wall on a small Norwegian island?

It’s also possible to subscribe to the ScienceNordic newsletter: sciencenordic.com/newsletter.

A glacier in the desert

Strictly speaking this is not nano but it is interesting and artistic too. A Dutch artist is planning to create a sculpture that will make ice in the desert. From the Nov. 7, 2011 news item on physorg.com,

“You have to open the borders of your thinking,” he [Ap Verheggen] said, in his apartment surrounded by his works. “To make ice in the desert is breaking down the border, and that is opening a new world.”

Verheggen’s giant sculpture is so far only a sketch and a series of charts in a laboratory in Zoetermeer, near his home in The Hague. Cofely, a refrigeration company that makes ice rinks and custom-designed cooling units for food storage, is testing the principles of creating ice in desert conditions.

Scientist Andras Szollosi-Nagi says Verheggen’s work falls at the crossroads of art, environment and science. “It’s an amazing piece, it’s very unusual and that makes it very exciting.”

In Zoetermeer, engineers have produced a 10-centimeter (4-inch)-thick layer of ice on a slab of aluminum inside a shipping container-sized box that simulates desert conditions, with the temperature set at 30 Celsius (86 Fahrenheit) and plans to crank it up to 50C (122F). A humidifier provides the moisture, and a fan is directed at the ice like a desert breeze, resulting in a pool of water dripping off the surface of the ice sheet even as it thickens.

The company is using off-the-shelf technology. “Everybody thinks it’s dry in the desert, but it’s roughly the same amount of moisture in the air as here,” said project manager Erik Hoogendoorn.

Verheggen has created other art/science sculptures with environmental themes. You can read more about them on his blog and about this project SunGlacier on its own blog. I found this video about an earlier project, cool(E)motion, on Verheggen’s personal blog.

According to the SunGlacier blog (Project Outline page), there is a link between the two projects,

The SunGlacier art project hopes to stimulate people to think creatively about solutions to the challenges of climate change. These changes are not necessarily all negative or better still, if we can find a way to turn some of them to our advantage then nothing should stop us to do so. To carry this fresh and positive way of thinking forward, I have kicked off the SunGlacier project as a new and unique sequel to the successful cool(E)motion endeavour.