Friday, May 31, 2013

Coral triangle is the global center of marine biodiversity

The coral triangle is universally recognized as the “global center of marine biodiversity” and “the Amazon of the seas.”
It is fair to say that most of the Earth’s saltwater species that exist in today’s oceans owe their ancestry to ancient residents of the triangle. Now part of the South Pacific, the coral triangle was once a landlocked lake that formed during the Ice Age when massive blocks of ice sucked up the surrounding water, and land masses appeared from the ocean bottom. When the ice melted, the land was once again covered by water, and the species of the coral triangle propagated first east and west along the equator and then north and south.
Today, the triangle sits roughly in the tropical marine waters of Indonesia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, the Solomon Islands and Timor-Leste. All of it sits directly north of Australia. It covers 5.7 million square kilometers of ocean waters. The triangle is home to at least 500 species of reef-building corals and more than 3,000 species of fish, including the world’s largest fish – the whale shark – and the coelacanth. There are more species of coral, fish and crustaceans in the triangle than there are at any other location in the world.
But perhaps the most interesting thing about the triangle is the multitude of yet undiscovered, or, more accurately, scientifically unclassified wildlife that can still be discovered there today. All one has to do is dip below the surface of the water, and they can feast their eyes on an animal that would leave scientists dumfounded.
“You can see things that you’ve never seen before, and possibly things that are new to science that have never been described before,” said Rudy Whitworth who visited part of the coral triangle at Raja Ampat in Indonesia. He spoke about the coral triangle at this year’s Great Lakes Shipwreck Festival.
Whitworth, a member of The Ford Seahorses Scuba Diving Club, which sponsors the festival, said he filmed eight or nine undescribed species, including two that are likely brand new to science: a triple-fin blenny and a species of nudibranch.
“When I went to my experts, the doctorates that do the assigning, the scientists, they said ‘I have definitely never seen this one before.’ That’s really special.”
The uniqueness of the coral triangle is rooted in its role during the Ice Age. As ice cover grew from north and south polar ice caps, global temperatures dropped, and most warm-water species around the globe died. As the ice converged on the triangle area near the equator, the ice sucked up huge volumes of water and the ocean bottom suddenly became a land mass. The triangle area became land-locked and the warm-water species survived due to their comparatively warm location near the equator. Once the Ice Age ended, the ice melted and that ocean bottom was covered with water once again. But the result was the only warm-water species left were those located in the coral triangle.
“They have had longer to evolve. Therefore, there are more species there. So when the ice melted and the water came up, the species that were contained in this area actually went out and propagated all around the equator. And then they started working up and down. So the further you get away from this coral triangle, the fewer species you have. In terms of evolution, they have had less time to evolve.”

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Michigan's copper mining history starts well before the birth of Christ

Michigan’s Upper Peninsula has been known as “copper country” for hundreds of years.
More specifically, the peninsula’s northwest corner, Copper Harbor, Ontonagon and Eagle Harbor, all part of the Keweenaw Peninsula, at one time were bustling areas of copper mining.
But did you know copper was first mined in our state thousands of years before the birth of Christ? Before the Egyptian pyramids? Before Stonehenge?
Scientists believe copper was first mined in the Upper Peninsula between 3,000-7,000 years ago, or about 5,000-1,200 B.C. During that time, it is estimated 1.5 billion pounds of copper was mined by an unknown civilization.
These people left behind no burial grounds, no dwellings, no pottery or cave drawings. What they did leave behind was thousands of copper producing pits and thousands of crude hammering stones to work the pits. They would alternately use fire and cold water to break copper bearing rock into smaller pieces and then extract the metal with hammer stones.
Because copper is a malleable metal, it was easily shaped and durable. It would be turned into tools, arrows and spearheads, as well as jewelry.
But most of the estimated 1.5 billion pounds of copper mined by these ancient people is no longer in the Upper Peninsula. Where did it go? How was it transported? The pure copper of the Lake Superior region has been found in prehistoric cultures throughout North and South America.
“This is the controversial area of the copper story,” said Luke Clyburn of the Noble Odyssey Foundation, which released its latest documentary, “America’s Ancient Industry” on copper mining in the U.P. “The amount of effort that it took to mine, to be able to travel to Isle Royle, to travel to Keweenaw, there had to be an economic payback.
“It was an industry,” Clyburn continued. “These people were looking at how to exchange it, maybe not for money, but for a commodity that they needed.”
Some experts estimate it would have required 10,000 men 1,000 years to mine the 1.5 billion pounds of copper and develop the extensive operations carried on throughout the region. Others say those numbers are high.
Regardless of the numbers, what often goes unnoticed or forgotten is that these ancient, unknown peoples had far more intelligence than they are given credit for.
“Were they just hunters and gatherers? I don’t think so. I think these people were pretty smart,” Clyburn said. “They knew how to make tools, and they shipped these materials wherever they could and exchange it for commodities that would make it worth their effort.
“They could travel and get back home again. That took a pretty high level of sophistication and navigation. All of that industry created some pretty sharp people.”
Schoolchildren are taught Christopher Columbus discovered America. But that is the Anglo-Saxon history. This region has a rich history developed long before Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492. It’s just that so much of it remains a mystery.
“There was clearly a lot of connection with other continents. Maybe it was exploration, maybe it was in search for food, maybe it was an expedition for copper,” Clyburn said. “People traveled back and forth long before what we see in history.”

To purchase Clyburn’s full “America’s Ancient Industry” documentary, go to or call Clyburn at 248-666-9359. A $25 donation is to the foundation is required.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Ships only become famous after they sink

Most of the time, ships that ply the Great Lakes do so in anonymity.
It’s only when some tragedy befalls them that their name and their service record become history for the rest of the world to learn about.
The Edmund Fitzgerald was just another ship carrying iron ore through the Great Lakes until it famously sank in 1975 in Lake Superior. Singer/songwriter Gordon Lightfoot took it on a rocket ride to legendary status.
Even the Titanic, perhaps the most famous shipwreck of all time, would have been just another luxury steamer until it sunk in the mid-Atlantic in 1912. Sure, at the time it was lauded as one of the biggest, fastest, most luxurious ships ever made. But a lifetime of safe, comfortable ocean crossings would have surely helped it vanish into a mere footnote of history.
Valerie van Heest of Michigan Shipwreck Research Associates, an award-winning author and filmmaker from Holland, Mich., spoke about how ships become famous at a presentation titled “Lost and Found – Legendary Wrecks” at the 32nd Great Lakes Shipwrecks Festival.
“The fact is we learn more about the ship from the discovery of the wreck and the evolution of diving rather than the incident that put the ship on the bottom,” van Heest said.
Archeologically, van Heest said, we can study artifacts and personal objects left in the vessels after they have foundered.  We can learn more about the crew on board than simply a list of the names of those who perished. She described one vessel she dived in which she found personal objects, such as a crew member’s sock with a hole in it, indicating the man wasn’t well-to-do and couldn’t afford new socks. She’s found ships with an array of coins inside from various Scandinavian countries that provide a window into the geographic makeup of the crew.
“These are tremendous artifacts that speak to us by allowing us to study them,” van Heest said.
 Today, shipwrecks owe their survival in large part to relatively new state and federal regulations enacted to protect them from scavengers and treasure hunters looking to either remove things from the ships or lift the vessel itself out of the water altogether.
In 1987, the Abandoned Shipwreck Act was introduced in Congress and signed into federal law in 1988. That law mandated that each state write its own laws to protect shipwrecks and turned  over ownership of the wrecks from the federal government to individual state governments.
In Michigan, for example, the Aboriginal Records and Antiquities and Abandoned Property statute, which includes the Natural Resources and Environment Protection Act which protects shipwrecks, only became law in 1994. That law updated legislation that had been enacted in the state in the late 1970s but was not as comprehensive in scope.
Prior to that, anyone who had the wherewithal to lift a wreck, and the money to pay for it, simply had to obtain the salvage rights. Prior to the writing of the Shipwreck Act, “looting was standard practice by divers, including myself,” van Heest said. But doing so would gut the wreck of important artifacts, and bringing it to the surface would almost certainly spell an end to the vessel.
Van Heest cited as an example the case of the Alvin Clark, a ship that went down in Green Bay, Wis., in 1864. In 1969, a team headed by scuba diver Frank Hoffman lifted the Alvin Clark from the bottom of the bay in what was considered an extraordinary event that was praised by the government, the press and the public alike. The ship was designated a Michigan State Historic Site in 1972 and was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974.
The ship was raised legally in extraordinary condition, completely intact and actually floated once water was removed from its holds. It quickly became a tourist attraction after Hoffman built a museum nearby and exhibited the ship as a tourist attraction at the "Mystery Ship Seaport" in Menominee, Mich.
But neither Hoffman nor its crew accounted for the environmental damage the ship would suffer out of the water – from weather, wind, extreme hot and cold temperatures – much different conditions from the cold, low-oxygen environment at the bottom of Green Bay.
The ship quickly began to deteriorate, decayed and started to fall apart. Hoffman had neither the expertise nor the money to restore the Alvin Clark. His search for grants to pay for repairs fell upon deaf ears.
Finally, in 1994, the same year shipwreck protection was updated in Michigan, the ship was considered beyond saving and deemed a hazard. The Alvin Clark, one of the oldest merchant ships to ply the Great Lakes, with its origins in 1847, was bulldozed and lost to history. And everyone involved learned a valuable lesson. According to van Heest, states across the country were influenced by the story of the Alvin Clark and used it as an example of what could go wrong while authoring their own legislation.
They don’t make them like that anymore
Thanks to improving side-scan sonar technology, van Heest believes all existing shipwrecks will be found in the next 15-20 years. In addition, she said it will take at least another 100 years before time and zebra mussels break down the oldest shipwrecks and turn them into a pile of planks. But fortunately, van Heest’s research has shown the older the shipwreck is, the better it’s made.
Remember how your parents would constantly complain things aren’t built the way they used to be? Well, according to van Heest, that also applies to shipwreck building nearly 200 years ago.
Not only are ships that sit in deeper water better preserved due to colder temperatures and less environmental activity, but older ships, in van Heest’s experience, were simply made better.
“In the heyday of the schooners in the 1870s-‘80s, they were cranking these things out, and I don’t think they were all that well built compared to the ones built in the early 1800s,” she said. “Back then, they weren’t as plentiful, and they were building them better.”
To learn more about legendary Lake Michigan shipwrecks, check out van Heest's book, titled "Lost & Found Legendary Lake Michigan Shipwrecks" by clicking here.