Just Because it is Silly Season, Don’t Forget Climate Mitigation


Summer Silly Season

It’s the height of silly season, and in 2016 the season is sillier than ever.  2016 being an election year, the United States will now immerse themselves in two weeks of that uniquely American and totally over-the-top set of events called the national conventions of the Democratic and the Republican political parties.  They can be expected to be more outlandish than ever this year, especially the Republican one.  It commences this Monday in Cleveland, Ohio.  Ohio is one of those states with an ‘open carry’ law and the supporters of, and opposition to, Donald Trump are planning to bring their guns.  Is the USA moving rapidly backward to the 18th century, when political decisions were decided in the main street of Tombstone at high noon?  Looks that way.  In any event, you can be sure that few in that country will be thinking much about policy, or implementation methods, to deal with climate change.


Meanwhile the UK is in a post-Brexit mood of political frivolity as the various leaders who got the country into that mess race for the exits, only, in some cases, to be dragged back into the fray.  Boris Johnson, after leading the ‘leave’ movement, unexpectedly announced he would not be a candidate for leader of the Conservative party, and therefore Prime Minister replacing David Cameron.  Then, the new PM, Theresa May, upset his plans by appointing him Foreign Secretary, putting him very much in the middle of the Brexit negotiations with the EU.  PM May has also apparently taken the opportunity, when few were looking, to scrap the Department of Energy and Climate Change, rolling its mandate into an expanded Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.  Looks like her enthusiasm for climate mitigation may be less than stirling.

The rest of the EU is tottering around wondering what Brexit really means for them, while terrorism continues to capture the front page in all member countries with some of the worst acts of random public violence seen in some considerable time, especially in France.  Plus an attempted coup in Turkey.  They are not thinking too much about climate just now, either.

01darcy-brexitjpg-8c319709ccaf7804Several people have noted the similarities between Mr. Trump and Mr. Johnson.  I wonder if Mr. Trump would refuse to serve as President if he wins?  Boris refused to stand for Prime Minister after Brexit vote success.  Cartoon by Darcy.

Australia completed its peculiarly unsatisfying election without resolving its schizophrenic attachment to coal mining and reef minding.  Those who thought that the worst bleaching on record on the Great Barrier Reef had garnered sufficient concern from the public that  reef conservation would be a major factor in the election are re-examining their convictions.  Yes, the Australian public genuinely values, and wants to sustain the reef, but, no, the issue of reef management still does not rise high enough when political shills are shouting ‘jobs’, ‘economy’, and ‘position in the world’.  Neither major party put forward sufficiently serious proposals for how to ensure the existence of the Great Barrier Reef for voters to be able to distinguish between them.  If Australia persists in encouraging foreign interests to come in and help dig up its coal, and ship it overseas from ports along the Queensland coast, directly inshore of the reefs, that country’s leaders are not being serious about either climate change or the Great Barrier Reef.  No signs yet that the reef is anywhere near the top of the new (old) government’s agenda, and Australia continues to lag badly in climate change mitigation.

China and a number of its neighbors have just received the results of the investigation by an international tribunal in The Hague into Chinese territorial claims in the South China Sea.  China’s so-called nine-dash line surrounds the overwhelming majority of the South China Sea, and China bases its claim that this is all Chinese territory on traditional use going back many centuries.  Not surprisingly, the court in The Hague found the claim had no justification under the International Law of the Sea Convention to which China, the Philippines and other claimant countries are all signatories.  There is a lot of blustering going on, plus some signs that serious negotiations over how to manage this crucially important piece of the ocean may finally get under way.

China South China Sea claim CnSvmMaUsAA6OyfChina’s ‘nine-dash line has been ruled invalid.  China is ignoring the ruling.  Where does that leave the South China Sea?  Cartoon by Sayish Acharya.

The South China Sea is important for oil and other minerals believed to lie beneath it, for its fisheries, particularly those around the Spratley and the Paracel island groups, and especially for the valuable international trade it supports.  Paradoxically, none of the countries that dispute ownership of portions of this region want to see international trade impeded, so there will likely be some willingness to negotiate a mode of operation in good faith.  Still, such political interactions among nations can cause attention to stray from other issues, such as the management of the international fisheries in the South China Sea, the management of coral reefs in the region, or the mitigation of climate change.

Finally, need I mention Rio, the Olympics, and Brazil’s political and economic problems?  Or the European Cup of soccer just concluded?  Or any of a host of other diversions that always happen in the silly season?  Politically, Canada seems like an oasis of calm in a troubled world, but here too it is mid-summer, and time for barbeques, rodeos, pride parades and other fun times.  Canada’s own march towards climate mitigation has not stalled (so far as I know) but it is certainly not the topic of conversation it was a couple of months ago.

Climate change waits for no one

Now, it’s OK for countries to take a mid-summer breather in the struggle to wrestle our use of fossil fuels, or at least our emissions of greenhouse gases from that use, to the ground.  But climate change is not taking a breather, and I worry that the impetus out of Paris is starting to falter.

What is the state of play on climate?  The short answer is that things are getting worse perhaps faster than had been expected, and mitigating actions remain far too timid, despite the excellent progress that has been made over the past year.

The 30th June issue of Nature carrier an important assessment (open access here) by 10 climate scientists from research institutions in Austria, Switzerland, Germany, Netherlands, USA, Brazil, Australia, South Africa, and China.  Led by Joeri Rogelj of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA), in Austria, and ETHZurich, in Switzerland, the team conducted a detailed assessment of the likely consequences of implementing the commitments for GHG reduction made by nations around the world under the Paris Accord, their so-called INDCs.  They also reviewed earlier assessments of INDCs made by other scientists (including ones I have reported on here).  The value of this new assessment is that it is undertaken by an accomplished team, includes assessment of INDCs for all signatories to the Paris Accord, and appears in the peer-reviewed scientific literature.

It’s no surprise that Rogelj and colleagues report that the present set of INDCs, even if fully implemented, will not achieve the goal of keeping global warming below 2oC during this century.  They find that if all INDCs are implemented fully, including those parts that are currently presented by countries as conditional on such things as international funding support, and if climate mitigation efforts continued at the same level beyond 2030, global mean increase in temperature by 2100 would have a 50% chance of being below 2.7oC (±0.2), rather than below the 2.0oC sought.  They find that a very substantial effort to further improve mitigation will be needed to wrench this down to 2.0oC, and report that it now appears impossible to manage emissions sufficiently well to not exceed the stiffer 1.5oC target at least briefly.  They recommend an early effort to increase the INDCs in order to make the effort needed after 2030 more manageable, and note that even the 2OC target will likely require some use of what are called negative emissions technologies.

Rogelj et al 30 June 2016  adequacy of INDCs nature18307-f1The (rather complex) figure from the Nature paper by Rogelj et al showing the trend in annual emissions of GHGs and how this changes when INDCs are implemented.  Even by implementing all INDCs, including those that have conditions attached, does not get the world to where we need to be.  There is a need to continually strengthen the INDCs, starting sooner rather than later.  Exploring new technologies for capturing carbon could be an especially useful effort, but the main message is that we have an enormous job to accomplish, and we have barely started.  Note that global emissions in 2030 are larger than they are today – we have not yet begun to turn the corner.  Figure © Nature.

Every politician in every country needs to be continually reminded of the job we have to do, and citizens who care need to be active in promoting a continued improvement in the INDCs and in the actual actions taken by their country.  Otherwise, we will simply fall behind while warming slowly.

Recent changes on the planet

How has climate been impacting the planet while humans have had their thoughts elsewhere?  Well, some of us have not had our thoughts elsewhere, so reports are around – they just have not been front page news.  Early in June there were more reports of melting in Antarctica and the Arctic.  The CBC picked up a study of ice loss on the West Antarctic shelf that had just been published in Geophysical Research Letters on 6th June (open access here).  The five authors, led by Fraser Christie of University of Edinburgh, were able to use Landsat imagery to monitor grounding line movement over four decades along the Bellingshausen margin of West Antarctica, an area little monitored despite potential for future ice losses.  The grounding line is the most distal point at which a glacier moving out from shore no longer rests on the subtidal substratum.  They were able to recognize the position of the grounding line as the most seaward change in surface slope of the ice.  As the ice shelf melts back towards the land, the grounding line retreats also.

Christie and his colleagues were able to show that ~65% of the grounding line along the margin retreated between 1990 and 2015, while only 7.4% of it showed a net advance.  There was pervasive and accelerating retreat in regions of fast ice flow and/or thinning ice shelves.  The extent of retreat was 2.77 km over the 25 year period at the Ferrigno Ice Stream, 1.77 km at the Fox Ice Stream, and 0.92 km at the Stange Ice Shelf.  Extent of retreat was less in other sites.  The few sites showing advances all showed less than 0.4 km advance over this period.

Christie et al 2016 west antarctic shelf melt Geophy Res Lett  grl54511-fig-0001Figure from the paper by Christie and colleagues depicting the extent of grounding line retreat along segments of the Bellingshausen margin of West Antarctica.  The Ferrigno, Fox Ice and Stange locations are denoted by Fer, Fox and Sta respectively.  Figure © Fraser Christie.

Where imagery permitted a look further back to 1975, there was evidence that the retreat has been going on, not always at a constant rate, throughout this time.  It’s clear that this region of the West Antarctic Shelf has seen a pervasive and continuing trend of retreat; a fact which correlates well with estimates of the thinning of the ice sheet inland from this coastline.  Air temperatures along the West Antarctic coast remain well below zero.  The observed long-term and continuing retreat is due to melting caused by relatively warm circumpolar deep water impinging against the seaward margin, and undersurface where accessible, of the ice shelf.  The results support earlier studies in nearby locations suggesting that the West Antarctic ice shelf has been undergoing relatively rapid melting for several decades and may be now approaching a point of no return that will lead to accelerated transport of ice from the continent to the ocean.  Anyone who thinks the scientists have been exaggerating the likely rise in sea level due to climate change during this century needs to pay attention to the West Antarctic Shelf.

On 13th June, 2016, Bobby Magill reported in the authoritative blog site, Climate Central, on a study by Christina Schädel of Northern Arizona University, Flagstaffe, and 27 colleagues, published in Nature Climate Change (unfortunately not open access).  It has me a tad concerned.

Schädel and colleagues point out that northern climate change is both warming and drying climates, and that how permafrost responds depends on whether it melts into relatively dry soil or more boggy, wet soil.  The soils are rich in organic carbon, and under drier conditions, the soils release carbon primarily as CO2.  Under wetter conditions, the waterlogged soils tend to be anaerobic.  These soils release carbon primarily as CH4, methane.  Using a series of controlled incubation studies of permafrost soil under different conditions of temperature and moisture, they were able to quantify the consequences.

Warming by 10oC increases the rate of carbon emissions by a factor of two.  Under aerobic conditions they release 3.4 times as much carbon (as CO2) as under anaerobic conditions (CH4 emissions).  Despite the fact that methane is a more powerful greenhouse gas than CO2, this difference in the rate of emission of carbon is sufficient to ensure that permafrost that melts into drier soils will have a more potent positive feedback effect on warming than will permafrost thawing into boggy conditions.  There is a clear message here for management of the Arctic.  We need to protect permafrost from thawing to whatever small extent is possible, but if it is going to thaw, we need to encourage situations where the soil will remain boggy, rather than embark on drainage schemes to make the land more useable.

NASA-Peter Griffith Canadian tundra dsc6049cr smallCanada’s tundra is a mix of lakes, bogs, and lowlands that contain enormous quantities of carbon.  Thawing of the permafrost brings substantial risk of positive feedbacks that will speed up climate change.  Photo of Canada’s Northwest Territory by Peter Griffith/NASA.

Canada and Siberia have immense areas of permafrost peatlands, and the Artctic as a whole is estimated to contain over 1 trillion tonnes carbon locked up in such soils.  This is twice the total amount of carbon currently in the atmosphere as CO2 and CH4 combined.  Its gradual (or more rapid) release will have substantial impacts on climate, and poses a risk for our efforts to manage climate.

While Magill stresses the value of this study in helping climate scientists calculate the feedback due to emissions from thawing permafrost more accurately, I think there is also a value if this study can be used to influence thinking by those who will be managing Arctic environments.  Last spring, at the Muskoka Summit on Environment, Nigel Roulet of McGill University recommended that the best way to handle Canada’s extensive, thawing peatlands, given that we do not know much about how to capture emitted greenhouse gases, is to disturb them as little as possible.  To me, the study by Schädel and colleagues, screams out “and try to keep them wet”.

On 1st July, Evan Weller of Pohang University of Science and Technology, South Korea, and five colleagues from China, Australia and Canada published an article in Science Advances dealing with the growth in the Indo-Pacific Warm Pool (it is available on open access here).  So, what is the Indo-Pacific Warm Pool (IPWP)?  First, it is hardly a pool at all if you use conventional meaning of pool as a bit smaller than pond and even smaller than lake.  This is the largest area of warm water in the world’s oceans, and is technically defined as the region in the Indo-Pacific in which average annual sea surface temperature exceeds 28oC, a temperature which coincidentally is sufficient for the spawning of hurricanes, cyclones and typhoons.  It stretches across the tropical Indian Ocean from near the coast of Africa, east across about two thirds of the tropical Pacific Ocean to include French Polynesia.  It is formed by the warming due to intense tropical sunlight, and plays a major role in determining global weather patterns, including such details as where and when rain falls in the tropics.

Weller Sci Adv 2016 IPWP F1.largeImages from Evan Weller’s study showing the change in extent from 1953 (dotted line) to 2012 (solid line) and the change in temperature (as Celsius degrees increase or decrease) over the 60 years, as revealed by observations (A), and as modelled using all causal factors (B), only anthropogenic factors (C), and only natural factors (D).  It’s clear that using all causal factors yields a model result closest to obse4rved changes, but that the use of anthropogenic factors only yields nearly the same result.  Figure © E. Weller.

The IPWP has been growing larger over at least the past 60 years, and some climate scientists consider this expansion of the IPWP to be more important for changes in global weather than the el Niño – la Niña alternation (or the ENSO – el Niño Southern Oscillation – of which this is a part).  Weller and his colleagues have used climate models to explore the causes of IPWP changes, and have demonstrated that our emissions of greenhouse gases have the primary causative role.

Specifically, they examined the changes from 1953 to 2012 in geographic extent and in temperature, comparing observations to results produced by global climate models that included only natural causal factors (volcanism, solar irradiance, Pacific Decadal Oscillation), only anthropogenic factors (mainly GHG emissions), or natural and anthropogenic factors combined.  They showed that natural factors alone produced only modest, non-directional change, while the combination of natural and anthropogenic factors yielded a result close to that observed.  Anthropogenic factors alone yielded a result close to, but a little more extreme than actual observations.

The consequences of a warming and expanding IPWP are profound.  They include both the spawning of more tropical cyclonic storms and their longer persistence, and alteration in where and when monsoons deliver their rainfall.  Weller and colleagues have confirmed one more detail of just how profoundly we are altering the planet’s climate.

Reference (above) to ENSO and the PDO lead me to also, just for completeness, mention the IPO – Interdecadal Pacific Oscillation.  Each is an oscillation in the pattern of sea surface temperatures across the Pacific Ocean.  Where ENSO oscillates on a variable 6 month to 2 year cycle, the PDO oscillates on an approximately 10 year cycle and the IPO oscillates on a 15 to 30 year cycle.  The PDO primarily affects temperatures in the North Pacific, the IPO affects both the North and South Pacific and ENSO has a circumtropical effect.  Climate scientists have a growing understanding of these cycles and their causes, perhaps knowing most about ENSO and least about the IPO.  They all cause ripples in the temporal trend of climate, complicating the story that climate science tries to tell.  For example, we had a relatively long period of negative ENSO until 2013 or 2014, with the world experiencing la Niña, or very weak el Niño conditions.  These had the effect of lowering global temperatures during the early part of this century, giving rise to the claim by climate change deniers that there was a pause in climate change.

There was indeed a slowdown in the rate of warming of the lower atmosphere.  But the planet was still warming – it’s just that the extra heat was being stored in the ocean during this period.  Now that we have had a major el Niño, even though we may be moving back into la Niña territory, much of that stored heat is going to get transferred from the ocean to the atmosphere.  This is likely part of the reason why the planet has been on a tear, with NOAA reporting in its global climate analysis for May 2016, that:

the combined average temperature over global land and ocean surfaces for May 2016 was the highest for May in the 137-year period of record, at 0.87°C (1.57°F) above the 20th century average of 14.8°C (58.6°F), besting the previous record set in 2015 by 0.02°C (0.04°F).  May 2016 marks the 13th consecutive month a monthly global temperature record has been broken—the longest such streak since global temperature records began in 1880.”

With that news, it perhaps should not be a surprise that the Arctic sea ice is continuing on a record pace of melting.  On 6th July, NASA’s National Snow and Ice Data Center reported that the pace of melting of Arctic sea ice had slowed during late May, however it has since speeded up and is again tracking the most extreme year seen so far (2012).  In September, I anticipate we will learn a new record for low sea ice extent has been set.

Just to throw in a little complication, sea ice around Antarctica has been growing in extent in recent years – not to the same extent as sea ice has been receding in the Arctic, but still growing.  This became another fact which climate change deniers picked with glee.  Well, it seems to have stopped growing.  The Washington Post reported on 5th July that while Antarctic sea ice reached a maximum in excess of 20 million km2 in September 2014, it had shrunk in 2015.  It also reported that a new study in Nature Geoscience by Gerald Meehl, of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, Boulder, Colorado, and four colleagues had made some real progress in understanding the reasons why sea ice had been growing around Antarctica at a time when the planet was warming.  The article, which is viewable here, reports evidence that the growth of ice in past years was a consequence of the behavior of the Interdecadal Pacific Oscillation – the one with the 15-30 year cycle.  I read the article several times and do not claim to understand it.  I see it as evidence that climate science continues to make headway in understanding how our global climate works.  (I guess that means I am taking its claims on faith, which is no better than the denialists, who reject such claims on faith!)

Getting back to biological issues, ones I perhaps am more qualified to discuss, let me offer two quick examples showing how serious climate impacts are becoming.  I am still awaiting definitive data on the surveys done on the Great Barrier Reef following the bleaching event earlier this year.  They will come soon and will reveal just how much mortality of corals occurred.  In the meantime, also out of Australia, there are reports of massive die-off of mangroves.  There are no detailed data yet, but aerial photos reveal an unprecedented event covering hundreds of hectares of mangrove habitat on two locations along the coast of the Gulf of Carpentaria – Limmin Bight in the Northern Territory and Karumba in Queensland.  The cause(s) is unknown,  but the recent coral bleaching suggests high temperatures or a related environmental change may be the cause.

Mangrove die-off Norm Duke 5184Aerial view of mangrove die-off along coast of Gulf of Carpentaria, Australia.  Photo © Norm Duke

My second example is a recent article in the New York Times magazine, asking whether the United States should save Tangier Island from oblivion.  Tangier Island is on the Virginia coast, in Chesapeake Bay, and sea level rise is slowly flooding it.  One study, published in Nature last year, estimates the island may be liveable for another 50 years at most.  The Times article speaks about how people have a sense of belonging to the place they have always lived, and try desperately to find ways of remaining there as long as they can.  It makes the point that Tangier Island is just one of the first of many places around the shores of that wealthy country where the desire to remain will be put to the test by climate change.  I personally doubt the US will step in to ‘save’ Tangier Island – it is not the home of the rich and famous.  But I also anticipate that very large quantities of money will be spent by that wealthy country in foolish efforts to hold back the sea around many other parts of its shoreline.  That money should mostly be being put into the effort to curtain greenhouse gas emissions.  In this sillier than usual silly season, I doubt anyone is thinking much about that.

Categories: Arctic, Changing Oceans, Climate change, Politics | Leave a comment

Thoughts about corals, coral reefs, and coral reef conferences


Hanauma Bay now and in the 1960s

Last week I was in Honolulu participating in the 13th International Coral Reef Symposium (ICRS).  It was, for me, a time for reminiscing.  I was a student at University of Hawaii in the 1960s and was a participant at the 2nd ICRS on the Great Barrier Reef in 1973.  A couple dozen of us old-timers were together again in Honolulu.

Honolulu, like most places on this planet, has changed a lot since the 1960s.  While Kauai’i is known as the garden isle, and Hawai’i is called the big island, Oahu is apparently now termed the traffic island, and with good cause.  Places I knew in the 1960s were radically transformed by new streets, overpasses, and high rise buildings.  In downtown Waikiki, there are places where it is hard to recognize you are by the ocean, and most of my favorite 1960s hangouts are long gone.  The old Hawaii is very hard to find in today’s Waikiki.

On the other hand, I managed to hop on a shuttle the day before the conference started, for a snorkel in Hanauma Bay.  Hanauma Bay, on the southeast corner of Oahu just a short ride east of Waikiki, although with way more traffic than I remember, was one of my favorite places in which to spend a Sunday when I was a student.  It cost nothing (a real plus in my financially straitened circumstances), and I knew of several spots up on the low cliffs to the north of the bay, where there was room to put down a towel or two, away from all the sand and all the tourists.  (Interesting how the newcomer to a place so quickly gains disdain for those who only visit for a week or two!)  A few steps down and an easy entry to the water was possible, with no need to swim out over the backreef filled with dreaded tourists, and through the reef itself.  The coral was healthy and abundant and the fish were plentiful and varied.  I spent many Sunday’s alternately soaking up the sun and soaking up the reef at Hanauma Bay.

Hanauma bay mapHanauma Bay Nature Preserve from the cliff-top parking lot.  The site labelled ‘Witches Brew’ in this map from the Honolulu Parks and Recreation Department is an area of turbulent water and strong currents out beyond the location where I snorkeled.  Don’t head there – it’s a long paddle out for the lifeguard to ask you to return closer to the beach.  The ‘Toilet Bowl’ site is similarly off-limits.  (I wonder why they label them on their map?)

This is Hanauma Bay on the day I visited.  Photo © Joerg Wiedenmann

manini Hanauma Bay Snorkel Tours 1df8f5_7afc700d2d404ba38c83c4a44e79c4db.jpg_srz_920_690_85_22_0.50_1.20_0.00_jpg_srzThere were many schools of Manini, Acanthurus triostegus, grazing over the substratum.
Photo © Hanauma Bay Snorkel Tours

Acanthurus guttatus Hanauma Bay Snorkel Tours 1df8f5_3a74553cad2843ddac9b55bbb297c6caAnd other surgeonfishes as well, such as these Acanthurus guttatus.
Photo © Hanauma Bay Snorkel Tours.

I am very happy to report that underwater, outside the reef, Hanauma Bay looks just as I remembered it, although the fish seem a bit larger, and less afraid.  Hanauma Bay has been lucky.  It became a marine protected area in 1967, shortly before I left Hawaii.  But with park status, and a booming tourist industry, it became used more and more heavily.  There were some early management failures.  Some extensive manipulation of the habitat inside the reef, plus the import of sand from Oahu’s north coast provided more places to swim and sunbathe, but at the cost of some living coral. Lack of regulation led to enormous numbers of visitors (as many as 10,000 per day), cars parked everywhere, and fish being fed human snacks in the shallows.  Beginning in 1990, steps were taken to rectify the overuse and fish feeding, and good management since has enabled the corals and fish to recover and remain healthy and abundant.

To achieve this good management there have been some extensive changes above high tide.  A large, paved parking lot now exists along-side the highway at the top of the cliffs.  It fills early most days and extra cars are turned away.  From the carpark, you pass through a gate after paying your $7.50 entrance fee and proceed to a mandatory 5 minute video screening that conveys such elementary messages as to not stand on the coral, nor swim out to sea.  Mixed in with these important messages (many tourists have no idea what is alive and what is just rock on a coral reef) is some information on how Hanauma Bay was formed – it is an extinct volcanic crater with one side eroded out – and what coral reefs are.  From the video screening, you are free to head down the hill, on foot or by tram.  At the bottom, there are showers and toilets, a rental place for snorkelling gear and lockers.  No fast food, or food of any kind down at the bottom, although you are welcome to bring your own.  Finally, there is the beach, the reef, and the ocean.  I noticed fences preventing people from walking out along the cliff bases on each side of the bay – my ‘secret’ sunbathing spots are now out of bounds.

Visitors are counted as they pass through the gate en route to the video screening, and there is a limit on numbers at the beach at one time.  Additionally, the park is closed completely each Tuesday.  Hanauma Bay now gets about a million visitors a year, and around 3000 per day, but the management of numbers (and activities) has allowed its animals to thrive.  The mongooses are brazen and well-fed; they are quick to find lunches in backpacks left on the beach by snorkelers.

On my visit, I went straight to the right-hand end of the beach, then snorkeled out through the reef.  The area outside the reef on that side of the bay was the best, in terms of fish and corals, in the 1960s, and seemed just as good, or better – in terms of fish size – than I remembered.  It was wonderful to know that a reef location could be so apparently unchanged.  Far too many reefs are now feeble images of what they used to be.  I also went in again briefly on the left-hand side.  The coral is less abundant in this more wave-exposed section, and it was so also in the 1960s; I don’t remember enough to say how it compares today to the 1960s.


Me, strictly incognito behind a mask and snorkel, enjoying Hanauma Bay.  Photo © Joerg Wiedenmann

The 13th International Coral Reef Symposium

The 13th ICRS attracted some 2500 reef scientists and managers from around the world.  There were about 14 concurrent sessions of papers being presented, from 8 am to 6 pm (Americans are masochists), and what seemed like thousands of posters, row upon row, detailing other studies.  As is typical of such conferences, I found plenty of papers to listen to, and plenty of conflicts – you cannot listen to two or three different talks being given in different rooms at the same time no matter how skilled you are in using your social networks and electronic devices.  I also found I was discovering old colleagues right up until the final day, and failing to find people after agreeing to meet at a particular time and place (sometimes my fault).  The week went very quickly.

The 13th contrasts dramatically with the 2nd, held from June 22nd to July 2nd, 1973 as we cruised the Great Barrier Reef aboard the MV Marco Polo, a clapped out cruise ship with a surly crew that seemed engaged in some sort of internecine warfare most of the voyage.  There were about 350 people on board, only 264 of which were scientists.  The organizers – the old and mysterious Great Barrier Reef Committee which I helped transform into the now vibrant Australian Coral Reef Society about a decade later – were forced to open the cruise up to non-scientists interested in an opportunity to cruise through part of the GBR simply to break even.  This was my first ICRS.  I shared a 4-person cabin, deep in the bowels, with Yossi Loya, the Israeli coral ecologist, Professor John Morton of University of Auckland, an older scientist towards the end of a distinguished career, and a mad keen diver from Brisbane who woke us all up early the first morning as he clanked and clunked, putting weights onto a belt and otherwise checking his dive gear in the middle of the cabin floor (I rolled over and went back to sleep).  There were two concurrent sessions of papers given under less than ideal conditions in lounges meant for drinking and partying, and we stopped every now and then for field excursions.  Some of us younger scientists spent a fair bit of time in the small bar at the stern and up around the funnel on the top deck; the senior scientists on board, especially those who had organized the conference, appear to have spent lots of time jockeying for position in the nascent hierarchy in our field.  Looking back, as well as some interesting science and the field trips, I remember the friendships that were formed.  A friendly rivalry emerged as we GBR natives watched bemused as the Discovery Bay (Jamaica) clique strutted their stuff – Jeremy Jackson complaining frequently that the excursions were not getting him to places where he could dive deep; we GBR natives believed there was plenty to fascinate in depths less than 100 ft.  It was all a long time ago, but it was good to see Yossi, Jeremy, Rupert Ormond, and coral biologists Jim Porter, Michel Pichon and Peter Glynn again at the 13th ICRS.

2016-06-25-1466891632-4647457-KupunaandstudentsICRS small

Perhaps unwisely, I did not give a paper at this year’s ICRS, but I did participate in an event for the community in which I talked about how amazing coral reefs really are.  Here I lurk in the background.  Photo © Huffington Post

Field excursions barely featured in Honolulu, and there were few opportunities to gather in bars.  Still, to my delight, the range of papers presented in Honolulu seemed, if possible, even broader than at the 12th ICRS, held in Cairns, Australia in 2012, and way broader than what was presented at the 2nd.  I had feared there would be so much focus on bleaching, ocean acidification, overfishing and pollution that there would be scarcely room for talks on any other topics.  But I was wrong.  There are sizeable numbers of scientists asking interesting questions of coral reefs from many different perspectives.

There were whole sessions of talks on the microbiome of corals, on the genetic and molecular details of the symbiosis between corals and their resident algae (these symbionts live inside the cells of their host corals), and on corals living in extreme environments.  There were also sessions on the paleohistory of coral reefs, on the ways in which local culture can be used by effective social scientists to build better management of reefs and coastal waters, and on effective strategies for designing and managing marine protected areas.  There was a poster, by Jessica Nowicki, a student at James Cook University, Australia, detailing the neural pathways used in pair bond behavior of the butterfly fish, Chaetodon lunulatus, and showing they use the same brain centers as do pair-forming birds and mammals — we really are all related!  There was also a session titled ‘The use of genomics, proteomics and transcriptomics in coral reef studies’, but since I have only the vaguest notion of what those three words mean, I stayed away from it.  Some old dogs can be taught only some new tricks.

The breadth of topics and approaches was very evident in my own particular interest re the connectivity provided to reef communities via larval dispersal.  In 1955, Jack Randall (who, at 92 years, received a major award at the 13th ICRS) recorded in his PhD thesis how he had observed late-stage larval manini (a surgeonfish, Acanthurus triostegus) one evening from the stern of his sailboat moored in the Ala Wai Yacht Harbor (within sight of the convention center where our conference was held, though now devoid of small sailboats with graduate students living aboard).  They were swimming into the harbor against the falling tide.  On this basis he concluded that, contrary to accepted opinion at that time, at least the final stage of return to the reef habitat was an active decision made by the larval fish.  Given that manini (like all other surgeonfishes) spawn in midwater on the outer edge of reefs, and produce eggs which hatch into minute larvae that are pelagic for about twelve weeks, this observation was an enormous dent in the paradigm that assumed larval fish were at the mercy of currents which sometimes brought them back to reefs.

A Larval surgeonfish, Naso sp, caught close to the surface during a fieldtrip to Lizard Island over January and February 2008.  It is now registered in the Australian Museum Fish Collection (AMS I.44582-003).

Not a manini, but another surgeonfish, this Naso larva will become opaque and pigmented over the next 12 hours or so, will radically alter the length of its gut, and its teeth, and begin to eat algae instead of plankton.  Most surgeonfish larvae are about 1.5 cm in length when they return to reefs.  Photo © Colin Wen.

Over the past 60 years, and particularly over the last 15 years, we have made great strides in first confirming that the manini was not the only reef fish to make active decisions about finding reef habitat, and then detailing how this feat was accomplished.  Along the way, we have discovered that not only do reef fishes return actively to coral reefs, and to the ‘correct’ habitats within reefs, but that to a surprising degree they actually return home.  Early descriptive field studies have been bolstered over the years by sophisticated tagging studies and behavioral studies, and a full range of these was on display at ICRS2016.  Along with numerous studies that used chemical tags or genetic parentage analysis to track from where, or from which parent fish, individual juveniles had come, there were reports of larval fish responding to the odor or the sound of reefs, and lots of reports of the ways in which age or condition of arriving larvae interacted with conditions at the reef to determine how well the newly recruited fish survived.  Some of the latter concerned what happens when larval fish return to a reef degraded by bleaching, but most were looking more generally at the suite of interactions that determine success in getting into appropriate reef environments.  Still, after 60 years of effort we still do not know how the larval fish know what to look for or what to respond to in their journey back home.  Maybe we will never know the answer – why questions are always the most difficult ones.

Among the more surprising papers dealing with larval dispersal was one given by David Williamson of James Cook University.  David told how they had been able to use genetic parentage analysis to unambiguously link collected juvenile coral trout (Plectropomus sp.) to adult parents collected as much as 254 km away.  While some coral trout return to reef habitat as little as 200 m from where their parents live, others disperse over 1000 times further during their month-long larval period, proving that for this commercially and recreationally important species, the pattern of zoning within the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park does function as intended – protected sites harbor fish some of whose offspring seed fished locations as much as 200 km away.

coral trout P maculatus 254_8.2 image 2

I’m not surprised that coral trout species ( here Plectropomus maculatus).  Disperse during larval life in excess of 200 km from the spawning location.  I’m flabbergasted that it proved possible to sample intensively enough to be able to use genetic tools to locate the parents for a larva that had travelled this far.  Photo © P. Mantel.

Another surprising paper was given by Océane Salles, doctoral student at CRIOBE, the French research facility at Moorea, French Polynesia.  Based on field effort over 10 years in Kimbe Bay, Papua New Guinea, she and her colleagues have been able to use genetic parentage analysis to build a geneology for the clownfish population around tiny Kimbe Island.  Clownfish, Amphiprion percula, at Kimbe Island exhibit quite high levels of “self-recruitment”, meaning the larval fish produced there return to reefs around the island at the completion of their 11 day larval life.  As much as 60% of juveniles collected around this tiny island in one year are found to be the offspring of adults living there.  Miraculously (in my opinion), Salles and her colleagues have been able to use genetic evidence to build a five-generation geneology containing 502 founders at its base and including 990 parent-progeny links, spread over 121 families.  I don’t believe this has ever been done in any other marine fish species.

Amphiprion percula_u0 Jack RandallNow scientists have been able to not only confirm who Nemo’s parents were, but his family tree back five generations.  Well… that is if Nemo is one of the young clownfish (Amphiprion percula) living at Kimbe Island.  Photo © Jack Randall

As well as reports of connectivity in fish populations, there was a whole session devoted to soundscapes on coral reefs, and how these vary with reef condition.  Reef sound is likely important as a settlement cue for larvae of other reef creatures beyond reef fishes.  I also heard an interesting paper on odor cues given by graduate student Narrissa Spies of University of Hawaii’s Kewalo Marine Laboratory.  It concerned her studies of planula larvae of the coral, Leptastrea purpurea.  Under laboratory conditions, these larvae respond positively to the odor of adults of that species when choosing settlement sites.  Maybe we will one day learn that corals are also capable of behaving in clever ways to get back home after larval life.

The behavior of corals

This brings me to my final topic of the day.  For too long I have maintained that coral is ‘just habitat for fish’.  Tongue in cheek, I have advocated this view on more than one occasion just to see my coral-loving colleagues bristle.  But it comes from a deep-down prejudice in favor of animals that behave, animals that are actively doing things I can watch.  And mostly, corals just sit there, being corals.  Nothing really wrong with that, but I find it difficult to get emotionally engaged by most corals.  It’s the way I am.

Still, in an effort to acknowledge that corals can be amazingly cool beasts themselves, and that I do understand why so many reef biologists are enamored of corals, I offer the following.  I also do this because I am becoming more and more convinced that we will never succeed in encouraging people to care sufficiently about coral reefs to demand real climate action to protect them if we do not awaken people to their wondrousness, their sheer majesty as examples of just what life can create, given a chance.

solitary_coral_fungia_fungites_IMG_0533 messersmithFungia fungites, a solitary coral, is one of a number of related species that occur as single individuals, lying unattached on the seafloor on Indo-Pacific reefs.  Normally they appear as in this photo, with their tentacles retracted.  When they behave, they put their tentacles out and look quite a bit different.  Photo © J. Messersmith.

Last week I saw a photo of a mushroom coral species (Fungiidae) posted on Twitter by @BioGraphic, a California Academy of Sciences outlet.  It links to a 6 minute video which was not tracking very well the day I looked at it.  Narrated by Pim Bongaerts of University of Queensland, the video includes some time-lapse photography of corals behaving and some deep reef sequences on the Great Barrier Reef.  The Fungia appears about a third of the way through and goes through its repertoire consisting of flipping over when turned upside down, and removing sediment covering its body.  A two-trick coral.  Earlier there is a short sequence of two corals fighting, using their nematocyst-armed tentacles to thrash away at each other.  (Judy Lang, who first discovered interspecific coral aggression in the 1970s was also at the ICRS meeting in Honolulu.)

Perhaps the most famous example of coral behavior is the mass spawning which occurs reliably on one or two nights near the October or November spring tides on the Great Barrier Reef.  Mass spawning occurs in all coral reef locations, at times characteristic of each region, but seems more broadly multi-species, and more strongly massed on single nights here than in some other locations such as the Caribbean.  On the GBR it is reliable enough that dive operators schedule special night dives to see the corals spawn.  Discovered by Australian graduate students in the 1980s, mass spawning is a process whereby large numbers of species synchronize their spawning activity to a single night each year, likely as a way of swamping egg predators and ensuring that some of the eggs survive.  Massing around the largest spring tides of the year is a trick also employed by a number of other marine creatures to synchronize spawning activity – when you rely on releasing your sperm or eggs into the current, it is very adaptive to all do so at the same time!  Mass spawning events are a silent expulsion of eggs, sperm bundles, or (for brooding coral species) young larvae, one by one.  These products drift silently upward towards the surface with fertilization taking place along the way.

Mass spawning has been filmed so many times now (here is an example), usually with symphonic background music, that it is ‘old hat’, and I have personally always considered the idea of diving during such an event somehow slightly x-rated.  (On the other hand, I once stumbled across a lagoon full of sea cucumbers (Holothurians), all busily synchronizing their spawning to the ebbing tide, standing on their heads, tails high in the water column, shedding eggs and sperm – the most amazing behavior any of them had exhibited that month, and somehow more amusing than x-rated.)


Spawning sea cucumbers, showing more behavior than they have exhibited all week!
Photo © Kevin Deacon

But I digress.  The coral nervous system is a modest affair.  No brain, not even a decent ganglion.  Just a diffuse ‘nerve net’ of neurons with their axons and dendrites connecting via synapses to form a web of neural tissue across the colony.  There is a little bit of an attempt to be more organized in a ring of especially well-interconnected neurons surrounding each polyp’s mouth, but that is about it.  So fighting with the neighbors, removing sediment from your back, flipping over when on your back, and synchronizing your spawning to coincide with that of your neighbors is actually pretty amazing.  But there is one more piece of coral behavior to talk about.

Dendrogyra cylindrus, the pillar coral, is a large Caribbean coral, the sole species in its genus, in a small, 8-genus family, the Meandrinidae, restricted to the Caribbean except for two rare species in the Indian Ocean.  When I see Dendrogyra, it reminds me of what are called, in my part of the world, sentinel pines.  Sentinel pines, usually White pine, stand tall above the surrounding canopy; they are the very few trees that were not cut for one reason or another when the land was logged in the late 1800s.  They tell us just how magnificent our forests once were.  Dendrogyra occurs as stout pillars 10 to 20 cm in diameter rising as much as 2 meters above their base; they stand similarly tall against the ‘canopy height’ of most corals on the reef slope.  Apart from standing out like sentinel pines, or perhaps like saguaro cactus, they are distinctive in that their polyps usually have their quite long tentacles out and waving about in the daytime.  This gives them a fluffy or furry appearance.  Caribbean reefs have very few coral species, but Dendrogyra cylindrus is distinctive and interesting.

Dendrogyra cylindrus.  Caribbean.  Tentacles normally remain extended during the day giving colonies a hairy appearance.  Photograph: Paul Humann.

Dendrogyra cylindrus has the most rapid nerve net among corals and reacts rapidly to being touched.
Photo © Paul Humann

Dendrogyra has one of the fastest nerve nets among corals.  Fast in that communication between neurons is very rapid.  When other corals have their polyps extended, touching three or four causes those particular polyps and a few neighbors to rapidly withdraw their tentacles.  It’s a good defense against having your tentacles bitten off by some browsing fish.  But when you touch a few polyps on Dendrogyra, the retraction response is almost instantaneous and spreads across the entire colony in the flick of an eye.  And as the polyps retract into the safety afforded by the skeleton, the overall color of the colony changes, becoming much whiter.  The first time I inadvertently triggered this response, I nearly dropped my regulator as the coral flashed at me; as a startle trigger, it is very effective, and I have no doubt that fish and perhaps crabs are just as startled as I was.  Wait a couple of minutes and slowly the polyps come out and recommence feeding.

Well, there you have it.  Putting these examples of behavior together, we see the corals of the world as pretty limited, but then, they are, after all, fastened firmly to the substratum (except for the Fungiids) and possessing nothing resembling a brain.  On that basis, I think they do pretty well.  Some of their more mobile relatives among the jellyfishes and the siphonophores do quite a bit more, but that is another story.  For now, we just need to remember that when we stress reefs and cause corals to bleach, we are harming vast numbers of living, behaving creatures.  They really are not just slimy rocks.

Categories: animal behavior, coral reef science, Stories from a Coral Reef | 4 Comments

Tipping Points – There Are Good Ones Too


Environmental scientists have come to use the term ‘tipping point’ as shorthand for the time, or set of conditions, at which a rapid phase shift in an ecological system commences.  Nearly always, they talk about phase shifts from a preferred to a far less preferred state.  Tipping points are bad.  But there can be good tipping points as well, when a system suddenly begins to shift from a bad to a better state.


Depending on your point of view, the tipping point on a roller coaster is either the start of an exhilarating journey, or a brief moment of abject terror.  Photo – Cedar Point, Ohio.

There are tipping points also in the affairs of men.  (And, yes, the sexism in that anachronistic phrase is deliberate, because most such tipping points in the past have been driven by the actions of male leaders.)  Canada seems to be at a good tipping point in its attention to climate change, under the leadership of its feminist Prime Minister and his female Minister of Environment and Climate Change (I don’t really believe gender or attitudes to same have much to do with this, but…).  The change in attitude and the growing momentum for action is very welcome; it is not happening too soon.

I first sensed a shift in our national mood re climate back in February.  I’ve commented twice on it in this blog.  A little over a week ago I participated in the Muskoka Summit on Environment, a two-day, biennial event in this tiny part of central Ontario, and the atmosphere, as well as the comments by the six invited speakers, were uniformly positive about the possibilities for curtailing climate change and the opportunities for Canada in playing a responsible, even a leading role, in that process.  The change in attitude from just eight months ago is amazing, and testament to the power of an election to alter a nation’s trajectory.  Australia take heed; you’ve been a distressingly effective partner to Canada on the world stage as your leaders and ours jousted in a friendly way to see who could rack up the most Fossil awards at climate conferences, but that duet is over.  Now you have the opportunity to continue as Canada’s partner in a completely different performance.  A lot will depend on what happens in your coming election, but you too can find your own tipping point to progressive, positive action on the climate file.

So, why am I so over-the-moon positive today?  It’s not because Canada has achieved some real progress on climate – we are just starting to move.  It’s because of the dramatic change in the political conversation.  Canada is seriously discussing the inevitability of a transition away from fossil fuels, and the benefits of making that transition rapidly.

Two important reports

Two reports became public at the end of May.  The first I heard about this was on May 30th when the CBC reported on a draft document prepared by Policy Horizons Canada a Federal think-tank that prepares medium-term policy advice for the government of Canada.  This document, Canada in a Changing Global Energy Landscape, reviews the state of the global energy market and trends as various countries transition towards renewable sources.  Its major conclusion is that the transition away from fossil fuels is likely to be a lot faster than expected, and that this will particularly affect high-cost fossil fuel producers such as Canada’s tar sands.

The authors argue that the transition towards renewables is being driven by three factors: reduction in prices for renewable technology, the growing digital economy, and leap-frogging by developing countries as they add new technology.  Advances in technology and economies of scale are reducing the cost of renewables-based electricity far more rapidly than expected, making renewables competitive with fossil fuels for most new supply.  The lack of a cost differential both hastens the transition from fossil-fuel based electricity in developed countries and the leap-frogging to alternative sources, skipping fossil fuel, by developing countries.  The leap-frogging, which has been seen in such areas of technology as telephones, allows a country to expand its energy supply without increasing greenhouse gas emissions.  The growing digitization of the global economy increases the demand for electricity rather than other forms of energy, and electricity can be supplied using many energy sources other than fossil fuels.  As a combined result of these three factors, the authors project a rapid transition globally from fossil to non-fossil sources of energy.

cell phone used in rural India SMALL 6a00d834522f2b69e201a3fcccd227970b

In many developing countries, cell phone technology has been rapidly embraced, bypassing development of a landline system completely.  Such leapfrogging on pathways of technological progress is also very likely in the choice of technology when developing countries are expanding their electricity grids beyond urban centers.  Photo © CABI Communications

In such a world, the demand for fossil fuels will remain weak, and countries such as Canada, which produce expensive hydrocarbons will be at a disadvantage.  The transition will affect higher-priced producers sooner and severely.  For Canada, the most important policy implication is that investment of government funds in the oil and gas sector, including in new pipelines, during this time of transition would be ill-advised on economic grounds alone – the investments are unlikely to recover their costs.  The report also notes that Canada is well-placed for a world economy based on renewables-based electricity.  We have mineral resources that will be valuable in a new digital economy, and the capacity to produce and export high-value clean electricity as well as the technical proficiency to lead in the development of technology to use electricity more extensively than we currently do – in transportation and in industrial processes in particular.  In other words, while an accelerated transition may be bad news for the oil patch, it could be good news for Canada.

The second report was published by the Canadian Centre on Policy Alternatives on June 2ndTitled Can Canada Expand Oil and Gas Production, Build Pipelines and Keep Its Climate Change Commitments?, it was written by J. David Hughes, a widely respected non-conventional fuels authority with 32 years’ experience at the Geological Survey of Canada, and now President, Global Sustainability Research Inc.

Andrew Nikiforuk comments in The Tyee, and Hughes’ article is available at CCPA.  Hughes focuses on what Canada needs to do to achieve the commitments already made under the Paris Accord (Canada’s INDC), and various proposals concerning the oil and gas sector.  In his first paragraph, he draws attention to Environment Canada’s projection for 2030 – on current policies Canada will be 55% above the level of greenhouse gas emissions it has committed to – and notes that we have ‘some serious work to do’ to achieve our Paris commitments.  He then examines in turn several scenarios for the oil and gas sector to 2030 – scenarios developed by the National Energy Board in Canada’s Energy Future 2016 which I discussed back in February – and Alberta’s recent decision to cap expansion of greenhouse gas emissions in the tar sands to 100 Mt CO2eq as part of its new climate change policy.  (Emissions were 68 Mt CO2eq in 2014; the new policy would permit continuation of present production and all planned production currently under development but any further expansion would have to use less CO2-intensive methods.)  Finally he turns to pipeline capacity versus need to transport product.

As in the report from Policy Horizons Canada, Hughes’ argument is not an environmental one.  It is entirely based on economics, plus the political requirement that Canada be able to meet the modest commitment made at Paris.  His conclusions are very clear.  None of the National energy Board (NEB) scenarios for expansion in the oil and gas sector are realistic if Canada intends to honor its commitments made at Paris, and additional pipelines will not aid Alberta’s oil and gas sector economically.

Hughes develops a ‘best-case’ scenario which uses the NEB ‘reference case’ and the Alberta emissions cap on the tar sands.  This includes just one major LNG export terminal in British Columbia (the province has plans for five terminals).  As his Figure 8 shows, under this plan, greenhouse gas emissions due to the oil and gas sector would represent 45% of Canada’s total at 2030, if Canada is to meet its Paris commitment.

Fig 8 Hughes best-case option emissions

In Hughes’ view, “it is hard to imagine even this ‘best-case’ scenario allowing Canada to meet the targets it has committed to in the Paris Agreement, given the levels of reduction that would be needed outside of the oil and gas sector”.  That reduction is 47% from 2014 levels by 2030.  It could not happen without substantial economic disruption.  His conclusion?  Barring an economic collapse, Canada will have to reconsider its planned oil and gas production growth if it is to meet its Paris commitment.  (Let’s remember that the Canadian commitment is insufficient to reach the 2oC temperature target, let alone the 1.5oC long-term goal.  The NEB scenarios for growth in the oil and gas sector are even less compatible with real progress on climate than Hughes is pointing out.)

Hughes’ comments on pipelines are based on the NEB growth scenarios.  He shows clearly that Alberta has sufficient pipeline capacity to transport all product if Alberta’s emissions cap of 100 Mt CO2eq is adhered to.  Others have shown this before, so his report reinforces the argument being made that new pipelines are not needed in the foreseeable future, no matter how strongly NEB, the industry or the governments of Canada or Alberta lobby for them.  Rail transport, which in Hughes’ view is safer and more cost effective than pipelines for shipping bitumen, can be used or not, but the existing rail capacity provides a tidy buffer to manage fluctuations in demand for transport.

Hughes goes further and demolishes the argument that getting product from Alberta’s oil patch to tidewater will yield better prices.  This was true during the period from 2011 to 2014 when the prices for West Texas Intermediate (WTI) and Brent oil diverged because of a glut within the USA caused by expanded fracking and the US embargo on oil exports.  That embargo has been lifted and the glut has evaporated.  Yes, Canada gets a lower price for tar sands oil than WTI, but that is because of the greater difficulty and cost in refining this product, not because it is not being delivered to sea ports.

Hughes also comments that of all the pipeline proposals, Energy East may seem to make some sense because it will enable oil to be transported to refineries in Quebec and the Maritimes.  But in fact, Enbridge’s Line 9, which was recently reversed, now brings western oil to Quebec, and there are pipelines connecting Maritimes refineries with US supply.  His arguments support ones made earlier by others.  After reading his report, I am even more convinced than I was in February that there is no business case for building Energy East.

Putting these two reports together, I am encouraged that arguments are being made on economic grounds that the transition away from fossil fuel has already begun and is likely to move quickly, and that Canada cannot ‘bring back’ the tar sands future of significant further expansion even if it wants to.  The message may be politically inconvenient, but it is being made to government and government may have to listen.  Far better to plan for an orderly wind-down of the oil and gas sector while building economic strength in other sectors, than to cling to the past and fail dismally.  Of course, from an environmental perspective, this is definitely good news.  Canada has no hope of meeting its climate commitments (and the even stronger commitments it is going to have to make if the 2oC target is to be achieved) while also growing its oil and gas sector, so any arguments that such growth is unrealistic help move us in the right direction.

Governmental progress on climate

Beyond these two reports, there are the encouraging signs of new attention to climate coming from various Canadian governments.  At the First Ministers’ Summit in Vancouver in early March, PM Trudeau and the provincial premiers agreed that a price on carbon is needed across the country, although they did not agree to a minimum price.  British Columbia already has a broad-based carbon tax (although it has stalled at $30 per tonne CO2 since 2012).  Alberta has announced a tax ($20 per tonne) which will come into effect on 1 January 2017, with a rebate system set so that 60% of people will not pay any additional tax; the existing emissions levy on large industrial emitters will increase to $30 per tonne in 2017.  Ontario has announced a cap and trade scheme, integrated with the markets in Quebec and California that will phase in in 2017.  Ontario also has an ambitious climate policy being debated in cabinet, not always in friendly tones, which could include incentives designed to radically reform the use of energy in buildings and in transportation. Quebec has a cap and trade scheme in place and is planning additional measures.

Ontario’s plans, which are still under discussion in cabinet, were leaked to the Globe and Mail, and there has been substantial public criticism of the proposals.  Inevitably, politics will require some roll-back and some other adjustments.  But it is important that planning proceed, and that Ontario remain ambitious.  Much of the criticism comes from places that could be expected to complain about any changes to the status quo.

catherine-mckenna-and-justin-trudeau-at-swearing-in Chris Wattie Reuters

PM Trudeau and his Minister of Environment and Climate Change, Catherine McKenna, seen here at her swearing in, have a big challenge ahead of them – to take the evolving mix of disparate provincial actions on climate change and stitch them into a functional national plan capable of achieving appropriate emissions reduction goals for Canada.  Photo © Chris Wattie/Reuters

While the provincial and federal action are positive signs that Canada is finally getting serious about climate change, there are some vexing problems generated by the fact that, in the absence of any Federal leadership over ten years, provinces have developed their own, not always easily reconcilable policies.  While a national price on carbon is badly needed, it will be hard to implement when each province has its own policies some of which involve taxes (even if they are called levies) while others use cap and trade schemes.  As Shawn McCarthy made clear in a column in the Globe and Mail back in January, independent action by the provinces has created a balkanized climate regime that mirrors the provincial separation of electricity markets.  This is unfortunate, and will make more difficult the development of a nationally equitable system.  When one considers that the price of carbon is going to have to rise to several times the currently announced or operating rates ($150 to $180 per tonne CO2 by 2030, compared to current $20 to $30) if Canada is to comply with the Paris Accord, the Federal government has an immense task ahead of it.  Prime Minister Trudeau’s noted (and refreshing) preference for open discussion and consensus building is going to be put to a very stiff test.  People who want progress on climate will need to stand up and add their voices to support all proposals that seem to be moving us in the right direction.  Still, having useful proposals to support is a refreshing change from the bad old days of misdirection and obfuscation.  Remember Peter Kent’s famous claim that ‘Canada is halfway towards achieving its Kyoto commitment’ back when we were moving in the opposite direction (growing emissions) and getting ready to renounce that treaty.

Growing realism in the oil industry?  Perhaps not?

While there remain plenty of oil patch boosters in the industry and among politicians, there are signs that recognition of the reality the industry faces may be gaining ground.  Speaking to the Canadian Club in Toronto in late May, Brian Ferguson, Cenovus CEO, said that the world is going to continue to need oil for some time and that innovation is needed to make it possible to produce that oil in an environmentally safe manner.  He claimed that the industry has “basically solved” the environmental problems related to land, water and tailings ponds, and it now focusing on greenhouse gas emissions.  He went on to say that “We can and we will … reduce those emissions,” noting that his company’s goal is to produce oil that generates zero emissions in the production process.

Still, the lack of enthusiasm within the industry to invest in the R&D needed to make tar sands product cleaner suggests Ferguson’s opinion remains a minority view.  Barrie McKenna’s recent account of the difficulties faced by Nsolv, a Calgary-based company that is running a highly energy-efficient oil sands pilot project in Fort McKay, Alberta.  Nsolv extracts bitumen without water and a fraction of the natural gas that other tar sands producers do by injecting warm solvent instead of hot steam into the ground. The operation generates a quarter of the greenhouse gas emissions of conventional steam-assisted projects, and it’s profitable even at today’s low prices.  But Nsolv is having great difficulty raising funding from the industry to take its process to commercial scale, and word is the industry wants government to front at least 25% of the total.  This should be a no-brainer for an industry tagged as producing some of the dirtiest oil on the planet, and a high-cost product to boot!  McKenna refers to the ‘race to be second’ in describing the industry.

Meanwhile there is growing evidence of just how environmentally damaging tar sand oil is.  A new paper by Environment Canada’s John Liggio and colleagues, published in Nature for 2nd June, reports that Canada’s tar sands industry generates a mass of secondary organic aerosols, an important component of atmospheric particulates, of from 45 to 84 tonnes per day. (A CBC report is here.)  This is comparable to the SOA produced by a large city and likely the second largest anthropogenic source of SOA in Canada (10th largest in North America).  Toronto, Canada’s largest city, produces about 67 tonnes SOA per day.  This environmental impact, the magnitude of which was not anticipated, must now be added to the greenhouse gas emissions, and the toxic compounds deposited on land and in waterways by this industry.  It is a dirty industry that should have been cleaned up long ago.  Closing it down sooner rather than later will be a good thing environmentally.

And the environment keeps shouting out that action is needed

While I am optimistic about the progress being made in developing Canadian policy on emissions, I am conscious of how time to act is getting shorter.  The fires around Fort McMurray were not an isolated event.  There were very serious fires in Saskatchewan last year, and this year’s fire season is not yet over.  The conditions that made Alberta ripe for wildfire are likely to occur with increasing frequency in coming years if climate change remains unchecked.  The Prairie Climate Centre, based in Winnipeg, recently reported on the anticipated increases in days of +30oC temperatures for the latter part of this century.  Fort McMurray currently gets about 3 of these days in a typical year, but by 2050 to 2080 that will increase to about 20 days.  Other locations across the Prairies show similar patterns of increase.  And every serious fire season liberates carbon into the atmosphere.

Meanwhile the Arctic sea ice extent peaked at 14.52 million km2 on March 24th, the lowest maximum since records commenced in the 1970s.  (The 13 lowest extents have been recorded during the last 13 years!)  It is now melting rapidly, and was estimated to cover just 11.1 million km2 on 1st June.  On that basis, climate scientist Peter Wadhams of Cambridge University has projected that the Arctic could be completely free of sea ice this September – the first time that is likely to have happened in 100,000 years.

Arctic ice extent 1 June 2016

Sea ice extent in the Arctic to end of May 2016, compared to previous years.  Figure courtesy NASA NSIDC.

And the data are starting to come in detailing the extent of the mortality across the Great Barrier Reef due to its severe bleaching earlier this year.  Terry Hughes, of the ARC Center of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, James Cook University, led the monitoring effort to document this year’s event.  In a 30th May press release, he is quoted saying “We found on average, that 35% of the corals are now dead or dying on 84 reefs that we surveyed along the northern and central sections of the Great Barrier Reef, between Townsville and Papua New Guinea, … Some reefs are in much better shape, especially from Cairns southwards, where the average mortality is estimated at only 5%.”

map GBR bleaching 2016 Coral COEMap showing the northern 40% or so of the Great Barrier Reef, with symbols showing the extent of mortality of corals following bleaching.  High percentages of corals have bleached throughout this region, but many bleached corals are able to survive and get resupplied with symbiotic algae.  However mortality in the 50% or more range represents severe damage to the reef, damage that will take a decade or two to be repaired in terms of coral cover and physical structure.  Repair in terms of full representation of species present prior to bleaching could take much longer than this.
Map © ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies.

I expect to see a much more detailed presentation of the results when I attend the 13th International Coral Reef Symposium later this month.  Ultimately, I anticipate there will be a full report in science or Nature.  Stay tuned for more on this issue; apart from anything else, the juxtapositioning of the severe bleaching, new large foreign investments in coal extraction, and a muddled Australian political class that seems to want to have both coal and reefs while minimizing the need to curtail CO2 emissions, is making for a fascinating Australian election season.

The evident movement on climate change in Canada is very welcome, but it is also clear that we have not started to move too soon.  The task before us is immense, and the impacts of climate change are growing.

My next post is going to deal with coral reefs.  My intention now is to not have it be about how climate change and other indignities are killing them off, but rather to have it be about the fascinating worlds that coral reefs provide.  When I compare our planet to the others that encircle our Sun, I find the magnificence provided by life makes Earth a completely different class of world, and coral reefs are one of the two or three examples of types of place on this planet that should truly inspire awe.  Talking about how wonderful they are seems a far better way of celebrating coral reefs than dwelling continuously on the myriad ways in which we are making Earth a less hospitable place for them.  Hopefully, I will hear some new stories about reefs at the International Coral Reef Symposium.

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