Requiem for Keystone

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We knew it was doomed. Long ago. And while some may dream of phoenixes rising from the ashes sometime after the next US election, its time has passed. The surge in production of light, tight crude due to fracking, and the behavior of OPEC in keeping production up to depress prices has cut the attractiveness of Canada’s tar sands bitumen. Exploration activity has fallen off a cliff and while producing wells continue to produce, they do not generate the huge profits hoped for, and the producer corporations are looking elsewhere for the next multiplier of shareholder wealth. How long the price of oil will remain down is anybody’s guess, but there is little sign of life in that sector at present. Without rapid growth in output in Alberta, Keystone is simply no longer needed.
Obama kills KXL susan walsh AP

President Obama announces that he is not approving the Keystone XL pipeline.
Photo © Susan Walsh/AP

The low oil prices may be around for a good time longer than many people expect. A growing awareness that the world must act on climate change is likely in the next few months and years to increase the costs of extracting oil. New tougher environmental regulations, new taxes (perhaps called fees) on fossil fuels, new energy efficiencies, and new political decisions to move away from fossil fuels even if energy costs slightly more when obtained in other ways will all play a role. Alberta’s tar sands are not the world’s dirtiest source of oil, but they are among the worst in the sense that extraction and refining are energy-intensive and therefore costly. In addition, they are a long way away from any markets, and the unrefined product is very difficult to push through a pipeline or pump into a rail tanker car.

Corporations in the business of producing oil usually have multiple places at their disposal from which they source their product, and Alberta’s tar sands are among the more expensive sources. With more oil available than is really needed, it’s the expensive sources that will get used the least. And given that the fracking revolution has hardly exhausted its potential for growth, if the demand for oil begins to catch up with supply, or if Saudi Arabia decides to cut its own loss of profit and curtails production so that supply is reduced and comes into line with demand, the expansion of fracking to liberate more tight, light crude will mean that expensive oil like that from Alberta’s tar sands, or Alaska’s north slope for that matter, will remain expensive and under-used.

In short, Canada should not expect a quick resurgence in activity in the Alberta tar sands, and without a new boom there, Keystone would be a waste of money. Which brings me to two questions: How did Canada get into this mess? What can we do about it now?

How did we get into this mess?

Canada got into this mess a long time ago, when successive governments were so hungry for investment by corporations interested in extracting this bitumen that they did not drive hard bargains when oil executives came calling. While the Alberta tar sands were seen as raw resources capable of sustaining a long-term stream of royalty income and some extraction-related jobs, they might better have been seen as raw resources capable of sustaining a major expansion of the Alberta economy in the chemical industry. Governments taking the latter view might have demanded that refinery capacity be built in Alberta, and then worked to secure the further investments that could have built a significant chemical industry there. After all, the scale of the deposits is certainly sufficient to sustain a long-term, industrial development that would have resulted in Canada exporting a broad range of high value-added products derived from the bitumen. These would doubtless have included gasoline, diesel and other fuels as well as a wide range of chemical products including the plastics now becoming increasingly important to the 3D printing industry.
oil cartoon scienceblogs-com

I’m of the opinion that the dead end for use of fossil fuels is going to come sooner than most people expect, and come suddenly. Current events which have brought an unexpected slow-down in the Alberta tar sands could be a useful ‘pivot point’ moving Canada away from bitumen as exported fuel to bitumen as a base for a new chemical industry with high-value jobs, sustained activity, and reduced carbon emissions. A bold new plan for a bright new day?

Governments that saw the opportunity to build a long-term industrial capacity centered in Alberta would also have been interested in ensuring that the rate of development of the tar sands be commensurate with capacity to process the product, and commensurate with the capacity to prevent or mitigate environmental pollution caused by the extraction process. Why create Mordor when you are trying to build a modern, high-value chemical industrial sector?

Unfortunately, our governments did not think this way, and they permitted the oil corporations to minimize any investments not absolutely needed to get the bitumen out of the ground, minimally upgraded, and sold to whomever would buy it. I can imagine the arguments of the corporate executives as they visited sundry government spokespersons:

“No need for new refining capability, we have access to refineries in Texas. Or we can sell the raw product to Asia where they have their own refining capabilities.”

“No need to go slow and prudent in developing this resource, we need to maximize our ability to extract and get it to market. Time is money.”

“Yes, the extraction process results in a lot of highly contaminated water. We can simply store this water in large ponds while we work out ways of cleaning it. Or maybe the ponds will allow settlement of pollutants so that a thick lens of clean, productive water will exist on top of the pollution, yielding functional lakes so long as you don’t go stirring up the mud on the bottom. All will be fine, just let us dig.”

“Yes, the anticipated rate of production of bitumen product will tax existing pipelines, so just help us build lots of new pipelines to any place on the coast so we can ship the product overseas. Perhaps you could ease some of the regulations underlying the approvals process for new pipelines so that we can get them approved and built quickly? Maybe hide the legislative changes in a great big omnibus budget bill so nobody notices?”

“After all, the quicker we extract, the more workers we employ, and the more taxes and royalties you receive – this is clearly a win-win-win. Help us to help you grow Canada’s wealth.”

Certainly, the Harper government spent the past decade acting as a shill for the oil industry, while gutting Canada’s environmental regulations governing development approvals. They also adopted a hands-off policy towards policing of the corporations’ behavior with respect to pollution, or requiring some semblance of progress towards restoration of grievously altered landscapes and contaminated waters. Now we have large areas of Alberta despoiled and polluted, bearing scars visible from space, negligible progress in solving the environmental issues, and an industry that has cut its losses aggressively in the downturn (all those good jobs that vanished overnight the moment oil prices tanked).  I’ve been commenting on this since at least 2012. I wonder what happens to the environmental messes that have been made, when the corporations slowly tiptoe away to hunt for profits elsewhere?

You’d think Canada would have learned its lesson by now. We’ve been encouraging foreign entrepreneurs to bring in their capital and extract our natural resources since long before we were a country. It began with the cod trade, even before we had settlements that might become a country. Then there was the fur trade, timber and minerals. Far too often we have failed to extract a fair share of the profits from such businesses, and we have failed to require that the entrepreneurs invest appropriately in building the Canadian economy. We’ve been too willing to accept a few temporary jobs, some royalties and taxes, while the entrepreneurs take our raw resources elsewhere to further process them for the benefit of others. These are Canadian resources, and our governments have been giving them away for some short-term financial benefit. As businessmen we have been little if any more effective than some of our predecessors on this land, who were tempted into giving much of it away for a few glass beads and an axe.
Champlain trading with the indians  MIKAN 2837451c103059k

Canadians have a long history of trading away their wealth.
Champlain trading with the Indians’ © Library and Archives Canada

One of the clearest demonstrations of just how ineffective we have been in managing the exploitation of our natural resources is the comparison between Alberta’s success in exploiting its tar sands, and Norway’s success in exploiting its offshore oil. I reported on this in 2012, citing an article from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. In both cases, trust funds were set up to receive the government income that exploitation would generate. Alberta used its fund to cover routine governmental expenses that should have been covered by taxes; Norway grew its fund until it was generating far more income from its sovereign investments than from the oil revenue. When the oil ceases to flow for Norway, as it will, it will be a wealthy country. Alberta, not so much. The failure to use the tar sands to grow a vibrant economy that would endure beyond the oil boom is a failure we will simply have to bear. The failure to prevent massive despoliation of the environment has created problems for us that will only become apparent over time as extraction projects slow, collapse, and close. It’s difficult to get a corporation, stripped of all its assets as foreign partners flee, to fulfill obligations to ameliorate environmental damage that it caused when it was a vibrant, active extractor of tar sands bitumen.

Understanding how we got to here does not guarantee that it will not happen again, when we see an opportunity to entertain a new set of multinational corporations bringing promises of great wealth if we will only give them access to some other part of Canada’s natural patrimony. Maybe our governments need to understand that they have a responsibility to the future inhabitants of this country, indeed, a responsibility to this country itself, to not enter into agreements that do not sufficiently protect our interests. They are not supposed to be real estate agents selling off bits and pieces of our national wealth to whomever comes along waving a few dollar bills around. They are supposed to be stewards of our nation, working to build our strength and creating wealth for our shared future. Maybe we need oversight mechanisms that ensure agreements reached with large, almost always multinational, corporations are carefully scrutinized to ensure Canada, rather than the government of the day, is getting fair value for whatever is being sold. It may be difficult to have the public weigh in on major business ventures by government with corporate investors, but relying on governments to look after our interests has not been very successful so far.

Where do we go from here?

The far more interesting question is ‘where do we go from here’. An early step for the Trudeau government must be to restore the weakened procedures for granting approvals for major development projects. The gutting of environmental oversight by the Harper government has left us with approvals processes in which the public has no faith. We need development that is environmentally and socially appropriate, but until the procedures are repaired good projects will find the path to approval just as difficult as will bad projects. There is some urgency here, because we do need to address the shipping of oil from Alberta. Putting highly flammable oil onto tank cars and shuttling them across the country on aged rail beds is not a satisfactory way of moving that product to market. An east-west pipeline that could deliver oil to refineries or markets in the east, or even to eastern ports, makes considerable sense, but Energy-East or something comparable will have great difficulty gaining approval given the present state of affairs. Getting oil off trains and into safe pipelines should be a part of our infrastructure renewal, not to encourage expansion of the tar sands venture, but to mitigate untenable environmental and health risks that presently exist because of it.

Another early step should be to introduce new requirements that will get the tar sands operators to make some real progress in cleaning up the environmental mess that has been allowed to grow during the past decade. Cleaned water, restored land, and measurably reduced emissions due to tar sands extraction and upgrading should all be required, with firm targets and due dates. Done properly, these actions can be funded by the corporations, and will contribute to our efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. New developments should not be permitted without clear and effective environmental safeguards in place, and existing ones should be closed down if progress in this regard is not made. The tolerance of environmental irresponsibility that has characterized the past decade cannot continue.

A third step should be to explore the possibility of developing a technologically advanced chemical research and development industry using bitumen from the tar sands as a primary resource and generating products other than fuels. This might begin by moving from upgrading to refining, but should be expected to go well beyond that. This might take decades to achieve, but it would mean that we were developing our tar sands resources in a way that maximizes the benefit to Canada. The alternative is to shut them down as quickly as possible, conserving the resource for possible future use and cutting the greenhouse gas emissions their exploitation is currently causing.

Finally, there is the broader issue of climate change and what Canada will do. The Globe & Mail reported enthusiastically in late October that Trudeau has an excellent opportunity to forge a powerful agreement on carbon with the provinces and territories. In their view, the stars seem to be aligning well. As I wrote the day after our election, Canada’s INDC submitted to the UN by the Harper government contains several weaknesses that can be repaired to yield a far stronger policy that is more in keeping with what Canada should undertake to do. There is now a possibility of really making progress.
catherine-mckenna-and-justin-trudeau-at-swearing-in Chris Wattie Reuters

PM Justin Trudeau and Environment & Climate Change Minister Cahterine McKenna at her swearing in. She is already in Paris participating in pre-COP21 talks. What will they be able to build as Canada’s contribution to solving climate change? Photo © Chris Wattie/Reuters.

By taking Keystone off the table, President Obama has given Prime Minister Trudeau a free pass on one of many thorny issues, and the down-turn in the oil market has provided breathing space. Trudeau has the opportunity to push harder on climate change mitigation than might have been possible otherwise, including by putting in place a firm and growing cost on carbon that everyone, including tar sands corporations, will have to comply with. Perhaps it will be possible, as the dust settles, to reflect upon the errors made in the exploitation of the tar sands up till now, and to put in place policies that will guide future resource development more effectively.

Categories: Canada's environmental policies, Climate change, Economics, In the News, Politics, Tar Sands | Leave a comment

Paris COP21 – Are We There Yet? Not by a Long Shot but There Is Progress

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It’s been a surreal two months in Canada. The longest election campaign in recent memory, but on 19th October Canadians elected a new Parliament. While the Liberals had appeared to be edging ahead of the Conservatives and New Democrats, even on the final weekend the outcome was far from clear. However, once results began to come in a clear tone was set – the Liberals, under Justin Trudeau, swept Atlantic Canada. And things just continued from there. The CBC declared the election for the Liberals not long after polls closed in the bulk of the country (from Alberta through Quebec), and not very long after that declared it would be a majority parliament. Prime Minister Stephen Harper had lost, because Canadians simply got tired of his controlling, secretive, manipulative ways, and were not convinced by the fear-mongering that characterized the Conservative election campaign.

Thus endith one of the less memorable decades in Canadian history at least from an environmental perspective. Time will tell whether the new guys are going to do what they said they would and bring a better behavior to the Paris climate talks in December. In that light, I offer the following comments on the inadequacy of Canada’s proposal for emissions reductions, submitted in May. Maybe Justin Trudeau’s government can propose something more appropriate for a leading nation with the 9th highest emissions on the planet. I’ll be watching.

Truth is that Stephen Harper never really wanted to reduce Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions as much as he wanted to build an Alberta economy based on extraction of dirty tar sands bitumen. He’d do whatever it took to make the need to act on climate go away.
Cartoon © Lorne Craig.


Getting Ready for Paris in December

The great majority of countries have now submitted their INDCs, their Intended Nationally Determined Contributions to the reduction of GHG emissions to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The good news is there has been progress. The disappointing news is that the progress made will not be sufficient to reach the goal.

The INDCs are individual, voluntary commitments to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases. COP21, in Paris in December is the climate conference at which an agreement, based on the INDCs, is expected to be completed. That agreement will frame the global response to climate change through 2030. UNFCCC had asked countries to submit their proposals by the end of March if possible, and certainly by the end of September. True to form, like students handing in assignments, few made the early date.

Switzerland was the first on 27th February, followed by the European Union, Norway, Mexico and the United States during March. Russia reported in on 1st April and Canada managed to submit its proposal in mid-May. China (June 30th), Japan (July 17th) and several smaller countries got theirs in by end of July. Australia (11th August) and five smaller emitters reported during August, while 72 countries reported in September (nearly all in the final three days). Sixteen more including India reported on 1st October, and seven more had reported by the 16th, for a total to date of 122 submissions representing 150 countries (the single EU submission included the 28 member nations plus Latvia). Still to report are countries such as Nepal, Philippines, Saudi Arabia, and United Arab Emirates. Nepal, at least, has a pretty good excuse for being slow.

Each INDC report sets out what goal the country has chosen, and some information on how it expects to get there. The presentations are typically quite short; some are self-serving, while others simply provide the data and the intentions. All are available for downloading from the UNFCCC website.

Canada’s embarrassing INDC

Canada’s report is one of the self-serving ones and begins with a lament that we are a northern country with harsh winters and big distances between settlements. It also notes our resource-based economy, basically suggesting that because we choose to dig up vast quantities of dirty oil and sell it overseas we should be allowed to pollute the atmosphere. On the first page it shows that the authors think we can have it both ways because it begins by extolling Canada’s praises for having an electricity sector that is predominantly carbon-free. Canadians should apparently be congratulated for their forethought in having a country with an abundance of hydro power, but commiserated with for having a big country with long winters, or for having chosen to build a dirty, oil-extracting economy. This kind of thinking is not unique to the authors of this report, of course. I recently read in my local newspaper the musings of one of my neighbors with reference to Canada being entitled to its “fair share” of “natural resource revenues”. It’s the same argument that kept Canada blocking UN efforts to label asbestos a hazardous substance for decades, right up until the closure of the last asbestos mine in Quebec – we apparently needed to extract and sell our “fair share” of that dreadful product.

Canada’s report includes a graph showing what is intended by 2030. The graph suggests that the intended 2030 emissions will be well below those in 1990. Not so. Unfortunately, that graph is inaccurate. It correctly shows the intended 2030 target as emission of 524 metric tonnes of CO2 equivalent (Mt CO2eq), but that is a target based on an economy-wide assessment of emissions including those from land use changes (chiefly in forestry and agriculture), while the black line depicting historical emissions is for all components of the economy except land use.
Canada emissions from INDC

Canada’s emissions reduction plan as detailed in the INDC submitted to the UN in May.

The 2030 target is for 524 Mt CO2eq in emissions from all sources, except natural events such as forest fires.  The authoritative website, CarbonBrief, which pointed out this discrepancy in May, provided a revised, more accurate graph. Not a good beginning for Canada!

Canada emissions trajectory from Carbon Brief

The corrected graph provided by CarbonBrief, using UNFCCC data. Here the red line is the historical pattern of emissions including those due to land use and land use changes (as does the 2030 target).

When the (quite variable) net emissions due to land use are added in, we see Canada’s history has been substantially more erratic with lower net emissions in 1990 (because land use practices resulted in a net sequestration of CO2 that year), and substantially higher emissions in subsequent years because we have been losing forested land at a high rate due to a combination of over-harvest, disease outbreaks (notably the mountain pine beetle), and fire. CarbonBrief reports that Environment Canada, by e-mail in late May, confirmed the 524 Mt target, and agreed that this target represented a 1% increase on 1990 emissions including land use effects, but an 11% reduction from 1990 levels if land use is not included.
Canada’s submission has other problems, and a number of parties beyond CarbonBrief were quick to point them out. Parties such as the Globe & Mail, the Guardian, and the World Resources Institute, which, noting Canada is the world’s 9th largest emitter, stated,

“Canada’s proposal stands in contrast with its peers’. Canada should reconsider this position, building on its 2020 pledge, and demonstrate to the world that it is serious about combating climate change.”

A report from the Union of Concerned Scientists looked carefully at how land use emissions were treated in the INDCs of China, Canada, Ethiopia and Morocco. It noted that, in general, INDCs from developing countries were more transparent about mechanisms to be used than were those from developed countries!  It found Canada’s report deficient in terms of its transparency, specificity and ambition for the land use sector. Canada’s INDC barely mentions land use, yet emissions due to forestry and agriculture are typically 21 to 24% of the global total emissions each year, and feasible changes to land use practices in Canada, if implemented effectively over all agricultural and forested land, could achieve savings of 600 Mt CO2eq in 2020 and 800 Mt CO2eq in 2030 if fully implemented, bringing the country close to net zero emissions! Why does Canada’s INDC not even consider such approaches?

Canada’s INDC not only says little about land use emissions, but specifically excludes emissions due to natural events – emissions that could be reduced by more effective land management to reduce fire and insect outbreaks. The INDC also reserves the right to use “international mechanisms to achieve its 2030 target” – in other words to buy carbon credits from countries that are doing a decent job of reducing their emissions. (Dare I suggest that any such purchases would be financed through a shell game moving part of our paltry support for international aid towards green projects overseas, rather than by actually investing new money.) Perhaps most disappointing of all, Canada’s target for 2030 requires a reduction in emissions of just 1.7% per year, just 60% of the rate of reduction being proposed by the US and the EU to reach their own targets. Canada could do far more, and one cannot help but believe this is an INDC developed by a government that has never really wanted to reduce emissions at all. We can hope for a substantially revised submission before the Paris talks convene, and given promises made during our election, Canadians should expect, and demand such revision.
Table ranking INDCs from Carbon Action Tracker

Table showing 19 countries, and the relative merit of their INDCs as evaluated by Carbon Action Tracker. Canada is not alone in being judged as not pulling its weight, but that does not absolve Canada of the responsibility to do a lot better. None of the countries evaluated received the ‘Role Model’ ranking that CAT was hoping to award.

Do the INDCs Do Enough?

Overall of course, even with the efforts proposed by countries such as the US, the EU, and China, which are taking the process much more seriously than Canada, the pledges received to mid-October will not be sufficient to reach the 2oC warming target, let alone a more aggressive 1.5oC target by 2100. The Carbon Action Tracker, on the basis of analyses of INDCs from countries representing about 75% of global emissions, estimates the gap between what is proposed, and the emissions reductions required if the target is to be reached. That gap is 11-13 Gt CO2eq in 2025, growing to about 15-17 Gt CO2eq in 2030. This level of global emissions reductions is equivalent to a global temperature increase from preindustrial times of 2.7oC, definitely not good enough. Climate Interactive, another non-governmental group, using different assumptions concerning what would happen after 2030, reported that the INDCs submitted to late September would result in a global temperature increase of 3.5oC compared to 4.5oC if these new pledges did not exist. Regardless of who is most correct, it is clear that the nations of the world are not yet grappling with climate change the way they need to. Ban Ki Moon has (relatively ineffectively) pleaded with national leaders to try and do better.

Is it possible that Canada might be able to show that it is finally ready to walk the walk by submitting a revised INDC that goes beyond what any of the other major countries have yet done? We’d need to submit a proposal that was a) realistic, and b) resulted in sufficient emissions reductions to do better than achieve a 2oC target. It is possible and our INDC offers lots of avenues for improvement. It is very good news that, the day after the election, PM-elect Justin Trudeau confirmed to reporters that he will be going to the Paris climate conference. Between now and then, Canadians need to watch to ensure he takes stronger proposals with him. I for one do not want Canada awarded yet another fossil award for poor performance on climate.

As time counts down towards the Paris meeting, it’s not as if we need more evidence that climate change is becoming ever more serious. As I detailed in September, we are currently in the middle of what may turn out to be the strongest el Niño on record, and the third global coral bleaching event in history as a direct result. The media are using the word ‘unprecedented’ so often in reporting environmental news that it is in danger of losing all meaning – ‘unprecedented’ literally means ‘never before experienced’ so having unprecedented floods, droughts, storms, or heat waves every week begins to wear a bit thin. And yet, there is a real sense that 100-year weather events are happening far more frequently than that term implies. Even Mark Carney, Governor of the Bank of England, in a speech on 29th September to Lloyd’s insurance group, told them that insurers were heavily exposed to climate change risks and that time was running out to deal with global warming. He argued that keeping temperature increases within the 2oC target will render a vast majority of fossil fuel reserves “stranded” – oil, gas and coal that will be literally unusable without expensive carbon-capture technology, which itself alters fossil fuel economics. In his view, businesses needed to get ahead of the financial disaster that will come when this situation is fully understood. Climate change hits us in many different ways.

So How Do We Get There?

What we need right now is better understanding of how multiple independent nations can be brought together to solve difficult common problems effectively. The present climate process is weak because it relies upon each nation to choose what it will do, and then announce this to the group. There is far too much self-interest at work and far too little awareness that we really are living in unprecedented times that demand real action to forge real solutions. Rather than approaching emissions reductions as a zero-sum game in which reductions incur economic costs for the nation choosing to reduce emissions, we perhaps need a system in which nations invest in emissions reductions, and those that fail to invest sufficiently are penalized in some real way. A global carbon market would be one way of achieving this.
Syrian-refugees-landing Angelos Tzortzinis-Getty

The root cause of the Syrian refugee crisis is a climate-change exacerbated and pernicious drought. Here, refugees come ashore at Lesbos, Greece. Photo © Angelos Tzortzinis/Getty.

Along the way, as the world struggles to come to grips with how to forge a real climate treaty, we need also to bring the topic of population back into the discussion. Our global struggle to rein in GHG emissions is made far more difficult than it otherwise would be by our rampant population growth. And before anyone dismisses this mention of population as a red herring, let’s pause briefly to remember the Syrian refugees flooding into neighboring countries and on to Europe. Yes, the refugees are fleeing anarchy and violence, terrorism and war. But the mess that is Syria began with a pernicious drought that was exacerbated, if not caused, by climate change – a warming and drying trend that has been occurring for 30+ years and is projected to continue, clear across North Africa and the Middle East, leading to the collapse of rural economies and mass migration of people. If we do not bring climate change under control, the massive societal disruptions that will occur will make the current Syrian refugee crisis seem tame.

How dare countries like my Canada, as well as Australia, Japan, Russia, South Africa, and others, continue to treat the climate conferences as ‘just another multinational negotiation’ in which the goal is to give as little as possible, and preserve economic self-interest at all costs and beyond any other considerations. If we are not careful, if we do not become more responsible real soon, climate change may become to humanity what that asteroid that formed the Chicxulub crater was to the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. I imagine they watched it hurtle through the sky, and wondered, in a dim, reptilian way, whether they needed to do anything about it. At least they suffered for only a short time.
Cretaceous Dawn 1996 GeorgeArthurBush

End of dinosaurs due to massive volcanic eruptions? Figure © George Arthur Bush

Categories: Canada's environmental policies, Climate change, Economics, In the News, Land Use, Politics | Comments Off on Paris COP21 – Are We There Yet? Not by a Long Shot but There Is Progress

The Mega el Niño – How to Protect Our Coral Reefs (Part 2)

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What to Do About our Dwindling Coral Reefs?

In the previous post, I outlined what may be coming for coral reefs as the current el Niño does its thing. The news is not good. But the longer-term news is even less good, and we need to recognize that fact. Even if the climate talks in Paris this December (CoP21) are wildly successful and a treaty gets signed that will keep global warming within +2oC this century (the stated goal), warming and acidification will continue at least to century end, and the destruction of coral reefs will also continue. It’s not a pleasant scenario to contemplate, although it is a lot better than if we are unsuccessful in Paris and warming and acidification go on unabated.

Many scientists concerned about the plight of coral reefs have recognized that the best Paris outcome is not really satisfactory for these amazing and immensely valuable ecosystems. So there are calls for even more stringent goals in Paris and beyond. Lowering atmospheric concentrations of CO2 to 350ppm is a scientifically defendable and worthwhile target – with benefits far beyond coral reefs – although many see it as beyond our capacity because of the political will it would require. However, it’s still a goal worth pushing if only to counteract the natural tendency of negotiating countries to compromise in adopting a set of emissions cuts that lead to some improvement in our shared future, although without reaching the +2oC goal. (I have a recurring nightmare in which politicians from around the world, dressed in expensive suits, sip Champagne, while congratulating each other on coming together in the spirit of mutual compromise to achieve an historic climate treaty that will keep warming to +3oC. They then all fly home in their private 747s.)

cartoon-un-climate-change-conferenceThis 2011 cartoon might still be relevant in Paris this December. I hope not.
Cartoon ©

While many people, including scientists who do not work on coral reefs, seem to assume that loss of coral reefs is either being exaggerated or does not really concern most of the world, suggestions for more direct action to keep reefs with us are being heard, and some are leading to experimentation and pilot projects. These range from modest to outlandish, and from the sublime to the ridiculous. I fear the outlandishly ridiculous, because I can see us running off and implementing them in a well-meaning, if un-thinking exuberance of effort to just do something quickly. (And if you think I am being alarmist here, take a look at the depth of intellectual capacity being revealed nightly by some of the individuals running for office in leadership roles in Canada, in Australia, in the UK, or particularly in the US, and then ask yourself if calm, rational, long-term thinking will prevail once we recognize we have an existential emergency on our global hands.)

Trump on climate tumblr_nv3d3yVgkE1ql6jblo1_500American politics … these people are competing to lead the world!

I am going to talk about the main solutions being suggested, and then I am going to turn to Dennis Hubbard of Oberlin University for some common sense about what we do and do not know about how coral reefs function. First the main solutions being proposed.

Take care of local impacts

The most modest suggestion, and the one that has been around for about as long as we have recognized the plight of coral reefs, goes as follows:

Focus local effort on managing local reefs responsibly, ensuring fishing is sustainable and not destructive to the fragile reef habitat, ensuring pollution is minimized or avoided altogether, and protecting reefs from the negative effects (such as siltation, burial, flow disruption) of coastal development. This will bring local resources to bear on those human impacts that can be managed locally while ensuring reef ecosystems will be in the strongest possible condition to confront impacts of warming and acidification.

Essentially, this is an argument to take action to improve reef resilience. It rests on some limited evidence that reefs bathed by better quality (less nutrient enriched) water bleach at higher temperatures than reefs nearby in waters that are richer in nutrients due to pollution. This is a useful argument, and one that can be put into practice with modest effort; addressing local problems can also deliver local, obvious signs of improvement in just a few years. A cynic will note that this advice was being delivered around the world long before we noticed effects of warming or acidification, and many coral reefs remain poorly managed – it is not yet clear that reef managers know the best ways of motivating people to curtail overfishing, stop pollution, or avoid inappropriate coastal development (this is true in the richest countries as well as in the more impoverished parts of the world). Still, it is an argument I endorse.

Reef regeneration

A more elaborate set of approaches to saving coral reefs relies on the fact that corals can be vegetatively reproduced by fastening living fragments to the substratum and permitting them to grow into new colonies. This solution involves the establishment of coral nurseries, perhaps the provision of artificial frameworks on which to grow the new colonies, and a program of reseeding to be implemented wherever coral reefs have died, whether due to storm or other physical damage, pollution, coastal development, or bleaching. It its most basic form this approach is almost as low-tech and inexpensive as the simple ‘take care of the local impacts’ argument can be. It provides a ‘useful activity’ for people, and helps preserve hope, while building compliance with management regulations.

coral nurseriesCoral nurseries can be ‘plug on post’ (left, US Virgin Islands) or ‘suspended tree’ (right, Bonaire) systems. Suspension from strings is also possible. Here, the rapidly growing A. cervicornis (staghorn) coral is used. Photos © TNC and © Steve Schnoll respectively.

Naturally, the regeneration approach has been turned into a mini-industry by several entrepreneurs who saw a business opportunity in reef repair. Most prominent of these is probably the non-profit Reef Ball Foundation (with a slew of for-profit subsidiaries) which has focused its efforts on the development of suitable cast concrete reef modules (Reef Balls®) into which are inserted multiple coral ‘plugs’ (relatively large fragments of coral embedded in an epoxy base plug). While these structures do attract fish and invertebrates, they rarely if ever become overgrown with coral, and so remain looking like reef balls rather than regenerated coral reefs. Still they have their uses, and the company offers them for use in a variety of circumstances beyond coral reefs. For the ultimate vanity project the company provides a service (‘Eternal Reefs’) whereby your ashes can be mixed into the cement as the reef ball is being constructed. Mostly people do not talk about the CO2 emissions released in the curing of cement, and they are a vast improvement over old tires, old cars, or old streetcars used as artificial reefs.

A second entrepreneurial approach markets Biorock®, a process for the growing of coral fragments on a wire framework through which is passed a small DC current. The electrical current leads to electrolysis covering the wire surfaces with calcium carbonate and magnesium hydroxide. If the source of power is removed the precipitated minerals dissolve. The privately owned process is licensed to a non-profit, somewhat misleadingly named the Global Coral Reef Alliance, which claims that the electricity also stimulates growth of corals attached to the framework. Most coral reef scientists dispute this claim and there is little support in the peer-reviewed literature, but even if correct, the need for a continuous supply of power limits this approach to small projects close to a power supply. The Biorock approach seems to have been a lot less successful (economically as well as environmentally), and neither Reef Balls nor Biorock offer a real solution to the loss of thousands of hectares of living reef.

A significant problem with both Reef Balls and Biorock technology is that nearby reefs are scavenged for coral fragments to attach to the substrate unless a coral nursery is first established. Other entrepreneurs have focused on the need for nurseries for replenishment, whether or not artificial substrata are to be used. A coral nursery, whether established in shallow protected areas on a reef or in a mariculture facility, permits the propagation of corals from minute fragments, nubbins, containing just a few polyps. Use of small nubbins greatly expands the proliferation possible from a single wild-collected colony. Typically, these nubbins are fastened into epoxy plugs by which they are supported in flowing water. Once grown to a suitable size for out-planting (a few cm across), they are transported to the reef site and the plugs are fastened to the substrate, whether that is a Reef Ball or an area of dead limestone on the reef. Nurseries are mostly being managed simply to grow small coral fragments, frequently as a village project to repair a local reef, but in some cases, they are operated more professionally as cultivation projects for corals showing desired characteristics such as fast growth and tolerance to higher temperatures. Such more ‘professional’ nurseries usually gain some income by supplying tank-grown corals to the marine aquarium trade.

The Australian Institute for Marine Science (AIMS) has recently announced a far more complex research project in which corals will be selected for desirable characteristics and then bred to yield larvae that will then be cultured and tested for tolerance to warm water and/or low pH using their state-of-the-art mariculture facility. The long-term goal is to develop strains of particular coral species that will prove hardier in the reef environment than those naturally occurring there. This project is more correctly termed ‘assisted evolution’ than ‘coral regeneration’. An informative news article about this project and related ones by other scientists is in Nature (and it’s not behind a firewall!).

Setting aside the AIMS project, the major problem with all coral regeneration projects is that they do not address the factors which caused the reef to degrade in the first place. If a reef is being degraded by frequent bleaching events, by low pH, by local pollution, or by a high incidence of coral diseases, cultivating coral fragments and placing them back out on the reef simply provides more coral to be killed. Add to this the fact that managing a coral nursery is a long-term (years), labor-intensive activity, and that transplanting corals back to the reef is similarly labor-intensive, and it is clear that this can only be a solution for repair of local, high importance areas of reef.

Really crazy schemes

In 2012, in a paper in Nature Climate Change, Greg Rau, Liz McLeod and Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, from UC Santa Cruz, TNC Hawaii, and University of Queensland respectively, provided a provocative essay calling for scientists to investigate unconventional solutions to coral bleaching, so that we would have techniques in hand to use in an emergency – e.g. when efforts to reduce CO2 emissions have clearly failed. They gained some ridicule on the web for suggesting that areas of reef might be shaded by floating sails (they were suggesting this as a small-scale, experimental approach to test effectiveness of shading, not as a way of shading thousands of square kilometers of reef). Now, Peter Mumby and others, also from University of Queensland, have suggested that SRM, or solar radiation management, by injection of aerosols into the atmosphere to reduce warming, might have to be considered as an emergency approach of last resort if we really want to save coral reefs.

geoengineering_web_3118327k The TelegraphThis set of geoengineering approaches to climate change headed an article on the topic in The Telegraph. Most are untested and only treat the symptoms rather than actually sequestering carbon.

There are plenty of engineers, geochemists, and others hankering for the opportunity to provide engineering approaches to deal with the symptoms of climate change. After all, humanity has always bent Nature to his will (and the male pronoun seems apt here), so why should we not try to engineer our way out of warming, rather than cut back on our profitable fossil-fuel based economy? Putting aerosols or small reflective particles of some sort up into the atmosphere, to reduce the warming by reducing the amount of sunlight penetrating the atmosphere, has been a favorite approach. There also is evidence that it should work. The massive eruption in 1815 of Mt. Tambora, in Indonesia, pumped enormous quantities of dust into the atmosphere, and 1816 became known as the year without a summer. A much more recent and not much smaller eruption, Mt. Pinatubo in the Philippines in 1991, pumped about 17 megatonnes of SO2 into the atmosphere, resulting in a global cooling of -0.4oC in 1992-3.

There are two huge problems with SRM. First, the cooling is not uniform across the globe, and it is not clear how countries will respond to sudden unfavorable shifts in their monsoon seasons or other ‘bad weather events’ when these have been caused by an enormous geoengineering project done by somebody else (perhaps by someone in a country headed by a Donald Trump type leader with all his diplomatic skills). While research might help us learn how the planet would respond, experiments at scale are hard to imagine. Second, SRM only addresses warming and does nothing to the accumulation of CO2 – ocean acidification would continue unabated and warming would surge if we ever decided to stop putting aerosols upstairs. Come to think of it, it was SO2 pollution, from smelters and power plants that led to acid rain that caused extensive damage to forests and lakes in north-eastern North America and northern Europe in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s; so would SRM solve warming while reintroducing acid rain?

There is a third, political problem which may be even more serious in the short term. Serious discussion of SRM by engineers and scientists could well encourage politicians to believe that we have technical fixes available. They would feel much more free to avoid making difficult commitments to reduce CO2 emissions. I think this is a particularly serious problem because many countries have been viewing the climate conferences as places in which to negotiate to preserve one’s own national interests to the fullest extent possible, and the powerful fossil fuel industry is lobbying hard to minimize and delay any limits on their activities. If the environmental community appears to be suggesting there might be geo-engineering fixes we need to explore, that could shut down the slow forward movement on emissions reduction now taking place.

A Sane Word or Two from Dennis Hubbard

I first met Dennis Hubbard at the long-deceased West Indies Lab, during my first visit to St. Croix and the Caribbean in 1981. I’d describe Dennis as a reef geologist, but like all good reef geologists he thinks a lot about the biology as well. He is now at Oberlin College. He recently posted a comment on NOAA’s coral-list which I thought deserved additional exposure. He was responding to a rambling conversation about what should be done to stem the decline of coral reefs. The conversation had started with comments about bleaching impacts, but had wandered off to talk about crown-of-thorns starfish, Acanthaster planci (because COTS have sometimes become abundant in places where corals are bleached), and lion fish, Pterois volitans (apparently just because they are another predator, although of fish). The crown-of-thorns, or COTS, is a coral predator on Pacific reefs and can cause extensive coral mortality when it is in high abundance. Like most echinoderms, it shows a fondness for population outbreaks from time to time, apparently stimulated by nutrient-rich and/or lower salinity waters during larval life. It has been responsible for about 42% of coral loss on the Great Barrier Reef since 1985.

I have edited Dennis’ words for clarity, but tried to retain his own voice, and I have a couple of comments italicized and inserted in square brackets.  I thank him for letting me play with his words this way.  He begins by referencing the “bounty hunter” approach to conservation – getting rid of a species believed to be causing undesirable changes in an environment:

From Dennis Hubbard:

I have to admit a bit of trepidation with the “bounty hunter” approach to marine conservation. I’m not weighing in on the pros and cons of specific methods for specific species… or the need to control populations that are truly out of control. My concern grows out of having lived long enough, and in enough diverse places, to witness well-meaning but flawed efforts…. and to see the evolution in our thinking over what is “good” and what is “bad”. As a result, my first reaction is always to be wary.

“Some of us remember failed attempts to maintain “the proper balance” between elk and beavers. [I do not know this particular story, although I found this on the situation in Yellowstone. What follows may not be exactly what Dennis meant about the beaver-elk-willow-wolf story.] Beavers use willows for food and to dam streams, but elk also browse on willows. The story goes that there seemed to be too many beavers damming the streams, and not enough elk to hunt. It was believed the beavers were altering the stream environment in ‘bad’ ways, and were so abundant they were depriving elk of food. That wolves and Homo stupidus had killed off all the elk was not discussed, and because killing hunters was frowned upon for reasons I never understood, wolves were the primary target – get rid of the wolves and the elk will return and then deal with the beaver.

“Six years ago, we had a seminar from a young scientist who discussed the problems with beavers modifying the biophysical system (his PhD thesis). The primary drivers were “shown to be” loss of elk and those damming beavers.

“He just came back last year to give another talk….. and apparently the entire situation has changed. The elk are coming back in droves after stringent conservation efforts, but the biophysical system is not resetting. The suggestion is that the system had reached a “tipping point” beyond where the fluvial system could reset…. or at least that’s what they are thinking now. The working alternative is that maybe the beavers they drove out to stabilize the system weren’t actually the problem they had thought… and that the elk-flora connection wasn’t as simple as assumed – nor the link to the wolves. These working hypotheses are pretty different from the standpoint of implementing a management plan…. maybe it’s beavers… maybe it’s elk…. both?….. neither?… how about those wolves? The hypothesis they have now is too complicated to lay out here, but suffice it to say that it’s pretty different from what they thought less than a decade ago. So… now we have no beavers, no wolves, a moderate increase in elk…. and no measurable improvement in the system!

“I also lived through a program in northern Maine where they systematically went after coyotes that were apparently driving down the deer population…. a huge source of revenue. Forty years later, there are neither coyotes nor deer. And, in those few places where deer are abundant, we hear complaints that “there are more deer than when Columbus landed” and that the conflict between growing populations of deer and farmers is due to the deer side of the equation. I don’t claim to be an expert on the latter balance, but I have read descriptions of Benedict Arnold having no problem shooting a couple of deer a day to keep his soldiers well fed en route to Montreal. Today, hunting is pretty dismal along that route. Maybe Benedict shot straighter than average hunters today with their semi-automatic rifles. But, maybe not.

“Same story for porcupines. In the early 1960s, we had a hefty bounty on them, largely because of their drive to find salt…. which attracted them to the handles of shovels, axes, etc. all valued by any good Mainer. I could go on, but I’m sure everyone gets the pattern.

“So….. let’s move on to the present marine system. I’m certainly not arguing that COTS are “great” for reefs or that invasive Lionfish are “good” for other Caribbean fauna. However, I have even read about efforts to extirpate damselfish, in some instances characterizing them as the most negative impact on coral reefs today. While I agree that, pound for pound, they are the most dangerous beast on the reef, I remember a time when their “farming” methods were heralded as somewhere between “efficient” and “necessary for the maintenance of healthy algal turfs”. [For those who don’t know, there is a group of usually drab but robust and aggressive damselfish species that are territorial herbivores (most damselfish feed mostly on plankton), and that defend and even cultivate their algal gardens.]

“As I understand the situation, in some places, damselfish are nipping off “too many” polyps to create algal habitat and are, therefore, perceived as a source of local “reef decline”. I was in Belize last summer with the Keck Geology Consortium and watched a student (not mine) do a great study that looked at where damsels did and did not “damage” substrate. It turned out that they nipped away somewhat equally in areas of Acropora cervicornis (staghorn coral) that were “healthy” and “not so healthy”, but negative effects were only occurring in areas that were already degraded. If this is the case, then killing the fish won’t have much of a positive effect (they seem to only affect corals already on their way out)…. and fish biomass is going to be lower. While this is only one example from one place, the apparent assumption where damsels have a bounty on their heads must be that substrate loss trumps higher fish biomass, so the damsels have to go.

Dusky_gregory_Stegastes_nigricans_(5834901444) Paul AsmanStegastes nigricans is an Indo-Pacific representative of the guild of territorial damselfishes that cultivate algal gardens (clearly visible on the inner branches of the coral behind the fish). Photo © Paul Asman and Jill Lenoble.

“There has been a long-standing argument about the value in restoring/protecting parrotfish as a mechanism to prevent reef corals being out-competed by algae. A recent article in Coral Reefs fairly clearly shows that a significant rebound in grazing fish abundances in protected sites in the Florida Keys has had no measurable impact on coral cover [L.T. Toth and others, 2014]. We saw similar patterns in the Virgin Islands in a study that compared coral cover, macroalgal density, and grazers on two reefs 2 km apart – one in Buck Island National Park and the other on Tague Bay, where years of data were available from when West Indies Lab was still there.

“The long and short of it was that parrotfish numbers were up significantly in the park for obvious reasons – they were not being fished. At the same time, urchin densities along the Tague Bay forereef were much higher that two decades earlier and, in some places, were close to what had been reported prior to 1983 when the spiny sea urchin, Diadema antillarum, almost went extinct across the Caribbean because of some highly contagious disease. At both sites because parrotfishes and urchins are both herbivores, macroalgae were essentially non-existent…. but, so were new juvenile corals. The apparent issue was a failure in coral recruitment, but the question is how much of this was caused by climate change versus changing nutrient dynamics versus warming/acidification – each having different management implications.

“Whatever the explanation, both sites have higher rates of bioerosion today than they did when grazers were scarce because parrot fishes and urchins rasp away at the substratum while feeding on algal turfs. Because, coral cover has remained low in both instances, the balance between carbonate production and bioerosion is going progressively in favor of the latter…. not due to losses of corals, but rather due to increased bioerosion in an area that is not recovering with respect to calcification. From a purely biological perspective, it might be argued that this is all good news because at least fish biomass is going up. But, this seems contrary to the argument in favor of hunting aggressive damselfish cited above….. to paraphrase it as I understand it, “higher fish biomass is not a good thing in light of all the negative impacts their nipping at corals cause”. So, at what point do we start hunting the parrotfish and urchins to cut back on their bioerosive action?

“I am confident that there are people on coral-list closer to some of these examples that I am… and I will defer to their opinions. My larger point is that, even if particular examples are off base, there have been more than enough examples of conservation gone awry because we “managed” a population based on our usually over-simple perceptions of “good” and “bad” at the time. I often wonder whether the greater hubris exists in our earlier perception that the world was “our garden” or in our present sense that we can always “fix it”. As we discuss the pros and cons of different strategies, we want to be very careful about assumptions that are too often based as much on our personal values as on irrefutable data.

“As we look toward species of coral that might be more resistant to warming, we might ask whether they are “equivalent” to what was there before (recovery vs restoration)? Certainly there is a tremendous potential for loss. Do the “better” [more warming resistant, faster growing, more easily cultivated] corals produce carbonate at similar rates and create skeletons that are similarly robust to what occurred on reefs in past years? Putting branching corals [which are favored in many nursery/restoration projects because they grow quickly to rapidly provide coral cover] at sites previously dominated by massive species is going to change the resistance of that community to increasing wave action as climate-change induced storminess is on the rise. And… if corals are broken more often, they will be moved more easily by those same waves. In this example faster-growing corals that are more easily broken could lead to reduced accretion and less reef building. So, creating coral cover quickly might be at odds with reef building unless we are very clever.

“Changing gears, if the solution for reef islands confronted by sea level rise is “more sand”, might actions to increase bioerosion on the surrounding reef be “better”? A total budget approach says “no”, and I agree, but I have seen the opposing view expressed [on coral-list]. In addition, to the extent that bioerosion is contributing to a loss of surface rugosity, it is lowering the potential for wave reduction. So…. should we be killing grazers in areas where coral cover is already low so that we can slow down large-scale reef erosion. Absurd… maybe, but…?

“I am advocating for none of these alternatives, but am concerned that we are not thinking about them and others in a systematic manner. Some of the suggestions I have made seem as bizarre to me as they probably do to the readers. However, what we presently know about the complex predator/prey relationships obviously seemed equally far-fetched to the managers who took paths in the past that we now know to be nonsense. We have backed ourselves into a corner and dragged the reefs in with us. Perhaps we don’t have time for rational thought, given the brief interval between the creation of “knowledge” and the implementation of “policy” based on it.

“I hope that the upcoming meeting in Hawaii [the 13th International Coral Reef Symposium convenes in Honolulu in June 2016] will give us the opportunity to have meaningful discussions on this topic. These can only occur across disciplinary boundaries, but I fear that, much as we have done at past conferences, we are each going to spend most of our time in [our own particular disciplinary silo, listening to talks, viewing posters and participating in workshops within our specialist fields] because “it’s what we do”. I hope we can all discuss this further, but you’ll have to catch me as I run from the biology session to the geology session and then over to hear all about management. There’s way too much to learn that won’t be discussed in “my favorite” session”.

Back to me, again – I think Dennis provides a useful word of caution, and calls on all of us to be a little more humble as we advance our favorite causal explanations for the events we see unfolding on coral reefs and elsewhere in this world. Things are seldom quite as simple as they first seem.

An Innovative Approach Worth Pursuing

A coral breeding program, such as the one now being undertaken at AIMS, using the state-of-art National Sea Simulator, is a long-term, high-tech operation, requiring a substantial investment in mariculture infrastructure and skills along with skills in genomics, agricultural genetics, coral and algal physiology, genetics, and developmental biology. However, it has the potential capacity to achieve significantly enhanced resistance to warming and acidification in a much shorter time than evolution would take unassisted. Drs. Madeleine van Oppen of AIMS, and Ruth Gates of University of Hawaii lead teams that have been collaborating on investigations into the capacities of corals to tolerate warm water for several years. It has been known for some time that corals of the same species, but living in different geographic regions have different tolerances to warming. Most notably, corals that survive the very harsh warmth of the Persian Gulf tolerate substantially higher temperatures than do those same species in the Indian Ocean. One breakthrough was the discovery that some corals possess genes conveying greater tolerance that can be ‘turned on’ by experiencing a bout of warmer temperatures. This may mean that corals which have already experienced warm water, and bleached, in the recent past may now be capable of withstanding still warmer water successfully. Another early breakthrough was the discovery that different genetic strains of their symbiotic algae seemed to convey different degrees of warmth tolerance to the coral host. Most recently van Oppen’s team has shown that Acropora millipora coral from the northern Great Barrier Reef tolerate warmer temperatures than do colonies of this species from the southern Great Barrier Reef, and that crossing the two strains produced offspring that inherited the mother’s temperature tolerances. (Perhaps it should not be surprising to discover that the genetics of temperature tolerance in a coral – really in a symbiosis between a coral and its single-celled algae – was going to be complicated, but it is encouraging to see how much progress is being made.)

BIF_Oct13_SeaSim-631x356The National Sea Simulator in Townsville, Australia, is a high-tech, climate-controlled building providing aquaculture facilities that can be precisely controlled for a broad suite of environmental factors – temperature, light, CO2, pH, and so on.

The challenge now being faced is whether by selecting for specific algal strains, by pre-stressing corals to ‘turn on’ their temperature defenses, by cross-breeding corals with different tolerances, or by a combination of these and other new techniques, it will be possible to raise coral strains with superior tolerances to temperature. Doing the same for pH would also be useful. Then will come the challenge of generating sufficient numbers to be able to out-plant them to reefs facing temperature and pH stress. Assisted evolution like assisted migration (where plants are helped to extend their ranges to keep pace with climate change) is a novel approach to management that moves environmental management from the “stop people doing bad things” mode to a more pro-active “help natural systems do the right thing” mode. It’s a new world we are creating, and new approaches to environmental management will likely be required. In picking the approaches to use, let’s not be simplistic and do something really stupid to the only planet we have.

Saving Coral Reefs

I think the science being done by van Oppen and Gates and some other coral biologists at labs around the world is definitely worth doing given the perilous situation we have created for reefs, but I also recognize the immense field effort that would be required to fully warmth-proof coral reefs around the world by out-planting more resistant strains of coral species. We also need to collect as much information as possible on the effects of this year’s el Niño to characterize the temperatures experienced, the extent of bleaching, and the extent of mortality at a broad range of sites. Scientists from the Reef Check monitoring program are attempting to ramp up a monitoring effort right now to do that, and two posts on coral-list today (one by Gregor Hodgson, Director of Reef Check, and the other by Jim Hendee, NOAA) provide updated information and a plea to scientists and managers to report observations of bleaching to the list). Will corals this year prove more resistant to warm temperatures than they were in 2010, or in 1998? If they are, that would be encouraging news. And is NOAA’s estimate of 6% mortality due to bleaching during 2014-2016 accurate.

We also need to continue to work to improve the management of local stressors like over-fishing and pollution on coral reefs. This has been a critical need for a long time, but it becomes more critical every year as climate-related stresses increase. And those of us in western, developed countries need to remember that most coral reefs are used for far more important things than the entertainment of tourists. Reefs are economically and culturally important in most parts of the world where they occur, and calm contemplation of their pending disappearance is simply not an ethically acceptable attitude.

Far better, of course, to bring CO2 emissions under control as quickly as possible.

Categories: Changing Oceans, Climate change, coral reef science, In the News | 5 Comments