Monthly Archives: April 2011

By Hook or by Crook

The Smithsonian Community Reef. Photo: Courtesey of the Smithsonian Institution.

A huge installation of crocheted coral is engaging visitors in a project where, math, science, and handcraft converge.

BY Tara Leigh Tappert

A fiber art project launched in 2005 in the living room of two sisters has spread around the world and taken root at the Smithsonian. The burgeoning “Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reef” and Smithsonian Community Reef – the project’s latest satellite reef – are on exhibit at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., through April 24. Ultimately, the thousands of crochet organisms that comprise the two reefs may raise awareness to protect the real, endangered reefs on the ocean floor.

Twin sisters Margaret and Christine Wertheim began their mammoth craft undertaking as an initiative of their Los Angeles-based Institute For Figuring (IFF). Margaret, a science writer, and Christine, a California Institute of the Arts professor, became fascinated by the work of Cornell University mathematician Daina Taimina. An ardent crafter since her Latvian childhood, Taimina discovered in 1997 that hyperbolic space could be physically modeled through crocheted forms. (“Hyperbolic space” is a term from non-Euclidean geometry; a hyperbolic plane is a surface in which the space curves away from itself at every point.) Taimina’s mathematically pure, ruffled structures reminded the Australian-born sisters of the curly coral creatures that form the Great Barrier Reef. Christine and Margaret then re-interpreted Taimina’s academically prescribed shapes into a multifarious crocheted reef. For two years, piles of crocheted “coral” accumulated in nearly every room of the sisters’ Craftsman-era home, before they even announced the project on the IFF website. When they did, they not only attracted the interest of the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh – the reef was included in a 2007 exhibit on global warming – but also drew contributors from around the globe. Today, the Wertheims’ website acknowledges the more than 75 crafters who crocheted coral for the IFF Core Reef, as well as the work of the thousands who have contributed to satellite reef projects.

From the beginning, the human-made reef was envisioned as a communal art venture that could raise awareness of the ecological impact of global warming, ocean acidification, invasive species, and overfishing on coral reefs. But the sisters never imagined the myriad ways the project (discussed in the Dec./Jan. 2008 American Craft) would grow. The past six years have seen a flurry of activity around the world: The IFF Core Reef has been exhibited in 11 museums and galleries, and some 20 satellite reefs have sprung up in New York, Florida, Illinois, and Arizona, as well more far-flung places such as England, Ireland, Latvia, Australia, and South Africa. Along the way, there have been a number of reef-inspired school projects, more than a dozen workshops, and four lectures and symposia – including a 2009 talk in Ireland by Margaret at the fashionable TED (Tech­nology, Entertainment, Design) conference. The project has attracted hundreds of thousands of exhibition visitors.

What has drawn such widespread fascination? Most likely it’s the unusual intersection of art, science, mathematics, handcraft, conservation, and community. Made from traditional yarns, as well as such unexpected materials as plastics, soda can tabs, and cable ties, the crocheted pieces represent a wide-ranging catalog of sea creatures – corals, sea slugs, kelp, and sponges among them. The handmade reefs tell the story of ocean life in all its exquisite beauty – and precariousness. Nancy Knowlton, Sant Chair for Marine Science at the National Museum of Natural History, and science advisor for the Smith­sonian exhibition, is acutely aware of the dangers to these delicate ecosystems. “The reefs I studied 35 years ago have largely vanished,” she notes. “And most reefs may well be gone by the end of the century or sooner, if nothing is done to protect them.” If trends continue, she says, “an exhibit like this may someday be the only way for people to experience the beauty of coral reefs.”

Beauty is not all that these living organisms provide, of course. Rick MacPherson of the Coral Reef Alliance points out that while coral reefs cover just two-tenths of one percent of the ocean floor, their complex tropical ecosystems rival the rainforests in biodiversity, supporting almost a quarter of all marine species. Coral reefs also provide food, resources for medicines, and “income to millions of people worldwide, and they protect our coastal communities from damaging storms and tsunamis,” MacPherson says.

Among the greatest threats to the well-being of reefs globally are ocean acidification and ocean warming, coral bleaching, water pollution and sedimentation, and ozone depletion. The Wertheims have illustrated these concerns in their largely colorless Bleached Reef and Bleached Bone Reef. Other destructive practices include coral mining, coastal development, and careless tourism, alluded to by the sisters’ Toxic Reef, which is almost wholly constructed from trash and plastics.

The idea for the Smithsonian Community Reef took root when the National Museum of Natural History agreed to exhibit the IFF Core Reef collection. Barbara Stauffer, chief of temporary exhibitions at the NMNH, started by asking Jane Milosch, former curator of the Renwick Gallery, to co-curate the project with Knowlton. Stauffer also enlisted Milosch to help her build a team of organizers for the project and secure funding, leading to sponsorships from the Coral Reef Alliance, the Quiksilver Foundation, and the Australian embassy. Museum programming coordinator Jennifer Lindsay, a former environmental legal assistant, a craft scholar, and a longtime knitter with deep connections within the greater D.C. fiber arts communities, headed the six-month community reef project. She rallied some 800 participants – ages 3 to 101, from some 25 states and three countries – to produce nearly 4,000 pieces of crocheted coral. The show’s designers then assembled the pieces – in a kaleidoscope of shapes and colors, as individual as the makers – into a 15- by 9- by 7-foot crocheted reef mound. The result is an exhibition that Margaret Wertheim describes as “the apotheosis of the project – a dream come true.”

With no end in sight for this ever-evolving endeavor, the “Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reef” exhibitions and satellite reefs will continue to raise awareness about the surprisingly related interests of crafters, mathematicians, and environmentalists.

Tara Leigh Tappert is an independent scholar and archivist based in Washington, D.C. Her latest project is a study of how the U.S. military has used arts and crafts for rehabilitation and recreation since World War I.

This is a corrected version of an earlier story.


NOAA: Coral Bleaching Likely in Caribbean This Year

According to the NOAA Coral Reef Watch monitoring system, coral bleaching is likely in the Caribbean in 2010. With temperatures above-average all year, NOAA’s models show a strong potential for bleaching in the southern and southeastern Caribbean through October that could be as severe as in 2005 when over 80 percent of corals bleached and over 40 percent died at many sites across the Caribbean. Scientists are already reporting coral bleaching at several Caribbean sites and severe bleaching has been reported from other parts of the world.

The NOAA Coral Reef Watch (CRW) satellite coral bleaching monitoring shows sea surface temperatures continue to remain above-average throughout the wider Caribbean region. Large areas of the southeastern Caribbean Sea are experiencing thermal stress capable of causing coral bleaching. The western Gulf of Mexico and the southern portion of the Bahamas have also experienced significant bleaching thermal stress. The CRW Coral Bleaching Thermal Stress Outlook indicates that the high stress should continue to develop in the southern and southeast Caribbean until mid-October. Prolonged coral bleaching, can lead to coral death and the subsequent loss of coral reef habitats for a range of marine life.

“The early warning predictions of NOAA’s CRW program are vital to assist coral reef managers in making early preparations for coral bleaching events,” says Billy Causey, southeast regional director for NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries. “While managers can’t do anything immediately to prevent coral bleaching, these early warnings give them time to monitor and track the stressful event, thus learning more about both direct and secondary impacts of bleaching on coral reefs around the world.”

The decline and loss of coral reefs has significant social, cultural, economic and ecological impacts on people and communities in the Caribbean, the United States, Australia and throughout the world. As the “rainforests of the sea,” coral reefs provide services estimated to be worth as much as $375 billion globally each year.

“High temperatures cause corals to force out the symbiotic algae that provide them with food. This makes the corals appear white or ‘bleached’ and can increase outbreaks of infectious disease,” said Mark Eakin, Ph.D., coordinator of NOAA’s Coral Reef Watch. “Temperatures are high in the Caribbean, and we expect this to continue. This season has the potential to be one of the worst bleaching seasons for some reefs.”

“A NOAA survey cruise just returned from the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary where we saw serious bleaching,” said Emma Hickerson, sanctuary research coordinator for the site, located off the coasts of Texas and Louisiana. “Several species were bleached and we are concerned we could lose much of the fire corals this year.”

Even though a variety of stresses — namely thermal stresses — continue to rise in the Caribbean basin, temperatures are expected to begin cooling in the Gulf of Mexico and Florida. In addition, recent hurricanes and tropical storms that passed near the U.S. Virgin Islands have cooled the waters there. NOAA researchers have shown that tropical weather systems can cool the high temperatures that cause bleaching, and NOAA forecasts that this Atlantic hurricane season will probably be more active than usual.

In 2005, the year of the worst bleaching on record in the Caribbean, no tropical storms passed close enough to cool the Virgin Islands, resulting in 90 percent of the area corals being bleached and 60 percent dying. Overall the 2005 bleaching event was the result of the largest, most intense thermal stress recorded in the Caribbean during the 25-year NOAA satellite record.

Bleached fire coral and christmas tree worm on top (Flower Gardens Bank bleaching 2010).

NOAA’s mission is to understand and predict changes in the Earth’s environment, from the depths of the ocean to the surface of the sun, and to conserve and manage our coastal and marine resources.

Colossal coral bleaching kills up to 95 percent of corals in the Philippines

By: Pierre Fidenci, president of Endangered Species International
Special to September 23, 2010

It is one of the most worrisome observations: fast massive death of coral reefs. A severe wide-scale bleaching occurred in the Philippines leaving 95 percent of the corals dead. The bleaching happened as the result of the 2009-2010 El Niño, with the Indian Ocean and Southeast Asia waters experiencing significant thermal increase especially since the beginning of 2010.

In one of our conservation sites prior to the bleaching event, dead coral represented only 20 percent of all corals, after bleaching that percentage rose to 95 percent of corals. The dominant live coral morphologies on the reef flat included branching, encrusting and foliose forms (Acropora and Montipora species) followed by sub-massive and massive Porites species. The crest had a slightly lower percentage of encrusting and massive forms, and an increased percentage of tabulate and corymbose forms. In contrast, slope regions were dominated by foliose (Montipora species). Now, the majority of the coral are dead and are mostly covered by algae while some are already showing signs of rubble.

The bleaching has been observed at many other sites around the Philippines featuring mass mortality of corals including the coral triangle outside the Philippines. This environmental catastrophe will probably be considered the most damaging bleaching event ever recorded in the Philippines, surpassing the big one of 1998.

During bleaching events, corals loss the symbiotic algae (known as zooxanthellae) which causes the coral to look white as the limestone skeleton becomes visible. Corals that are not able to recover from bleaching will die and eventually break down. While corals can recover from bleaching, extreme or long exposure to temperature anomalies cause significant mortality. Recoveries are strongly influenced by human disturbances such as overfishing and water pollution.

The consequence of this large-scale event is far from being fully known but fish diversity and populations will be highly affected. Livelihood depending on small sustainable fishing activities will see their income significantly reduced. Tourism will suffer greatly and tourists activities to replace diving will be needed.

Prior to this year’s bleaching, it was estimated that about 85 percent of the reefs have been damaged or destroyed in the Philippines, now the current estimate is likely to be close to 95 percent.

Millepora coral in the Philippines prior to bleaching event. Photo courtesy of Pierre Fidenci.

UPDATED: Lionfish found off Pensacola Beach threatens Florida

PENSACOLA BEACH — A beautiful yet venomous lionfish, native to the Indian and Pacific oceans, has been captured on a reef about 16 miles off Pensacola Beach.

It’s the first documented lionfish found off the coast of Northwest Florida and the second one confirmed in the eastern Gulf of Mexico, although there have been other undocumented sightings, said Eilene Beard, co-owner of Scuba Shack on South Palafox Street.

The 6-inch fish, captured Sept. 9, is residing in a saltwater tank at the downtown dive shop. It has red and white stripes, a tall row of venomous spines and fanlike fins that resemble a lion’s mane.

Its discovery is igniting fears that the invasive species is rapidly spreading from the Florida Keys and its population may explode here.

“I’m sure there are more lionfish out there,” said Robert Turpin, a marine biologist for Escambia County who captured the fish.

The biggest concern is that the lionfish will decimate recreational and commercial fish populations, including grouper and snapper, said Jon Dodrill, environmental administrator with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Marine Fishery Division.

“They’re ambush predators and voracious eaters,” he said.

Another concern, Beard said, is lionfish will soon show up closer to shore, such as at the Fort Pickens jetty, a popular spot for inexperienced divers.

“Divers there are more likely to lose their buoyancy, fall and touch one,” she said.

There are no major predators or diseases to control the populations. But, Dodrill said, there is a campaign to market the “tasty” fish as food to help control the population.

Dodrill said the lionfish population exploded off Key West.

“In early January 2009, the first lionfish was reported in the Keys, and basically, in a year and a half, we went from no observations of lionfish to sending teams of divers out collecting more than 250 of them,” he said.

Questions loom large about the origin of the lionfish.

The National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration is examining hundreds of samples of lionfish found up and down the Eastern seaboard, the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico.

Scientists want to find out if the fish originated from about a half dozen lionfish that came from an aquarium that washed into the Atlantic Ocean during Hurricane Andrew in 1992.

It’s also probable that more of the popular aquarium fish washed into Florida waters during other hurricanes or were released by owners who could no longer keep them.

“We really need to educate the public on this,” Beard said. “People should not dump their aquarium fish in the ocean. When people can’t keep them anymore, they feel sorry for them and don’t want to kill them. If someone doesn’t want their lionfish, they can bring it to me.”

Palau, at risk from rising seas, aims to drill for oil

Source: alertnet // AlertNet correspondent

By Justin Nobel

Palau is a paradox: The low-lying Pacific island nation is threatened by climate change but may soon be drilling for oil.

Seismic tests in the 1970s indicated the presence of petroleum but exploratory wells were never dug. Now, President Johnson Toribiong is pushing for exploration, hopeful oil will bring cheaper fuel, revenue and jobs.

“Right now we are importing fossil fuel and that is very, very expensive,” Toribiong said in a telephone interview. “If we find oil we will use the proceeds to make Palau a green country.”

Many island nations around the world are looking for creative solutions to a pending crisis – predicted boosts in sea level, associated with climate change, that could ruin their drinking water supplies and crops, put them at greater risk from storms and tidal surges and, in some cases, submerge their homelands entirely.

Officials in Kiribati, a group of Pacific Ocean atolls, are trying to train their young people as nurses and other sought-after professions, in hope they – and eventually their families – can migrate legally to other countries, particularly Australia. The president of the Maldives is exploring buying land elsewhere – perhaps in India or Sri Lanka – to accommodate an eventual wholesale migration.

Other island officials think finding ways to improve the economic plight of their people will give them more resources and options to adapt to the coming changes.

Palau, however, may be the only imperiled island nation aiming to raise needed funds by pumping oil, which when burned boosts carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere and drives climate change.

Toribiong, Palau’s president, established the world’s first shark sanctuary in Palau but also, prior to becoming president in 2009, did legal work for Palau Pacific Exploration (PPX), the Australia- and U.S.-based company now drilling for oil.

His position on drilling is in marked contrast to that of Tommy Remengesau Jr., Palau’s former president, who launched a project called the Micronesia Challenge to conserve 30 percent of Palau’s near-shore marine resources by 2020 and was cited by Time magazine in 2007 as a “Hero of the environment” for trumpeting the threat of climate change. Presently, he is a member of Palau’s Congress.

The island’s Congress has criticized the President’s contract with PPX, which gives the company until May 2011 to drill two exploratory wells and which Toribiong signed before giving Congress a chance to draft legislation guiding the development of petroleum resources.

Palau is now working with the World Bank to craft such legislation, which will ensure that as the country pursues an oil economy, social and environmental concerns are considered and a means for the fair distribution of profits is set up.


“In the end I hope we don’t have to drill,” said Noah Idechong, a renown marine conservationist who is now a leading member of Congress. “But I kind of sat down myself and realized that if you don’t get the legislation done right it will pop up in the future and we won’t be able to control it.”

Some analysts question why the World Bank is helping Palau develop fossil fuel resources when the island’s very existence is threatened by the burning of them.

“It is gut-wrenching and kind of sickening that Palau has been put in this position by those who have developed on the backs of the country’s future,” said Janet Redman, a sustainable energy researcher with the Institute for Policy Studies, a Washington D.C.-based think tank. “We are contributing to the process of an entire country disappearing.”

When asked why the World Bank was helping Palau pursue oil, Silvana Tordo, the lead energy economist in the World Bank’s oil, gas and mining policy division replied: “The choice of developing Palau’s resources is theirs, not ours. They will develop them with or without World Bank assistance. It is therefore important for the Bank to be part of the dialogue.”

Palau has 16 states and a complex system of governance that includes both state- and nationally-elected officials and traditional chiefs. Nearly two-thirds of the country’s 21,000 people, and most of its hotels and institutions are in the capital state of Koror.

The oil is located far from the capital, some 13 miles offshore from the remote state of Kayangel, a sandy reef-ringed isle of sparse tribal villages.

“Kayangel is not like Koror,” said Kayangel Governor Edwin Chokai. “They have a lot of jobs over there; over here we don’t have a lot of jobs, so over here we want to start the [oil] project so we can help the people of Kayangel.”

But even President Toribiong worries about what oil might bring.

“I am concerned. It is easy for people to be friendly in advance, but once you get the money greed sets in and shysters and phony consultants come,” Toribiong said. “Kayangel is a simple state, and these are not sophisticated people.”

Justin Nobel has reported on science and culture in Nunavik, Micronesia and northern California, and has on ongoing interest in climate issues in the South Pacific.

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