It’s go time!

In just under two weeks, I’ll board an airplane and say goodbye to continental North America for two and a half months, the longest I’ve ever spent abroad (well, if you don’t count living in Canada). My advisor and I will be spending a week in Honolulu for a conference, where we’re presenting a poster, “Climate Variability and the Resilience of Low Diversity Coral Communities to Bleaching in the Gilbert Islands, Kiribati”. We’ll meet the rest of our research team there, and then we’ll all fly 2,300 miles to Majuro, the capital of the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI). You may have heard of it; the RMI are often in the news these days, as they have been heavily affected by rising sea levels, and the government has recently taken bold steps to fight for global nuclear disarmament. I’ll stay there for the rest of the summer, and will be returning to Vancouver in late August.

 

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Image via Google Maps.

 

With just under two weeks until go time, things are a little hectic. I’m working hard to finish processing raw data from Kiribati so that I can analyze them in time to prepare the poster I’m presenting. I just finished writing our Dive Safety Plan, which identifies our emergency contacts and a protocol for evacuation in case of a diving accident, in accordance with the University of British Columbia’s Research Diving Manual. Last week, I ran around and had a million medical tests done to show that I’m healthy enough to work as a commercial diver (I passed, thankfully). I’m making ever-growing lists of all the things I need to pack and loose ends to tie up. And, I’m studying up on Marshallese; most people in Majuro speak English, but in other atolls I won’t be able to communicate without at least a rudimentary understanding of the language. On top of all that, I’m trying to squeeze in as much quality time with my son as possible before leaving.

To give you a brief overview of my M.Sc. research, I will try to understand the influence of local human disturbance on coral composition and their resilience to heat stress in Majuro and it’s neighboring atoll, Arno (it’s about 19 miles away). The RMI have been inhabited for thousands of years, but unlike Arno, Majuro underwent extensive human modifications after American occupation during World War II, and it’s now home to half the country’s population. I’ll compare sites across the two atolls to evaluate the role of local disturbance in recovery from a major coral bleaching event that occurred in 2014. My research will contribute to a broader project being overseen by my advisor that is using the central Pacific as a natural laboratory to study the role of past climate experience and human disturbance on the resilience of coral reefs to climate change. The data collected from RMI should provide an important contrast to data from neighboring Kiribati, where the reefs are subject to more frequent heat stress due to the El Nino / Southern Oscillation.

 

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Image via earthobservatory.nasa.gov. Arno is visibly much larger than Majuro, but is home to less than 2,000 people and the population is shrinking. The population of Majuro is about 30,000 and it’s still growing.

 

I get to stay for such a long trip thanks to my fellowship with TerreWEB, which has provided me with the fantastic opportunity to do an internship abroad. I’ll be working with my advisor to gather the data for my own research, but after that’s done (around July 9), I’ll stick around to work with the Marshall Islands Marine Resources Authority (MIMRA) until the end of August. I’ll be helping with things like data entry, data management, and data analysis, but will also get to observe and participate in the world-renowned Reimaanlok process, a conservation plan that is hailed as one of the first to emphasize a community-based approach. I may get the opportunity to join MIMRA when they visit Wotje and Mejit Atolls in late July, and could potentially participate in ciguatera monitoring in Ailinglaplap in August. They may even let me take a stab at writing a draft of a community-based management plan after consulting with communities in some of the outer atolls. It’s an incredible, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and I’ll gain invaluable experience. I’m going to learn a ton, and I’m beyond excited!

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Image via Travel.nationalgeographic.com. The RMI is made up of about 70 square miles of land spread out over 750,000 square miles of the Pacific. For reference, the area of Rhode Island (the smallest state) is about 1,545 square miles and the area of Alaska (the largest state) is about 663,267 square miles.

My fellowship requires that I document my experiences (which I’d probably do anyway because I don’t want to forget a second of it), so I’ll be doing that here. If you’re interested in staying up to date with my research and subsequent adventures, check back or sign up to receive email alerts when I post (see the right-hand sidebar). I may even try my hand at video blogging, but it depends on if I can get enough of a handle on my various electronics by then!

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Interview: Can community-based science save a way of life in Micronesia?

I recently had the pleasure of being interviewed by the University of British Columbia’s Faculty of Science, about the work I’ve been a part of in Micronesia. An excerpt of the interview is below (check out the full text here).

More than 600 islands dot the Western Pacific Ocean and form the Federated States of Micronesia. In total, they extend more than 1700 miles from west to east across one of the most biodiverse regions on Earth. UBC graduate student and marine biologist Sara Cannon has spent the last three years working with scientists and communities in one of Micronesia’s remote atolls, trying to help locals protect marine resources within the islands’ traditions. On March 31, 2015, super typhoon Maysak slammed Ulithi Atoll, potentially threatening a way of life and complicating conservation efforts for the past year.

Micronesia’s Ulithi Atoll has been hard hit. What’s the most critical conservation issue facing the islands?

Even though the islands’ population has decreased, the loss of traditional fishing methods has been a major factor in overfishing. New innovations like motor boats, spear guns, and throw nets have changed the way reefs are managed. When people depended on canoes to reach offshore reefs, the reefs would be inaccessible during certain parts of the year, which would give the fish populations a chance to rebound. Now that motor boats have replaced canoes, the cost of gas makes it expensive for people to go out to distant reefs, so there’s a lot more pressure on the reefs that are near inhabited islands. Refrigeration has allowed people to take more fish. New fishing methods are mainly targeting herbivorous fish, which help keep the reefs healthy.

How can marine resources be better managed?

The people of Ulithi have been successfully managing their reefs for centuries and they hold the key to managing them successfully in the future. The communities in Ulithi have been working hard to revive traditional management methods. They’ve closed parts of the inhabited islands to certain types of fishing, and are rotating fishing access to some of the farther reefs. I worked with One People One Reef to communicate scientific findings to the community, and to help train community members to collect their own data, specifically data on landed fish. This will help the Ulithians inform their future management decisions, particularly since things are changing faster than they ever have before. Before the typhoon, it appeared that the management techniques were working — One People One Reef’s data showed that fish were beginning to come back to some of the overfished areas. The typhoon caused significant damage to the reefs, so it remains to be seen how they’ll recover.

Read the rest of the interview on the UBC Faculty of Science website here.

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Yangdidi Highlights Experiences of Super Typhoon Maysak Survivors

I wrote this blog post for Mariboa blog about climate and global change maintained by Simon Donner,  my supervisor at UBC.

In June 2015, I visited the Ulithi Atoll in the outer islands of Yap, Micronesia for the third time while working with One People One Reef. Just a few months before, on March 31, 2015, the communities had survived Super Typhoon Maysak which slammed the islands with 265 km/hour winds. I remember the way my heart sunk as the familiar sight of Falalop, the largest island in the atoll, became visible in the window of the small twin-engine airplane (a sight that would have otherwise filled my heart with joy). The typhoon’s damage was obvious even from a distance.

The impacts of Maysak were devastating. Most of the trees were gone, and in the lack of shade, the sun was relentless. The majority of the islanders’ homes were destroyed, along with much of their infrastructure. Only homes made of concrete were still standing. Ulithi’s high school, one of only two high schools in all of Yap’s outer islands, was virtually flattened. In normal years, students from an approximately 250 km radius come to Ulithi for high school; the only other high school in the outer islands is located in Woleai, over 550 km away. There was no running water and a recently completed multi-million dollar solar panel project on Falalop was ruined. Water filters were provided by the International Organization for Migration and electricity was being provided sporadically via a diesel-power generator.

 

Outer Islands High School, Falalop, Ulithi (April 2015). Photo via Brad Holland

During my visit, people were still reeling from the damage, but were eager for the opportunity to talk about what they had been through. Because Ulithi has no phone or internet, it’s a challenge for community members to share their experiences with the outside world. With the blessing of Ulithi’s communities, we created Yangdidi, a website that highlights the stories of Super Typhoon Maysak survivors. I worked closely with Kelsey Doyle, a graduate student in Journalism at New York University, and John Rulmal, Jr., a community leader and organizer from the island of Falalop, to compile a series of audio, visual, and written interviews from a wide breadth of community members from all over Ulithi.

To the Ulithian people, yangdidi (or “wind force”) describes what has happened to their islands. The force of Maysak’s winds has drastically shaped the future of this remote atoll. With sea levels rising, and scientists predicting that cyclone intensities will continue to increase due to climate change (2015 set a new annual record for category 4 and 5 hurricanes and typhoons), wind and flood damage from storms may become all too common in the low-lying island nations in the Pacific.

 

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