Wednesday, November 29, 2006

The sea, the sea

The presentation is dramatic:
Marine researchers at Southampton and Plymouth universities have found that the upper 1,500 metres of the ocean from western Europe to the eastern US have warmed by 0.015C in seven years. The capacity of the oceans to store heat means that a water temperature rise of that size is enough to warm the atmosphere above by almost 9C.
The article (by the often very good David Adam) segues to a report by James Lovelock warning that "such ocean warming could stifle marine life and accelerate climate change" "thermal mixing of water and nutrients shuts down when the upper layer of ocean water reaches about 12C."

Clearly there is a lot going on with regard to human impacts on ocean temperature and chemistry, and Lovelock's alarm may be well judged. But I think this article leaves out some important stuff. How, for example, do the new findings sit in relation to existing work (including findings by scientists at Scripps published in June 2005)? How many years until the temperature reaches an average of 12C? The study reportedly suggests heat stored in the oceans could be released into the atmosphere in future, but what would be likely to trigger this, and when would it likely take place?

There may be reason to be cautious about some articles in The Guardian on ocean warming, as Realclimate recently pointed out.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

"Blame Canada and España"

It may be nearly too late with regard to the campaign, but a cartoon from Greenpeace against bottom trawling is worth a look anyway (hat tip KT). Scroll down here to view.

(P.S. 24 Nov - the UN drive for a ban on bottom trawling has failed)

Monday, November 20, 2006

A remarkable similarity

The more that effective communicators do to help scientists raise awareness of the significance of ocean acidification the better. So it is good to see Elizabeth Kolbert (whose work on the impacts of atmospheric climate change I praised in the spring 2005 debate on the politics of climate change) writing about it (The Darkening Sea, The New Yorker, 20 November 2006, text not available online).

It may be that the similarities between her article and mine, published in New Scientist on 5 August 2006, are coincidental, dictated by the logic of the subject and sequencing interviews with the small number of distinguished scientists in this field.

And there are some differences. For example: I interviewed James Orr while she spoke to Chris Langdon; Kolbert was able to meet the scientists face to face while I had only a telephone; and she had more space to spin a yarn - not an option with the procrustean rigours of New Scientist, which is one of the reasons I am writing a book.

Still, if I were her and someone showed me the article that Caspar Henderson had published earlier I would either be quite surprised by how alike the two pieces are, or quite embarrassed.

(The text of mine is attached as a comment to this post. Please contact me directly if you would like a pdf with pictures and graphs)

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Price and value

An IUCN news release put out a couple of hours ago says that the "bleaching of corals due to climate change may result in global economic losses of up to US$ 104.8 billion over the next 50 years, or 0.23 percent of current global GDP".

What does a headline figure like that mean in a useful sense? How will it help the cause of conservation? $100bn, give or take, sounds like an affordable loss - just a quarter, an eighth or less (depending on your estimate) of the cost to date of the recent Iraq war.

Another way of thinking is outlined in an article titled The Stuff of Legends from Jeremy Seabrook:
It is not the salvaging of the social and economic system that should be at the heart of the current emergency, but a reassurance that the resource base upon which all systems depend will be conserved, so that it may provide a secure sufficiency for all humanity for an indefinite future.

This cannot be assured by horror stories about the monetary cost, by technological fixes, by faith in conquering other worlds, by belief in the redemptive capacity of science, or the ingenuity of humanity to promote limitlessness in a bounded world. It requires an alternative and convincing story of survival, an energising myth that will inspire collective action, a narrative that tells of a different kind of emancipation.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Kelp, copepods, capelin...and coral?

¨No more seafood by 2050¨ was -- as Deborah Mackenzie and editorial colleagues at New Scientist rightly say -- the take home message in the press reporting of what is said to be the biggest ever analysis of marine biodiversity. But the key point, they argue (and described in the title of the study: Impacts of Biodiversity Loss on Ocean Ecosystem Services - Science, 3 Nov 06), is actually more profound:
The bottom line is that if we want to keep protein production (and our oxygen source, and our pollution sink) functioning, we need to save the whale and the kelp, the copepods, the capelin and everything else...For its ecosystem services to work -- for the ocean to absorb pollution and provide us with food -- it needs all its parts intact.
Data for 64 large marine ecosystems shows that fisheries are collapsing at a higher rate in species-poor ecosystems than in species-rich ecosystems, writes Erik Stoksad in an overview of the paper for Science. But, he reports, some scientists are saying that it's difficult to prove that loss of diversity *causes* the decline in services.

An exchange in the same edition of Science asks how protected are coral reefs? Mark Spalding and others criticize C Mora et al for saying that only 2% of reefs are adequately protected. About 22.6% enjoy some form of legal protection, they say, and this is progress. Mora et al reply they found less than 0.1% of reefs are within marine protected areas that fully protect diversity, "MPAs worldwide are, for the most part, poorly effective and...current efforts to reverse the existing crisis of coral reefs fall far short of what is required to save these most diverse of all marine habitats".

Thursday, November 02, 2006

An Inconvenient Cor(a)llary

Noises of concern about coral reefs have penetrated even The Sun, one of Britain's less enlightened newspapers, which recently reported the US (16th coral reef) taskforce (meeting on 24 to 28 October) as saying that 60% of corals could be gone within 25 years.

So what can be done? Part of the official answer is to manage the effects of coral bleaching in order to encourage resilience.

This approach is outlined in A Reef Manager's Guide to Coral Bleaching, available from NOAA's Coral Reef Conservation Program, and in
Coral Reef Resilience and Resistance to Bleaching from the World Conservation Union (IUCN) and the Nature Conservancy.

The Guide was first published on 11 Oct and was subject of some discussion at the third ITMEMS
on 16 to 20 October (I won't go into detail on that here, but a related issue is described in the previous post in this blog). The Guide identifies three key actions reef managers can take to help reefs survive and recover from mass bleaching events:
  • increase observations of reef condition before, during and after bleaching to increase information and understanding of impacts and areas that may be especially resistant to bleaching,
  • reduce stressors (e.g., pollution, human use) on reefs during severe bleaching events to help corals survive the event, and
  • design and implement reef management strategies to support reef recovery and resilience, including reducing land- based pollution and protecting coral areas that may resist bleaching and serve as sources of coral larvae for "reseeding" reefs.
Not everyone is convinced. "Why are we not speaking out against this report?" ask James Cervino, a marine pathologist at Pace University, of his fellow scientists and subscribers to Coral List (Vol 41, Issue 1, 1 Nov 06):
Is it out fear of not getting funding from federal agencies? Are we so afraid to speak the Inconvenient Truth and say that the only way to save corals from heat stroke is to drastically reduce carbon emissions beyond the Kyoto Protocol? I respect James Hansen...for speaking up and telling the real Inconvenient Truth regarding global warming! Can the coral reef scientists speak out and say that this federal report is spurious in nature?

[In addition to tackling climate change] will the USA begin to reduce the large amounts of sewage and fertilizers that are spilling out into the reefs? Can someone point me in the direction of this new amazing plan that is part of a federally funded program that begins to implement tertiary treatment in South Florida and the US Virgin Islands?
Responses to James Cervino's comments so far have included this from the environmental economist James Spurgeon:
In terms of what coral managers/scientists can do with specific reference to "coral reef" management, perhaps those are the best actions!? However, in terms of what coral reef managers/scientists should do that would have the most impact, it would be to: i) beef up the awareness of the potential impending tragedy facing coral reefs (and the millions of people that rely on their ecosystem goods and services) to the general public and key decision-makers; and ii) promote the actions proposed in the recent Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change... The fate of corals gets a mention in the figure on page v (of the Executive Summary).

Fortunately, the UK Government is planning to take a lead on the matter (see this link). Let us hope other governments will work together to follow suit. As highlighted at the recent ITMEMS 3 conference, that will only happen if politicians are fully aware of the true economic consequences and voters make it an important issue.

[James Cervino and James Spurgeon are quoted in this blog with their permission]