August has been a quiet month. Around here the very warm days of July moderated a bit, and we’ve had some wonderful summer weather. It’s hard to believe our lakes will be frozen over in about four months’ time. Locally, nationally, internationally life has slowed to a crawl. Television news shows have been more than usually filled with fluff. The Olympics came and went, never quite deciding if they were successful, or a financial disaster for Brazil (probably both), and I’ve recovered my self-esteem now that the parade of magnificent bodies accomplishing impossible feats has faded from my memory. The USA is trapped in the middle of an interminable reality TV show called the Presidential Campaign – this year we get to see two candidates, both widely disliked, trying to prove the other guy is worse. One of them, facing the very real prospect of losing, is apparently already seeing losing as winning. Donald Trump is playing a game nobody else really understands, and will likely leave a lot of damage in his wake. Even this early he has planted the seeds that will sprout in some minds as deep suspicion that the election was rigged against him all along. Still, the country is trapped, and little else seems to be happening there. In Canada, everyone is in summer mode, and the political class has been keeping a remarkably low profile, although there is a sense afoot that Fall is coming and Justin Trudeau’s honeymoon period may finally be over. Viewed from afar, Australia seems flummoxed by the realization that its election seems to have achieved little. The Liberal (= conservative) government is still in power, barely, and continues to advocate for increased coal mining while professing to be taking care of the Great Barrier Reef.
But what about the global environment.
NOAA’s State of the Climate global analysis for July began with:
“For the 15th consecutive month, the global land and ocean temperature departure from average was the highest since global temperature records began in 1880. This marks the longest such streak in NOAA’s 137 years of record keeping. The July 2016 combined average temperature over global land and ocean surfaces was 0.87°C (1.57°F) above the 20th century average, besting the previous July record set in 2015 by 0.06°C (0.11°F). July 2016 marks the 40th consecutive July with temperatures at least nominally above the 20th century average. The last time July global land and ocean temperatures were below average was in 1976 (-0.09°C / -0.16°F). Although continuing a record streak, July 2016 was also the lowest monthly temperature departure from average since August 2015 and tied with August 2015 as the 15th highest monthly temperature departure among all months (1,639) on record. However, since July is climatologically the globe’s warmest month of the year, the July 2016 global land and ocean temperature (16.67°C / 62.01°F) was the highest temperature for any month on record, surpassing the previous record set in July 2015. July 2016 was the 379th consecutive month with temperatures at least nominally above the 20th century average. The last month with temperatures below the 20th century average was December 1984 (-0.09°C / -0.16°F).”
Okay… I think we got that. July was hot globally, way hot, hotter than ever. The statistic I particularly like is the last one: every single one of the past 379 months was above average in global land and sea temperature. We are in a climatic town of Lake Wobegone, where all the months are above average. Something is definitely happening to our global climate.
This map is almost uniformly pink to red in color, meaning that temperatures everywhere are above the long-term climatic average. Could any of those politicians in the US or Australia explain this result while maintaining that climate is not warming? Especially after we put this map at the end of 15 very similar maps for the past 15 months? Better burn more coal, frack more gas, and boil up more bitumen – got to keep our economies healthy. Image courtesy NOAA National Centers for Environmental Information.
Needless to say, climate change is not just warming. On 16th August, NASA’s National Snow and Ice Data Center reported on the status of Arctic sea ice. By mid-August, ice cover had fallen to 5.61 million km2, the third lowest on record for this date. NSIDC does not expect the low point, expected mid-September, to exceed that in 2012, but the trend of melting this year is well above average. As for the rate of melting, in the first half of August, Arctic ice was melting at the rate of 87,400 km2 per day, almost the same rate as in 2012.
In this image, the orange line marks the median limits of ice pack for 14th August. Figure courtesy NSIDC.
The North-west Passage through Canada’s northern islands (I said that bit about the islands because Uncle Sam thinks these are international waters) is now open, and, sure enough, where there is a new place to sail, along come the cruise ships. Or at least, along comes the Crystal Serenity, a smallish cruise ship owned by Crystal Cruises. With 1000 passengers and 600 crew, it sailed into the 400-person hamlet of Ulukhaktok on August 26th, its first scheduled stop in Canada. The CBC reported that “In order not to overwhelm the small community, every two hours 150 to 200 passengers will be shuttled off the ship in inflatable boats and brought into Ulukhaktok.” So, people…Here’s the plan: approximately every two hours, a number of people equal to half your population will arrive via Zodiac, to stand around and gawk at you, and this will go on with a fresh group of gawkers every two hours all day. Sounds like fun? Now the citizens of Ulukhaktok get to experience what it is like to be specimens in a zoo.
When the ship proceeded to its second port of call, the somewhat larger small settlement of Cambridge Bay, CBC reported that many of the Inuit artists hoping to make some substantial sales were disappointed. About 85% of the passengers on board are American, and US law prohibits the importation of seal products or ivory (narwhale, walrus), two of the main materials used in Inuit arts. Sales were not being made. While the cruise line seems to have tried to be sensitive to its potential impacts on the residents, and while the strange regulations by the US Department of Fish and Game were not its doing, I predict that Canada’s northern communities are going to see lots of disappointment as the country is ‘developed’ in coming warmer years. We actually could learn from what has happened in other developing countries impacted by globally driven economic development including mass tourism. But I predict we won’t. We will rape the land and the sea, and sere the peoples’ souls.
The rate of warming
But I was talking about climate. The Guardian, commenting at the end of August on the July record warmth, quoted NASA as reporting that the current rate of warming is the most rapid for the last 1000 years and then going still further. Using data from NOAA, NASA scientists were able to compare the rate of warming over the past 30 years to the average rate per 5000 years during deglaciations in the Pleistocene. The rate appears to be about 10 times faster at present, with the warming projected for this century some 20 times greater than in a typical Pleistocene warming period. The Guardian also reported that Gavin Schmidt, Director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, had recently stated that in his view the aspirational 1.5oC limit discussed in Paris is already almost beyond our capacity to achieve, because of the rate at which we continue to burn fossil fuels. We definitely live in interesting times.
Earlier in August, the Washington Post had reported a new step in clarifying what has been happening to sea level. The headline reported that “sea level is not just rising – it is worse than that” but the article dealt with a paper published 10th August in Scientific Reports by John Fasullo, National Center for Climate Research, Univ of Colorado, and two colleagues. Fasullo’s paper helps clear up a paradox – we know that the amount of heat in the oceans is increasing and that glaciers are melting at an increasing rate, yet our most sensitive measurement of sea level rise suggests its rate has decreased since 1992! In late 1992, with the launch of the TOPEX/Poseidon satellite, it became possible to measure sea level, at any point on the ocean surface with millimeter accuracy using radar altimetry. But examination of these measurements taken over the two decades since reveals a declining rate of sea level rise.
While climate deniers may have loved this confusion, Fasullo’s paper reveals the paradox to be due to the cooling effects of the Mount Pinatubo eruption in 1991. The particulates sent skyward shaded and cooled the Earth; once they fell back to earth, temperatures bounced back up, and the consequent sea level rise starting in 1992 was also rapid. Warming, in the sense of delivery of heat to the planet, was continuous through this period, but the temperature response was a rapid jump as particulate clouds dispersed, followed by a slower subsequent increase, in step with the delivery of heat. Because the radar altimetry data missed the cooling that followed the eruption, the high initial rates of sea level rise measured were assumed to be ‘normal’. Sea level is currently rising at a rapid, and an increasing rate. If Pinatubo had not erupted that pattern would have been evident in the new radar altimetry data. So long as we are spared another Pinatubo-sized eruption to again distort things, the acceleration of sea level rise should become evident in the data stream in about another 10 years. Until then the acceleration is masked by Pinatubo. I predict, of course, that denialists will not bother to read Fasullo’s paper.
Impacts on corals
Meanwhile, corals around the world continued to bleach. I was struck by the headline of another Washington Post article on 3rd August: “I cried – right into my mask”. Coral ecologist Laurie Raymundo, University of Guam, was diving Guam’s Tumon Bay reefs, and reported on Facebook,
“I consider myself to be fairly objective and logical about science, but sometimes that approach fails me. Today, for the first time in the 50 years I’ve been in the water, I cried for an hour, right into my mask, as I witnessed the extent to which our lovely Tumon Bay corals were bleaching and dying.”
Laurie cried. Australian reef ecologist Terry Hughes apparently cried while doing aerial surveys of the northern Great Barrier Reef earlier this year. Crying by scientists is OK to talk about, when the ecosystem you love is being damaged so extensively. Those are living creatures, dying prematurely because of something we have done. We are the disease of this planet and many scientists get it. As for Tumon Bay – Guam’s reefs have been bleached in 2013, 2014, 2015 and now in 2016 it is happening again, and this year’s peak temperatures are not expected until later this September. Accumulated mortality will almost certainly exceed 50% — that is, the amount of coral after the 2016 bleaching is over will be about half what it was in 2013. That is a trajectory that does not take very long to devastate a reef system.
Wouldn’t be so bad if they were cauliflowers. While these bleached corals are mostly fast-growing Acropora species, they will still take several years to repopulate. These Guam corals bleached in 2013, and serious bleaching has occurred every year since. Not good. Photo © Dave Burdick/NOAA.
Coral reef politics in Australia
In Australia, the full, peer-reviewed, scientific report from the scientist-led ‘coral reef task force’ on the losses caused by bleaching on the northern Great Barrier Reef is not yet available, but argument about what just happened seems to have worsened following the ineffectual election (I call an election that does not remove an incompetent government ineffectual, but I guess it shows that the Australian electorate was not totally driven by concern for the environment). Prior to the election the bleaching event had already become politicized, given that the Australian government seems so deeply interested in digging up coal and shipping it through GBR ports and waterways to India and China, despite the obvious direct (siltation) and indirect (warming) damage that shipping all that dusty coal would mean for the reef. The politicization appears, from long distance, not to have improved now the election is over.
Some tourism operators have jumped into the fray recently, mounting a survey of their own to a series of outer barrier reefs off Lizard Island. In reporting this on 22nd August, the Courier Mail, a relatively right-wing Queensland rag, stated, “Latest findings exclusively obtained by The Courier-Mail show coral mortality in the outer shelf reefs north of Lizard Island was between one and five per cent with “spectacular” fish life and coral coverage.” The article went on to quote the tourism team leader saying, “We expected the worst. But it is tremendous condition, most of it is pristine, the rest is in full recovery. It shows the resilience of the reef.’’ The Courier Mail also managed to imply that the scientific survey by the task force was all done by looking down from a helicopter, presumably while enjoying a cool beer, and that this was not quite as good an approach as having a bunch of tourism operators in the water. Science is so easily cheapened.
Incidentally, the Courier Mail report quickly got picked up by such well-known right-wing North American rags as the Breitbart News Network (home of one of Donald Trump’s main campaign organizers) and The Daily Caller. Of course, back on the 4th June, The Australian, Rupert Murdock’s flagship paper, had started the scientist-bashing with an article headlined Great Barrier Reef: scientists “exaggerated” coral bleaching. Yes, when the message is not to your liking, shoot the messenger.
The Australian article, by Graham Lloyd, which appears to have been pulled behind a paywall between the 2nd and 3rd of September so I can no longer access it, is worth a serious look as an example of how to spread confusion and give a sense that the science is unclear. Lloyd’s article does this by means of innuendo about the scientists’ motives, and by careful partial quoting out of context from a Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority press release making it sound as if this management agency had data that contradicts what the task force has been claiming. (It does not, but, in fairness, the press release was written in a way to dampen down any concerns of citizens that the reef may be in danger – hey, they are a government agency and it was in the middle of an election.) Subsequent articles by the same reporter have continued to chip away at the evidence being reported from the task force, and the Courier-Mail has happily chimed in. Do the Koch Brothers have any business interests in Australia, or are there Aussie equivalents?
Wait a minute, maybe there are! An item on News.com.au alerted me to a report by the Australia Institute (self-described as an independent, public policy think tank) and the Australian Conservation Foundation titled Greasing the Wheels which was released on 28th July. Between 2010 and 2015 the Liberal Party of Australia and Queensland’s Liberal National Party received a total of $2 million in political donations from 6 mining companies, Beach Energy, Sibelco, Karreman Quarries, New Hope Corp., Adani Mining, and Linc Energy & Carbon Energy. The report details the amounts donated, and tracks the access received and the favorable decisions made. The amounts of money are small by North American standards (which are not anything for us to be proud of) but these are significant amounts in the less money-driven Australian political scene. The report makes interesting reading and confirms my view that big, powerful business interests throw their weight around as much as they are able to in all democracies. Usually in order to get special favors for themselves.
Well, enough about the fate of the Great Barrier Reef. Australia will solve its schizophrenia regarding the reef and coal in due course and hopefully a lot sooner than the coal mining corporations would prefer. But not just yet – The government’s approval of the huge Carmichael Mine to be developed by Adani was recently upheld as a new legal challenge from the Australian Conservation Foundation was dismissed last Monday.
Here in Canada, the National Energy Board (NEB) hearings on the Energy East pipeline proposal by TransCanada, have just been shut down after one day because of security concerns following a boisterous disruption, and other unspecified security concerns. Energy East is intended to move western tar sands oil east through Ontario and Quebec to New Brunswick and thence to a refinery and port and off to Europe. Sometimes TransCanada suggests the oil could be used in eastern Canada so we can stop importing from the Middle East, but that fig leaf is pretty darn small given that there seems to be little need for additional oil in the east (Newfoundland is still producing and there are massive supplies of hydroelectric power coming out of Quebec). Justin Trudeau is going to have to deal with the NEB sometime fairly soon. Canada’s former fearless leader, the incredibly honorable Stephen Harper stuffed the board with appointees given multi-year terms not long before his government went down to defeat last October. Those appointees, many with close ties to the industry, do not have to resign with the change in government. Two of them are currently under investigation for meeting inappropriately with individuals linked closely to TransCanada not long before the hearings were about to get under way. Does it look seedy or smell fishy? Yes, most definitely. And remember, Canada has no need of additional pipeline capacity to move the oil it is likely to produce in the future. Not if Canada intends to honor its commitments under the Paris Climate Accord.
Not only must Trudeau deal with the NEB, he is also going to have to bring the Provinces kicking and squealing to an agreement on carbon. Because our commitments (witness British Columbia’s recent action on its carbon tax) are woefully inadequate, even to meet our inadequate, Harper-designed, commitments under Paris. Time to show he can lead on the difficult issues. (Right now he is in China taking selfies with the leaders of that country.)
And now for the good news
What else happened in August? Well, surprisingly, there was a tiny bit of good environmental news. Let’s end on a high note or three. In Canada, the Trudeau government announced new funding of $850000 per year towards the operating budget of the ELA (Experimental Lakes Area), the world-class whole lake research facility in northwestern Ontario. This brings its total commitment, through Dept. of Fisheries and Oceans, to $1.95 million per year towards the total operating budget, which is also supported by $2 million per year from Ontario and $1 million per year from Manitoba. None of this money is ‘permanent’, but funding is secure for the next couple of years, and one more piece of short-sighted, cut-off-your-nose budget-slashing by the Harper government has been repaired. It was never the case that Canada did not need to maintain this research facility, or could not afford to support it.
Also in Canada, an opinion column in the Edmonton Journal, by Ben Dachis, Assoc. Director of the C.D. Howe Institute ( a definitely not left of center think tank) reported progress on the implementation of Alberta’s energy/carbon plan, including evidence that business supports it, and gave sensible advice on how best to use that portion of the accumulating revenue that is not simply being sent back to tax-payers. Dachis said, support R&D in alternative energy as the best way to drive the transition. At least some of the people in Alberta are being realistic on energy!
The three massive mirror arrays that make up Ivanpah Solar Energy Generating System. Photo © Brightsourceenergy.com
South of our border, sprawling across 5 square miles of desert on the California-Nevada border, the new Ivanpah Solar Energy Generating System is now operational, delivering solar energy to California homes. It is the largest solar energy plant in the world. At capacity, the facility’s trio of 450-foot high towers produces a gross total of 392 megawatts (MW) of solar power, enough electricity to provide 140,000 California homes with clean energy and avoid 400,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year. Quite an achievement.
Elsewhere in the world, the New York Times has reported that a large coral reef, known as Coral Castles, which sits within a lagoon of one of the islands of the nation of Kiribati (formerly the Phoenix Islands), has come back to life! Actually, severe bleaching and subsequent coral mortality severely damaged this reef in 2002-2003, and subsequent surveys in 2009 and 2012 had shown little improvement. But in September 2015, a team of scientists from the New England Aquarium re-surveyed and discovered very substantial improvement. While this is good news, it is a ‘bright spot’ story, making us all feel cheerful and optimistic despite the fact that numerous other reefs around the world have been devastated by bleaching and have not recovered. Also, I am puzzled. If the recovery was so dramatic and unexpected, why did it take a year for the scientists to tell the media about it? I have a feeling there is something going on here that we are not yet being told.
Ocellated wrasse, Symphodus ocellatus, parental male with smaller female in his nest.
Photo © Susan Marsh-Rollo.
Moving towards the just plain nice news, the news that keeps concerned environmental scientists able to enjoy life, be optimistic, and sleep at night…… On August 16th, Susan Alonzo of UC Santa Cruz, and colleagues published a paper in Nature Communications reporting that female ocellated wrasses, a small fish from the Mediterranean, can preferentially select the sperm of preferred males when engaged in a group spawning event, in which several males release sperm in a cloud that surrounds the eggs released by the female. The authors note this is the first time anyone has demonstrated female control over which sperm succeed in an animal without internal fertilization. The mechanism appears to lie in the chemical composition of the ovarian fluids that get released with the eggs, which favors faster-swimming sperm. While this is surprising, I am not sure I understand its significance.
As in many other fish, populations of the ocellated wrasse include males which grow larger, live longer, and build nests and take care of young. Think of these as more responsible parent males, in contrast to the other males which stay small, live only a short time, produce copious quantities of apparently slower-swimming sperm, and spend their time interrupting the courtship of the parental males, darting in and releasing their sperm at the critical moment. These decidedly less responsible males are called sneakers. (In writing this, I sense a possible new plot line for the porn industry… but I digress.) Alonzo and her colleagues have demonstrated that the females, by producing ovarian fluids that favor faster-swimming sperm, tilt the competition in favor of sperm from parental males. I’m not sure that this is ‘choice’ in the traditional meaning of that word, and the fact that sneakers exist proves that any tilting against them is not sufficient to make their fast and furious lifestyle unsuccessful genetically. Still it does show that nature always holds out new surprises for us to discover.
And far less kinky, and actually more nice, the annual competition for underwater photography has just announced this year’s winners. Some wonderful photos are on line, including the two here. There really are so many wonderful things to discover in our oceans, or indeed, in the rest of this amazing planet.
“Spotlight” by Matteo Visconti earned him ‘commended’ in the macro category (it’s a tough competition). A harlequin shrimp (Hymenocera picta) photographed in the Tulamben area on Bali’s west coast. Photo © Matteo Visconti.
“Three pillars – Practice, Patience and Luck” earned its photographer, Pier Mane from South Africa ‘up and coming underwater photographer of the year’. Image © Pier Mane