Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Carib dog days

On 16 July Mark Eakin, Coordinator of NOAA's Coral Reef Watch, noted Potential for Bleaching Growing around Florida, Cuba and Bahamas. On 30 July he wrote that Bleaching has begun in the Florida Keys.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Are marine and coral scientists too reticent?

'Reticent' is just about the last word I'd associate with most of the scientists I have been privileged to talk to. But, like the joke about the economist asked how his wife was, compared to what (or who)?

The matter comes to mind with the re-publication this week, under the title Huge Sea Level Rises Are Coming Unless We Act Now, of an article by James Hansen that has been going around in various ways since March (see, for example, here) and/or May (Scientific reticence and sea level rise). Hansen argues that some scientists have been excessively cautious, and advances a more alarming scenario about sea level rise than, for example, Stefan Ramstorf at RealClimate.

Back in April I blogged about the relatively rosey (reticent?) forecasts for coral reefs in the final draft of the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report Summary for Policy Makers (SPM). This said that coral [reefs] might be able to cope with a temperature rise of up to 3°C in a few decades, whereas the scientific consensus was that the actual threshold (OK, set of multiple thresholds interacting with other factors) is likely to be significantly lower.

It looked to me like a case of excessive reticence. But the feeling at the time seemed to be that even if the headline was not as scarey as many people thought it should be, the Report itself made the likely gravity of the situation clear enough...if you could be bothered with the details. As our man Simon Donner restates in the comments section at the foot of his most recent post:
I could forgive the loose wording in the SPM if it were not for the 3°C limit. I was one of the reviewers of the coral reef sections of the WGII report, from which the SPM was drawn, and I don't recall any specific mention of 3°C, nor any literature sources to specifically support it.

Nevertheless, as I've argued before, rather than get caught up in the geopolitics of the IPCC summary for policymakers, we should celebrate the fact that the full reports have cobbled together and thoroughly reviewed all the science on these issues. I don't think governments could effectively use this bit of SPM language to "promote" a different agenda, because there are too many people watching, and ready to hold their government's feet to the fire.
To which my first reaction is, good points. I hope you're right.

But my second reaction is, well some guys play with hard balls (and, indeed, bats), and the SPM opens a door for those who would push a general idea of "corals could be fine with a 3°C rise" that is not atuned to what the science actually indicates, whatever the consensus and/or debate within the scientific community itself and the best efforts of conservationists and some other enlightened actors.

Perhaps I worry unduly. In any case, if sea level goes up by 5 or 6 metres in a hundred years even fewer people will spend their time thinking about coral reefs. And ocean acidification could do for them next century if not this one. It is indeed all relative.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Status of the Great Barrier Reef

Hugh Sweatman of the Australian Institute of Marine Science announces that the first large-scale survey of the status of nearshore reefs of the Great Barrier Reef is now available on line. "You will be pleasantly surprised to find the news is not all bad", he says. The summary and the report are here.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

The wood, the trees, the choir invisible

In a note on Ove Hoegh-Guldberg's recent commentary, Charles Sheppard restates with clarity the difference between species extinction and ecological extinction:
I think the media (and some simple scientists it seems!) can’t grasp the difference between species extinction (as in Dodo, Sabre-Tooth Tiger etc) and ecological extinction (as in the system is too broken to work any more). One remaining oak tree in a clear-felled mud-scape is not species extinction of the oak, but the forest doesn't do foresty things any more.

I have recently returned (again) from a very heat stressed region of the coral reef world - Arabian/Persian Gulf - and dived for many hours on once rich reefs. I saw a live coral at intervals of perhaps 20 or 50 metres apart, the rest being dead. That is zero coral cover to the nearest whole number, but it is still not species-extinct. You would need to measure cover to about 0.0001% to register a positive number there. But then, to how many decimal places do we need to measure ‘dead’? Answer: to many, if you are looking to confirm species extinction, but none at all if you want to determine whether you still have a reef.

They don't have reefs any more in the sites I worked, but they do have the odd coral still. The reefs, are as dead as Monty Python’s parrot: eroding, not accreting, bio-deficient, not biodiverse, unproductive not productive, just plain dead, to use a shorthand...
For an earlier comment by Charles Sheppard on Coral Bones see here, and on the dead parrot analogy see here.

Monday, July 23, 2007

'Wrong, wrong and wrong'

In his new(ish) blog, Ove Hoegh-Guldberg rebuts Peter Ridd's claim that coral reefs will do just fine with climate change.

The post also references an earlier rebuttal from Madeleine van Oppen of a story that appeared in The Australian (noted here on Coral Bones), 'misrepresenting' work at AIMS.

Oppen et al 'see a small increase in tolerance (1-1.5°C) by shuffling symbionts that the coral already has a symbiosis with. That is, it is a small shift that does not give them protection against the elevated sea temperatures of today (during bleaching events, 2-3°C) or the future (3-5°C)'.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

British disease

Diseases increasingly affect tropical corals and this is the first record of disease affecting cold-water corals.
-- Jason Hall-Spencer, quoted in Warmer waters threaten pink coral [original paper here].

Thursday, July 19, 2007

The Micropolitan

Peter Etnoyer of Deep Sea News praises the Micropolitan Museum. And praise be indeed to this wonderful project, brainchild of the Institute for the Promotion of the Less than One Millimeter (Wim van Egmond et al)!

Etnoyer also praises The Other 95% from Kevin Zelnio, who has made thoughtful comments on this blog.

Larva of a brittlestar, copyright Wim van Egmond

Monday, July 16, 2007


In a debate about art and politics, Peter Sellars quoted what he said was Jean-Luc Goddard’s definition of an image: ‘two or more distinct realities made to touch each other’.

This brings to mind a stream running through Wildwood by the late Roger Deakin (to whom the recent conference Passionate Natures was dedicated).

Deakin sometimes wrote as if the woodlands were seas and coral reefs. The metaphor might creak in clumsier hands, but the two had grown together in Deakin’s mind so that its expression seems entirely natural. Some examples from the first few pages:
Once inside a wood, you walk on something very like the seabed, looking up at the canopy of leaves as if it were the surface of the water, filtering the descending shafts of sunlight and dappling everything.

…Lying in bed in the shepherd’s hut is an out of body experience in which you are suspended six feet above the bottom of a wooden boat, gazing into its wooden hull and along the line of its keel. Everything is upside down, of course, but it is such another world in there that anything is possible. You gaze out of the open door at the wake of bubbling cow-parsley and the green depths of a hedge in May. Lift your face to a porthole and you can survey the green waters of Cowpasture Meadow coming up to meet you as you voyage across doldrums of Sargasso buttercups in lazy pools, or navigate towards the beacon of a solitary green-winged orchid.

…A fragment of the Newlands oak stands on the windowsill…I have stood in its ruins and do not doubt the measurement [forty-four feet eight inches in girth] or Alan Mitchell’s estimate that it was 750 years old when it fell. Now it is no more than a stubborn atoll of dead wood…

…In the upper wood, Rosemary leads us down narrow paths through the dense blue seabed [of bluebells] to a 500 year old oak...
[Sellars also suggested the world may be entering a new century of perpetual war. For artists (showpeople?) like him, he said, the aim should be to help ‘create conditions in which thought is possible’ – with this as a contribution.]

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Shark lady on Belize reef

Some types of coral -- such as staghorn, with its long, spindly branches -- are making a comeback at Glover's Reef. Scientists don't exactly know why, except that they are increasingly finding that some species are more resilient than others.
-- from Yes, the water's warm...too warm by Juliet Eilperin.

Friday, July 13, 2007

New under the sun?

Coral geneticists from the Australian Institute of Marine Science say [they have] the first evidence that many corals store several types of algae, which can improve their capacity to cope with warmer water temperatures.
--from New genetic approaches unveil cryptic microbial algae in reef coral on the AIMS site, reported in The Australian as Barrier Reef 'can adapt' to warmer times (sic).

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Seabed mining in PNG

The Sea Turtle Restoration Project says (3 July) villagers from Bababag Island in Papua New Guinea are demanding a stop to deep sea mining in the Pacific. PNG is said to be a "testing ground for the controversial practice of seabed mining".

Back on 18 May Jochen Halfar and Rodney M. Fujita wrote (Danger of Deep-Sea Mining Science 18 May 2007: Vol. 316. no. 5827, p. 987):
There has been little progress toward creation of environmental regulatory systems specific to deep-sea mining by governments with jurisdiction over massive sulfide deposits. Some of these governments have a poor track record of mine oversight and regulation on land, so prospects appear poor for sound regulation of underwater mining. It is time to implement scientific, technological, and legal measures to minimize negative environmental impacts (including discouraging deep-sea mining activities near sensitive habitats) and to set up mechanisms to recover costs of regulation and enforcement from this nascent industry. Large capital investments and generation of revenues by underwater mining operations are likely to make regulation after onset of commercial operations even more difficult once deep-sea mining becomes a reality.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Teaching a cryptoendolith to talk

Of the late Imre Friedmann, an extreme microbiologist, it is reported:
as a student of seaweed, he had the “outlandish” idea that he might find single-celled versions of seaweed in the desert; and he did indeed find, under the limestone surface of the Negev, a greenish layer like a copper compound that turned out to be algae, alive...Friedmann himself always felt a peculiar tenderness for his cryptoendoliths: “always hungry, always too cold, in this grey zone”. “In human terms”, he said, “you could compare them to the most miserably living generations of pariahs in India. They are born, they live, and they die in the gutter.”
Long before corals the first reef building organisms were probably stromatolites. I'd guess Friedmann had an interest in these too. Certainly his work showed that dissection isn't necessarily murder, and that Roger Caillois, author of The Writing of Stones, was right to say research and poetry can go together: "I want the irrational to be continuously overdetermined, like the structure of coral; it must combine into one single system everything that until now has been systematically excluded by a mode of reason that is still incomplete" (credit to Marina Warner for bringing this to attention in her contribution to the Passionate Natures panel Landscape and Story).

Friedmann spent 17 seasons in Antarctica and also studied a lake in the Licancabur volcano in the Andes (pictured below). At around 6,014 metres this is amongst the highest and the least explored lakes on Earth, making it a "unique analog to ancient Martian lakes" where Friedman thought life on Earth may have originated.
Photo credit Andrew N. Hock, Dr. Greg Kovacs

Hurricanes 'may save coral reefs'

Derek Manzello, at the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and colleagues have shown that hurricanes cool temperatures and may assist coral recovery. Manzello documented the relationship between hurricanes and sea surface temperatures in the Florida Keys archipelago since 1988 and found that, on average, a hurricane will cool sea temperatures by 1.5°C for 10 days. "In relation to coral bleaching, that amount of cooling is pretty significant" -- New Scientist, 2 July