Glaciers Are Melting, Coral Reefs Are Bleaching; We Are Watching the Clowns Take Over Governments Around the World

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It’s mid-winter and time for a sober look at the state of our planet, and at the state of our human enterprise.  What on earth is happening to the Arctic?  Is the bleaching of coral reefs as bad as it has been reported?  Is humanity beginning the correction that most environmental scientists believe is long overdue?  And does discussing any of this really matter in a post-truth world where people believe any story which validates their preconceptions?

Contrary to what some readers may believe, posts to blogs do not just happen.  They take time to craft.  Or at least, on this blog they take time to craft, perhaps because writing does not just come naturally to me.  There was a bit of a hiatus in the final months of 2016 – the process of moving house and overseeing ‘minor’ renovations took more time than I had intended, and the US political scene took a turn which left me wondering whether it was now time for the big sleep.  But it is a new year, and today I feel energized.  I am committing to produce about two posts a month, to focus on environmental issues, but to occasionally comment on political issues when they pertain to our interaction with the rest of the biosphere.  I’ll continue a healthy marine and tropical bias since that may help me stay close to topics I know something about.  If readership dwindles, I’ll shut up.

Each day we hear more about the people Donald Trump is selecting for his cabinet.  Anyone who thinks this is going to be “just another Republican presidency” has not been watching closely.  We could be at the beginning of a radically changed world, and I do not mean in a good way.  Rather than spew frustration by talking about his picks, I will use this post to talk instead about Arctic sea ice, glacier melt, and coral reefs.  All have been in the news of late, and both provide disturbing evidence of how seriously humanity is altering this planet.  We definitely are in the Anthropocene.

A Radically Warmer Arctic

Something very strange is happening at the top of the world.  On 16th November, a graph posted on Twitter caught my eye.  It showed total global sea ice area (Arctic and Antarctic combined) for every day of the year, plotted for every year since 1978.  Here is that graph, and an update of it to January 3rd, 2017.

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Graph as posted on Twitter by Zack Labe, a Cornell student, using data downloaded from the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) in Boulder CO.  It shows a trace of total sea ice extent (Arctic + Antarctic) for every year from 1978.  The trace for 2016 is consistently low, and appears to have gone onto a completely different path starting in late August.

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The graph as currently available on the web, with data extended through 3rd January 2017.

In truth, the image I saw on Twitter is more alarming than the more recent one, and both exaggerate the extent to which the 2016 data diverge, because of the truncation of the Y-axis (there is also something wrong re the Y-axis of the first graph).  NSIDC has routinely published data using a Y-axis extending down to 0 km2.  Also, by combining what is happening in the Arctic with what is happening in the Antarctic, when the two regions operate on approximately opposite cycles of ice growth and retreat, is a strange analysis.  We do not know from this graph whether the Arctic is failing to freeze up in the Fall, or the Antarctic is melting more rapidly during Spring, or both.  In fact, it’s a little bit of both.

In November, when the discrepancy in global sea ice between 2016 and previous years was at its greatest, Antarctic seas contained 14.54 million km2 of ice, the lowest amount on record for that month, and more than twice as far from average coverage as was seen in the previous lowest year.  In the Arctic, sea ice extent was 9.08 million km2, nearly two million km2 below average for November, caused by what the Guardian referred to as a triple whammy of continued warm waters, a warm atmosphere, and winds which concentrated this warmth over the Arctic.  This year is not like any previous year.  It will be interesting to follow trends in 2017.

Continental Ice Sheets

While loss of sea ice may have profound impacts on the rate of global warming, and loss of Arctic sea ice may prove a bonanza for international trade and for fisheries and mineral exploitation in that ocean, the loss of continental ice causes sea level rise.  Given the human penchant for living by the sea, sea level rise may become one of the most important of all the changes we lump as climate change.  Scientists who study ice are learning a lot, but a lot remains to be learned concerning how quickly, and by what mechanisms, the major continental ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica will respond to our steadily warming climate.  During 2016 there were several significant advances in understanding the behavior of the west Antarctic ice sheet reported in the technical press.  I blogged about a couple of them in July, and talked briefly about the strange ways glaciers melt in November.  At the end of the year, we learned something more about the behavior of the much larger east Antarctic ice sheet, and got some contradictory messages about the Greenland ice sheet (showing just how much there is to learn).

In December, Stephen Rintoul, University of Tasmania, and six colleagues published a report in Science Advances dealing with the mechanisms of melting in the east Antarctic ice sheet.  They studied the Totten ice shelf which forms the terminus of the largest glacier on east Antarctica, the Totten glacier.

Antarctic glaciers extend out from shore as immense blocks of ice grounded on the sea bed hundreds of meters below sea level, and towering several meters above sea level.  As they push outwards the calving of icebergs at their seaward edges adds to the sea ice that extends the ice shelf as a floating ice mass out across the surrounding ocean.  Melting of the sea ice does not, itself, lead to sea level rise – it is floating already – but its melting permits further transport of ice from the glacier and that does raise sea level.  Glaciologists have long considered the east Antarctic ice sheet to be more stable than the smaller west Antarctic ice sheet because its geography makes it less exposed to ‘warm’ waters, however observations in recent years have revealed that the Totten glacier is thinning at a faster rate than expected if surface melting alone were responsible.  Were it to continue, this melting could result in substantial sea level rise as ice moved down from the continent behind.

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Australian research vessel, Aurora Australis, at the edge of the Totten glacier.  This mass of ice is grounded on the rocky subtidal coast, with a floating ice shelf usually extending out further into the ocean.  A rare opportunity of open water at the edge permitted access to the front of the glacier.  Photo © Paul Brown, Australian Maritime College.

Rintoul and colleagues had the opportunity, because fortuitous winds opened a passage adjacent to the inner edge of the sea ice (close to the seaward edge of the grounded ice) and they were able to secure ship-based measurements of ocean conditions there.  Their investigations revealed that, as in parts of the west Antarctica ice shelf, underwater geography and movement of ocean waters were combining to transfer considerable quantities of ‘warm’ water deep beneath the otherwise grounded ice along a canyon more than a kilometer deep.  (I am using ‘warm’ to denote that this ‘Circumpolar Deep Water’ is hardly warm – it remains below 0oC – but at about -0.4oC it is significantly warmer than the prevailing ocean temperature in the region.  At the pressure typical for water a kilometer deep, this water is a couple of degrees above the freezing point and can certainly melt ice.)  Rintoul and colleagues calculated that this warm water flowed in towards the grounded ice at about 220,000 m3 per second, resulting in heat transfer sufficient to melt somewhere between 63 and 80 billion tonnes of ice from the bottom of the glacier per year.  This amount conforms to previous satellite estimates of the rate of thinning.

What Rintoul and colleagues have done is to confirm, and provide the first quantitative estimates for, significant melting from beneath the Totten glacier.  They’ve revealed that this largest glacier in east Antarctica is very dynamic, and being melted by the same mechanisms at work in the west Antarctic ice sheet.  The long-held idea that the vast masses of ice locked up in the east Antarctic ice sheet are unlikely to melt significantly unless the world becomes a lot warmer is no longer true, and as that ice melts, sea levels must rise.

Nature’s issue for 8th December contained three papers which together provide an exemplary illustration of how science really progresses, while also telling us more about glacier melting.  Those who think that science is all about proclaiming inviolate truths, and those who believe science is merely opinion and speculation illustrated with complex graphs and tables and as likely to be wrong as right, could do well to take a look.

The core papers, one by Joerg Schaefer of Columbia University and colleagues, and the other by Paul Biermann of University of Vermont and colleagues were published back to back, and preceded in Nature’s ‘news & views’ editorial section by a forum (really two short commentaries) discussing them.  The commentaries were by French scientists Pierre-Henri Blard and Paul Leduc, and by UK scientist Neil Glasser.  The reason for discussing the papers together is that they use similar methods to reveal probable events in the deep past on the Greenland ice sheet, and draw diametrically opposed conclusions.  Neither paper is obviously ‘wrong’, yet both cannot be completely ‘correct’.

Biermann and Schaefer are both primarily interested in assessing the stability of the Greenland ice sheet during the Pleistocene.  Understanding its behavior back then, when a varying climate cycled the world into and out of successive glaciations, should help us gauge its likely behavior over the next few decades.  In the absence of a time machine, both teams turned to the generation by cosmic rays of 26Al and 10Be, isotopes of Aluminum and Beryllium respectively.  Cosmic rays impinging on surface bedrock generate these isotopes only within the top few meters.  Deeper rock, or rock buried under many meters of soil or ice, is not so altered.  The two isotopes decay, but at differing rates, so that changes in the ratio of 26Al to 10Be can inform how long ago a particular rock sample was at the surface and exposed to cosmic rays.  This ratio, plus the concentrations of each isotope can inform for how long that rock was being bombarded at the surface.

Biermann and colleagues examined isotopes in sediment cores retrieved from oceanic sites off the Greenland coast that were subject to a rain of sediment from melting glacial ice.  Schaefer and colleagues looked at isotopes in a core drilled through the Greenland ice sheet and into the rocky terrain near the summit.  But they got different answers.  Biermann’s group found evidence that the Greenland ice sheet began to develop about 7.5 million years ago, and was essentially a permanent structure during the last 2.7 million years surviving through several interglacial periods.  Schaefer’s group found evidence of extended, or more likely repeated, shorter periods during the last 2.5 million years when the ice sheet was not present at the core location.  Either the ice sheet has been very stable for a considerable period of time, during which climate varied from glacial to interglacial on multiple occasions, or the ice sheet has been far more dynamic in its response to climate and has melted and reformed one or several times.  Both commentaries suggest possible ways to reconcile the two sets of observations, and Glasser appears to favor an eventual conclusion that the ice sheet is more dynamic than we have suspected previously.  His commentary concludes,

“These new papers throw down three immediate challenges.  First, we must seek ways to reconcile the two seemingly contradic­tory records of the ice sheet’s past behaviour.  Second, we must try to understand the dynamical pro­cesses of the ice sheet that make possible the required huge and rapid variations in the size and volume of the [Greenland ice sheet].  And third, we need to assess whether such variations could happen again in the near future, with all the attendant social and economic consequences that would accompany a rapid rise in global sea level.”

Science is a process of throwing up hypotheses, finding data that will support or refute them, and throwing up new hypotheses to replace them when they are found wanting.  Science is also seldom easy.  The papers by the Biermann and Schaefer teams advance our understanding a little bit, but it is going to take further work, by them or others, to sort out what the real history was.  And, as Glasser states, there are potentially significant consequences for our own time if a more dynamic behavior is confirmed.  We do live in interesting times.

Sea Level Rise

Make no mistake, sea level rise is one of the more important consequences of climate change.  It is slow and inexorable, but it usually reveals itself suddenly when a storm leads to more flooding than expected or more erosion from storm surge.  Everything seems to be fine, and then the next storm causes billions of dollars losses because of unanticipated damage.  Reading back through the IPCC reports, it is clear that sea level rise is one of the consequences of warming that has been consistently underestimated.  Rates and extent by 2100 have been ratcheted up in each successive report.

Unanticipated complexities in the melting of ice are perhaps the primary reason for scientists’ relatively feeble ability to project likely rates of sea level rise.  While significant advances in understanding of ice behavior are being made (as witness the reports discussed here), there are very likely to be new surprises to be discovered in the future.  What concerns me is a nagging feeling that these surprises will generally be ones that lead to an upward revision in the likely extent and/or rate of sea level rise in the future.  Remember, the warming we have already caused will ensure sea level rises for the next two or three hundred years – the time delays built into the mechanisms that connect CO2 emissions, through atmospheric and oceanic warming, to ice melting and sea level rise take that long.  And the pattern of melting may be such that far more of it will take place for a given cumulative rise in CO2 emissions than we currently suspect.  The work of scientists interested in ice sheet behavior over the next few years will be critical in helping to define realistic levels of risk.

Venice at high tide Andrea Pattero-AFP-Getty image

Piazza San Marco, Venice, at high tide.  Photo © Andrea Pattaro/AFP/Getty

If climate change is a wicked problem, because it happens too slowly to attract the attention of a naked ape selected for skill in avoiding charging predators, sea level rise is an even more wicked consequence.  It will proceed slowly and inexorably.  Our attention will be drawn to it intermittently when infrastructure fails, at great cost, during particular storms, and we will focus on the symptoms rather than the disease.  We will spend fortunes on sea walls, pumping systems, and other infrastructure to protect built landscapes, almost certainly underestimating the full extent of local need on each occasion.  Far better to recognize the inevitability, do the science to pin down the extent and rate, and plan the retreat to higher ground.  Venice is a great city, but our world does not need multiple Venices, and the money built on new Venices could be far better spent on decarbonizing our global economy.

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On the other hand, perhaps the Donald will simply fix sea level rise while he is draining the swamp and building the wall.  Time will tell.  Cartoon © Toles/Washington Post.

Meanwhile Coral Reefs

An assessment of the global impacts of the recent el Niño on coral reefs is a big enough topic to deserve space in my next post.  Instead, I want to focus here on the continued lack of traction of the coral reef story.  I’ve talked about this before, but, briefly, there are sizeable numbers of reef scientists who feel that the message concerning human impacts on coral reefs is simply failing to be received by a wider audience with the gravity it should get.

For many of us, the 1997-8 global bleaching event was the first of repeated wake-up calls that our warming of the planet was going to have major implications for the long-term sustainability of these iconic ecosystems.  Most of us recognized that substantial degradation of coral reef systems would have important direct and indirect, economic, esthetic, and cultural impacts on humanity, particularly on the 1.36 billion of us who reside within 100 km of a tropical coast.  Many of us also recognized that if global warming was having such severe impacts on coral reef systems when temperatures had not yet risen 1Co, we should anticipate serious impacts on other, less sensitive ecosystems in the future.  Global mass bleaching  was a canary in a mineshaft, falling off its perch, and the real significance of what was happening concerned long-term sustainability not just of reefs, but of the biosphere that sustains our lives.

The succession of bleaching events around the world has been widely documented and widely reported in the international media.  In Canada, in the depths of dark December, 2016, about a week before Christmas, I saw yet another update on the severe bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef, complete with underwater footage of stretches of bleached and dying corals, as one of just 7 stories included in CBC’s national news program that evening.  But like the overwhelming majority of such reports, this one dealt with the story as a tragic environmental incident far away in Australia.  True, it was presented as part of a global phenomenon, but it was a coral reef phenomenon, an environmental story.  There was no hint that it might be a sign that we were exceeding one more of the planetary limits that will govern the sustainability of our own civilization.

The coral reef science community has struggled for some years now with the failure of the story to resonate.  We have criticized our tendency to focus on doom and gloom.  We have argued that we must tell this doom-laden story by focusing on points of light, hotspots, and #oceanoptimism.  One result is lots of images and video in the media showing beautiful reefscapes, and wonderful examples of the complexities of form, function and behavior that make coral reefs so wonderful.

For most people, knowing that there are some wonderful coral reefs out there becomes evidence that the concerns expressed by scientists are probably exaggerated.  Time to worry about reef demise later, when new images of wonderfulness are harder to find.  The call to focus on the positive can easily become a call to enjoy the beautiful evening with the moonlight glinting off the ice and the water, while standing on the deck of the Titanic, racing headlong towards the iceberg.  We do not need Pollyanna, although we do need to offer whatever hope we can, while describing as compellingly as possible, what appears to be happening to reefs across the tropics.

One former coral reef scientist, Randy Olson, has recently provided a relatively unhelpful diatribe on his blog criticizing the coral reef science community for its inability to tell stories simply, following his ABT (and, but, therefore) mantra, and using words of no more than one syllable.  Yes, he had a point.  An important one.  Many of us have never learned how to tell an engaging story about our science, able to capture the attention of people other than environmental geeks.  Without engaging the unconverted it is impossible to build a groundswell of understanding and engagement with what is surely an important issue for our times.  We should work hard to tell the story far more effectively.  But Olson already has the skill to tell good stories; he apparently feels that the coral reef story is no longer his to tell.

(In an e-mail exchange, Olson assured me he has not given up on reefs or reef scientists, but he wants the reef science community to provide a singular narrative about what is happening to coral reefs.  I’m sorry, Randy, the story is more nuanced than that, and if there is no room for nuance in modern story telling we really are in a strangely illiterate world, a Trumposphere perhaps.  I still think people can understand complex stories – such as what is happening to coral reefs – though I agree we scientists need to work harder at telling these stories well.)

It’s also true, as in any ‘science’ story, that there are differences of opinion among the members of the reef research community.  I don’t believe any of my colleagues looks at the evidence of coral bleaching in recent years and considers it ‘normal’, or ‘the way things have always been’.  Nor do I believe any of us thinks human CO2 emissions are not the ultimate cause.  But we do differ in our assessments of the severity of what has happened to reef ecosystems in recent years, or, even more, the severity of what is likely to come in the next few decades.

Some among us still cling to the belief that ‘it won’t be too bad, long-term’, either because they are convinced that mutation and natural selection will confer resilience to heat stress in time for corals to flourish once more in warmer future seas, or because they think that, somehow, we will manage to cool off the planet quite soon despite all the evidence pointing to a likely failure to keep warming under 2oC.  I still hope they are correct, but I don’t think the available evidence gives their beliefs much support.

Others see the demise of coral reefs bringing with it a massive reduction in ocean biodiversity.  The claim that 25% of marine species live on coral reefs is too often used to suggest that 25% are absolutely dependent on coral reefs.  They are not, although substantial loss of reefs will lead to some loss of biodiversity as reef specialists succumb.  The world’s ocean ecosystems are not going to collapse because coral reefs disappear. And exaggeration of this type is not helpful.  Still others really do focus on the tragedy that the substantial loss of coral reef ecosystems represents for the planet – but they view the story as an environmental/ecological one, and fail to make the connection to the wider story of the risks we are building for our own future.  These scientists may criticize the views expressed by other reef scientists who recognize the link to our future, and think the story is not really about corals or even about reefs at all.  In my view, reef scientists who think the demise of reefs is a ‘reef’ story are missing the real point – it really is about us.  Here is a recent interview with CCTV, Washington, in which I attempted, not fully successfully, to get the focus shifted from reefs to the wider picture.

I personally believe we need to make the reef story about us if we want the wider public to care.  We have little likelihood of convincing the wider community of the importance of acting to sustain coral reefs if we fail to connect flourishing reefs with a biosphere that sustains our own species and civilization.  Coral reefs, by themselves, are just not that important to the bulk of people who have never seen one, and whose lives, so far as they are aware, are unaffected by whether or not reefs thrive.  (I accept that among reef scientists there will be some who believe we should focus on communicating the science about coral reefs, because our role is not to comment on broad political issues such as the need to move humanity off fossil fuels.  I disagree with them.)

A recent article in Anthropology Now, by Irus Braverman, University of Buffalo, explores the various threads of this discussion within the reef science community.  While I think she has painted a far more combative dialog than is really taking place, there is some truth in her assessments.  Some of us, depressed by the continuous drip-drip-drip of bad news, do view coral reefs as ‘probably doomed’ over the next few decades, and in unguarded moments are likely to use expressions like ‘basket case’, ‘up the creek’, or just plain ‘fucked’ when describing future reefs.  Others really do refuse to face the fact that if warming episodes are wiping out vast tracts of coral, small-scale cultivation of fragments for out-plant on small patches of dead reef is just another way of rearranging chairs on the Titanic – it fills time, makes you feel useful, but has no realistic possibility of solving the problem.  Still others, with genetic interests and expertise, are exploring the possibility of selective rearing of corals to build heat resistant strains for use in reseeding efforts.  I welcome the latter efforts.  I also despair at the fact that humanity seems far less capable of local management that effectively deals with some of the ‘simpler’ stressors – overfishing, pollution, inappropriate coastal development – because we have difficulty building the will to act.  There is reason for reef scientists to be both angry and depressed by what is going on in far too many reef locations around the world.  And if we want to engage the public, we have got to use that anger and depression to communicate effectively with them.

As I was completing this post, a new article appeared in Scientific Reports.  Written by Ruben van Hooidonk from NOAA’s Atlantic Meteorological and Oceanographic Laboratory in Miami, and eight colleagues from the USA, Thailand, French Polynesia, Guam, the UK and Australia, this paper reports an attempt to provide a global projection of coral reef bleaching into the future.  Specifically, van Hooidonk and colleagues have used  projections of sea surface temperature out to 2100 to compute times when thresholds for coral bleaching were exceeded for all coral reef regions.  By combining model projections derived from the IPCC CMIP5 dataset, with higher resolution climatology derived from NOAA’s Pathfinder v 5.0 series, they were able to identify dates when bleaching would be likely, at a spatial resolution of 4km2.  They used these results to map the year when severe bleaching was likely to become an annual event for each reef location, under two scenarios:  a business-as-usual one comparable to what is likely if humanity continues to dither over whether or not to decarbonize our economy (IPCC RCP8.5), and a more optimistic one (RCP4.5) representing the successful implementation of efforts to reduce carbon emissions that are 50% more intense than currently committed to by nations under the Paris accord.

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Histograms showing the global distribution of 4 km2 reef locations with reference to the year in which each is likely to start experiencing annual severe coral bleaching.  The left panel shows results assuming we follow a business-as-usual approach to CO2 pollution.  The middle panel shows some slight improvement in that onset of annual bleaching is delayed by about 11 years.  The right panel shows the improvement in number of years delay for each reef.  Figure 4 from van Hooidonk’s paper in Scientific Reports.

Under business-as-usual, they project that over 99% of coral reef locations will experience severe bleaching annually before 2100, but there is wide variation among and within reef regions.  On average, reefs will experience annual bleaching by 2043, but 5% of reefs will experience such conditions before 2033, and 11% of reefs will not experience annual bleaching until after 2053 if their projections are confirmed.  Under more aggressive greenhouse gas mitigation efforts (represented by RCP4.5), the average reef does not experience annual severe bleaching until 2054, but 32% of reefs see less than 10 years delay in onset of annual bleaching, while 7% of reefs see a reprieve of more than 25 years.

While these results are based on projections of model results out to 2100, and may depart from reality especially in later decades, they permit three important conclusions:  First, the pattern of warming we have set in train is likely to create conditions favoring annual recurrence of severe bleaching in all reef locations during this century, and for many locations within the next three decades.  Second, effort to mitigate CO2 emissions does improve the future for reefs, although what has been committed to so far, under the Paris accord, buys the average reef less than a decade.  Third, and most important, there are substantial differences among and within locations in the likelihood of severe bleaching.  This makes it possible to rank coral reefs in terms of their relative risk of severe bleaching near term, and plan conservation actions accordingly.

I fear there is also a fourth conclusion that needs to be drawn from this paper.  Those of us within the reef science community who have talked about the ‘loss’, the ‘demise’, the ‘disappearance’, or even the ‘extinction’ of coral reefs as we knew them in the 1950s or 1960s seem to be much closer to the likely reality than those who have been more optimistic, assuming that, somehow, things won’t be as bad as all that.  We really are doing a number on coral reefs, and we will discover there are other ramifications of our CO2 pollution.

Putting the coral reef and the ice melt stories together, there is a fifth conclusion to draw.  We are having profound effects on this planet – ones that will impact our lives severely in the near future.  Will our descendants look back on this time as one in which we realized our errors and made a concerted effort to correct them?  Think about that as you watch the clowns parade.

Categories: About this Blog, Arctic, Changing Oceans, Climate change, Communicting science, coral reef science | Leave a comment

The Anthropocene Waits for No Man (and No Country).

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Signs of a changing world

It was early afternoon of Monday 29th August, in Cape Town, South Africa, when Colin Waters gave his report to the 35th annual International Geological Congress.  As secretary of the Anthropocene Working Group he presented the findings of many years of effort, and the nearly unanimous recommendation that the Anthropocene be formally recognized as the most recent Epoch in the Geological Record.  It would follow the Holocene, which would now be ended.  Thirty-four of 35 members (one abstained) agreed that the Anthropocene was real, and 30 (3 against, 2 abstaining) agreed it should be formally recognized.  The global geological community proceeds cautiously and there will be a couple more years before things become official, but it looks as if the scientists are zeroing in on formal recognition with 1950 or thereabouts as the start date, and a global plutonium spike as the primary geological marker of its start.  Of course, the Anthropocene is here, and human influences are radically altering the planetary system (the Anthropocene’s defining feature), whether or not the geological community decides to recognize it.  But formal recognition by the International Commission on Stratigraphy will bring precision to the term Anthropocene, and will confirm that it is not just a few leftist environmentalists who use this word.  The Guardian reported Waters’ presentation in an informative piece about this strange new world.  For the record, the Holocene was also marked in several ways by the growing might of the human population, and has been a particularly brief Epoch.  Who knows if the Anthropocene will be similarly brief, or what it will lead to.

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The Anthropocene – that time in the history of planet Earth when major environmental changes are being caused by the actions of one species.  Image © Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.

Meanwhile the Anthropocene marches on, and while I have not been posting on this blog since 5th September, the evidence that we are in a very different and rapidly changing world continues to mount.  In mid-October, Canada experienced major storms on both east and west coasts.  On October 11th, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland both received record amounts of rainfall, and strong winds due to moisture left in the atmosphere by Hurricane Matthew.  Matthew itself did not reach the Maritimes.  Single day rainfall records occurred in several locations, including Sydney, Nova Scotia, where the 215mm recorded swamped the previous all-time record of 128mm.  The 215mm equals half the usual amount for Fall.  Flood damage including washed out roads and collapsed buildings was widespread across Cape Breton and on Newfoundland.  On the west coast, three storms in quick succession came ashore between the 13th and 15th October.  The third, and potentially largest was the remnant of Super Typhoon Songda.  In the event, damage was not quite so extensive as feared, partly because the storms spread out from Oregon to southern British Columbia.  Each was characterized by heavy rain and strong winds, and there was a tornado warning issued for western Washington during the Saturday storm.  While not as bad as some forecasters had feared, these storms still inflicted considerable damage and at least one fatality.  Taken together the eastern and western events typify what is becoming increasingly common – more frequent, larger than usual storms.  The 100-year event is becoming much more frequent than it used to be, and each such storm taxes our infrastructure, generates huge clean-up bills, and considerable hardship, if not injury or death, for people caught in the middle of it.

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Three successive satellite images showing the destruction due to two ice avalanches in Tibet.  Note the 2 km scale in the left-hand panel.  Images courtesy NASA Earth Observatory.

On the other side of the world, high in the Aru Mountains of Tibet, there have been two large ice avalanches.  Not snow avalanches, ones made of large chunks of ice moving rapidly downhill.  The first, occurring on July 17th, moved 65 m3 of ice 6 km, and piled it up as much as 30 m deep, killing nine herders and hundreds of their animals.  The second, which occurred on September 21st, was a couple of kilometers south and slightly smaller than the first.  It apparently caused no loss of life.  In both cases it appears that particularly rapid melting led to water accumulating under the ice, permitting its run-away trip downhill.  Such ice avalanches are extremely rare events, and glaciologists report that seeing two so close to each other in time and space is unprecedented.

In his disturbing book, Storms of my Grandchildren, James Hansen talked plausibly about large, run-away glaciers on Greenland or Antarctica suddenly letting go and sliding into the sea to cause a near-instantaneous jump in sea level.  The events in Tibet suggest he was not embroidering fanciful nightmares.

Indeed, lest we assume the unusual behavior by ice is limited to Tibet, on October 11th the Washington Post included an article about the melting of Greenland glaciers that included the telling detail that as large glaciers melt during summer, they often generate supraglacial lakes.  Those in Greenland these days can be several square kilometers in area.  These lakes arise quickly, and they can vanish even more quickly when water escapes down enlarging fissures to create a vast subglacial lubricant pool.  Anyone who thinks the continuing melting of the world’s glaciers is likely to be a slow and gentle process should contemplate what happens when a large, lubricated glacier starts to slide.

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Scientists are learning that glacier melt is not always a gradual process as this photo from Greenland shows.  Photo © Scilogs.be.

Our latest el Niño, one of the two strongest on record, is now officially over.  It started to form in 2014, but was delayed by relatively strong easterly winds in the tropical Pacific, only to come into existence, bigger and better, in 2015.  It lasted through this past spring, leading to the longest continuous episode of coral bleaching ever seen.  Sea surface temperatures have fallen steadily, but slowly, and moved toward territory considered the threshold for la Niña conditions in August.  At present, NOAA is predicting that neutral or very weak la Niña conditions will persist with sea surface temperatures at or slightly below average through the winter and on into the 2017 summer.  According to Mark Eakin, coordinator of NOAA’s Coral Reef Watch, “We are currently experiencing the longest global coral bleaching event ever observed.  We may be looking at a 2- to 2½-year-long event.  Some areas have already seen bleaching two years in a row.

degraded-reef-2005-gbrAre coral reefs going to look increasingly like this?  Photo taken on Great Barrier Reef in 2005.

I could go on a tirade about what such conditions are doing to the capacity of coral reefs to sustain themselves, but I’ve said it many times before and so have lots of other reef scientists.  Even if summer of 2017 brings some more cooling with a strengthening la Niña (by no means likely), we are still witnessing the very thing that scientists like University of Queensland’s Ove Hoegh-Guldberg were warning about 15 years or more ago – an essentially continuous program of bleaching events around the world, with reefs having no time between events to regrow much of what gets lost.

And that is the nature of the Anthropocene.  It is a time very different to what has come before.  Forget cyclic patterns.  Global patterns of change in the Anthropocene are one-way and sometimes sudden.  Recovery, the Balance of Nature, the old reliable planet that gave us predictable weather and seasons so that we could plant our crops and reap their harvest – these are all gone.  Now we really are clinging onto that large lump of rock hurtling through the cosmos on a journey to who knows where.  If we fail to put on the brakes, our future is going to be very different indeed.

So, are we beginning to act on climate change (and all the other insults we keep delivering to the biosphere)?  Well… yes, but nowhere near quickly enough yet, and every week that goes by is precious time lost if we hope to keep things not too terrible into the future.  Canada, along with a lot of other countries, ratified the Paris Accord which reached the threshold for coming into force less than a year after Paris (Much better than the 7 years taken by Kyoto!).  The European Union ratified on Tuesday October 4th, and Canada did so on Wednesday October 5th – bringing the total to well over 55% of signatory countries responsible for at least 55% of emissions ratifying.  It officially came into force one month later, on November 4th just four days before the US election.  Canada has also begun to flesh out the details of how it will do its part to reduce emissions.

Canada’s evolving climate strategy

Early in October, PM Trudeau announced some details of the new federal carbon tax which will be imposed on those provinces or territories that do not have a comparable pricing plan in place by 2018.  On 9th October, Environment Minister McKenna announced further details of Canada’s developing national plan, but indicated the full details will be announced when legislation is brought forward later this Fall.  And on 21st November, McKenna announced the intention to accelerate Canada’s move away from coal, pledging to phase out all coal-fired power plants by 2030, a decade ahead of the previous plan.  Coal currently supplies 10% of Canada’s energy needs, and the coal industry employs some 42000 people, directly or indirectly, in the mining of 69 million tonnes of the fuel each year.  (Half of that coal is exported.)  The impact will be particularly strong in Alberta, Saskatchewan, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia – provinces relying primarily on coal for electricity.

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PM Justin Trudeau announcing details of the carbon tax plan in Parliament, 3rd October 2016.  Image © Global News.

To ease the shift away from coal, McKenna advised that an agreement has already been reached with Nova Scotia for that province to introduce carbon pricing in the form of a cap-and-trade scheme to be phased in while use of coal is phased out.  The agreement provides the province some extra time to complete its transition away from coal.  Brad Wall, premier of Saskatchewan, who appears not to have negotiated such a deal, is not so fortunate, and remains a fierce opponent of the federal carbon plans.

So far the policies on carbon being announced are meeting a favorable reception in most quarters.  Writing in the Globe & Mail on 16th October, members of Canada’s Ecofiscal Commission generally applauded the initial announcements re carbon pricing, while noting that there was no firm commitment to ensure the price rises as high as is needed to ramp down CO2 pollution, and no policies in place to avoid markedly different carbon prices in different Provinces.  Nor at that time were there the complimentary policies to ensure that the pricing leads to a sustained shift towards alternative energy sources.  The subsequent announcements have provided some of the further information that is needed.  Policies announced to date do not go far enough to adequately address our CO2 emissions, or even to meet the commitment made to the UN in ratifying Paris, but they are a substantial first step and a welcome change from years of denial.

At the same time as it is putting a price on carbon, the Trudeau government continues to promote Canada’s fossil fuel industries with such steps as the recent approval (with lots of environmental conditions) of a major LNG project on the British Columbia coast, and continued hinting that the government is looking favorably at approval for new oil pipelines.  Canada was explicitly criticized on 16th November by environmental groups attending the COP22 climate conference in Marrakesh for its continued subsidies to fossil fuel producers and other support for that industry.  Led by Environmental Defense Canada, the brief document claimed that subsidies in Canada amount to $3.3 billion per year, or $19 per tonne of CO2 greatly reducing the cost of pollution when the new carbon prices come into full effect in 2020 (national floor carbon price will be $30 per tonne CO2 that year).  This support for a major industry, on the one hand, and action to correct environmental problems, on the other, is typical governmental action.  But in this instance, the Canadian government is looking distinctly schizophrenic.  It will be interesting to see how government plans for ‘supporting’ the resources sector will evolve, and whether they will come to mesh better with the new and very positive environmental policies.  In my view, the resources sector has benefitted over long from various governmental assistance.  It is time to live in the world that other people live in, or better still, to recognize that fossil fuels are going extinct, so winding down operations would be a smart business move.

And then there was an election

Trump Wins

After a savage election campaign, can American political life return to normal?  Mike Keefe cartoon.

The US Presidential election on 8th November brought a long overdue end to an awful campaign – awful in so many ways I won’t even bother to enumerate them.  And it brought a great surprise, to nearly everyone including, I suspect, one Donald J Trump.  I and large numbers of other people are still trying to get our heads around what happened and why, while Mr. Trump busily proceeds with his ‘transition’.  Frankly, the transition from Obama to Trump is more like a ‘fade to black’ than an evolution from one state of grace to a slightly different state of grace.  Only this morning, as I listened to the BBC (over NPR, via the web), I heard that last night Trump had tweeted out that it would be a good idea for the UK to appoint Nigel Farage as Ambassador to the USA.  The Star has a report of this event and video of the emphatic rejection by Boris Johnson, UK Foreign Minister, when he rose to speak in the House of Commons on the topic.  Trump had tweeted, “Many people would like to see @Nigel_Farage represent Great Britain as their Ambassador to the United States. He would do a great job!”  Apart from anything else – like the impropriety of DJT advising the UK on who to appoint to its diplomatic posts – Johnson stated that “We have no vacancy to fill [in the position of Ambassador to the USA].”

While the “Farage farrago” as the Star names it is merely another instance of titillating Twitter trivia from Mr. Trump, it does further reveal his utter disregard for, or perhaps ignorance of, the usual ways in which international affairs among mature countries are handled.  There is much for the world to be concerned about as Trump moves forward to put his stamp on the American presidency.

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What did America do on 8th November?  Wasserman cartoon, Boston Globe.

At the same time, there is as yet little clarity regarding his policies or his likely actions once in office.  There are two ‘official’ websites to my knowledge: donaldjtrump.com which served the campaign, and greatagain.gov which serves the transition.  Each has pages on policy, but few details.  Both include policy under the heading ‘Energy’ and under ‘Regulations’, but ‘Environment’ is completely missing.  Reading from the more recent site (because the text is different in many ways on the two sites), his perspective on energy is like a look back into a dark past.  It begins with the goal of energy independence, goes on to claim that an energy revolution (meaning wiping away virtually all restrictions on where, when and how fossil fuels can be extracted) will unleash great wealth and enormous numbers of high paying jobs, and then states,

America is sitting on a treasure trove of untapped energy. In fact, America possesses more combined coal, oil, and natural gas resources than any other nation on Earth. These resources represent trillions of dollars in economic output and countless American jobs, particularly for the poorest Americans.

It’s the same old ‘if it’s in the ground we must dig it up’ refrain that makes anyone cautioning against using these dirty fuels appear to be denying the rights of Americans to have profitable and satisfying lives.  The statement goes on to detail actions to encourage fossil fuel production by opening up Federal lands and waters to exploration, removing regulatory restraints such as the EPA regulations governing CO2 pollution, and conveniently failing to note that the US Supreme Court has already ruled as valid the recognition by EPA that CO2 is a pollutant.  The mandate of EPA requires it to manage pollutants.

Finally, this policy statement comes to,

The Trump Administration is firmly committed to conserving our wonderful natural resources and beautiful natural habitats. America’s environmental agenda will be guided by true specialists in conservation, not those with radical political agendas.  We will refocus the EPA on its core mission of ensuring clean air, and clean, safe drinking water for all Americans.  It will be a future of conservation, of prosperity, and of great success.“ 

At which point I rub my eyes and wonder if this is all just a bad dream.

The policies around regulations are predicated on the assumption that any government regulations that put demands, or brakes, on business are, by definition, regulations that need to be rescinded.  While imprecise, the statement is clearly directed at environmental regulations that must be removed to allow America to be great.  Hidden in the middle of this hymn to absolutely free markets is one sentence acknowledging that a few environmental regulations are necessary: While reasonable regulations are needed to address issues ranging from ensuring public safety to ensuring proper stewardship of our National Parks’ crown jewels, this can be accomplished without the profound damage to our economy and our freedoms that is currently inflicted by the regulatory bureaucracy.  I could not find the word ‘climate’ mentioned anywhere, although Trump is on record, repeatedly, as planning to ‘cancel’ the Paris climate agreement.

There is no doubt that the election of Donald J Trump is bad news for the environment, and for global progress on climate change.

What will Donald do?

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We all hope he is a fast learner!  Cartoon by Signe Wilkinson.

It is wise to acknowledge that until Trump assumes power and begins to act, the world cannot know the consequences of his election.  His campaign has been uniquely bereft of policy detail, and his lack of experience in government suggests he may be poorly equipped to get much of his agenda into effect because there are always competing interests, and lacking in experience, he may just not be able to get much done.  On the other hand, there seem to be far too many people on both the left and right of US politics who have been bending over backwards to normalize Trump as just another Republican.  He is not that at all, and normalizing him serves to have the rest of the world let down its guard.  Suddenly it is acceptable to have extreme right-wing, white-supremacists being seriously considered for sensitive government appointments at the highest levels.  Putting climate denialists in charge of environmental management in the USA and of international climate negotiations on behalf of the USA is not likely to be good for the world battle to slow climate change, but so far, Trump shows every likelihood of doing just that.

And what does any of this have to do with the Anthropocene or my beloved coral reefs?

This is not the time to give up on the battle against climate change, or the battle for coral reefs.  Nor is it the time to dismiss the Trump election as just another instance of US politics.  Donald Trump has claimed climate change is merely a Chinese-perpetrated hoax designed to weaken the US economy.  His policies, to the extent they are clear, suggest he will favor the fossil fuel industry and curtail or reverse progress on CO2 that was being made.  It is naïve to suggest that global momentum on climate mitigation is now so great that his election cannot stop that progress from continuing.  The US remains one of the two largest emitters of CO2, and a country with very considerable international influence; its president does not have total power, but he does have very considerable power, and Trump, so far, is behaving as a person who acts before thinking.  He could do real damage to the cause of environmental sustainability, because he will embolden those who seek to slow progress on environmental issues.  As evidence of this, look at the arguments being made in Canada against the Trudeau climate initiatives.  Rona Ambrose, interim leader of the Conservative party, stated in Parliament re Trump’s election that “a carbon tax makes no sense anymore; it’s complete insanity.”  Saskatchewan leader Brad Wall made the argument more clearly, “The election result means we will not be seeing a carbon tax in the U.S. any time soon.  It makes no sense for our federal government to push ahead with imposing a national carbon tax, when our biggest trading partner — and our biggest competitor for investment and jobs — is not going to have one.”  Wall and Ambrose are not the only Canadians who will seize on Trump’s victory as an excuse to go slow on CO2; nor are Canadians the only ones who will use this argument for continuing business as usual.  Think Australia and coal mining.

While the battle for environmental sustainability must continue, Trump’s success must be seen as a signal that continuing to use the same tactics that have brought the success so far achieved is not satisfactory.  As of 8th November 2016, the world entered a political universe as different from what had gone before as the Anthropocene is from the Holocene.  It is different in ways that make even more difficult the battle to bring human excesses under control.  Those of us who care about coral reefs, perhaps the one ecosystem on the planet closest to elimination through human impacts, have to recognize that our chance of success is even more limited than it was; that we now have a very high chance of witnessing a world bereft of flourishing reefs by mid-century no matter what we do in the interim.  Think about that for a moment.

Trump’s election has to be a call for all who value environmental sustainability, all who understand the implications for humanity of a collapsing biosphere, to argue far more eloquently, and much more effectively, and to find new ways of reaching the unconverted.  It is past time to articulate very clearly that the Anthropocene is a dangerous time, that we do not have a Planet B available in an emergency, and that coral reefs especially are quietly telling us to mend our ways before it is too late for us.  Let me repeat: too late for us.

reefs-and-planetary-boundaries-picture1

The plight of bleaching corals is a clear sign that we are dangerously pushing up against planetary boundaries.  We must transform the reef into a symbol of the danger inherent in the Anthropocene; it is not just an exotic ecosystem under threat.  Images © O. Hoegh-Guldberg (left) and J. Rockström (right).

Along the way, we also should start pushing for much wider recognition of the rights of the biosphere in law.  Bolivia formally recognized such rights in law in 2010 (#710, Ley de Derechos de la Madre Tierra), and they are included in Ecuador’s 2008 constitution.  Acceptance of this concept is common to many societies outside the western mainstream.  It is we, whose ancestors grew up believing the planet existed for us, instead of that we exist as part of the planet, who have a distorted view of our relationship to the rest of the biosphere.  We are the ones who fail to understand how environmental change can hurt us, and how short-term economic benefits for a few, at the expense of a little environmental degradation, can create great harm for the many, including the many of other species.  We are the ones who see the economic gains that can be had by harvesting natural resources, but fail to see the possible damage to the biosphere when that harvest is excessive.  We are the ones who have a weakened sense of our ethical responsibility to others, including the rest of the biosphere.  Our materialistic culture values other creatures only in terms of their monetary value to us.  Until more people embrace an ethical approach to nature, those of us who fight for environmental sustainability will be fighting a rearguard action.

I think that coral reefs can play a particularly important role in this reinvigorated battle to sustain the biosphere (which is what the battle for climate mitigation is really all about).  They are photogenic.  They supply a large number of wonderful just-so stories, the kind of stories that capture interest, and linger in the mind – stories of bizarre creatures, of biodiversity run amok, of intricate inter-relationships among species that enable enormous biological productivity in the heart of an oceanic desert, or equally intricate interrelationships that just enable species to do better than they otherwise would, stories that reveal the wondrous complexity of that thing we call a reef.  They play vitally important roles in sustaining human coastal communities through provision of food and other resources, coastal protection, livelihoods, and quality of life for coastal peoples.  And they are as deserving of continued existence as any panda, polar bear or monarch butterfly.  If we can keep them with us, we will have brought climate change, and a number of other anthropogenic problems, under control.

I also think that we who articulate the importance of coral reefs can join forces effectively with those who articulate the value of a tree, the importance of natural landscapes, and the value of human-friendly cities.  Each of these groups, in their own ways, illuminates some of the ways in which our world is a much better place when we control our power to do great harm to it.  Together, we can build an understanding of just how frightening the Anthropocene might become, and just how wonderful a world we can build by using our power in the right way.  If Donald Trump’s election helps move us to a more effective battle for environmental sustainability, and respect for the biosphere, then that election will have done some real good.  We do live in very interesting times.

damien-mauric-wide-angle-109-2016-commended

The lush reef at Pulau Wayilbatan, Raja Ampat provides the foreground to a whirling ‘blue ballet’ performed by a school of silversides under attack in this award-winning photo by Damien Mauric.  Reef waters are filled with stories great and small; we must avoid losing them from this planet.

Categories: Canada's environmental policies, Climate change, Communicting science, coral reef science, In the News, Politics | Comments Off on The Anthropocene Waits for No Man (and No Country).

Lazy hazy crazy summer days, but climate goes right on changing.

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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.

NOAA July temperature anomaly 2016 201607

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.

NSIDC Arctic sea ice extent 14 Aug 2016 Figure1-1

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.

Guam bleachedcoral_dburdicknoaa

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.

Politics elsewhere

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!

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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.

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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.

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“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.

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“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

Categories: Arctic, Canada's environmental policies, Climate change, coral reef science, In the News, Politics | Comments Off on Lazy hazy crazy summer days, but climate goes right on changing.