Fighting through the static to detect real environmental and climate trends. Part II

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In Part I, I discussed the nature of science, and the nature of human perception (both sensory and thought perception) and how these can result in distorted messages about science being received by the public (including other scientists).  Read it first – it’s right after Part II.  In Part II, I will consider the changing nature of the scientific enterprise – the way scientists practice their science – and the role of the media.  Both serve to distort the scientific message.  I use examples from coral reef studies to illustrate what is happening, and I close with some suggestions for things we can all do to help messages about science get transmitted accurately.

Coral-Bleaching-at-Lizard-Island_XL_Catlin_Seaview_Survey-1024x512.jpeg

Has the bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef this year done irreparable harm, or will it recover quickly?  Just how unprecedented is this bleaching event?  Articles in the popular press offer a wide range of perspectives, but is the science that confused?  Photo shows bleaching at Lizard Island, GBR, March 2016.  Image © XL Catlin Seaview Survey

I am not pretending that the factors discussed are the sole reason for science stories being so often distorted or misunderstood.  Indeed, some, such as the vexing question of climate change, are being deliberately distorted or confused by actors with something to gain by ensuring the public does not understand the science story.  Then there is the fact that no matter what the scientific evidence seems to be telling us, communities make their policy decisions based on many competing interests, and never solely on science.  And, perhaps more now than in the recent past, there is the fact that political governance is seldom a completely rational response to what appear to be the facts.  Money talks and some vested interests have more money to throw around than others.  It is not a failure to understand the science that causes ‘the authorities’ in a small developing country to look the other way when a hotel operator is bending the rules and impacting nearby coral reefs.  Nor is science communication at fault when the government of a first world country, responsible for managing one of the largest reef systems in the world, seeks to expand its coal mining and export (right past parts of those reefs).  Still, if we can improve science communication, we can make all these other ‘distortions’ a little bit more obvious, and perhaps help to force greater transparency in political decision making.  Even the 0.1% need a functioning biosphere, though many of them seem not to realize this.

The changing nature of the scientific enterprise

In recent years, as the scientific process has expanded, it has become progressively more difficult for the individual scientist to get his or her work noticed.  Gone are the days, if they ever existed, when the scientist could do research, publish the results, and proceed confident that posterity will determine the value of his/her contribution.  Success in science requires that you are recognized by your peers.  This recognition draws attention to your ideas and published work, builds support for your research efforts, and helps secure success in fund-raising and career-advancement.  But how do you get this recognition when there are thousands of scientists publishing results every week?

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To gain recognition, a scientist needs to be at the right places at the right times, attend and be seen at the right conferences, publish in the right journals, and publish innovative, provocative work.  Innovation and provocativeness alone will no longer suffice.  And so it has become common to issue press releases timed to the first publication on line of your latest paper.  And to be active on social media, promoting your research rather than the debauched parties you attend, or images of cats doing strange things.  In the press releases, and even more so on social media, there is a growing need to report your latest results in a breathless, ‘this is the most exciting discovery ever’ tone.  After all, if the scientist is not excited by his own work, why should anyone else bother to look at it?  And yet, is every publication an earth-shattering step forward in the quest for knowledge?

This need to generate excitement around the science being done is now creeping into the technical articles themselves.  Titles are becoming clever, at the expense of being informative.  It used to be that a scientist would try to write an interesting paper, and leave it to readers to wax eloquent in their praise of what he/she had done.  The more adventuresome might sneak a joke into the Acknowledgements section, but otherwise everything was balanced and objective.  (The need to seem objective even led in the distant past to firm instruction to write in the third person, so that ‘I think’ had to become ‘in the humble opinion of the author’.)  Not anymore.  It is not the majority yet, but of the papers editors send me to review, a sizeable minority now manage to find room in the first paragraph of the introduction, the final paragraph of the discussion, or even in the abstract to state, in the words of P.T. Barnum, that this paper is the “greatest show on earth”.  Most of them are not.

Facebook phdcomics_fb1Choosing title CepwNPOW8AAKW97author name phd072516sJorge Chan captures some of the idiocy in modern science promotion in his PHDCOMICS.  In the first strip, change ‘facebook’ to ‘twitter’, ‘researchgate’, ‘instagram’ or any other social platform.  The second strip applies equally well to titling technical papers or conference presentations, and the third presents an unusual way to game the race for citations.  All strips © Jorge Chan

The pressure of manuscripts awaiting publication has weakened the peer review process, a process vital to the integrity of science.  While there are more than enough manuscripts being offered for publication, journals vie with each other to publish the most important articles.  One way to do this is to encourage scientists to send their manuscripts to your journal by promising speedy review and publication if accepted.  With more to choose from, the editor has a better chance of publishing better articles.

With manuscripts shipped via the web, the time delays that used to occur as editors found willing reviewers, mailed out copies of the manuscript, and received reviews, have all been eliminated.  Increasingly, journals are also using features of the web to limit time for review as well.  Getting the manuscript three seconds after you agree to review it is fine, even if the editor’s friendly, personalized cover e-mail accompanying the manuscript is clearly a machine-written sham.  But getting a curt reminder to submit your review one week later can be annoying.  Scientists review as a pro bono contribution to their field, and journals used to value thoughtful reviews.  Not anymore.  Now it seems that speed is all that matters.  Complex manuscripts would benefit from more careful reviews than the journals are getting with their incessant urging to review quickly.  The quality of published science is likely going down – poorly justified conclusions are being published, when in a less frenetic past they would have been weeded out by the review process.  As a consequence, the succession of papers on any particular topic will include a more divergent set of hypotheses or conclusions than would have been the case in the past.

The high number of papers being published is forcing scientists to read much more selectively than in the past.  The title, the abstract, perhaps the first few sentences of the introduction or discussion, and a quick glance at one or more of the figures,  are all an author can reasonably hope to get read once his/her paper is published.  And that is for the papers that get read.  Most papers do not get even this much attention, and when scientists come to write a new manuscript they have rarely done a thorough review of the literature in preparation.  Instead we rely upon our network of colleagues, casual comments about neat new papers, and some faith in the idea that ‘if I have not heard of it yet, it probably is not important’ to define the papers we should know about as we sit down to write.  All that effort by scientists to get noticed pays off as the skilled promoters get their papers noticed.  The sheer number of articles being published, and the need to somehow keep reasonably abreast of what is happening can also lead to cronyism as groups of colleagues put themselves inside silos, reading and citing each other, and paying less attention to what is happening outside.  It’s possible that what emerges from nearby silos sounds quite different because each group is unaware of what is happening outside its shiny silo walls.  To the outsider attempting to understand, this is one more way in which the stream of messages sounds cacophonous.  And with all papers being self-promoted as revolutionary and vitally important, it is very difficult to sift out the few nuggets of gold.

Media spin and hype

If the scientists have made progressively more use of self-promotion to attract attention to their research, the media are also in competition with each other for attention, and play their own, increasingly intense, games of spin and hype, resulting in a further distortion of what scientists are achieving.  While the academic media, the technical journals, vie with each other by speeding up the peer review process, they also have been putting increasing amounts of editorial comment into their pages, providing news and comment on what is appearing in other journals, as well as commentary interpreting and explaining the technical articles that have been peer-reviewed and published on their own pages.  Even Science and Nature, those scientific flagships, have evolved in recent years to something very different to their staid selves of the 1990s.  While such editorial comment can be helpful when well done, it does represent a shaping by the editors of how readers see the science.

The general media also play an important role in promulgating the messages being generated by scientists.  Indeed, few outside the science community will likely look at the technical literature at all.  While responsible print and electronic media strive for accuracy in their reporting, they, like the scientists and the technical journals, are also in competition with their peers for readership/viewership.  As the number of media outlets has grown, so has the effort to be noticed.  One way to do this is to publish provocative articles, and so science reporting increasingly hypes what the scientists actually did.  With the scientist and the media outlet both striving to be noticed, exaggeration of the importance of findings is common-place.  A second frequently used way to hype the reporting is to emphasize controversy by finding what appear to be contrasting claims by different scientists and reporting this fact.  While this could be helpful to someone trying to understand what is happening in a field, the media mostly do not concern themselves too much with the quality of the science behind the conclusions that are being contrasted.  Over the past decade, the controversy over whether climate change was even occurring has been partly fueled by the willingness of the media to mix science-based and non-science-based arguments while pretending that they were presenting a rational scientific debate.  But even when dealing with ideas that are less consequential than whether we are dangerously warming the planet, the tendency of the media to hype controversy as a way of building interest, is likely to distort differences among findings by different scientists to make them appear more at odds than they really are.

climate debate Koch 15362f99fb638039d4c2d34b954b696bThe deliberate obfuscation of science by monied interests whenever developing new policy in response to the science might threaten their private economic interests is a growing problem everywhere.  In the USA, it has become almost insurmountable and is undoubtedly largely responsible for the very high proportion of citizens who still believe climate is not changing.  (If you have not heard of the Koch brothers, or Koch Industries, read Jane Mayer’s Dark Money

The recent appearance of numerous ‘sham’ journals, promising speedy review and publication so long as the author pays the steep publication costs, is likely to further complicate the task of assessing the progress of science.  Unsuspecting scientists fall victim.  Unscrupulous ‘scientists’ take advantage of these outlets’ superficial legitimacy, and scientific reports that would not be accepted by the technical journals now get published.  While I think most scientists can spot a sham journal when they see one, and while I hope the ‘sham’ journals will fade away in a few more years, for now they offer a growing set of articles of spurious validity that will be part of the literature that a reader is attempting to evaluate.

Putting it all together

So, summarizing, anyone attempting to evaluate the progress of scientific thought on a topic of current concern is confronted with a difficult task.  Science does not proceed linearly towards ultimate truth.  Humans have difficulty thinking rationally and objectively, and are constantly filtering what they see and hear because of emotional reactions and remembered patterns.  The rapid pace of scientific discovery demands a growing PR effort by the scientist in order to make his/her results stand out from the crowd.  The print and electronic media are also in competition with their peers for attention, so they report science in ways that will attract attention, but may also distort what was done.

A good example of the difficulty faced by people who attempt to interpret current science is the recent article in The Guardian by Johnny Langenheim, a journalist and film-maker.  Its title is, Are local efforts to save coral reefs bound to fail?, followed by the teaser, Two recent reports on the state of the world’s coral reefs appear to contradict each other.  But which is right?  His article concerns two recent technical papers on the global status of coral reefs.  The first, by Josh Cinner of James Cook University and 31 colleagues from all over, appeared in Nature for 21st July 2016.  Its title is Bright spots among the world’s coral reefs, and it is based on a global analysis of reef fish abundance (biomass) on some 2500 coral reef sites.  They show that biomass varies substantially across reefs, that it is related to several  socioeconomic and environmental drivers, and that among the 2514 locations there are 15 ‘bright spots’ where fish biomass is more than two standard deviations greater than would be predicted by the drivers considered.  They report that the bright spots are not all remote reefs with low or zero human populations, and argue that effective local management can maintain coral reef systems sustainably, even in the face of global impacts such as climate change.

Cinner bright spots nature18607-f2

Cinner’s ‘bright spots’ in yellow, and ‘dark spots’ in black, plotted in upper figure to show their degree of departure from expectations, based on the suite of potential drivers examined, and plotted geographically in lower figure.  The bright spots are almost entirely Pacific island locations.
Image © Josh Cinner & Nature.

The second paper, published in Scientific Reports, one of Nature’s daughter publications, appeared on line on 20th July, 2016.  (For a staid old science journal, Nature has become remarkably fecund in recent years!)  The authors, John Bruno of UNC  Chapel Hill, and Abel Valdivia of the Center for Biological Diversity, Oakland, California, titled it Coral reef degradation is not correlated with local human population density.  They also used a global data set, this time of information on coral cover and algal cover on 1758 reef sites.  They explored reef degradation by examining coral and algal abundance in relation to human population density within 50km of each site.  They show that trends in coral or algal abundance do not correlate with patterns of human population density and interpret this to mean that local human impacts are either relatively trivial in most locations, or are completely swamped by the global impacts such as ocean warming.  They conclude that while local management effort to correct such things as overfishing and pollution is definitely worthwhile, it is time to recognize that local management effort is not going to do much at all for the problem of reef decline, which is driven by factors that must be addressed at a global scale.

Bruno Valdivia coral cover vs population Sci Rep August 2016 srep29778-f2

Plots showing the lack of association between coral cover or algal cover and human population density within 50km of the reef.  Raw data are in upper figures; data corrected for spatial autocorrelation are in lower figure.  The relationships shown with log human population density are statistically significant (p<0.01 for coral cover, and p<0.03 for algal cover), but they are ecologically trivial, accounting for <1% of the variability in the data.  Figure © John Bruno

In his Guardian article, Langenheim points out that it is difficult to compare the two papers because they are measuring different things.  But he then poses the question that any reader of the two papers is likely to raise: Are Cinner and colleagues correct in saying that local action to put in place effective management of reef fisheries will help them “defy expectations of global reef degradation”, or are Bruno and Valdivia correct in stating that “local management alone cannot restore coral populations or increase the resilience of reefs to large-scale impacts” such as climate change?  He does not do a very good job of answering this question, concluding his article with “Both reports are right.  The danger is that they will be misinterpreted.”  I suspect many of his readers will end up just confused.

The two papers are very different in approach.  Cinner et al make the leap from ‘high reef fish biomass’ to ‘reef quality’ with nary a second thought, while Bruno and Valdivia stick to the more conventional ‘coral cover’ measure of ‘reef quality’, while reducing all local human impacts on reefs to a simple measure of population density.  As a fish ecologist, I think that reefs with a high abundance of fish are wonderful reefs, but a reef is far more than its fish.  It’s also far more than its coral.  While reef scientists talk a lot about reef condition, reef health, reef degradation and so on, there is no formal, agreed definition of what ‘healthy’ means when applied to a reef.  And while most scientists who set out to measure reef condition gravitate towards measuring coral cover, I’ll bet many Pacific islanders would rank a reef teeming with fish as healthier than one with very high coral cover, but substantially denuded of fish.

Cinner and his colleagues, including a number of fisheries scientists and social scientists, do a credible job of examining the societal factors that are important in how people and fish interact on reefs, and reveal some useful things about the types of societal structure and fishery policy that seem to favor high fish biomass.  Bruno and Valdivia, two marine ecologists, have rather little to say about the nuances of human impacts on reefs, and are content to bundle these all together in an index of population density per 50km2 around reef sites.  Both papers deal with what are called ‘weak effect sizes’, meaning that the effect of a particular factor (such as human density) on reef condition is statistically significant, but accounts for only a trivial amount of the variation among sites.  (Ecologists used to be taught that weak effect size means that while a relationship is statistically significant – meaning it is a real relationship rather than a chance artifact – it is ecologically meaningless.)  Cinner and colleagues have used an interesting approach – to look at the 2% of outliers, the sites that diverge to the greatest extent from expectations – to look beyond weak effect size, but their look beyond is a simple inspection of the individual sites, rather than the sophisticated multivariate analysis we might expect.  They believe they have found possible reasons for these divergences in the details of societal organization and fishery policy.  Perhaps they have, but the examples of societal structure or policy that they mention are the same ones that knowledgeable social scientists have been talking about for a long time: “high levels of local engagement in the management process, high dependence on coastal resources, and the presence of sociocultural governance institutions such as customary tenure or taboos.”  On Karkar Island, Papua New Guinea, for example, “resource use is restricted through an adaptive rotational harvest system based on ecological feedbacks, marine tenure that allows for the exclusion of fishers from outside the local village, and initiation rights that limit individuals’ entry into certain fisheries.”  It would have been nice to see a definitive analysis that pointed to these conclusions, yet even assuming they are correct, I fear that we still have much to learn about how to introduce such ideas into societies and have them stick.  Talking about them has been going on for some time, and does not seem to be enough.

It is also important to remember that in focusing on the 15 unusual ‘ bright spots’, Cinner and colleagues are ignoring 99.4% of the sites sampled, and hoping that good outcomes can result from learning the secrets of those 15.  On the other hand, Bruno and Valdivia have pretty much thrown in the towel on being able to improve reef resilience to climate change and other global threats by improving local management.  They may have drawn the right conclusion, but it’s a bit of a dead end and the policy ramifications could be dire – a lot of demoralized reef managers gazing listlessly at a glass more than half empty while pleading for global action on CO2.  On the other hand, maybe we all need to confront this dead end in order to realize what is happening to the world’s coral reefs.  Talking about bright spots may be another way of rearranging deck chairs.

Taken together the Cinner and Bruno papers provide a good example of how science lurches forward towards greater understanding.  It’s unfortunate that the contrast between them, in terms of hopefulness or policy preferences is so stark, and it is not the fault of either set of authors that this stark contrast exists.  But the contrast certainly impedes understanding of what scientists are learning about reef degradation.

So how do we do better?

I do not believe that scientists alone bear the responsibility for ensuring that their science is correctly interpreted and incorporated into policy.  But it is surely in scientists’ best self-interest to have their work correctly understood.  There are some things we can do to make the likelihood of that better.

We can learn to write so our stories are interesting without having to be hyped.  Just learning how to write grammatical English might be a good start, and it would help those for whom English is not the first language to understand what is being written.  But learning to write a paper which is engaging…… I still think we’d be better off if we paid more attention to that than we mostly do.  And we can learn to promote ourselves and our science without claiming that each new paper is an explosively innovative one that presents conclusive results that will sweep away old ideas and move us measurably closer to ultimate truth.  There is lots of human interest in what scientists do and in what they learn without having to pretend.

Scientists can demand that journals be more rigorous in reviewing papers, and less willing to tolerate overblown titles, or abstracts which go well beyond the data.  While many are now doing so, all scientists can become more effective, and more demanding, in their dealings with the press.  If you anticipate media interest in what you are doing, plan ahead with materials you can supply to journalists to help them tell the story effectively.

Finally, in the environmental sciences, we need to strive constantly for more rigor in how we speak, what terms we use, and what experimental procedures we use.  Increasingly, environmental science requires a multifactorial, multidimensional approach, and modern statistics can help us deal with complex data sets far more easily than was the case in the past.  But I fear we have lost the ability to look critically at our complex results in order to separate the statistically significant but ecologically trivial relationship from the ecologically meaningful one.  Let’s also be far more careful in our use of terminology.  Let’s be frank that a concept like ‘coral reef health’ is meaningless, very subjective, and burdened by value judgements, and find new ways of talking about functional, resilient ecosystems that will make these concepts accessible to the public without dumbing them down.  Above all, let’s teach our students that our science is primarily about discovering how the universe works, and sometimes about how we might change human behavior to help the universe work in a way that is in the long-term best interest of our species.  Getting your face, or page one of your paper on Twitter is not the real goal.  Without effective communication of results, a scientist has failed to complete the task at hand.

Categories: Climate change, Communicting science, coral reef science | Leave a comment

Fighting through the static to detect real environmental and climate trends. Part I

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Donald Trump, that peculiarly coiffed symbol of our collapsing ability to think rationally, has called repeatedly for a ban on entry of Muslims to the United States “until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.”  In saying so he is admitting that it can be difficult to discern what is happening in our complex world.

trump-quote-muslim_3520951b

Donald Trump; not known for the impeccability of his logic.

While Trump reveals little evidence of attempting to figure out anything more complex than how many words can fit into a tweet, I believe that we all face an increasingly difficult task if we attempt to figure out what is really happening in society, in politics, in international relations, or in almost anything else.  This difficulty extends to our attempts to interpret reports of scientific advances, whether we rely on secondary sources such as the media, or go directly to the technical reports in the scientific literature or presentations at conferences.

warming-cartoon

It is not surprising that many people get confused about climate change.  It is a complex, long-term, broad-scale, slow-acting change, and the diversity of messages about it is sufficient to numb many minds.

I don’t think for a moment that this difficulty is solely responsible for what may be a growing problem in translating scientific understanding into sound policy.  However, I think we have an unrecognized problem in understanding what science is telling us, and that problem is growing.  I’ll not spend time on what are now highly politicized controversies, such as whether or not climate change is occurring, whether it is possible to largely eliminate our burning of fossil fuels without collapsing the global economy, or whether our growing pressures on the biosphere are pushing the Earth system outside planetary boundaries that define the limits within which it can continue to function ecologically.  Instead, I’ll consider some ‘smaller’ questions from the world of coral reefs; ones that might be considered more tractable, less politicized, more readily answerable.  I’ll propose some reasons for our difficulty in “figuring out what is going on”, and I’ll close with some suggestions for what scientists could do to better ensure the public gets access to accurate, up-to-date science.

Has the recently ended el Niño resulted in substantial damage to coral reefs worldwide?  I think most people who follow environmental news would answer ‘yes’, but if asked how substantial that damage has been, the responses would cover a broad spectrum from ‘it’s happened before, and it will happen again’ to ‘this is just the latest nail in the coffin of coral reefs as a living ecosystem on this planet’.  Most people would be hard-pressed to specify the extent of mortality of corals, or any other quantitative measure of the extent of the impact, yet they would differ widely in evaluating its severity.

If the discussion moved to more specific questions concerning what may or may not be happening to coral reefs, responders would reveal similarly fuzzy yet quite divergent views.  Are the consequences of ocean warming for coral reefs since 1981 (the first, well-documented mass bleaching events in Panama and the Galapagos) the largest anthropogenic threat to their sustainability?  Will corals evolve greater tolerance to warmed water?  If we reduce other stresses on reefs from overfishing and pollution will that confer on them a greater capacity to withstand warmed water?  Is the propagation of coral fragments in nurseries for planting out in locations affected by bleaching an appropriate solution to the effects of warming on reefs?  Views on the societal consequences of loss of coral reefs will be equally wide-ranging, even among those individuals whose own experience makes them best able to evaluate societal benefits of coral reefs.  For many people outside the research community, of course, many of these more precise questions would fall outside the range of topics on which they could form views of any specificity at all.

northern GBR bleaching COE image[11]

The recent bleaching of the northern Great Barrier Reef, the worst in its history, raises difficult questions about whether good local management of reefs confers protection against (builds resilience to) effects of ocean warming.  The true extend of the damage, in terms of coral killed, is not yet known because mortality due to the bleaching is still taking place.
Photo © ARC COE Coral Reef Studies.

The present is a time in which more scientific discoveries are being made than ever before.  Information about those discoveries, whether the technical reports by the scientists making the discoveries, or coverage of them in the general information media, is more available, to more people, than ever before.  And commentary on the discoveries is extensive in both print and electronic media, readily accessible by anyone with access to the web.  Yet, as the availability of information grows, the clarity of messages gets diminished, and people find themselves listening to a cacophony of mixed messages, unable to extract any coherent theme.  Why is this so?

I think this wide-spread perception of a static-filled, cacophonous stream of messages about the environment has several causes that act additively, or perhaps even synergistically.  Some are specific to scientific questions, while others apply to other types of messages that we attempt to decipher.  In this post, I will talk about the nature of science, and the nature of human thought.  In a subsequent post, I’ll discuss how the scientific endeavor is changing, and the role of the media in communicating science.  Then I’ll tie it all together with some comments on a recent pair of articles dealing with global patterns of coral reef degradation.

The nature of science

To begin with, there is the nature of the scientific process, a process of creative destruction of one hypothesis after another.  Science proceeds by inventing hypotheses to explain observations.  Then further observations and experiments are done to ‘test’ each hypothesis.  Testing is an effort to prove the hypothesis incorrect, and when a hypothesis falls, a new one, or better, several new ones are created to take its place.  The creativity of science lies in a scientist’s ability to imagine novel explanations (new hypotheses), and in his/her capacity to design experiments or observations that potentially can prove a hypothesis incorrect.  This strange approach to building understanding has evolved because you can never prove, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that an explanation for an observed phenomenon is correct.  You can only prove it is not correct, or at least, that it is substantially unlikely to be correct.

Nor do scientists work in isolation.  A ‘hot’ topic will be being explored by multiple scientists in multiple labs testing multiple hypotheses.  The process of building scientific understanding is done by many scientists working collaboratively, cooperatively and competitively, and while it is not quite as messy as the sausage making that is politics, it is not a straight-arrow path towards ultimate truth.  At any moment there can be multiple explanations for the observations or processes being studied.  Looking at the results as they appear, hot off the press, or even earlier, as they are announced during conferences, or even sooner as they are tweeted, posted, or e-mailed among colleagues presents the outsider, seeking to understand, with a lot of red herring ideas destined to fall when the next set of experimental results shows them to be wrong.

Complicating this picture slightly is the fact that scientists generally work within conventional paradigms – sets of related ideas about how the world works that have stood the test of time and represent the conventional understanding of the community to which a scientist belongs.  Such internally coherent sets of not-yet-disproven hypotheses provide the essential framework on which scientists build their new ideas.  Usually, all is well and the paradigm persists, becoming continuously strengthened by new observations and experiments.  But sometimes paradigms collapse when the evidence against their weaker links becomes sufficient.  Because scientists want to believe they are building on a sound foundation of established understanding, there is often a tendency to cling to paradigms that should really be radically revised or put aside.  When such paradigms are eventually discarded, the change in understanding of the system can seem sudden and profound.  This adds to the non-linearity of scientific progress.

As an example of what I mean, coral reef science is currently witnessing a minor paradigmatic readjustment in connection with the control of the competition between corals and algae.  Before saying more, I must digress to talk about reef ‘health’.  A coral-dominated reefscape is highly productive, highly diverse, and can support lots of people through the fishery products it yields.  For some or all of these reasons, people mostly value reefs of this type.  Conversely, there are reefs with very little living coral now present, which are dominated by fleshy macro-algae (macroscopic seaweed growing attached to the substratum, not algal symbionts living within corals or phytoplankton in the water column).  These support less biological diversity, and seem to be less productive – both primary production and production of fishery products.  Mostly we consider reefs of this type less desirable.  We call the coral-dominated reefs ‘healthy’ because we value them, and we speak of ‘degradation’ if a coral-dominated reef changes to become dominated by algae.  This use of the word ‘health’ has nothing to do with disease, and everything to do with subjective value judgements.  There is no agreed way to measure this ‘health’, but we know it when we see it.  On such silty concepts, coral reef science is built!

coral & algae doiminated reef Line Islands Smith-header_0

Most reef scientists, and most people, prefer coral-dominated reefs such as the one on the left to algae-dominated reefs like the one on the right.  We call coral-dominated reefs healthy.  If I were a fish that fed on algae, I’d likely prefer the one on the right.  Still, since we prefer the coral-dominated ones, it’s OK to explore why such reefs sometimes become algae-dominated.
Photos of Line Island sites © Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

Getting back to corals and algae, both corals and fleshy algae need space on the reef in which to grow.  Most reefs that we would consider ‘healthy’ are dominated by corals with algae quite sparse, but sometimes ‘degraded’ reefs, low in coral cover, become heavily dominated by algae, to the extent that corals can be effectively excluded.  This occurs either because their larvae cannot find suitable places to settle and attach, or because they die weeks after settling because they are shaded out by algae early in juvenile life.  Observations  and experiments beginning in the 1980s, particularly though not entirely in Jamaica, where reefs had been severely overfished, led by the late 1990s to what seemed a robust model, a paradigm of the regulation of the conflict between corals and algae.  This model was generally supported in reviews up until recently.

bolbometapon UC Berkeley

Not the most beautiful parrot, but Bolbometapon muricatum, the bumphead parrot fish is the largest, most voracious grazer on Pacific coral reefs.
Photo © UC Berkeley

In essence, this model considers corals, algae and herbivores as three actors in a classic, top-down regulatory process, in which herbivory limits algal growth permitting coral dominance.  Loss of herbivory allows algae to grow in abundance, shade out corals, and take over living space.  The result is a rapid phase-shift from coral-dominated to algae-dominated reef.  The management inference drawn is to protect herbivorous fishes from overfishing, as a way of preventing reefs becoming dominated by algae.

This model is attractively simple and easy to understand.  With just three actors, there are only three states and six interactions to worry about.  It ties an ‘undesirable’ change in a reef-scape – the phase-shift to algal domination – with a simple, feasible management action, controls on fishing of parrotfishes.  It is a hypothesis potentially explaining many examples of phase-shifts in the Caribbean, while offering an understandable, new argument for controls on the frequently rampant overfishing.  Perhaps not surprisingly, it became simplified into a useful new axiom for reef managers: cut fishing of parrotfishes and prevent algae from overrunning your reefs.

Meanwhile, scientists were noting that the world was not quite so simple as this model presumed.  There are many species of corals, algae and herbivorous fishes, and they do not act identically.  There are many overfished reefs in the world that have not undergone a phase-shift to become dominated by fleshy algae.  There are some reefs, for example the Abrolhos Reefs of Western Australia, in which corals flourish along-side abundant fleshy algae and abundant herbivorous fishes.  Even in the Caribbean sites that had provided the data that led to formulation of this model, many other changes had taken place in the past at the same time as fish were being over-exploited.  Reality did not simplify into the three-actor system of the model.

There are still reef managers (and reef scientists) advocating restrictions on the fishing of herbivores like parrotfishes as a useful tool for maintaining coral reefs in ‘healthy’ condition.  Undoubtedly, curtailing over-exploitation of reef fishes will be useful in places where they are heavily fished – for fishery economics (higher catch per unit of effort), for fish conservation, and for the suite of ecosystem services that fish provide to a reef, including, in some cases, control on algal abundances.  But the simple, three-actor rule is now seen by a growing number of scientists and managers as not based on rigorous scientific understanding.  Reefs are complicated places, and this model was too simple!  That it ascended to prominence and endured as long as it did is testament to the notion that science stumbles towards the truth.  Science is not choreographed.

The way people think

One of Marshall McLuhan’s less well-known aphorisms is “If I had not believed it, I never would have seen it.”  Artfully, he captured a fundamental truth about human thought processes.  The nature of human perceptual abilities and thought processes is a second factor making scientific discoveries difficult to interpret and understand.  We do not see what is in front of us, and we do a lot of interpreting of the sensory stream.  We think dichotomously, in black and white instead of in the shades of gray that reality presents to our senses.  We emphasize edges and discontinuities as a way of classifying the information stream into discrete categories, such as all corals, all algae and all herbivores, while avoiding the rich detail in the raw information.  As well as simplifying in these ways, we are only really able to count to three or seven (depending on which psychologist you believe), so that few of us can think about more than one or two processes at a time, even when we know we are dealing with complex environmental systems involving many different actors and numerous interactions.  Finally, we only think short term, and we shift baselines continuously, so that long-term, gradual processes and changes are not even noticed.

It is only since the global bleaching episode of 1997-8, or perhaps the die-off of Diadema sea urchins across the Caribbean in the early 1980s, that coral reef ecologists have begun to recognize that the reefs of the world could be travelling on a long, slow journey from the state(s) they were in in the 1950s to the state(s) they will be in in the 2050s and beyond.  (I know I was not the only coral reef ecologist in the 1970s who assumed that the processes he was unravelling were ones that had been operating on reefs long before humans arrived on nearby shores, and would continue operating into the future.)  Reef geologists do a somewhat better job of thinking about deep time, which is one of the reasons it is good for reef ecologists and geologists to talk to each other.

Come to think about it, back in the 1970s, when I was doing field research which led me to emphasize the lack of predictability in outcomes of competition for habitat among territorial reef fishes, I had to struggle hard to prevent my colleagues characterizing my ideas simplistically,  They tended to characterize my work as claiming that ‘competition among territorial reef fish species is a chaotic process’ as opposed to the conventional view that competitive interactions among coexisting species were tightly structured as hierarchical systems with predictable winner and loser species.  They were thinking dichotomously, and were simplifying my message into something it clearly was not, and some never did see what I was trying to say.

I see this as my failure, even though I tried very hard to state my ideas explicitly.  We argued back and forth for a while, but fortunately, the discovery that, much of the time, territorial reef fish were not being limited by a shortage of space, even though they fought aggressively over space, seemed to be using all available space fully, allowed us to end that controversy gracefully, while conveniently neglecting that none of us had previously suspected that there could be unused resources on a reef.  We glided gracefully to a new model!

We all turned our attention to recruitment limitation – the idea that the delivery of larval fish to reefs is normally insufficient to saturate the resources available on the reef.  In such circumstances, multiple species, using the same reef resources can coexist indefinitely without one out-competing the others.  (And of course, there were some among us who persisted in believing that recruitment was ‘always’ sufficient – I sometimes wish I lived in such an orderly universe.)  Still, I fear that today, should someone want to go back and figure out what so many reef fish ecologists were arguing about back then, they would have a difficult time interpreting the publications that appeared.  We certainly were not moving linearly towards ultimate truth.  Only with knowledge of the people and the ideas could a clear story be told (and that knowledge is disappearing as each year passes).

These seldom talked about features of our ways of thinking mean that we are all continuously shaping the information we receive, fitting it into our own personal view of reality.  Further, while some of us like to think that we are rational beings, our evaluation of information we receive – whether a new technical report, a media news item, or something conveyed by a friend in an e-mail – is not completely logical.  Emotional responses, subconscious preferences lodged deep in memory, and logical analysis all play their roles, and we are all capable of simultaneously holding contradictory opinions.  What we notice is colored; so too is how we understand it.  We don’t all see the dancing gorilla in the center of the room.  To make effective headway in understanding the science that is being reported, we have to work hard to minimize the filtering and coloring that our own ways of thinking introduce.

Coming next, the changing nature of science and the role of the media.

Gorilla expt article-1378228-0BAFCD3700000578-441_468x286

This still from a Youtube video demonstrates our failure to experience what is in front of our eyes.  Any wonder that we do not always grasp the significance of complex scientific data?
Image and video © Daniel J Simon.

Categories: Climate change, Communicting science, coral reef science | Leave a comment

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

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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.

highnoonspecialedition

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 | Comments Off on Just Because it is Silly Season, Don’t Forget Climate Mitigation