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


Signs of a changing world

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


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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Canada’s evolving climate strategy

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


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

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

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

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

And then there was an election

Trump Wins

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Finally, this policy statement comes to,

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

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

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

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

What will Donald do?


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

Categories: Canada's environmental policies, Climate change, Communicting science, coral reef science, In the News, Politics | Leave a comment

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


August has been a quiet month.  Around here the very warm days of July moderated a bit, and we’ve had some wonderful summer weather.  It’s hard to believe our lakes will be frozen over in about four months’ time.  Locally, nationally, internationally life has slowed to a crawl.  Television news shows have been more than usually filled with fluff.  The Olympics came and went, never quite deciding if they were successful, or a financial disaster for Brazil (probably both), and I’ve recovered my self-esteem now that the parade of magnificent bodies accomplishing impossible feats has faded from my memory.  The USA is trapped in the middle of an interminable reality TV show called the Presidential Campaign – this year we get to see two candidates, both widely disliked, trying to prove the other guy is worse.  One of them, facing the very real prospect of losing, is apparently already seeing losing as winning.  Donald Trump is playing a game nobody else really understands, and will likely leave a lot of damage in his wake.  Even this early he has planted the seeds that will sprout in some minds as deep suspicion that the election was rigged against him all along.  Still, the country is trapped, and little else seems to be happening there.  In Canada, everyone is in summer mode, and the political class has been keeping a remarkably low profile, although there is a sense afoot that Fall is coming and Justin Trudeau’s honeymoon period may finally be over.  Viewed from afar, Australia seems flummoxed by the realization that its election seems to have achieved little.  The Liberal (= conservative) government is still in power, barely, and continues to advocate for increased coal mining while professing to be taking care of the Great Barrier Reef.

But what about the global environment.

NOAA’s State of the Climate global analysis for July began with:

“For the 15th consecutive month, the global land and ocean temperature departure from average was the highest since global temperature records began in 1880.  This marks the longest such streak in NOAA’s 137 years of record keeping.  The July 2016 combined average temperature over global land and ocean surfaces was 0.87°C (1.57°F) above the 20th century average, besting the previous July record set in 2015 by 0.06°C (0.11°F).  July 2016 marks the 40th consecutive July with temperatures at least nominally above the 20th century average.  The last time July global land and ocean temperatures were below average was in 1976 (-0.09°C / -0.16°F).  Although continuing a record streak, July 2016 was also the lowest monthly temperature departure from average since August 2015 and tied with August 2015 as the 15th highest monthly temperature departure among all months (1,639) on record.  However, since July is climatologically the globe’s warmest month of the year, the July 2016 global land and ocean temperature (16.67°C / 62.01°F) was the highest temperature for any month on record, surpassing the previous record set in July 2015.  July 2016 was the 379th consecutive month with temperatures at least nominally above the 20th century average. The last month with temperatures below the 20th century average was December 1984 (-0.09°C / -0.16°F).”

Okay…  I think we got that.  July was hot globally, way hot, hotter than ever.  The statistic I particularly like is the last one: every single one of the past 379 months was above average in global land and sea temperature.  We are in a climatic town of Lake Wobegone, where all the months are above average.  Something is definitely happening to our global climate.

NOAA July temperature anomaly 2016 201607

This map is almost uniformly pink to red in color, meaning that temperatures everywhere are above the long-term climatic average.  Could any of those politicians in the US or Australia explain this result while maintaining that climate is not warming?  Especially after we put this map at the end of 15 very similar maps for the past 15 months?  Better burn more coal, frack more gas, and boil up more bitumen – got to keep our economies healthy.  Image courtesy NOAA National Centers for Environmental Information.

Needless to say, climate change is not just warming.  On 16th August, NASA’s National Snow and Ice Data Center reported on the status of Arctic sea ice.  By mid-August, ice cover had fallen to 5.61 million km2, the third lowest on record for this date.  NSIDC does not expect the low point, expected mid-September, to exceed that in 2012, but the trend of melting this year is well above average.  As for the rate of melting, in the first half of August, Arctic ice was melting at the rate of 87,400 km2 per day, almost the same rate as in 2012.

NSIDC Arctic sea ice extent 14 Aug 2016 Figure1-1

In this image, the orange line marks the median limits of ice pack for 14th August.  Figure courtesy NSIDC.

The North-west Passage through Canada’s northern islands (I said that bit about the islands because Uncle Sam thinks these are international waters) is now open, and, sure enough, where there is a new place to sail, along come the cruise ships.  Or at least, along comes the Crystal Serenity, a smallish cruise ship owned by Crystal Cruises.  With 1000 passengers and 600 crew, it sailed into the 400-person hamlet of Ulukhaktok on August 26th, its first scheduled stop in Canada.  The CBC reported that “In order not to overwhelm the small community, every two hours 150 to 200 passengers will be shuttled off the ship in inflatable boats and brought into Ulukhaktok.”  So, people…Here’s the plan:  approximately every two hours, a number of people equal to half your population will arrive via Zodiac, to stand around and gawk at you, and this will go on with a fresh group of gawkers every two hours all day.  Sounds like fun?  Now the citizens of Ulukhaktok get to experience what it is like to be specimens in a zoo.

When the ship proceeded to its second port of call, the somewhat larger small settlement of Cambridge Bay, CBC reported that many of the Inuit artists hoping to make some substantial sales were disappointed.  About 85% of the passengers on board are American, and US law prohibits the importation of seal products or ivory (narwhale, walrus), two of the main materials used in Inuit arts.  Sales were not being made.  While the cruise line seems to have tried to be sensitive to its potential impacts on the residents, and while the strange regulations by the US Department of Fish and Game were not its doing, I predict that Canada’s northern communities are going to see lots of disappointment as the country is ‘developed’ in coming warmer years.  We actually could learn from what has happened in other developing countries impacted by globally driven economic development including mass tourism.  But I predict we won’t.  We will rape the land and the sea, and sere the peoples’ souls.

The rate of warming

But I was talking about climate.  The Guardian, commenting at the end of August on the July record warmth, quoted NASA as reporting that the current rate of warming is the most rapid for the last 1000 years and then going still further.  Using data from NOAA, NASA scientists were able to compare the rate of warming over the past 30 years to the average rate per 5000 years during deglaciations in the Pleistocene.  The rate appears to be about 10 times faster at present, with the warming projected for this century some 20 times greater than in a typical Pleistocene warming period.  The Guardian also reported that Gavin Schmidt, Director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, had recently stated that in his view the aspirational 1.5oC limit discussed in Paris is already almost beyond our capacity to achieve, because of the rate at which we continue to burn fossil fuels.  We definitely live in interesting times.

Earlier in August, the Washington Post had reported a new step in clarifying what has been happening to sea level.  The headline reported that “sea level is not just rising – it is worse than that” but the article dealt with a paper published 10th August in Scientific Reports by John Fasullo, National Center for Climate Research, Univ of Colorado, and two colleagues.  Fasullo’s paper helps clear up a paradox – we know that the amount of heat in the oceans is increasing and that glaciers are melting at an increasing rate, yet our most sensitive measurement of sea level rise suggests its rate has decreased since 1992!  In late 1992, with the launch of the TOPEX/Poseidon satellite, it became possible to measure sea level, at any point on the ocean surface with millimeter accuracy using radar altimetry.  But examination of these measurements taken over the two decades since reveals a declining rate of sea level rise.

While climate deniers may have loved this confusion, Fasullo’s paper reveals the paradox to be due to the cooling effects of the Mount Pinatubo eruption in 1991.  The particulates sent skyward shaded and cooled the Earth; once they fell back to earth, temperatures bounced back up, and the consequent sea level rise starting in 1992 was also rapid.  Warming, in the sense of delivery of heat to the planet, was continuous through this period, but the temperature response was a rapid jump as particulate clouds dispersed, followed by a slower subsequent increase, in step with the delivery of heat.  Because the radar altimetry data missed the cooling that followed the eruption, the high initial rates of sea level rise measured were assumed to be ‘normal’.  Sea level is currently rising at a rapid, and an increasing rate.  If Pinatubo had not erupted that pattern would have been evident in the new radar altimetry data.  So long as we are spared another Pinatubo-sized eruption to again distort things, the acceleration of sea level rise should become evident in the data stream in about another 10 years.  Until then the acceleration is masked by Pinatubo.  I predict, of course, that denialists will not bother to read Fasullo’s paper.

Impacts on corals

Meanwhile, corals around the world continued to bleach.  I was struck by the headline of another Washington Post article on 3rd August:  “I cried – right into my mask”.  Coral ecologist Laurie Raymundo, University of Guam, was diving Guam’s Tumon Bay reefs, and reported on Facebook,

“I consider myself to be fairly objective and logical about science, but sometimes that approach fails me. Today, for the first time in the 50 years I’ve been in the water, I cried for an hour, right into my mask, as I witnessed the extent to which our lovely Tumon Bay corals were bleaching and dying.”

Laurie cried.  Australian reef ecologist Terry Hughes apparently cried while doing aerial surveys of the northern Great Barrier Reef earlier this year.  Crying by scientists is OK to talk about, when the ecosystem you love is being damaged so extensively.  Those are living creatures, dying prematurely because of something we have done.  We are the disease of this planet and many scientists get it.  As for Tumon Bay – Guam’s reefs have been bleached in 2013, 2014, 2015 and now in 2016 it is happening again, and this year’s peak temperatures are not expected until later this September.  Accumulated mortality will almost certainly exceed 50% — that is, the amount of coral after the 2016 bleaching is over will be about half what it was in 2013.  That is a trajectory that does not take very long to devastate a reef system.

Guam bleachedcoral_dburdicknoaa

Wouldn’t be so bad if they were cauliflowers.  While these bleached corals are mostly fast-growing Acropora species, they will still take several years to repopulate.  These Guam corals bleached in 2013, and serious bleaching has occurred every year since.  Not good.  Photo © Dave Burdick/NOAA.

Coral reef politics in Australia

In Australia, the full, peer-reviewed, scientific report from the scientist-led ‘coral reef task force’ on the losses caused by bleaching on the northern Great Barrier Reef is not yet available, but argument about what just happened seems to have worsened following the ineffectual election (I call an election that does not remove an incompetent government ineffectual, but I guess it shows that the Australian electorate was not totally driven by concern for the environment).  Prior to the election the bleaching event had already become politicized, given that the Australian government seems so deeply interested in digging up coal and shipping it through GBR ports and waterways to India and China, despite the obvious direct (siltation) and indirect (warming) damage that shipping all that dusty coal would mean for the reef.  The politicization appears, from long distance, not to have improved now the election is over.

Some tourism operators have jumped into the fray recently, mounting a survey of their own to a series of outer barrier reefs off Lizard Island.  In reporting this on 22nd August, the Courier Mail, a relatively right-wing Queensland rag, stated, “Latest findings exclusively obtained by The Courier-Mail show coral mortality in the outer shelf reefs north of Lizard Island was between one and five per cent with “spectacular” fish life and coral coverage.”  The article went on to quote the tourism team leader saying, “We expected the worst.  But it is tremendous condition, most of it is pristine, the rest is in full recovery.  It shows the resilience of the reef.’’  The Courier Mail also managed to imply that the scientific survey by the task force was all done by looking down from a helicopter, presumably while enjoying a cool beer, and that this was not quite as good an approach as having a bunch of tourism operators in the water.  Science is so easily cheapened.

Incidentally, the Courier Mail report quickly got picked up by such well-known right-wing North American rags as the Breitbart News Network (home of one of Donald Trump’s main campaign organizers) and The Daily Caller.  Of course, back on the 4th June, The Australian, Rupert Murdock’s flagship paper, had started the scientist-bashing with an article headlined Great Barrier Reef: scientists “exaggerated” coral bleaching.  Yes, when the message is not to your liking, shoot the messenger.

The Australian article, by Graham Lloyd, which appears to have been pulled behind a paywall between the 2nd and 3rd of September so I can no longer access it, is worth a serious look as an example of how to spread confusion and give a sense that the science is unclear.  Lloyd’s article does this by means of innuendo about the scientists’ motives, and by careful partial quoting out of context from a Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority press release making it sound as if this management agency had data that contradicts what the task force has been claiming.  (It does not, but, in fairness, the press release was written in a way to dampen down any concerns of citizens that the reef may be in danger – hey, they are a government agency and it was in the middle of an election.)  Subsequent articles by the same reporter have continued to chip away at the evidence being reported from the task force, and the Courier-Mail has happily chimed in.  Do the Koch Brothers have any business interests in Australia, or are there Aussie equivalents?

Wait a minute, maybe there are!  An item on alerted me to a report by the Australia Institute (self-described as an independent, public policy think tank) and the Australian Conservation Foundation titled Greasing the Wheels which was released on 28th July.  Between 2010 and 2015 the Liberal Party of Australia and Queensland’s Liberal National Party received a total of $2 million in political donations from 6 mining companies, Beach Energy, Sibelco, Karreman Quarries, New Hope Corp., Adani Mining, and Linc Energy & Carbon Energy.  The report details the amounts donated, and tracks the access received and the favorable decisions made.  The amounts of money are small by North American standards (which are not anything for us to be proud of) but these are significant amounts in the less money-driven Australian political scene.  The report makes interesting reading and confirms my view that big, powerful business interests throw their weight around as much as they are able to in all democracies.  Usually in order to get special favors for themselves.

Well, enough about the fate of the Great Barrier Reef.  Australia will solve its schizophrenia regarding the reef and coal in due course and hopefully a lot sooner than the coal mining corporations would prefer.  But not just yet – The government’s approval of the huge Carmichael Mine to be developed by Adani was recently upheld as a new legal challenge from the Australian Conservation Foundation was dismissed last Monday.

Politics elsewhere

Here in Canada, the National Energy Board (NEB) hearings on the Energy East pipeline proposal by TransCanada, have just been shut down after one day because of security concerns following a boisterous disruption, and other unspecified security concerns.  Energy East is intended to move western tar sands oil east through Ontario and Quebec to New Brunswick and thence to a refinery and port and off to Europe.  Sometimes TransCanada suggests the oil could be used in eastern Canada so we can stop importing from the Middle East, but that fig leaf is pretty darn small given that there seems to be little need for additional oil in the east (Newfoundland is still producing and there are massive supplies of hydroelectric power coming out of Quebec).  Justin Trudeau is going to have to deal with the NEB sometime fairly soon.  Canada’s former fearless leader, the incredibly honorable Stephen Harper stuffed the board with appointees given multi-year terms not long before his government went down to defeat last October.  Those appointees, many with close ties to the industry, do not have to resign with the change in government.  Two of them are currently under investigation for meeting inappropriately with individuals linked closely to TransCanada not long before the hearings were about to get under way.  Does it look seedy or smell fishy?  Yes, most definitely.  And remember, Canada has no need of additional pipeline capacity to move the oil it is likely to produce in the future.  Not if Canada intends to honor its commitments under the Paris Climate Accord.

Not only must Trudeau deal with the NEB, he is also going to have to bring the Provinces kicking and squealing to an agreement on carbon.  Because our commitments (witness British Columbia’s recent action on its carbon tax) are woefully inadequate, even to meet our inadequate, Harper-designed, commitments under Paris.  Time to show he can lead on the difficult issues.  (Right now he is in China taking selfies with the leaders of that country.)

And now for the good news

What else happened in August?  Well, surprisingly, there was a tiny bit of good environmental news.  Let’s end on a high note or three.  In Canada, the Trudeau government announced new funding of $850000 per year towards the operating budget of the ELA (Experimental Lakes Area), the world-class whole lake research facility in northwestern Ontario.  This brings its total commitment, through Dept. of Fisheries and Oceans, to $1.95 million per year towards the total operating budget, which is also supported by $2 million per year from Ontario and $1 million per year from Manitoba.  None of this money is ‘permanent’, but funding is secure for the next couple of years, and one more piece of short-sighted, cut-off-your-nose budget-slashing by the Harper government has been repaired.  It was never the case that Canada did not need to maintain this research facility, or could not afford to support it.

Also in Canada, an opinion column in the Edmonton Journal, by Ben Dachis, Assoc. Director of the C.D. Howe Institute ( a definitely not left of center think tank) reported progress on the implementation of Alberta’s energy/carbon plan, including evidence that business supports it, and gave sensible advice on how best to use that portion of the accumulating revenue that is not simply being sent back to tax-payers.  Dachis said, support R&D in alternative energy as the best way to drive the transition.  At least some of the people in Alberta are being realistic on energy!

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The three massive mirror arrays that make up Ivanpah Solar Energy Generating System.  Photo ©

South of our border, sprawling across 5 square miles of desert on the California-Nevada border, the new Ivanpah Solar Energy Generating System is now operational, delivering solar energy to California homes.  It is the largest solar energy plant in the world.  At capacity, the facility’s trio of 450-foot high towers produces a gross total of 392 megawatts (MW) of solar power, enough electricity to provide 140,000 California homes with clean energy and avoid 400,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year.  Quite an achievement.

Elsewhere in the world, the New York Times has reported that a large coral reef, known as Coral Castles, which sits within a lagoon of one of the islands of the nation of Kiribati (formerly the Phoenix Islands), has come back to life!  Actually, severe bleaching and subsequent coral mortality severely damaged this reef in 2002-2003, and subsequent surveys in 2009 and 2012 had shown little improvement.  But in September 2015, a team of scientists from the New England Aquarium re-surveyed and discovered very substantial improvement.  While this is good news, it is a ‘bright spot’ story, making us all feel cheerful and optimistic despite the fact that numerous other reefs around the world have been devastated by bleaching and have not recovered.  Also, I am puzzled.  If the recovery was so dramatic and unexpected, why did it take a year for the scientists to tell the media about it?  I have a feeling there is something going on here that we are not yet being told.

ocellated wrasse male and female in nest femalefishca

Ocellated wrasse, Symphodus ocellatus, parental male with smaller female in his nest.
Photo © Susan Marsh-Rollo.

Moving towards the just plain nice news, the news that keeps concerned environmental scientists able to enjoy life, be optimistic, and sleep at night…… On August 16th, Susan Alonzo of UC Santa Cruz, and colleagues published a paper in Nature Communications reporting that female ocellated wrasses, a small fish from the Mediterranean, can preferentially select the sperm of preferred males when engaged in a group spawning event, in which several males release sperm in a cloud that surrounds the eggs released by the female.  The authors note this is the first time anyone has demonstrated female control over which sperm succeed in an animal without internal fertilization.  The mechanism appears to lie in the chemical composition of the ovarian fluids that get released with the eggs, which favors faster-swimming sperm.  While this is surprising, I am not sure I understand its significance.

As in many other fish, populations of the ocellated wrasse include males which grow larger, live longer, and build nests and take care of young.  Think of these as more responsible parent males, in contrast to the other males which stay small, live only a short time, produce copious quantities of apparently slower-swimming sperm, and spend their time interrupting the courtship of the parental males, darting in and releasing their sperm at the critical moment.  These decidedly less responsible males are called sneakers.  (In writing this, I sense a possible new plot line for the porn industry… but I digress.)  Alonzo and her colleagues have demonstrated that the females, by producing ovarian fluids that favor faster-swimming sperm, tilt the competition in favor of sperm from parental males.  I’m not sure that this is ‘choice’ in the traditional meaning of that word, and the fact that sneakers exist proves that any tilting against them is not sufficient to make their fast and furious lifestyle unsuccessful genetically.  Still it does show that nature always holds out new surprises for us to discover.

And far less kinky, and actually more nice, the annual competition for underwater photography has just announced this year’s winners.  Some wonderful photos are on line, including the two here.  There really are so many wonderful things to discover in our oceans, or indeed, in the rest of this amazing planet.

Harlequin Shrimp Visconti 210

“Spotlight” by Matteo Visconti earned him ‘commended’ in the macro category (it’s a tough competition).  A harlequin shrimp (Hymenocera picta) photographed in the Tulamben area on Bali’s west coast.  Photo © Matteo Visconti.

Shark and sponges 501

“Three pillars – Practice, Patience and Luck”  earned its photographer, Pier Mane from South Africa  ‘up and coming underwater photographer of the year’.  Image © Pier Mane

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

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


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.


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?


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 | 3 Comments