Polar Regions Compete with Coral Reefs to Shout Out a Warning. Is Anyone Listening?


The number caught my eye.  Because of its immensity.  Twenty-eight trillion tonnes.  That is one hell of a lot of ice.  On the 23rd of August, The Guardian reported that planet Earth had lost 28 trillion tonnes of ice since 1994.  Slowly, over 30 years, it had melted away.  It was lost from glaciers, from the ice caps on Greenland and Antarctica, from coastal Arctic lands, from ice shelves that can be a couple of hundred meters thick, rising like great, glistening cliffs around Antarctica or northern Canada, and from floating sea ice.  Even from the upper reaches of Kilimanjaro.  The Guardian was referring to a new paper now under review, for eventual publication in The Chryosphere.  It appeared on-line on 14th August.  In it, Tom Slater of University of Leeds, and seven colleagues from that and other UK climate science research groups, reported on a series of calculations they had made using satellite-derived measurements of ice mass across the planet collected since the early 1990s.  These data were supplemented and confirmed with more direct measurements of ice loss in specific sites.  They calculated that immense number.

So, how much is 28 trillion tonnes of ice anyway?  A quick look at Google advised me that one cubic meter of ice weighs 919 kilograms.  Reminding myself that one tonne equals 1000 kg, and that a trillion is a thousand billion (the aging brain needs these mini-refresher courses), I realized that if one had a column of ice, 100 meters square (a column about the size of a small city block in size), it would need to rise 3,046,789,989 meters into the sky to weigh 28 trillion tonnes.  Assuming, of course, that the weight of ice did not melt, deform, or crush the bottom tiers, that 3 billion plus meters is roughly from here to the moon, and onward, eight times further.  Some of that ice, the sea ice, has not contributed to sea level rise.  But most of it has.  And the melting did not stop in 2017 (the final date in the Slater group’s calculations).  Yes, there remains a lot of ice on this planet, but the amount lost over those 30 years is still substantial – and most of us have been barely aware that it was happening.

The ability to simultaneously embrace two conflicting ideas is a strange human trait.  In 1936, F. Scott Fitzgerald said, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”  He saw it as a valuable ability because ideas are usually biased by perspective and two apparently opposed ideas could be two different perspectives on a topic.  With more than one perspective you have greater options for effective action.

But what about the ability to cling to two conflicting ideas that are truly incompatible – say the idea that the Earth is flat and the idea that it is a sphere floating in space?  Or the idea that climate is only changing trivially or scarcely at all, and the idea that climate change is an existential threat to humanity?  Each idea may be supported by evidence, but they cannot both be correct.  The evidence supporting one is misleading. 

I think we have long since reached the point where the evidence supporting an argument that the changes we are seeing on this planet are merely natural variability around some average state – that evidence now pales into insignificance when contrasted with the abundant and growing evidence that the world’s climate is changing dramatically.  And yet, many of us continue to act as if climate change will only be a minor inconvenience, a triviality, compared to all those other truly important things that affect our lives – stock market gyrations, political unrest, income inequality, Presidential tweets.  This clinging to a belief that climate change will turn out to be ‘no big deal’ is not a mark of intelligence; it may be a sign of Pollyannaism run amok.  The sad fact is that whole governments are operating as if the climate crisis is a minor impediment to carrying on as usual.  It isn’t, and that column of ice stretching far beyond the moon shows how un-trivial climate change is.

The coral reefs of the world first delivered a mass bleaching event during the strong el Niño of 1982-83; reefs throughout the Galapagos, along the Pacific coast of Panama, and at some points north and south bleached severely.  The Galapagos reefs have never recovered.  Reefs delivered the first circumtropical mass bleaching episode during the even stronger el Niño of 1997-98, and they have continued to bleach intermittently.  Now the Great Barrier Reef has been hit by three severe bleaching events in 2016, 2017-18 and 2020 – only the 2016 event occurred during a strong el Niño.  Bleaching events are becoming more frequent and are less strongly tied to major el Niños than they were originally (see my comments here and earlier).  The global pattern is clear: something novel is happening, and it is happening more frequently year by year.  That novel thing is our warming of the planet and coral reefs have been shouting about it for almost forty years.  It is now apparent that the glaciers, the ice caps, the shelves and sea ice have also been shouting in their own quiet but inexorable way.  This world is warming fast, and the warming is changing the nature of the planet.  The world has been without stores of ice in the past, and its been without coral reefs in the past.  But at times when the world lacked reefs, or ice, it was a very different place to now, a place ill suited to sustaining our immense human economy.

Recent research reports make clear that the melting of ice has broad implications for the functioning of marine ecosystems, the productivity of marine fisheries, and the biodiversity of polar and alpine ecosystems.  The melting also has implications for global weather patterns, global ocean circulation, and most importantly for the rate of future climate warming.  The recent report from the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) on the state of the Canadian Arctic sets out clearly the importance of ice to Arctic environments, and how loss of ice is leading to dramatic changes in Arctic ecosystems.  Some of these changes may be positive, in the sense they will maintain or enhance opportunities for life, but many will be negative.  Unfortunately, our relative lack of understanding of how Arctic ecosystems function precludes any certainty on this topic.

Vast ice shelves many meters thick and extending kilometers from shore have long been a feature of polar landscapes.  The ice is permanent, in that it has been there for thousands of years.  And the ice supports an ecosystem adapted to its special features.  Now, Arctic ice shelves have largely disappeared.  The Milne Ice Shelf, on the northwest coast of Canada’s Ellesmere Island, was the last intact ice shelf in the Canadian Arctic until July 31st when it began to break up.  By August 6th, it had lost over 40% of its area as two large pieces (the bigger about the size of Manhattan Island) floated away.  Loss of ice shelves forces a reorganization of coastal ecosystems, disrupts the access by people to sea ice and the hunting that provides, and increases erosion of shorelines by ocean waves.

Recently, Mercé Casas-Prat and Xiaolan Wang of Environment and Climate Change Canada published results of their analysis of the effects of the loss of sea ice on wave height in the Arctic.  As summarized by the Globe and Mail, their article in Geophysical Research: Oceans modelled changes in periodicity and height of oceanic swells and coastal waves as climate change removes ice during the rest of this century.  They found open the average height of ocean swells could increase by almost six meters by 2080-2100, while coastal waves could grow by two meters.  These changes in average conditions will disrupt shipping and lead to widespread coastal erosion.  Canadian towns like Tuktoyuktak are already experiencing serious erosion that threatens infrastructure.

A more dynamic ocean will likely also hasten the breakup of sea ice, providing a positive feedback to warming and further storminess.  As Glenn Macgillivray wrote in the Globe and Mail on August 19th, it is clear as ice that ‘the Arctic is unravelling’.

Figure 2 from the Science article by K.M. Lewis and colleagues shows (top graph) that while the extent of open water in the Arctic has increased since 1998, the rate of increase is now slowing.  Yet the rate of primary production (bottom graph) continues a near-linear upward trend.  The middle graph reveals that the density of phytoplankton in the water column was almost unchanged through the early 2000s but has been increasing dramatically since 2008. Image © Science magazine.

One of the changes in the Arctic which might be positive is an increase in primary production – the photosynthesis by phytoplankton is increasing because the surface waters are warmer, the loss of ice is allowing light to penetrate further, and, in coastal areas, there is enhanced nutrients available because of the enhanced erosion.  As Stanford University’s K.M. Lewis and colleagues describe in their July 10th article in Science, there is considerable uncertainty in future trends in production because of the complex interactions among nutrients, water temperature, salinity, ice extent and storminess.  Their data reveal that while the increase in production was explained almost entirely by the increase in open water between 1998 and 2008, the increase since then has been due to an increase in the density of phytoplankton in the water column.  That increase in density can only be sustained by an increase in nutrients available, an increase which has likely been due to inputs via coastal erosion.  In the future, warmer and less saline surface waters may become sufficiently segregated from cooler, saltier, more nutrient-rich deeper waters curtailing the provision of nutrients to the phytoplankton.  Conversely, the stronger ocean swells and stormier weather anticipated may facilitate continued, or even enhanced delivery of nutrients from deeper waters.  Whatever the future trend, the substantial increase in productivity that has occurred over the past twenty years, and which will continue for at least the near future, has implications for fisheries production, and maintenance of Arctic biodiversity.

These changes in polar environments are being reported at a time when our confidence in the projections of future climate change is growing.  Any projection of a system’s state into the future, particularly for a complex system such as Earth’s climate, will entail some uncertainty.  Even the best models will never be able to account precisely for every butterfly wing flap that plays a role in determining our future climate.  As a result, we have gotten used to viewing projections of future temperature, rainfall, windspeed and so on as a mean projection, the best estimate, surrounded by an increasingly broad cone of possible futures for the measurement in question.  The best models provide the narrowest cones of uncertainty, and the good news is that the recent results of what is called the World Climate Research Programme (WCRP) have dramatically narrowed the uncertainty around future climate projections.

The improvement in estimates of climate sensitivity achieved in the WCRP study.  Image © Science.

Ever since 1979 when efforts to estimate the effects of CO2 on climate began in earnest, climate scientists have referred to ‘climate sensitivity’ — the likely average global temperature increase for a doubling of the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere.  This is a useful index for climate change, given that we have already increased atmospheric CO2 from the preindustrial ~280 ppm to above 417 ppm in the final week of May 2020.  That’s about a 49% increase or half a doubling.  But since 1979, the estimated climate sensitivity has stubbornly sat at about 1.5o to 4.5oC.  That is an enormous range, from an inconvenience to a disaster if it happened, but climate scientists could not do better, and we all had to remember that projections of climate contained this considerable uncertainty.

The efforts of the consortium within WCRP have reduced that uncertainty.  Now the world’s climate sensitivity is estimated as between 2.6o and 3.9oC.  What this means is that if we continue to add CO2 as we certainly will, at least in the sort term, and if atmospheric CO2 approaches 560 ppm, as it easily could, the average global temperature could increase between 2.6o and 3.9oC above preindustrial levels.  That increase still poses real problems for us and for the biosphere, but the extent of those problems is estimated much more precisely.  Which means that planning for adaptation and mitigation can proceed with greater certainty about what we will be up against in coming decades.

One thing’s for sure though.  Climate is changing, and the idea that the coming changes will have trivial effects is clearly incorrect.  The tropics and the Arctic are both changing dramatically now.  The world will be changing dramatically long before we get to 2100 unless we get serious about containing climate change.  Keeping the average global temperature increase to within 1.5oC above preindustrial temperatures is still an important and appropriate goal that we, collectively, have yet to get solidly behind.  It represents the amount of warming likely with less than a 50% increase in CO2 concentration from the preindustrial 280 ppm.  In other words, once the warming effects of the CO2 already in the atmosphere are fully realized, we are pretty well there – meaning there is absolutely no time to lose in cutting emissions.  We knew this was the case back in 2015!

The results of the new WCRP work to refine the estimate of climate sensitivity mean that the science is even more certain of this than it was before.  And that is why the current dithering of politicians of all shapes, sizes, and political stripe should be particularly concerning to all of us.

Climate change is real.  The biosphere is shouting out that we face a real emergency.  The science is better refined than ever before, so we have real certainty about what is coming and what we need to do.  And yet… politicians continue to hold onto their belief that ‘maybe things won’t get too bad’ or ‘maybe some small adjustments will suffice’.  Sort of like suggesting that the covid-19 pandemic will fade away any time now all by itself.

It’s way past time to act on climate change! Image ©Olivia Vanni/AP

Categories: Arctic, Changing Oceans, Climate change, coral reef science, In the News, Uncategorized | Comments Off on Polar Regions Compete with Coral Reefs to Shout Out a Warning. Is Anyone Listening?

Is There Any Future for Coral Reefs?


Back in March, I took a look at the state of climate change and the tasks facing nations if we are to limit average warming to 1.5oC.  Those tasks were, and remain, demanding.  Now we are enduring the covid-19 pandemic, and action on climate change has slowed perceptibly, even as the economic collapse leads to bluer skies, and much lower rates of CO2 emissions.  Meanwhile the warming has continued.

I have a book in press, due out in early 2021.  In it I refer to the increasingly slim chance that we will have anything resembling 20th century coral reefs by the end of this century, so I remain personally very interested in how coral reefs are doing these days.  Will that slim chance have vanished to no chance at all before the book even hits the market?  Or will something unexpected have happened that makes it laughable that we would be concerned at all for the well-being of these iconic oceanic wonders?

Bleached Acropora on the Great Barrier Reef.  It has happened again in 2020.  Image © ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies.

The warming has continued to cause trouble from time to time at locations around the world as sea surface temperatures reach critical thresholds for coral reefs.  This year, there was serious bleaching again along the Great Barrier Reef (the third major bleaching event there since 2016) as well as in some other southwest Pacific locations.  The media, preoccupied with Covid-19, paid little attention and it is hard to find reports of bleaching other than on the GBR.

The Great Barrier Reef bleaching event, like the ones that preceded it, however, has been particularly well documented because of the science and monitoring resources able to be thrown at it and the media have responded accordingly.  Once more, scientists from James Cook University were able to conduct aerial surveys along the full 1500 km of the reef region during the second half of March, making 11 flights in 9 days, surveying 1036 reefs and scoring them for extent of bleaching.  They also did some in-water ground-truthing of the surveys.  Work was curtailed as the country shut down because of covid-19.  Later this year, the James Cook team will be diving many of these reefs to determine the extent of mortality.

Of the 1036 surveyed reefs, 39.8% exhibited little or no bleaching (less than 10% of corals bleached).  But 25.1% were severely affected (meaning at least 60% of the corals in shallow water were bleached.  The remaining 35% showed moderate bleaching (i.e 10% to 60% of corals bleached).  Compared to the bleaching in 2016, there are more unbleached or lightly bleached reefs and fewer severely bleached reefs, making this the second most extreme event since the first extensive bleaching of the GBR in 1998.  However, in contrast to both 2016 and 2017, bleaching in 2020 has impacted reefs throughout the length of the GBR province.  At the far southern end, I’m told by others that shallow reef flat corals at Heron Reef were severely bleached but that bleaching deeper on the slopes was lower (20% to 40% of corals) and more variable.  Shallow corals at nearby One Tree Reef have also been bleached.  I’ll be watching for the official report on the surveys of this bleaching event.

These three maps show each of the reefs surveyed during each of the last three bleaching events along the Great Barrier Reef.  Red circles reflect >60% of coral colonies bleached.  Green circles reflect <10% of coral colonies bleached.  The remaining 35% of reefs surveyed, scattered among the reds and greens, are omitted from the figure but had intermediate levels of bleaching (10 – 60%). Image © ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies.

The most notable thing about Great Barrier Reef bleachings is that of the five major ones that have occurred, only 1998 and 2016 occurred during el Niño years when water temperatures might be unusually warm.  The others (2002, 2017, 2020) have occurred in non-el Niño years, showing that global warming has now reached the point, at least in the south-west Pacific, that typical temperature fluctuations due to local weather (heat waves) are sufficient to trigger bleaching.  February 2020 had the warmest sea surface temperatures ever recorded in the GBR region.

In the Caribbean, records have always shown that the degradation of reefs, as measured in loss of live coral cover, had been well under way long before climate change was on the scene.  This is also true of the GBR – until 2016, climate change was a distant third to explosions in numbers of Crown-of-thorns seastars, and cyclones, as causes of coral loss – but while significant loss of live coral cover was evident in the 1970s on the GBR, that downward trend in coral cover began in the 1950s in the Caribbean.  Climate change became important there in the 1980s and subsequently, but, unlike the Pacific, the Caribbean has suffered from a number of pandemic diseases of corals and other major organisms.  Diseases, while important in the Pacific and elsewhere, have been particularly destructive of Caribbean reef systems. 

Rapid progression of Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease is shown in this time series of photos off St. Thomas, USVI.  Photo © Sonora Meiling and Science News.

There is a growing suspicion among scientists who study such things that the serious diseases prevalent in the Caribbean are themselves a consequence of the long-term degradation of reefs by a multitude of human activities.  The problem for corals is now being exacerbated by the warming due to climate change.  Among the most destructive causes for reef integrity have been the unidentified pathogen that virtually wiped out Diadema sea urchins throughout the Caribbean in 1983, removing a major reef herbivore that has never really recovered.  This facilitated a shift towards a much more algae-dominant reefscape.  White Band Disease, which was largely responsible for the near disappearance of Acropora palmata and A. cervicornis during the late 1970s and the 1980s, continues to crop up.  And Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease (usually just called SCTLD) is a new one currently ravishing populations of about 20 coral species in the northern Caribbean (many of these species are among the ones less likely to bleach as water warms).

SCTLD, first seen in Florida in 2014, has since been sighted in many locations throughout the northern Caribbean, including sites along the Mexican Yucatan but not Belize, and as far south in the eastern Caribbean as St. Kitts and Nevis, according to data compiled by the AGRRA monitoring program.

Two recent papers provide new information on the current threats to Caribbean reefs (both are open access).  Aaron Muñiz-Castillo and Ernesto Arias, both from Centro de Investigación y de Estudios Avanzados del I.P.N. (CINVESTAV), Mérida, Mexico, and five colleagues from Mexican and U.S. labs, published an article late in 2019 in Scientific Reports.  Their article deals with the spatial and temporal pattern of heat stress faced by coral reefs across the Caribbean, and therefore with the way warming is influencing different parts of the Caribbean in different ways and to different extents.  Katie Cramer of Arizona State University, and six, chiefly U.S.-based colleagues published an article in Science Advances on 22nd April that concerns the temporal pattern of loss of the two species of Acropora.  Their article is sure to generate discomfort in a number of places because of the putative causes they list. 

Muñiz-Castillo and colleagues used remote sensing to plot heat stress variation over the period from 1985 to 2017 at sites throughout the Caribbean.  They showed, as expected, that heat stress was overall greater in more equatorial regions and in more recent years, but they revealed significant variation among locations in these trends.  They showed that heat stress does not map simply according to the ecoregions recognized across the Caribbean and proposed a new set of heat stress regions to be used when considering effects of warming in this region.  Among the most stressed, and most rapidly warming, locations are central and eastern Venezuela, the Honduran and Nicaraguan Miskito Keys, and the more southern Lesser Antilles along with the western Venezuelan coast, Aruba and Curaçao.  At the other extreme are the northern Lesser Antilles, most of the Mesoamerican Reef, and most of the Greater Antilles, the eastern Bahamas and Florida.  These least stressed regions may serve as heat refugia for coral reef systems.

The main message for me from their article is that patterns of heat stress vary significantly across the Caribbean and that, by knowing the local pattern, it is possible to infer likely relative heat stress in the future among locations.  All coral reefs, even within the Caribbean, are not experiencing the same thermal stress as the planet warms, and there may be opportunities to use the differences among locations in managing reefs more effectively.  For example, it would be wise to look after those putative heat refugia.

Cramer’s paper is a historical look at the decline in abundance of the two Acropora species found in the Caribbean – very historical in that it includes Pleistocene data.  When Tom Goreau first described the structure of Caribbean reefs in 1959, he named two of the nine zones he recognized as the cervicornis zone and the palmata zone because those two species tended to be overwhelmingly common at those parts of the reef.  He described the typical occurrence of A. palmata as starting at the top of the reef slope in “a narrow zone which is populated almost exclusively by huge tree-like colonies of Acropora palmata that take the full force of the surf. The great serried outliers of this coral are predominantly oriented in the direction of the prevailing seas which thus give the whole zone the characteristic appearance of a great jagged comb with irregular teeth….  In this region, Acropora palmata is clearly dominant and exists as a nearly pure population except on the sides of surge channels…  [To depths of 5 – 6 meters] Acropora palmata is still the dominant coral, growing in large isolated heads that also are strongly oriented into the prevailing seas”.  Needless to say, very few people diving today have ever seen those serried ramparts that formed the upper portion of most Caribbean reefs; that species, along with A. cervicornis, is on the endangered species list.

The crashes of those two iconic species were under way or about to begin as Goreau completed his article.  Cramer and colleagues have used a variety of types of data, from many locations across the Caribbean, and extending from Pleistocene times to the present.  While White Band Disease, which caused widespread die-offs of both species during the 1980s, has long been identified as a major factor, these new data show clearly that the decline in A. palmata was well under way at the time Goreau was working in Jamaica.

The proportion of reef sites with the species present (gray line) or dominant (black line), Pleistocene to the present.  The onset of White Band disease, and the Diadema die-off are both marked in red.  Stars mark the first period with a significant decline in abundance from Pleistocene levels.  Note that A. palmata is characteristic of reef crest sites and A. cervicornis is characteristic of midslope sites.  Image © K. Cramer and Science Advances.

At reef crests, the proportion of sites dominated by A. palmata declined from 78% during the Pleistocene to 6% in 2011.  Even by the 1950s, palmata abundance was significantly lower than in the Pleistocene.  At midslope sites, the prevalence of A. cervicornis declined from 63% of sites in the Pleistocene to 12% of sites in the 1960s.  Its prevalence has declined to <1% of sites at the present time.  Clearly, White Band Disease, or even White Band Disease and climate change are not the whole story here. 

In their search for drivers of these trends, Cramer and colleagues argue that several local human stresses have played major roles before WBD and climate change began their involvement.  In particular, they point to water quality, but their analysis is hampered by the lack of water quality data for reef locations even today.  (A little bit like Covid-19 testing, if you don’t monitor water quality, you cannot be asked or ordered to clean things up.)  The only long-term water quality data for the Caribbean – data on clarity for Belize and Puerto Rico – reveal a trend to increasing turbidity between 1993 and 2012.  Cramer and colleagues argue convincingly (at least to me) that the long-term decline of reefs coincides not only with increasing use of fertilizers on agricultural land, but also with increasing use of synthetic herbicides and pesticides.  Many of these are known to interfere with coral reproduction through effects on fecundity, larval development, and settlement success.  As well, human settlements near coastlines deliver a stream of pharmaceuticals and other chemicals through wastewater that can enter the reef environment.  These also have seldom been tested for their impacts on reef organisms.

I vividly remember a tiny pilot experiment Chris Metcalfe and other colleagues of mine carried out in the Yucatan in December-January 2008-2009.  With the help of experienced cave divers from the region, they deployed passive samplers in a series of cenotes that were downstream from tourism developments along the Mexican Riviera and in one cenote upstream from all development.  Water in these cave systems was all flowing towards the coast and would be expected to percolate up at offshore sites along the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef.  (Such sites are readily visible to a diver on the shallow forereef as the brackish water slowly mixes with surrounding salt water.)  They showed easily measurable concentrations of a variety of anthropogenic chemicals ranging from PCBs and organochloride pesticides to pharmaceuticals and illicit drugs.  Few of these compounds have been tested for toxicity to reef organisms such as corals.  Their results demonstrated clearly that runoff from agriculture and sewage from the hotel developments were entering the ocean along that shore.  But without time series of data, it is not possible to be certain that such chemicals have increased in abundance in reef waters – not possible to be certain, but does anyone really doubt this has happened as tourism has grown over the years?

In addition to onshore pollution, overfishing is the other local impact of people on reefs that could have played a major role.  Overfishing appears to have been rampant at many Caribbean sites but again there are not the long-term data across this region that would be necessary to test any trends in this factor against Cramer’s coral abundance data.

I think the main message from Cramer’s article is that while we spend plenty of time talking about the very real, and growing, link between climate change, bleaching and reef decline, we need to remember those other human impacts, that are still playing a role, although more locally.  They were sufficient to commence the deterioration of reefs before climate was a problem and mostly they are still acting.  The second message is the reminder that the trajectory for coral reefs in the Caribbean has been particularly severe, with diseases playing a much larger role than elsewhere.  The prevalence of these diseases is almost certainly also influenced by the various human stresses acting on reefs.

Coral-dominated reefs such as this one are getting harder to find as the various human-caused stresses act against them.  With loss of coral, the structural complexity of the habitat, and the rich biota characteristic of coral reefs disappears also.  Image © Robert S. Steneck.

A coral reef exists as an exquisite balance between calcification processes and a variety of forces of destruction, physical and biological.  As human use of the coastline increases, and as direct use of the reef increases, a multitude of human-caused stresses act to shift this equilibrium.  Whether we facilitate algal growth through overfishing of herbivores, reduce coral survivorship or reproductive success through pollution or climate change, or simply disrupt reefs physically through our sometimes thoughtless manipulation of coastal lands, dredging of navigation channels, or construction of artificial islands, our actions shift that equilibrium in the direction of reef degradation and decline.  We are now at a point where we have increased our impacts on many reefs so far that they are disappearing before our eyes.  My suggestion that we will not have anything resembling the coral reefs of the 1960s by the end of this century is not in danger of becoming obsolete before my book emerges next spring.  I wish I could be more positive about the future.  I would love for us all to begin acting in ways that will prove me wrong!

Categories: Changing Oceans, Climate change, coral reef science, diseases | Comments Off on Is There Any Future for Coral Reefs?

Our Environmental Crisis in a New Post-Covid-19 World – Pluses and Minuses of a Pandemic


You might have thought that with Covid-19 locking down life, I’d have ample free time to post to my blog.  Fact is, I’ve been remarkably busy, in remarkably ineffective ways.  With next to nothing on my schedule for weeks, I’ve fallen into the trap which others have commented on.  While some people have used the sudden cessation of normal life to undertake projects that they had reluctantly shelved for years, others of us have frittered our time away, aimlessly drifting off in all directions without actually leaving the house.  Google has facilitated this in my case – now my drifting from link to link has no bounds and hours can go by before I remember what it was I went to Google for in the first place.  I climb back out of the rabbit hole, only to discover its already time for dinner.  And the weeks have rolled by.

That our Spring, so full of promise in early March, decided to pause and come in a bit late instead of super early, gave me the impression that time was standing still.  And yet, if one looks carefully, one can find ample evidence that the world still revolves at the same speed, still travels around the sun, and still changes under the pressure of all our mistreatment (although some of that mistreatment has abated because we have all been staying at home).  You have to search to find this evidence in the media.  Covid-19 has taken all the oxygen.  The CBC evening news program (which my parents watched religiously when I was a child, and which I’ve watched religiously ever since I returned to Canada in 1994) has almost become the Covid-19 Report.  Nothing else breaks through.  Even a tragic mass shooting of 22 people in Nova Scotia was reported through a Covid lens (ad nauseum, I might add – the CBC seems to feel obliged, without exception, to devote a full week on every story involving mass death of Canadians).  Lots of emphasis on how difficult it was to grieve when people could not gather or hug.  A little bit of wondering about whether the gunman finally lost his cool under the stress of days of forced inactivity because of Covid.

Nature of the Pandemic

So, what has been happening in the world, and what has not?  And what does this mean for the future?  I’ll now do something frankly stupid – try to look at the pandemic from inside the middle of it and draw some useful conclusions.  I cobbled together some numbers from WHO to look at apparent differences in impact among countries, knowing as I did so that the infection reached countries at different times so the situation on 17th May (when I accessed the data) is quite late (China), somewhere in the middle (USA, Canada, France), or very early (Peru, India) in the course of this first wave of infections.  Data on number of cases are flawed, to varying degrees, by the low and variable levels of testing, and data on deaths, which might be expected to be more accurate (dead bodies do focus the attention), are also of variable value due to differing ways of characterizing ‘cause of death’.  I used data for 17 countries including the 12 with the largest number of cases, plus four others with high numbers of deaths as reported by WHO.

I looked at the deaths per 100,000 of population to see if there was any pattern.  As the figure shows, deaths per 100,000 is all over the map for the 17 countries plotted here.

A screenshot of a cell phone

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Plot of Covid-19 deaths per 100,000 as of 17 May 2020, using WHO data for 17 countries with highest total cases and/or high numbers of deaths reported, and latest numbers from UN Population Division on national population size.

It’s tempting to suggest that the data for Belgium, Russia and India are particularly inadequate.  It’s tempting to suggest there is a cluster of low death rate countries including Canada, Germany, Brazil and so on averaging around 10 deaths per 100,000, and a cluster of high death rate countries – Spain, Italy, France, and UK – averaging around 55 deaths per 100,000.  With the Netherlands and the USA somewhere between.  There is certainly no tendency for the deaths per 100,000 to be more-or-less the same across most countries.  Its also clear that this per capita death rate is not related to population size in any simple way.  And finally, in this graph, the USA is not wildly different to other countries.  The USA has so far had way more deaths than any other country, but that is partly a function of its size.

It’s also tempting to suggest that, given the inadequacy of the data, this graph is meaningless.  In fact, if I were a reviewer of a paper including this graph, that’s the conclusion I would draw! 

We will probably have to wait some time before we can truly explore how this virus attacked in different countries (although in the interim, people with greater expertise in epidemiology than me will be able to make some real headway).  Then perhaps the differing approaches taken in trying to deal with it can be judged in terms of their relative effectiveness.  For now, I’ll limit myself to two comments: First, the data seem to be a bit of a dog’s breakfast.  Second, countries are taking decisions on containment – to lockdown, to individually distance, to quarantine – or worse, to move back towards ‘normal’ – that appear more driven by politics, public pressure, or the all-important GDP, rather than by the apparent status of the outbreak.  I fear we will see more bad news in the weeks and months ahead as people gather, mask-free, to celebrate their all-important freedom.

A group of people holding a sign

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Protestors outside the Massachusetts State House on May 4th calling for an end to restrictions to contain the coronavirus.  Photo © David L Ryan/Boston Globe.

The Economic Impact

The major direct consequence of efforts to contain this pandemic has been the shutting down of large swaths of the global economy.  The International Energy Agency’s Global Energy Review, which normally is released about now and reviews the preceding calendar year, in 2020 has looked as well at the first three months of 2020 (with some data up to end April).  It refers to the effects of the pandemic as unprecedented in peacetime, and projects a 6% global reduction in demand for energy for 2020.  This is the largest downturn in demand in 70 years (largest ever in absolute terms), and seven times larger than the downturn due to the 2008 financial crisis.  This drop in energy demand has been caused by the shuttering of manufacturing plants, a curtailment of retail, and a drastic reduction in transportation of all types.

Image from IEA Global Energy Review 2020 © IEA

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Image from IEA Global Energy Review 2020 © IEA

IEA’s graph of annual change in demand is particularly deceptive at first glance because it plots percent change in demand from year to year.  That is not the same as actual demand, and while the graph suggests demand has fluctuated a fair bit from year to year it also suggests, to the graphically naïve (including befuddled me when I first saw it), that on average demand for energy has not budged since 1900!  So – tilt your head to the right as you look at this graph because the zero line is a hell of a lot higher in 2020 than it was in 1900. 

IEA points out that this loss of energy demand impacts various sectors and nations differently.  Countries in full lockdown mode see about a 25% decline in overall energy demand week after week until they begin to recover.  Oil is hit hard because of the cuts to road transport and aviation.  As a consequence, the mix of fuels providing energy shifts and, continuing the trend set in 2019, renewables and other green fuels will have provided more of the energy used than will coal.

The extent of the economic downturn is most obvious in aviation.  There were 716,727 commercial flights made during the first week of December 2019, but that number fell to 287,760 by the first week in April 2020, a markedly different trend than in 2019 when the first week of May saw 733,576 flights.  Even this number was being held artificially high because airlines were maintaining services, often at the request of governments, despite a lack of passengers.  The number of passengers passing through security at US airports shows the real state of affairs – down 96% between 1st March and 16th April while the number of flights ‘only’ fell by half.

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Number of passengers per day in US airports 2020 and 2019. Graph © Business Insider

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) upped its estimate for 2020 losses in passenger revenues from $252 billion to $314 billion, a 55% vs a 44% loss compared to 2019, in the space of just three weeks between 24th March and 14th April.

Along with the airlines, all other components of the tourism industry have been hit exceptionally hard, and that means that communities dependent on tourism have been particularly affected as well.  What will happen to the economies of Caribbean, Mediterranean, South-east Asian countries which have relied substantially on tourism for economic well-being?  What will happen to cities like Paris, Sydney, New York, or dare I say Dubai?  What will happen to theatre, and most other forms of the entertainment industry?  Will the NBA final or any other major sporting event even feel like a real event without packed stands and a crowd cheering in unison?  Because it seems increasingly unlikely that the global economy is going to bounce back quickly, and those sectors, or communities, that have been particularly hard hit will suffer for a long time.  In fact, given the extent to which people seem to be ignoring the informed medical advice about taking steps to minimize spread of the illness, and therefore, the likelihood of multiple waves of infection during the year or more before we get effective treatments or vaccines, I think we are facing a future which is going to be notably different to the recent past, and not in ways that we have chosen, or even foreseen.

Some Good News

And yet… there is some good news hidden in all this doom and gloom.  For example, with the rapid curtailment of energy demand, we are going to have a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions in 2020.  IEA estimates that energy-related emissions will be just 30.6 gigatonnes CO2 for 2020.  That’s still a lot of CO2 but almost 8% lower than in 2019, and the lowest emissions rate since 2010.  It will also be the greatest emissions reduction ever seen, and six times larger than the decline caused by the economic downturn of 2008.

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Image from IEA Global Energy Review 2020 © IEA

When I first heard this news, I naively wondered if we could see this reduction in the CO2 concentrations atop Mauna Loa reported continuously by NOAA.  (I don’t always think clearly!)  Let’s just say that the 8% decline in emissions is going to be very welcome, but we need many years of such declines if we are going to keep warming to within 1.5oC.  Yes! The reduction in emissions achieved by the pandemic’s collapsing of the economy is of the same scale as the reduction we need year after year between now and 2050 to meet the Paris Agreement target!  And reducing emissions by 7 or 8% is not going to materially reduce the atmospheric concentration of CO2 – it will take years of such reductions to see that effect.  There is another important message embedded in this emissions reduction – anyone who still thinks we can solve climate change by shutting down our economy and living simply as in ye olde times needs to think twice.  We’ve almost shut our economy down over covid, and hardly made a dent!  We have got to reimagine our economy as one that is vibrant, but in a far less carbon-intensive way.  We’ve got to change our sources of energy, not simply turn off the taps and switches.

The downturn in 2020 has been accompanied by bluer skies, clearer waters, and much more evidence of wildlife in our public spaces.  Some people living in large cities have probably seen the stars for the first time in their lives. 

It’s amazing how quickly Nature is able to reveal herself once our mistreatment is eased.  A few months of cleaner air just may remind some of us of what we have largely lost over preceding years.  Might we want to hold on to that improvement as we recover from the pandemic?  Hold that thought a minute; it could become useful.  Meanwhile, get out and enjoy nature.

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When British Columbia’s site for reserving campsites in provincial parks reopened on Monday 25 May, it crashed immediately when 50,000 people attempted to book.  Photo © Pierre Leclerc/Shutterstock

What Will the Recovery Look Like?

Previous economic downturns have been followed by relatively rapid surges in activity which have brought CO2 emissions back to and higher than where they were prior to the downturn.  While the recovery this time may be slower, nobody is predicting economic activity will remain low.  Nor should it!  We need jobs and income to sustain lives.  And yet… There is the possibility after an economic collapse to rebuild differently, and there is some evidence that in some jurisdictions, governments are acting to stimulate economic growth in ways that simultaneously shift energy use in sustainable directions.


In Canada the surreal battle between Premier Jason Kenny of Alberta and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau over Alberta’s flagging oil sector was raging well before the pandemic hit.  Kenny, styling himself as Captain Courageous, protecting vulnerable Alberta from all those nasty, liberal people elsewhere in Canada, was doing a pretty good job of riling up his base á la Trump when the combination of a silly spat between Saudi Arabia and Russia – my oil well is bigger than yours – and a spiky little coronavirus combined to lower the value of oil below zero.  Here, Mr. Refinery Manager, I’ll pay you to take my oil.  Sort of left Mr. Kenny without much of an argument.  What valuable oil resources did you say Alberta has?

Except that large numbers of Albertans were losing their jobs as the oil sector tanked.  So far Trudeau has been making the right kind of responses.  In early March, speaking at the Prospectors and Developers Association conference in Toronto, Trudeau invited advice from the business sector on how to transition to a low-carbon economy, and noted that “moving towards a low-carbon economy is a big adjustment for many industries, including yours. This transformation won’t happen overnight.”  The speech was seen as a positive message by the mining industry.  Then with the covid-induced collapse, he provided $2.4 billion to help laid-off Alberta workers clean up orphaned oil and gas wells and stop the leakage of methane gas.  This may not have been the support Kenny was looking for, but it provided some relief from unemployment while solving some of the environmental problems generated by the oil industry.  (Of course, conveniently forgotten is that, once again, the fossil fuel industry is having its mess cleaned up by the taxpayers.  Funny how that always seems to be what happens.)

Since late April, there has not been much out of Ottawa re the oil sector.  They’ve been busy dealing with the pandemic but I hope their experts have been meeting in back rooms to figure out how to restart the economy without going back to the old, dig it up and ship it out approach.  Certainly, there has been plenty of evidence that the old ways are truly dead.  For example, Norway’s $1 Trillion sovereign wealth fund explicitly singled out Canada’s oil patch leaders, along with some others, to be blacklisted – all part of a plan to rid its fund of carbon-intensive risk.  For another example, a leader in Alberta’s oil drilling industry wrote in the Globe & Mail about how it was possible for the Alberta drilling industry to retool and retrain to exploit geothermal energy instead of messy tar sands.  He said this was possible because that is what his company had done — how’s that for irrefutable logic? 

Meanwhile, Mr. Kenny unwisely sank $7.5 Billion of Albertan’s money into the Keystone XL pipeline – perhaps the most blindly ignorant thing he could possibly have done with those funds.  Still, it serves to remind Albertans of who is on their side.  Meanwhile, many of us wait, less and less patiently, for Justin Trudeau to finally wheel out something solid to combat climate change.  He has a wonderful, virus-brought opportunity to stimulate economic recovery while reshaping the energy sector in this country, but will he muster the courage to do so?

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Jason Kenny announcing the commitment of $7.5 Billion of Alberta government funds in the Keystone XL pipeline – a pipeline in a foreign country that may never get built. 
Photo © Jim Wells/Postmedia.


There are encouraging signs from some other places that the economic rebuild is being done in sustainable ways.  If a global pandemic is a great time to build pipelines without anyone noticing (that’s the latest piece of brilliance out of Alberta), it’s also a great time to put in bike lanes and pedestrian-only malls.  They can be advertised as temporary, but people will come to love them, and many cities around the world are doing this.  Milan’s Strade Aperte plan announced in late April is quite ambitious, and New Zealand’s progressive government has funded all cities to increase pedestrian and bicycle access.  Other than Montreal, however, Canadian cities seem to be quite timid and they may be losing a golden opportunity.  In fact, cities like Toronto may see an upsurge in car traffic because people will be avoiding crowded public transport.  Come on, Canada, get with the program.

Meanwhile, the Environmental Crisis Unfolds in its Inevitable Way

In the middle of the pandemic, the Great Barrier Reef bleached severely, the third major bleaching of this iconic system since 2016.  If you were paying attention, you heard about it.  But if not, this bleaching has come and gone with scarcely a wimper.  The extent of what is happening to coral reefs deserves yet another post of its own, and I’ll turn to that next time.  Let’s just say that if it takes at least a decade to ‘repair’ a damaged reef (in terms of coral cover – a very incomplete level of ‘repair’), three major bleaching events in the space of four years have halted the repair process, at least for now.

Despite this bad news, the Australian political class, along with Rupert Murdock and most of the Australian media, and a growing number of people in the reef tourism sector (people who really should know best what is happening because they are taking tourists to the reef daily) all continue nonsense claims about the reef not being damaged, or recovering overnight, while promoting the gas and coal industry, and anything else that should be anathema in that climate-ravaged country.  If anyone, anywhere, wants non-American evidence of the damage that can be done to democracy by money and vested interests, just take a look at the feeble responses of most politicians in Australia to any notion that maybe climate change is an existential problem for this hot, dry nation, and maybe their gas and coal industries need to be scaled back.

Closer to home, I think of Canada’s Arctic coastline as our equivalent to the Great Barrier Reef.  Like Australians 50 years ago, Canadians today are largely unaware of our Arctic coast, and we have generated even less detailed information concerning how it functions.  Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans chose to mark Earth Day 2020 by releasing its report: Canada’s Oceans Now: Arctic Ecosystems 2019, accompanied by a 206-page technical report.  The press release suggested the report “provides useful educational content for students and all Canadians to read on Earth Day while at home” – nothing like the government giving us homework during a pandemic lockdown!

Still, I hope many Canadians will have at least peeked at this report.  It defines Canada’s Arctic Ocean Area as the ocean over Canada’s Arctic continental shelf and the islands there contained.  It reveals this as a 4 million+ square kilometer area, spanning 30 degrees of latitude, and equal in size to 41% of Canada’s total land area.  The mainland coastline is in excess of 176,000 km in length, and the 36,500+ islands together include about 800,000 square kilometers of land.  This vast area is populated by just 65,000 people, and the vast majority of Canadians have never set foot in it.

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A Canada most of us scarcely know. And a region that is changing very rapidly because of climate change.  Is Canada even equipped to manage this region sustainably? Photo © DFO.

Much larger than the Great Barrier Reef, it lacks that region’s diversity, but it is biologically rich in fish, marine mammals and birds.  The report, which makes extensive use of Inuit knowledge as well as of the science that has been done, takes pains to stress how much we do not know about this region, and how little information we have available even to detect changes that are taking place.  Although this report does not say so, the paucity of information about the Canadian Arctic is a failure of Canada’s responsibility to know about its land and waters.  There is a real need for funding to build the basic inventory of information about this part of Canada, and other forms of inducement to bring more scientific effort both from government and from the university sector.  This need is acute because the Arctic is warming at 2-3 times the rate of more equatorial parts of the planet, and that melting is already producing profound changes in geography and ecology both on land and in the water.  While the population may be small, the lives of Canada’s arctic inhabitants are being irrevocably changed and government lacks the data to adequately simulate or anticipate what may be coming.

The report does a good job of pointing to the special role of sea ice in the Arctic, distinguishing between that ice which is anchored to shorelines and the free-floating pack ice.  These are behaving differently as the ocean warms.  Apparently, prevailing ocean currents are pushing multi-year ice into northern Canadian waters and this part of the Arctic is likely to be the last place in that ocean to have summer ice.  There are important implications here for conservation of ice-dependent ecosystems and organisms.  As well, the melting of sea ice, which is one of the things well documented over 40 years through use of satellites, is shifting the balance from under-ice to open water productivity by phytoplankton.  As a consequence marine food webs are altering, although at present there is insufficient data to understand the pace or the full consequences of what is happening.

While this report, and its more technical companion, avoid alarmism, a careful reading reveals the enormous consequences of what is now happening, although without a clear statement about pace.  Canada is going to have to deal with many of these consequences, as they affect living and operating in the Arctic.  What happens to Inuit culture as the world melts?

Elsewhere, the long march to a warmer climate continues apace.  CO2 above Mauna Loa averaged 416.21ppm in April 2020, up from 413.33ppm last April, and 393.18ppm a decade ago.  Our chances of containing warming to 1.5oC have grown vanishingly small, and a sea level rise measured in meters by 2100 is no longer fiction.  On April 30th, a paper in Science reported on NASA’s new ice monitoring satellite, ICESat-2 (Ice, Cloud and Land Elevation Satellite-2) launched in 2018.  By accurately measuring elevation, over time it can map rates of ice loss.  The rates are very variable from place to place across Antarctica, but in some places the rates of loss are on the order of a meter per year.  Over all Antarctica, ice loss amounts to 3200 cubic kilometers of water per year, raising sea level 8.9mm.

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Image based on data from ICESat-2 and ICESat to compile rates of loss of altitude between 2003-9 and 2018.  The rate for all of Antarctica, 3200 cubic kilometers of water per year, is half the flow of the Amazon, twice the Congo, or six times the Mississippi or the St. Lawrence; a lot of water entering the ocean.  Image and data courtesy NASA Scientific Visualization Studio.

While warming continues apace, the action to address this existential problem has fallen off.  Governments are understandably preoccupied with the pandemic, and delaying major in-person conferences, such as COP26 – the next international climate conference, is wise.  COP26, originally set for November 2020, had been postponed to May 2021, but has now been postponed until November 2021.  Unfortunately, the flamboyant climate conferences are useful vehicles for holding nations’ feet to the flame, and without them action falters.  Witness the fact that action on climate change was one of the major demands by voters in the Canadian election last October.  Canada still awaits tangible action by the national government, showing that this message was received and that plans to strengthen the so far rather tepid Canadian performance on climate are now being put in place.  Yes, the government has been busy, but its been eight months already and all we have is some encouragement to the Alberta oil industry to clean up some abandoned wells.  Time for some real action, Mr. Trudeau.

Canada is not alone in slowing action on the climate file.  The USA continues to back away from every piece of environmental legislation it has on the books.  Australia is intransigent in its enthusiasm for its fossil fuel industry.  And climate change is hardly spoken of around the planet.

Australia’s case is particularly surprising given the abundant evidence of the damage already experienced there due to climate change.  Australia currently subsidizes its fossil fuel industry with about $57 billion per year according to the IMF, and its commitment under the Paris Agreement has been widely denounced as inadequate.  Yet, the Australian government recently announced it would not be altering its announced Paris target for emissions reduction until 2025 (countries are supposed to be racheting up their commitments year by year beginning before 2020).  Still, Australia finally took some positive action on climate with the release on 21 May of a discussion paper, Australia’s Technology Investment Roadmap, which is supposed to drive the innovations needed to move towards a carbon-neutral economy.  The fact the roadmap exists is a positive glimmer; the absence of any milestones for reductions in emissions, or carrots and sticks to move the economy forward shows it to be little more than green window dressing at this stage.  But, given past performance, even dressing the windows can be a sign of an awakening.

Not to pick on Australia.  Slacking off on climate action seems to be prevalent all over.  Remember my earlier comment that the blue skies, lack of smog, clear waters, abundant wildlife during the pandemic shutdown might remind us of how wonderful the world can be, and might serve to stimulate a desire to attend more closely to the needs of nature?  Here in Canada, as Spring moves into Summer, there is a surge of interest in camping, canoeing, and hiking in our natural areas.  Maybe, just maybe, we are about to see a reawakening of enthusiasm for nature, and a recognition that we have got to act to avoid destroying this source of so much that is good in our lives.  Let’s promote that thought.  It might help.

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Canoeing in Algonquin Park, Ontario.  Photo © Voyageur Quest

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