Thursday, November 29, 2007

Under the sun

Nothing new, as far as I can see, in the Reuters feature 'Indonesia's corals threatened by climate change'; yet another heads-up ahead of the negotiations in Bali.

'The Amazon of the Seas' for the Coral Triangle may be a new-ish marketing term. Conservation organisations like WWF and CI started using Wallacea a few years ago to describe the terrestrial biomes at the centre of this amazing area, but that name - after Alfred Russel Wallace - is more obscure and, perhaps, Euro-centric.

HMG and Chagos

10 Downing Street has responded to a petition (noted on this blog here) asking the Prime Minister "to drop the [UK government's] appeal against the Chagos islanders' right to go home." It says:
[the former Foreign Secretary] decided to seek permission to appeal because our treaty obligations to the United States require the Territory be kept "for the defence needs" of both governments and our 2002 feasibility study came down heavily against the feasibility of resettlement.

The Court Of Appeal's judgment also raised issues of constitutional law of general public importance that, in her view, would adversely affect the effective governance of all British Overseas Territories. This would include confusion in the legal system applied in those Overseas Territories, and potential conflicts between local and English courts. For these reasons, the former Foreign Secretary thought it to be in the public interest that the effect of the Court of Appeal's judgment, even if correct, should be clarified.

Permission to appeal was granted by the House of Lords on condition that the Chagossians' costs were met by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Given the public interest the Foreign Secretary, David Miliband has accepted this condition. The Government expect the case to be heard by the House of Lords in 2008.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Tough love and resilience

Tim McClanahan, a Senior Conservation Zoologist with Wildlife Conservation Society who is based in Kenya, circulates notice of a new paper making a case for some good news. Here is his non-technical summary:

The future of coral reefs is precarious and continues to look bleaker as more and more seas report bleaching and further losses of living cover on reefs due to pulses of warm water. This has sent coral reef scientists and managers searching for locations where corals thrive and that are cool and likely to stay cool as climate heats up in the coming decades. The hope is to insure that these cool spots will provide a refuge for corals and to give them the highest levels of protection, in order that at least some corals and living reefs survive climate change. Unfortunately, the number of such places are few and located in areas that often do not support flourishing coral reefs and their legendary biological diversity, resulting in a future that many informed marine biologists see as few scattered spots of uninspiring diversity in a sea of chalky reef skeletons. Not what they have come to expect from this underwater Eden.

But a recently published study documenting the change in coral reefs over the past 10 years in East Africa has considerably brightened this gloomy picture. The authors have identified another environment where high diversity corals may survive and possibly thrive. Ironically, these tropical seas are both warm and have among the fastest rising seawater temperatures, but what makes them different from many other reefs is that the temperature of the water is highly variable across seasons and years and this appears to give them the tough love that helps them survive the rare and deadly hot pulses that devastate their more pampered cousins. The study finds that these areas are often found around islands in the shadows of ocean currents where current speeds are slowed and where water temperatures fluctuate accordingly, but may also be found in subtropical locations that naturally fluctuate with seasons. This study and a companion study found that these reefs are among the most species diverse reefs, equally high in numbers of species to reefs found in environments with less seasonal and yearly fluctuations. This study shows that it is not just the high stability of tropical environments that creates high biological diversity but also fluctuations that prepare them for the unexpected and this may allow them to persist in what is becoming an increasingly hostile environment.

for further detail see: Effects of climate and seawater temperature variation on coral bleaching and mortality by T. R. McClanahan, M. Ateweberhan, C. Muhando, J. Maina, and S. M. Mohammed. Ecological Monographs, 74: 503- 525.

'On speaking before Al Gore'

This came in yesterday from Tom Goreau, who is on his way to the Sustainable Mariculture Conference in Makassar before attending the Bali climate change conference as advisor to the delegations of Jamaica and the Caribbean Community Climate Change Centre:


Tom Goreau, President, Global Coral Reef Alliance
November 24 2007

On November 20 2007 I spoke before Al Gore at the Global Warming Conference organized by the Premier of the Turks and Caicos Islands. “Before” in the temporal sense of being the speaker scheduled just prior to Al Gore, not before in the spatial sense of being physically in the same room. Al Gore arrived a minute before his speech and left seconds after. He briefly met the Prime Minister, the Minister of Environment, the Governor, their wives, and the deputy head of the World Tourism Organization, but none of the other speakers. (In the interests of full disclosure, I was the first person to show data conclusively establishing the link between global warming and large-scale coral bleaching, to Al Gore’s Senate Panel in 1990, which was vilified and then ignored, but which led directly to the International Coral Reef Initiative when he became Vice President in 1993. Both his name and mine come from an old French word for a little pig.)

Al Gore gave a nearly hour-long speech that was gracious, charming, and packed full of homilies that “the future was in our hands”, and that “young people should learn about the environment”. But it contained absolutely no specific information, analysis, or strategy about climate change whatsoever. It was a rote feel-good speech, lacking any visual props, typical of political and religious exhortations, to which he added an opening sentence about how beautiful the Turks and Caicos were and how he would be back (rousing applause), and an ending sentence for local color that the “Caribbean should unite in the face of climate change” (covered in the press worldwide), although no specific suggestions were offered. The only practical tactical response to climate change he made was that he hoped young people would lie down in front of trucks building new coal-fired power plants.

My 20 minute speech “before” Al Gore showed that the last time that global temperatures were 1 degree C above today’s levels 125,000 years ago, the Turks and Caicos Islands, Bahamas, and Jamaica were swept by waves of a magnitude that we have never experienced, that sea levels were 25 feet higher, and that crocodiles and hippopotamuses lived in London, England.

It pointed out that since CO2 was one third lower then than it already is now, those conditions underestimate what will happen if we add absolutely no further CO2 to the atmosphere. It showed how and why IPCC projections seriously and systematically underestimate future climate change sensitivity, which the past climate record clearly shows, by failing to account for either the major positive feedback mechanisms or the full time scale of climate system responses.

It emphasized that adaptation is only a stopgap measure, but for long-term climate stability the CO2 already in the atmosphere must be reduced by at least a third, not allowed to rise further as it would if the Kyoto Protocol was enforced. It summarized the history of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and how the original draft prepared by the UN (which I had a hand in writing) was turned by governments into scientific nonsense, promotes carbon accounting fraud, rewards bogus carbon sinks and penalizes the real ones, was incapable of meeting its own goals to protect the most climatically sensitive ecosystems, and therefore is a death sentence for coral reefs and low lying island nations.

It demonstrated why coral reefs could take no further warming, how the global coral reef satellite sea surface temperature data base I developed had predicted coral bleaching accurately for decades, showed global trends that indicate much worse is imminent, and revealed for the first time that changes in ocean circulation are already underway worldwide and destroying fisheries from the bottom up. It showed photos of how we had kept coral reefs alive in places where they would have died from heat stroke by giving the corals 3-5 times faster growth rates and 16-50 times higher survival, how we restored coral reefs and fisheries in a few years in places in the Caribbean, Pacific, Indian Ocean, and Southeast Asia where they could not recover naturally, and how we turned beaches in the Maldives that were being severely eroded by sea level rise into growing ones.

It explained how CO2 could be removed from the atmosphere and stored in ways that greatly increased soil fertility by improving ancient, but until recently lost, methods of Amazonian Indians. It discussed the need for small island developing states to adopt new, proven, but currently unutilized technologies to tap tidal energy to prevent CO2 emissions and to recycle wastes and renewable biomass into clean water, fertilizer, and gaseous and liquid fuels. It argued the need to build large-scale ecosystem restoration into climate change treaties as critical to stabilizing climate, soil, water, fisheries, and biodiversity resources. It outlined tactics and strategy that Small Island States could pursue in the UN Climate Summit in Bali to turn it into a scientifically sound tool for effective action. It summarized many unexpected findings from our extensive survey of the health of Turks and Caicos reefs last year, and the implications for their management.

Later, many people kindly told me that they learned more from my speech than all the rest put together. The Turks and Caicos Government paid Al Gore [what is reported to be a six figure sum] for his celebrity photo-op advice. They paid me precisely nothing. The publicity was directly proportional to the money paid. Gored again!

The handwriting is now undeniably on the wall, in both planetary and personal senses. Without unimaginably radical changes in the next weeks, right after the UN Climate Change Summit in Bali I’ll be forced to quit my quixotic endeavours, and take a job asking the public if their hamburger is to go and if they want ketchup on their fries.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Tsunami damage report

At the time, there was much comment in the media, not all of it well-informed, about the impact of the Sumatra-Andaman tsunami of 26 December 2004 on coral reefs across the Indian Ocean. Andrew Baird notifies that an edition of the Atoll Research Bulletin devoted to this issue, no. 544, is now available on line.

In one of the papers, Baird and colleagues report on findings in Aceh. They write:
the initial damage to corals, while occasionally spectacular, was surprisingly limited and trivial when compared to pre-existing damage most probably caused by destructive fishing practices.

Hope in Buton

John French, whose recent work also includes revolutionary undergarments, has drawn an introduction to a seaweed farming project in Buton, Indonesia supported by Oxfam which, it's hoped, may help local people whose reefs are at risk to generate income.

Thursday, November 15, 2007


Project Sea Camel is posting a series of underwarer classes about corals and other marine organisms on YouTube here.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Soft corals 'melt due to global warming'

It's too late. We have now actually missed the boat in finding some key pharmaceuticals. There is a huge gap in our knowledge of soft corals in the reef environment, and with the rate of extinction, we have lost certain species forever.
-- says Hudi Benayahu of Tel Aviv University.

Thursday, November 08, 2007


John Bohannon's lively account of the Genoa Festival of Science (Celebrating Food, Feces, and 3 Billion Years of Evolution) links to Beginnings, an excerpt from Life with photography by Frans Lanting, music by Philip Glass and video by Alexander V. Nichols.

I think the excerpt is beautiful and worth watching. It covers the development and emergence of single and then multi-cellular life forms in the sea, but does not of course pretend to be comprehensive, and makes some poetic short cuts. It includes marvellous images of stromatolites, probably the first reef builders, and modern corals, which differ significantly from their ancient ancestors, and modern jellyfish which look, at least superficially, like those of the Middle Cambrian (500 Million Years Ago, Jellyfish Left Their Mark in Fine Sea Sediments).

Monday, November 05, 2007


Carl Hiaassen writes that "One of South Florida's dirtiest secrets is the daily dumping of a half-billion gallons of sewage into the Atlantic Ocean":
Among reputable marine scientists there is little debate. Sewage contains higher levels of nitrogen, ammonia and other contaminants that are widely believed to promote algae blooms and disease in coral communities.

As coral formations die off, fish, lobsters and sea turtles lose critical habitat.

Your average second-grader has no difficulty understanding that polluting the ocean has unhealthy consequences, but [the politicians] are slow learners.
[Hat tip to GCRA]

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Happy 55th!

To Ivy-Mike and the thermonuclear age.

The fireball was over 3 miles (5 km) wide, and the mushroom cloud rose to an altitude of 57,000 feet (17.0 km) in less than 90 seconds. One minute later it had reached 108,000 feet (33.0 km), before stabilizing at 120,000 feet (37.0 km) with the top eventually spreading out to a diameter of 100 miles (161 km) with a stem 20 miles (32 km) wide.

The blast created a crater 6,240 feet (1.9 km) in diameter and 164 feet (50 m) deep where Elugelab had once been; the blast and water waves from the explosion (some waves up to twenty feet high) stripped the test islands clean of vegetation, as observed by a helicopter survey within 60 minutes after the test, by which time the mushroom cloud and steam had been blown away. Irradiated coral debris fell upon ships stationed 30 miles (48 km) from the blast, and the immediate area around the atoll was heavily contaminated for some time.

Chagos petition

Ian Orr asks British citizens to sign a petition on the number 10 website calling on the Prime Minister "to drop an appeal against the Chagos islanders' right to go home". You have to be a British citizen to sign.

Orr also asks people to urge their media contacts to give publicity to a letter from an All-Party group of UK MPs, MEPs and members of the House of Lords which "should appear in a UK daily paper on 2 November". Once published, the final text will be on the website of the UK Chagos Support Association. (A draft text is attached as a comment at the bottom of this post. "It shows that the Prime Minister's fine words in his recent speech 'On Liberty' ring hollow when compared with the treatment over the years of the Chagossians". )

"Chagossians deserve support", says Orr. " To see their faces, go to an excellent site for photos of the exiled Chagossian community in Mauritius by the photographer Phuc Quach."

The Chagos Islands have some of the finest coral reefs in the Indian Ocean...and one of the largest U.S. military airfields in the region.

'Parrotfish to aid reef repair'

...say Peter Mumby and colleagues (BBC, Nature)