Friday, November 25, 2005

Glimmer of hope?

From Permuteran, the location of the Biorock workshop, where the internet is as slow as the pace of life in the Balinese villages, I read about "new work" from Ray Berkelmans and colleagues at AIMS reportedly showing that corals may be more adaptable to climate change than previously thought.

Thermally tolerant algae may allow at least some species to adapt to an average 1 to 3 C temperature rise on the Great Barrier Reef, it's thought (see here for more).

Friday, November 18, 2005

Nailed to its perch

A reminder from Ove Hoegh-Gulberg that the Great Barrier Reef could be 95% dead by 2050.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005


From 20 Nov to about 2 Dec I will be on the first field trip for this project - to Permuteran in Bali, Indonesia, where I'll attend the Third Biorock Workshop, and then to Kuching in Sarawak, Malaysia, where I will take part in a panel discussion at the International Media Environment Summit (courtesy of the British Council and the event organisers).

I'm attending the workshop in Bali not primarily to learn about Biorock (with which I have some familiarity) but to interact with others, who come from diverse backgrounds and bring valuable skills and experience, about their major concerns.

Both encounters will be largely on-shore, and with scientists, conservationists, politicians and other professionals. I am trying to raise money for further investigation and reporting directly from the environments and local communities affected.

Before leaving for Indonesia I'm making a quick trip to Olsztyn, Poland to give a talk and to discuss the politics of climate change on 18 Nov (courtesy, again, of the British Council).

Monday, November 14, 2005

95% of Philippine reefs "ruined"

...says George Hodgson, founder of Reef Check

(see also Critical battle for reefs in Philippines)

Friday, November 11, 2005

Tsunami impact

I am only now catching up with a report of work by Andrew Baird and colleagues at James Cook University - the first peer reviewed ecological assessment of the effect of the December 2004 tsunami on reefs (in Current Biology).

They say damage to the Aceh coral reefs was "occasionally spectacular, but surprisingly limited particularly when compared to the damage from chronic human misuse in the region".

They found "no evidence to support the idea that healthy reefs reduced damage on land".

The good news: "Some of the reefs we saw in Aceh are in excellent condition, despite economic collapse and civil war because in these areas government and traditional management has proved effective".

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Coral ABC

Charles Birkeland, who is with the Hawaii Cooperative Fishery Research Unit, wrote earlier today to say:

"I believe that it is distractive to focus on global warming. Like overfishing, destructive fishing methods, pollution, sedimentation, dredging, increase in CO2, etc, global warming is a proximal or superficial problem and the ultimate causal problem is the rapid growth of the human population and the concommitant economic demands on resources".

This argument is laid out more fully in Ratcheting Down the Coral Reefs, a paper he published in Bioscience in Nov 04 (Vol 54 No. 11).

So: abstain, be faithful, wear a condom...and save a coral reef? I'm reading the paper now.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

A very short introduction

Someone said that the previous post could be a bit hard for some people to read. Sorry about that! Here is basic overview of the project.

The proposition to be tested

Coral reefs are going extinct. It’s happening now – not at some vague point in the future and it will be the first eradication of an entire ecosystem as a result of human activities. The direct consequences for hundreds of millions of people could be catastrophic. The loss to humanity will be irreparable and without precedent.

Is this scare-mongering or - as some scientists believe – for real? If so, what can be done and by who? Can culprits and accomplices be identified and if so what are their names and addresses? What will the destruction do to our sense of ourselves and our place on the planet?

There is no shortage of brilliant, detailed practical work by hundreds or thousands of outstanding people researching the challenges and possible solutions. So why an investigation by a non-specialist with outputs such as a book intended for a wide non-specialist public?

  • Because we just don’t get the scale of the challenges: too few people understand the picture as a whole, and more of us need to
  • Because the stories of those trying to make change for the better are amazing
  • Because most of what’s written and said is hard for many people to understand
  • Because almost all of us need to understand more about what is being lost or could be lost
  • Because it would be great if the gloomy predictions are wrong, and there’s a need to assess if they are

The official story

Officially, things are bad but not terminal. The reefs may be only half dead by mid century (IUCN, GCRMN). Unquestionably, the great majority if not all of this destruction either is or will be a direct result of human action.

Numbers and percentages are clinical, detached from reality. They don’t convey the waste and the brutal mess. A large part of one of the most extraordinary and beautiful phenomenon on Earth have been strip-mined, bombed to smithereens, poisoned or overwhelmed by sewage and pollution, leaving nothing but a graveyard with a few scavengers picking over the bones. The cost in misery and human death has been immense and is likely to increase. Without coral reefs, fisheries disappear and people starve, and shorelines are dangerously exposed to rising sea levels and tidal waves.

The official line remains resolutely optimistic. “We firmly believe that the concerted efforts of the global community can halt and even reverse the decline in the world’s coral reefs”, says the Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network (the world authority) bouncing up like Tigger after a bad day. “The situation is not hopeless”.

It’s probably true that a lot can be done. But even if, by a series of miracle of political will, vastly more sensible actions are taken (and there are inspiring and controversial examples) – even then, a dark shadow looms that could make all efforts irrelevant; something that many officials – wary of seeming like doom mongers – don’t always like to talk about.

The mass mortality of 1998, in which 80% of corals in many parts of the Indian Ocean died, was supposed to be something that happens once every thousand years or more. But such events are likely to happen frequently in the 21st century. The reason is climate change, and in particular rapid changes in the oceans (see Status of Coral Reefs of the World 2004 ).

Ocean temperatures are rising fast – faster than some climatologists and oceanologists had anticipated until recently – and corals are vulnerable to small temperature rises (ibid). In addition, a phenomenon known as ocean acidification, which until recently has been little studied, could lead to even more dramatic changes (Royal Society, June 2005).


How all of this plays out is highly uncertain. Cascades of coral death with knock-on economic and political instability that in turn causes more destruction? Maybe. But where, when, and how much? How serious is this threat compared to others?

This is an exercise in journalism and science writing, not a crystal ball. But it may help to clarify a picture that, so far, is little understood. It will, I hope, help mobilise capacity to think and engage seriously with the challenges. To take one example, is one scientist I talked to right when he says we should essentially forget the corals of Florida and the entire Caribbean – part of the most wonderful natural heritage of the Americas but now degraded beyond hope and in the last stages of meltdown?

This investigation – based on extensive interviews, travel and other research – will document the extent of the crisis (or the hype), explore what is being done and what can be done, and reflects on what it means. And it will tell the stories of the people on the edge, trying to change things for the better.

Monday, November 07, 2005

Coral and global catastrophes

Here's an elevator speech for this project:

Tropical corals reefs may be first entire ecosystem to be eliminated as a result of climate change, in combination with other factors. Is this alarmism? Half-truth? What – really – can and should be done? Reefs are vital to the lives hundreds of millions of people. Public understanding and awareness are at a very low level. A popular, accessible but serious publishing project, including a book, that reaches large numbers of people can help.

There is no shortage of people ready to doubt and discourage, or to say there will be little interest in this endeavour. Well, we’ll see.

Even if the threats to coral reefs are serious, how high should they rank on a list of global priorities?

The distinguished climatologist Hans Joachim ("John") Schellnhuber does not, for example, include them in his map of "Earth System Tipping Points" (see summary at Oops). I recently wrote to ask him why. He said:

"I fully agree with you that the tropical coral reefs are endangered by global warming and - very important - ocean acidification. The reason why I did not include them as an "Earth System Tipping Point" is the fact that there is no clear analysis available yet how their destruction would affect the planetary machinery as a whole (or how their decline would at least impact on a regional scale). It is obvious that there will be local effects like coastal destabilization.

If you have good arguments for expecting large-scale impacts, please let me know. My tipping points map is a living beast anyway that changes all the time because of pertinent input such as yours".

I answered that I did not know any good arguments for expecting large-scale impacts on the "planetary machinery as a whole", and sent John’s comments to Tom Goreau of the Global Coral Reef Alliance. Here are extracts from Tom’s response:

"I very much like John's mode of thinking and am delighted that this is reaching the popular press.

…the current generation of climate models appear to be missing the vast bulk of positive feedback mechanisms that MUST exist in the Earth climate system [and] whose existence is revealed by analysis of the long term empirical climate data (ice cores, deep sea cores, etc.) which is why I trust data far more than models. We all agree qualitatively that things will get worse much faster than models suggest, but we really don't know how high they will get and how long this will take, due to uncertainty about the actual rates.

…For example our global coral reef [sea surface temperature] database shows that there are already important changes in ocean circulation taking place in every part of the ocean. These have profound effects on climate change, but are not included in the models. We are seeing an increase in the flow of heat in the Gulf Stream and Kuroshio systems, and big increase in the Antarctic circumpolar current, for example, two of [John’s] key areas. The Amazon is in fact changing faster than recognized, witness the unprecedented drought now underway. Most Caribbean corals are now dying of high temperature.

…While I agree with [Caspar] that coral reefs should be listed in ALL global compendia of major tipping points because it is the richest ecosystem in the sea and the first which will be effectively destroyed by global warming with devastating environmental and economic consequences to over 100 countries from loss of biodiversity, fisheries, shore protection, tourism, etc.

[But] John is right that this does not trigger global environmental changes. Coral reefs account for half of the limestone burial in the sea, and although many naively think this is a CO2 sink, it is in fact the major natural net source of CO2 to the atmosphere...the net amount of CO2 added to the atmosphere by coral reef growth is 50 times LESS than we put in from fossil fuels, which gives you an idea how anthropogenic effects have overwhelmed natural processes. The bottom line is that loss of coral reefs will be a catastrophe for almost all tropical marine countries, but it does not in itself trigger various global climate feedbacks. That is to say this is a major tipping point RESPONSE, rather than being a DRIVER of future changes".

The sole drift

Ariel. Your charm so strongly works 'em,
That if you now beheld them, your affections
Would become tender.

Prospero. Dost thou think so, spirit?

Ariel. Mine would, sir, were I human.

Prospero. And mine shall.
Hast thou, which art but air, a touch, a feeling
Of their afflictions, and shall not myself,
One of their kind, that relish all as sharply,
Passion'd as they, be kindlier moved than thou art?
Though with their high wrongs I am struck to the quick,
Yet with my nobler reason 'gainst my fury
Do I take part: the rarer action is
In virtue than in vengeance: they being penitent,
The sole drift of my purpose doth extend
Not a frown further. Go release them, Ariel.
My charms I'll break, their senses I'll restore,
And they shall be themselves.