Happy Western New Year

We have reached the end of 2017 by the Western Calendar, and that means we are supposed to be reflecting on the past year and looking forward to the next.

(Those of you in Asia can wait until the Lunar calendar caches up in February. And, happy year of the dog to you!)

Looking back at my last year, I have spend nearly all of my time taking, editing, and compiling photos of the reefs around Guam. These will be donated to NOAA along with my notes on things I have observed on the reefs since my arrival.

I am really grateful that this is the year we leave.

It has been heartbreaking the last few years to watch the coral reefs dying, and I don’t like being an environment that makes the raw pain of it completely inescapable. Plus, it has been summer now for three and a half year. I mean, it’s always summer in Guam. But I have been in Guam for three and a half years.

Only my Arizona friends can truly understand why I would be so salty about three and a half years of summer. No one else dreads the summer like those of us who have lived in a desert.

I often joke that I reached my lifetime allowance of sunshine a few years back and I don’t ever need to see the sun again.

While this is largely a joke, I have already had melanoma removed from my nose. (Thank god I was diagnosed in South Korea where a plastic surgeon handles any facial tumors being removed.)

I genuinely hope we get Alaska or Washington next so that I can enjoy some darkness and cold for a few years. I know that some of you can’t understand that sentiment. But, I hope some of you can.

Anyway, Happy New Year!

Happy Halloween with Trees

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As you know, I don’t do Christmas because it is a traditionally family-orientated holiday and -as an orphan- that hurts my soul.

I am also not a fan of Thanksgiving, since I have several Native American friends who feel that it is a slap in the face to celebrate it without teaching the brutal genocide that followed.

However, I do love Halloween.

(It is a holiday invented in the United States of America, and it is inclusive of everyone.)

So in an attempt to celebrate things that matter to you all to the best of my abilities, I would like to hope that you all had a good Halloween with turkey back in November, and I also want to wish you a Happy Halloween With Trees!

If you are offended please just stop, step back, and understand that orphans are weird because we are sad.

Then let it go.

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Why is Coral Bleaching?

Gab Gab August 22nd, 2017

In my last post, I talked about the fact that coral around the world is bleaching. Today, I want to talk about why this is happening.

First I need to explain something from Geology.

It’s called the Milankovitch Warming Cycle, and it has been used as a dog whistle in oil company propaganda, as evidence that the current global climate change is “natural.”

Let’s look at the cycle in terms of atmospheric CO2.

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So, what exactly is the Milankovitch Warming Cycle?

Well, it describes the natural oscillation of the global climate since the formation of Earth. The global environment has varied in temperature in a natural cycle over hundreds of millions of years.

The key thing to know is that it happens very slowly.

When I say very slowly, you are probably thinking in human terms. I don’t mean in humans terms. I mean; it moves incredibly slowly in geologic time.

According to the natural cycle of our planet, it should take thousands of years for the temperature to change a fraction of a degree.

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So why does it matter how fast the Earth warms up? Won’t it just cool down as part of a natural cycle and then all the plants and animals will go back to normal?

In a word, no.

To understand why, we have to talk about how organisms evolve. You see, evolution happens when a gene mutates and causes a new trait to appear in a species. If that trait is beneficial, it will help the offspring who have it to outperform their counterparts without it. This helps that trait survive.

It’s easiest to see when we look at specific examples, so let’s have a look at polar bears. There were not always polar bears. But that species came into existence when, during an ice age, a bears’ genes mutated and caused the offspring to be white. The white bear did better than the others because it could hide in the snow, and so it was able to pass on its genes year after year.

Over time, that single genetic mutation became a new species. But again, the key to all of this is that it happens slowly over time.

Now that we understand how slowly the climate is supposed to change and how evolution works, you should be able to see how those two processes have worked together in tandem since the Earth was formed.

In the past, the climate changed slowly, and animals and plants adapted slowly.

Unfortunately, the climate is changing too fast now for any life forms to evolve with it. So when the zooxanthellae inside the coral die, and then the polyps die, that is it for coral.

Some species are hardier than other and so they will die in future bleaching events. However, we do know that all of them will die. The temperature is simply heating up too fast.

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The mass extinction event that we are witnessing is part of The Holocene Extinction.

The oil companies try to tell you is that the Holocene extinction is perfectly natural and couldn’t be helped. This is 100% untrue. Man-made climate change is currently happening because of our use of fossil fuels, and the death of the coral reefs worldwide is absolutely our fault. The body of evidence is overwhelming. Science has no doubt on the matter.

And so, the answer to the question of “Why is the coral dying?” is really very simple.

The answer is us.

Gab Gab August 22nd, 2017

Where We Go Next

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I am saying this with all the love in the world, but friends of mine: We need to talk.

We found out that we are going to Hawaii after we leave Guam. The moment I posted about it on Facebook, I was inundated with people saying “We’ll come visit you.” More than 50 people sent me messages over the course of two days telling me that they planned to visit me in Hawaii and that they expected to be able to stay at my home.

This was really disappointing to me, and I want to talk a little about why that is.

1. Our home in Guam is really nice. Seriously, we live in a beachfront condo. You just go down the elevator and you are on the beach. It’s RIGHT THERE. We have a Jacuzzi that looks out over the ocean, so you and your travel companion (or just you) can soak in a huge tub with jets bubbling, and watch the sun set over the ocean. The place is nearly 2,000 square feet with a big living room and a master bedroom big enough that you could fit the apartment I lived in when I was in college into it. I frequently post pictures of the view from my desk saying “We will never have a view this nice again.” That is so very, very true.

The reason that I am telling you this is because a beachfront condo in Guam doesn’t cost that much, but a beachfront condo in Hawaii starts at $2 million dollars. We will not live in a beachfront condo in Hawaii. It’s a tourist destination, and as such, it is expensive. We are going to end up in a shack. I was looking at apartments in Hawaii and the ones in our price range are the size of the master bathroom in our current home. I am talking under 400 square feet for the entire place.

So a big part of why you should visit us in Guam is because we live a life of relative luxury that just isn’t possible anywhere else. And that matters, because I don’t really want you to come stay in my 390 square ft apartment. In fact, I don’t even want to share something that small with Rich, and we are married.

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2. I don’t have a job on Guam. I have a car and I have time, and I can chauffeur you around to any place you want to see. I can take you hiking to see waterfalls, get you on base for exclusive snorkeling and diving, or take you to empty beaches like Tanguissen and Haputo. I have time to play tour guide and show you around while I am here on Guam.

The reason that I have time to show you around is two-fold.

First, Rich gets two extra living allowances here; one for utilities and one for “sea pay” since he is technically on a ship.

In addition, it is so remote and hard to live here that it is considered a “hardship duty station,” (which comes with extra perks that we won’t get in Hawaii.) A lot of this is because there are no stores for furniture, clothes, and food, and it’s just not an easy place to live. If you visit it’s no problem, but if you were here long enough for your shoes to wear out, you would soon find out that you can’t buy new shoes here. And no, we have no access to Amazon Prime and most places do not ship here.

Anyway, those extra living allowances and perks let me not have a job because they cover our expenses. But when we got to Hawaii, all of that goes away.

Second, there are no jobs here on Guam besides those in restaurants.

I hurt my back about two years ago, and my physical therapist told me that I cannot lift more than 30 pounds anymore unless I want to have disks fused. So, restaurants and the heavy lifting that goes with them are out. Yet all other businesses here will only hire locals, so I haven’t been able to work.

However, I will be working as soon as we get to Hawaii because there are jobs I can do there, and that means I will have no time to play tour guide. If you come stay in our shack in Hawaii, you will be on your own for adventure.

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3. And finally, Guam is a better place to visit. It may be hard to live here, but if you are only coming for vacation, it is the superior destination. There are only 170,000 people on Guam, and many of them are military or hiding in a shack in the jungle. That means that very few of them go out to the beaches. I frequently go to the beach and am the only person there. I am not Photoshopping tourists out of my pictures; there just aren’t any.

If you come to Guam, we can walk over to turtle rock, put down a beach blanket, and sit in the shade listening to the waves for hours without a single bird, human, or anything else to bother us. It is peaceful.

If you come to Hawaii, you will be lost in a mob of tourists. There are places that you go snorkel there where you can’t even get into the water until they check your sunscreen to make sure it is coral safe, charge you a “protection fee,” and then make you watch a safety video. There is traffic, noise, and every single beach is crowded. And if you bring food, the birds will take it. (Unlike Guam where we literally don’t have birds. No really. Google it.)

Oh! And don’t forget the coral. Hawaii has rocks. Guam has coral. Hawaii has a few fish and some turtles. We have as much life as the rain forest under water because the equator is like that. And don’t forget that the water here is as warm as a bathtub and calm, while the water in Hawaii is chilly even in the summer and has rip tides.

In conclusion, you are making a bad decision if you think that you want to visit us in Hawaii instead of Guam. I know it’s a longer plane flight to Guam and it costs a little bit more. But if you factor in your level of comfort, taxi and bus fare, and all the other extra expenses you would have visiting us in Hawaii, you’ll see that it’s really not cheaper.

Yes, marketing has told you that Hawaii is this beautiful vacation spot. I get that. I know it’s hard to imagine that it is the inferior vacation destination. However, that is exactly the case. It’s just not as nice of a place to visit as Guam.

Forget the marketing and listen to someone who has spent time on both the island of Oahu and the island of Guam. I have first-hand experience with everything I am talking about here. Guam is not the nicer place to live (because Hawaii has stores where I can buy things and Guam does not,) but Guam is by far the better place to visit. You want to come here before we leave in September of 2018. This is where I can offer you a really great experience.

I cannot promise a really great experience in Hawaii.

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How Coral Bleaches

Healthy Coral

Above you can see a picture of healthy coral that has not been bleached. This picture was taken at Gab Gab Beach on Big Navy Base Guam, on April 21st, 2017.

Now then, last time I posted I talked about how coral is a living organism comprised of smaller organisms. These smaller organisms are called Polyps, and they are tiny animals. This is why you should never touch or stand on coral, because it crushes the tiny animals that it is made of.

This time, I want to talk about how coral bleaches.

First, remember that a coral is like an apartment complex. The building is made of calcium secreted by the coral, and the people who live inside are called polyps.

This is what a polyp looks like.

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As we discussed last time, a coral polyp can eat food from the water that it catches with its tentacles.

However, it is like a Venus Fly Trap: Even though a Venus Fly Trap eats flies, it still needs to absorb sunlight so that it’s chloroplasts can metabolize that light into food for the plant. Without sunlight, it would die.

The specialized chloroplast cells inside of a coral polyp are called zooxanthellae. Even though the coral is perfectly capable of catching food from the water with its tentacles, each polyp still needs its zooxanthellae to metabolize sunlight and produce a reliable food source for the polyp.

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The zooxanthellae are actually all different colors, and they are what gives coral its color. The polyps themselves are clear.

The problem is that the zooxanthellae are sensitive to temperature. If it gets too hot, the zooxanthellae will die. When they die, the polyp expels them into the water, and thus, it loses its color.

This is why coral that is bleached is not yet considered “dead.” The polyp is still alive, but it has lost its zooxanthellae.

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Rare cases have been reported where a coral bleached, but then the polyps were able to catch new algae cells and survive. However, the unfortunate truth is that once a coral bleaches, the polyps are very likely to starve to death and die.

Once the polyps die, the calcium skeleton is all that is left. This skeleton then becomes host to parasitic lifeforms that eventually break it down.

I moved to Guam is August of 2015. In the time that I have been here, I have seen the coral in Tumon Bay bleach and die, as well as the coral inside the reef at Tanguissen Beach.

Gab Gab August 22nd, 2017

However, those are shallow reefs. I understand how they got too hot and their coral began to bleach.

On the other hand, Gab Gab Reef on the Big Navy Base is much deeper. Most of the coral sits at around 20 feet deep, depending on the tide.

And rather than being in an enclosed reef the way the coral in Tumon Bay and Tanguissen is, the coral at Gab Gab is in a very deep harbor.

Gab Gab August 22nd, 2017

I never imagined that the coral at Gab Gab would bleach.

At least, not before I left here in September of 2018. And yet, the images that you are seeing now are from Gab Gab, and they were taken just a few months after the picture of healthy coral at the top of this post.

This is what bleached coral looks like. This is what a reef looks like when it is dying.

Gab Gab August 22nd, 2017

The reef at Gab Gab was truly amazing. It was filled with an incredible diversity of life, and a wide variety of corals. And now, before my eyes, it is dying.

I can’t really tell you the emotional toll of watching corals die.

I know that these are structures that took generations of polyps to build. Many are hundreds of years old. Gab Gab has so many huge, ancient corals that are each home to hundreds of fish.

Gab Gab August 22nd, 2017

It is an environment that took nature so many lifetimes to create. And yet, it is dying in the span of one Navy Man’s tour of duty on Guam. (My husband Rich.)

By the time the military sends my husband to a new port, I will have witnessed the loss of a huge percentage of the coral reefs on Guam. Just four years… and yet, I am seeing so much death.

There is no eulogy solemn enough or beautiful enough to pay tribute to the coral reefs of Guam. They were some of the most amazing things that I have ever seen, and I wish that I could express to you what a huge loss this is to every single one of us.

I am actually having trouble typing this because of the tears. And, if you were watching our oceans dry each day in real time, I have no doubt that you would feel the same.

There is no data yet on how big the 2017 world bleaching event will be. However, I would like to submit these photos to the world and to NOAA as evidence of the death in my small corner of the ocean.

Coral is Alive

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I don’t usually use this blog to educate people about science, but I am afraid that I feel it is necessary. So let’s take a moment to learn about coral, and what it is made out of.

Coral comprised of thousands of tiny animals called polyps.

Polyps are too small to see with the naked eye, but under a microscope you can see that a piece of coral is not a single entity. Rather; it is like an apartment complex.

A cooperative colony of polyps that all live together comprises what we think of as “a coral.”

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Inside the coral polyps are something called zooxanthellae.

Zooxanthellae are specialized chloroplasts that are able to take sunlight and metabolize it into food for the coral, the same way a chloroplast in vegetation absorbs sunlight and metabolizes it into food for its its plant host.

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Some corals also have tentacles that they stick out in order to try to catch bits of food that go by. However, all coral are dependent on their zooxanthellae for long-term survival.

You can think of a carnivorous plant like a Venus fly trap: it eats flies, but it will still die without the nutrients its chloroplasts make from sunlight.

This is why you must never touch coral. When you touch it or step on it, you are smashing hundreds of tiny polyps, and this does permanent damage to a coral. In fact, certain kinds of sunscreen are poisonous to coral, so you may even kill the entire colony just by being clumsy.

The lesson? Coral is a living organism made of many smaller living organism, and it’s not okay to touch it.

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