Friday, May 26, 2006

Attenborough, the BBC and coral

Some people in London yesterday asked what I thought of Attenborough's first programme in the BBC climate change series. Two comments - which I guess many others would make too: it was effective communication, and it would have been even better had he/they done this some time ago, when the intellectual and moral case was already overwhelmingly strong.

On corals specifically, it was fine to have Ove Hoegh-Guldberg swimming across the GBR talking eloquently, but among the important points missed here was that corals are not just pretty things for lucky scientists and people on expensive holidays. They support fisheries and other ecosystem services that directly benefit five hundred million to a billion people (according to some estimates). One degree Centigrade could do them in, but the projected Earth temperature rise on busines as usual is 2 to 5 C give or take, and maybe more.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Revenge of the killer slime

Rising ocean temperatures will cause "lasting devastation to coral reef systems" (BBC report).

"Miles of unblemished coral reefs have been turned to slime-covered rubble because of rising sea temperatures caused by global warming" (Independent)

Monday, May 15, 2006

US "legally obliged" to protect reefs

As Geoffrey Lean reports it (14 May), the Bush administration has formally admitted that global warming is killing coral reefs:
...And the admission means that, under US law, [the administration] will finally be obliged to take action to reduce the pollution that causes climate change.

The US National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) has this month ruled that two species of coral - elkhorn and staghorn - must officially be registered as threatened under the US Endangered Species Act, partly because they are imperilled by rising sea temperatures. They are the first species ever to be listed as a result of global warming.
A NOAA press release from 5 May is here. It notes that "primary factors include disease, temperature-induced bleaching, and physical damage from hurricanes". The press release does not make reference to anthropogenic climate change. A report on their 12 May ruling is here

If Lean's interpretation (apparently based on comments such as these from Brent Plater at the Center for Biological Diversity) is correct, then it looks as if this prediction for 2006 (here and here) could turn out to be right (see also Myles Allen here).

A threat that liablity for consequences for global warming may become enforceable in law may contribute to pressures to undermine that law. In this regard , an overhaul of the US Endangered Species Act which "would give would give political appointees the authority to make critical scientific judgments now reserved for federal scientists" (according to this editorial in the 13 May Register Guard) could prove useful. The case of the coral itself may be neither the trigger nor a direct contributory factor for this proposed change. But it would go with the grain of policy.

Two more points: 1) it has been suggested that the category "threatened" offers little protection under the ESA, and that the category "critically endangered" would be more effective. To this, Brent Plater responds:
It is not correct to say that a threatened listing involves little if any real protection for the corals. Arguably the most important protection provided by the Endangered Species Act, the "consultation" process which requires every federal action to be altered or halted if the action will jeopardize the corals, comes into effect on June 8. A threatened listing also requires critical habitats to be designated and protected within 12 months, and a recovery team to be formed and a recovery plan to be created. In fact the only difference between an endangered and a threatened listing is that the prohibitions against "take" of the species may be slightly modified and will be delayed by about 1 year. Basically that means private (non-federal) actors are not regulated for 12 months, but even most so-called private actions that affect coral are federalized by requiring a permit from the Army Corps of Engineers, NOAA, or the EPA.Besides, most of the activities that constitute take of these corals by private persons is already prohibited under state, federal, or international law.
and 2) Tom Goreau says:
I understand that the ruling refers to elevated sea surface temperatures, hurricanes and disease. It is the case that disease has been the major killer of Caribbean Acropora. Global warming is a contributory factor. In the Pacific, global warming has been the number one killer of Acropora species, but none of those hundreds of species have been put on the list.
But see the comment appended to this post.


Tropical storm Chanchu is said to have killed 37 people and left thousands homeless in the Philippines. The latest report at time of writing is that the storm was picking up strength in the South China Sea and that it could hit Hong Kong with typhoon force on 17 May. Tom Goreau says "for this to happen in mid May is just incredible". Xinhua reports that local meteorologists say it will probably be the strongest tropical storm ever to hit South China in May. has more information here (thanks to Norie Huddle for this).

(The contribution of human activity to storms such as Chanchu may get some future attention; but a shaggy goat story from Merapi, Java -- an unambiguously natural phenomenon -- is likely to get more attention in the media in the coming days)

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Fourth Biorock workshop

The Fourth Biorock workshop will be from 13 to 20 November 2006 on Gili Trawangan, Lombok, Indonesia. See here for more.

Friday, May 05, 2006


Coral reefs in the Philippines are among the most degraded in the world, and partly because of this the country has some of the poorest and hungriest people in the tropics. (The Nature Conservancy estimates that coral reefs are central to the survival of over 500 million people - 8% of human population - who are directly dependent on reefs for food and income).

Many different approaches are being tried to improve the situation. Now a new project that may help has received some enthusiastic support: a proposal for a tidal energy powered coral reef and fisheries restoration project near Sagay in Negros Occidental Proviince won the MIT IDEAS competition on the evening of May 4.

FirstStepCoral will combine a Gorlov helical turbine with Biorock technology -- the first time the two have been brought together on the same project. Project participants include Antonio Cueva, Illac Diaz, Tom Goreau, Ed Kurth, Gerardo La O, Neil Ruiz, Rhoderick Samonte, and Daniel Walker.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

The swimming pigs of Fakaofo

"Fakaofo [one of the three principal islands of Tokelau] has so little space that its hundred or so pigs live on a low-lying coral shelf that is mostly underwater at high tide. At those times, lifted by the rising water, the pigs swim, their snouts in the air -- and for this they have a fame that has spread at least as far as a New Zealand school textbook. The pigs also eat seafood. I asked [a teenager named Erik Elika] how these animals caught fish, and he mimed for me the action of a pig first waiting with its mouth open in the water, then snapping it shut, as a fish wiggled into it."
Ian Parker, Letter from Polynesia, The New Yorker, 1 May 2006.