Monday, December 18, 2006

Last chance to see?

The world's reefs are suffering from more frequent periods of coral die-off than at any time in the past 11,000 years, according to a study by John Pandolfi and colleagues published on 13 December (reported here too).

One news article quotes Prof Pandolfi as saying the study supports the economic case for Australia signing up to the Kyoto Protocol as a first step to tackling global warming, which is one of the greatest threats to reefs. The Great Barrier Reef generates about A$6bn a year in tourism revenues every year.

So here's the dilemma. A great number of tourists visiting the Great Barrier Reef come on long haul flights. Each one of those is responsible for emissions vastly greater than is likely to be sustainable. What do you do?

I raised this point at a meeting at ITMEMS that included top scientists and managers from the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority. They were very much aware of it, and said there was a lot of hard thinking going on, including about offsets.

It would be interesting to get to the grips with the numbers. Is there any politically plausible path to significantly reducing emissions from the tourism sector itself? If not, exactly how would emissions be offset and where?

Can a long haul tourist's willingness-to-pay for a reef-with-a-future extend as far as coughing up serious extra cash for, say, more rapid uptake of carbon capture and storage in China?

What about just taking as much money as possible for the reefs now, building supercasinos when they are gone, and leaving recovery to the very long run?

(see also Ecotourism: Traveling the World to Help Save It and Eco-tourism: A sustainable trade? by James Mair.)

Thursday, December 07, 2006

"On the beach of that inflamed sea..."

A study published in Nature today supports the hypothesis that phytoplankton are highly responsive to climate change.

Phytoplankton play a key role in supporting many other organisms. In this sense they are like coral reefs, although they are probably even more important to ocean ecosystem function and global fish stocks.

Michael Behrenfeld of Oregan State University, who is lead author of study, gives a sense of how vital and yet how marginal they may be when he says "phytoplankton are limited to just a thin veneer of the ocean surface where there is enough sunlight to sustain photosynthesis".

Because phytoplankton generate half of the oxygen produced on Earth as well as consuming enormous quantities of CO2, says Oscar Schofield of Rutgers University, even a small change in the collective health of the organisms "has a huge impact for life as we know it on this planet."

(The paper by Behrenfeld et al comes shortly one from Southampton, noted here, which I haven't read but which sounds as if it covers some similar ground).

It seems not all the news is necessarily bad. Behrenfeld is reported as saying that warming oceans mean increased plankton activity in polar waters, and possibly an increase in the diversity of marine ecosystems worldwide, although further research is needed.

But for high drama turn to the publication in Science (8 Dec) of evidence, derived in part from the record in fossilised plankton, suggesting that climate is more sensitive than often thought to the release of CO2. The paper by Mark Pagani of Yale University and others indicates that if the source of a massive release of CO2 into the atmosphere 55 million years ago was ancient plant material, then for each doubling of atmospheric CO2 concentration, the Earth could warm by at least 2.2 ºC and possibly twice this much.

But if ancient methane was the cause, as many believe, the situation could be "even more dire". In that case, says Ken Caldeira of the Carnegie Institution, a doubling of atmospheric CO2 concentration would warm the Earth by over 5.6 ºC.

"If that’s what happened," says Caldeira, "we could be in for a mighty toasty future."

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Mac the knife

Coral reef sharks face a catastrophic world-wide population collapse if present fishing levels remain unrestricted, say scientists from James Cook University. Even on the relatively well protected Great Barrier Reef major shark species survive at just a fraction of prior levels, and they say numbers are declining.

The global picture beyond reefs may be even worse. A recent study by Shelley Clarke and colleagues at the University of Hawaii found that at least four times as many sharks are killed for their fins as are reported in official figures. That may mean 73 million per year.

By contrast, sharks are estimated to kill not much more than a dozen people world wide every year. It is said that ten times as many people are killed by falling coconuts.

Australian researchers William Robins and Sean Connolly say there are three reasons that sharks are more valuable alive than dead: tourist dollars, a sustainable fishing industry and reef protection. The third of these -- reef protection -- is not obvious to non-specialists, and a clear explanation of the role of reef sharks in reef ecology would be helpful.

Western popular imagination, insatiable in externalising its monsters, groans under a mountain of cliche about sharks. But now that many species are endangered could the conservation advocacy of the likes of Peter Benchley in his last years outlast his pulp fiction?

Not all mythology about sharks is antipathetic. See, for example, this brief oultline of traditional Hawaian beliefs.

So a combination of clear science, and old and new stories may help to change the picture.

It may even be the case that demand for shark fin soup in some East Asian countries can be reduced. Campaigns by organisations such as Wild Aid in countries such as Thailand, working with celebrities to drive home the message that eating shark is not cool (and may even stunt male virility), have had some impact.

"Und der Haifisch, der hat Zähne
Und die trägt er im Gesicht
Und MacHeath, der hat ein Messer
Doch das Messer sieht man nicht."

("And the shark, he has teeth
And he wears them in his face
And MacHeath, he has a knife
But the knife you don't see.")

Photograph copyright Warner Bros Entertainment Inc. Photo by Peter Kragh shows Howard Hall and Bob Cranston with the 3D IMAX camera system taken during the filming of the IMAX 3D film Deep Sea 3D

Friday, December 01, 2006

Burning archangels

However hard the actual doing of it, the concept of "saving the coral reefs" is quite easy to sell. A combination of arguments centering on such things ecosystem services and human livelihoods must have been cobbled together thousands of times, and often brilliantly.

Ethical arguments, stated in no nonsense non-emotive ways, often make it into the mix as well. But cite beauty and wonder as fundamental reasons for protecting reefs and you may be taken less seriously...unless you demonstrate what that adds up to in tourist dollars. What is the marginal utility of beauty and non-instrumental abundance?

Even more "out there" would be an argument suggesting that one should allow for the possibility that the beauty of reefs could be of value to other animals.

You what?

This is not a question of sentimentality. We should keep a very clear eye on what we know about both the extraordinary capacities of other intelligent animals such as our near cousins chimps and bonobos, and their real limits. There are things that careful observation of them can help us understand about ourselves; and there are things that it cannot. Primatologists like Frans de Waal are very helpful in this regard on both the horror and the hope, and we shouldn't be too starry eyed about, for example, bonobos.

Nevertheless, to go out on a creaking limb, let us consider what is still being learned about cetacean consciousness and emotion and what, if not exterminated, it could portend.

The immediate prompt for this post is Andy Coghlan's article Brainy Whales Get Emotional which reports that spindle neurons found in whales may in some cases be better developed than they are in humans. (Spindle neurons are specialised brain cells thought to process emotions. Bodies of them occur in the parts of the human brain linked with social organisation, empathy, speech, intuition about the feelings of others and rapid "gut" reaction). The article features a remarkable picture of human and fin whale brains, indicating what may be comparable or even better development of these functions in the latter.

Apologies to Andy Coghlan and the heavy hitting cetacean biologists if they find it embarrassing that their sober research and communication prompts wild imaginings on my part. And yes, in case you this line of argument strikes you as mad, I know that while many cetaceans visit tropical waters they seldom come close to a reefs, that their eyesight and other senses are different from humans, and that it may be pushing it to suggest that there could be an "aesthetic" aspect in any way that humans recognise to their use and appreciation song, never mind anything else. (And yes, gut reactions are not always a good thing. Look at George W. Bush also here).

"They say the sea is cold..."