We Could Have Done Much Better: Canada’s sorry record on managing CO2 emissions.

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Earlier this month in Schloss Emlau, high in the Bavarian Alps, Canada’s Stephen Harper and the other G7 leaders, agreed to the establishment of a zero-carbon economy by 2100. It could have been a stronger agreement, with a target date of 2050, but Canada and Japan fought successfully to weaken it by 50 years. It’s a largely aspirational commitment; none of these leaders, even Mr. Harper, is so egotistical as to believe that he/she will still be in power at the end of the century. I’m not even sure it is useful, even as an aspiration, but we will come to that later. For now, I thought it would be appropriate to trace Canada’s record on GHG emissions until now. Warning: it’s not a pretty record, nothing to be proud of, but perhaps we can learn from it.

Unhappy? Bored? Recently chastised by another leader? Stephen Harper at the June G7 meeting in Germany. Photo © Bundesregierung/Denzel

That we Canadians are about to enter a Federal election also makes it timely to think about this record. Perhaps one or more of our political leaders will be willing to talk about how he or she might strive to improve our performance, and restore our international reputation over the next few years.

It all started in Rio

Many people look fondly back on Rio de Janeiro’s Earth Summit, held June 3-14, 1992, as the last truly successful global summit on environment. It was the first mega summit. Some 120 Heads of State and a total of 172 countries participated. It included the NGO community and civil society (over 2000 official non-governmental delegates plus 17000 NGO representatives participating in a parallel set of meetings), and while there was some skepticism at the time, it produced several important agreements. Most important are Agenda 21 and the subsequent Millenium Development Goals, the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, the UN Convention on Biodiversity, and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Few subsequent large UN conferences can claim as much success.

Time Rio cover 1992 1101920601_400
Time saw the Rio Earth Summit as very newsworthy. Image © Time Magazine

The UNFCCC came into existence in Rio, signed by 154 countries including Canada. It was more a statement of agreed principles than a blueprint, but it affirmed that the science of climate change was compelling, that there was a need to stabilize global GHG emissions in order to stabilize climate, and that developed countries would have to lead in emissions reductions, both because they had been responsible for the major amount of past emissions and because developing countries would be very hard-pressed to reduce emissions while struggling to raise living standards. The details of how the world would reduce GHG emissions were left to a series of COPs, or conferences of the parties, to be held in future years.

Twenty-three years later, and we are counting down to COP-21 to be held in Paris in from 30th November to 11th December. There have also been numerous smaller meetings between COPs, and the IPCC has developed its own meeting schedule to review and develop the needed science.

If I was a cynic, I’d wonder about the amount of CO2 emitted, and the dollars expended, to cover all the travel, and the time spent in all these meetings. Instead, I’ll just observe that progress would have been a heck of a lot more rapid if countries had negotiated in good faith, seeking to remedy a shared problem, instead of as too many of them have, looking always for their own self-interest, seeking to water down, delay, or in other ways defang any proposals being put on the table. And no, it is not just Canada that has behaved poorly. The USA, Australia, China, Japan, India and many more have at one or other time proved far more interested in their own short-term economic benefits than in solving the climate problem.

And then came Kyoto

In 1995, at COP-1, countries agreed that developed countries should undertake to reduce their emissions first. The following year, at COP-2, they agreed that the science was sufficiently compelling that a formal treaty with mandatory targets for reducing GHG emissions was warranted. In Kyoto in 1997 at COP-3, countries signed on to the Kyoto Protocol. The Protocol document was a comprehensive agreement that included precise GHG emission targets for each member country, the general framework of a GHG emissions-trading program, and a commitment to hold future COPs to work out important details of the new regime (such as establishing the penalties for failure to meet targets and the rules of the new emissions-trading program). In order for the Kyoto Protocol to come into full effect, at least 55 developed countries, that together were responsible for at least 55% of GHG emissions in the base year of 1990, would have to formally ratify it.

Paul Martin kyoto(history),ratification
Canadian Finance Minister, Paul Martin, speaking in support of the Kyoto Protocol at COP-3, held in Kyoto, 1-10 December, 1997.

Working out the details of Kyoto required four more COPs, the last one (COP-7) in Marakesh in 2001. Ratifications commenced, but took some time, because to ratify, each nation had to formally introduce and pass supporting legislation in its own legislature. Countries were slow to ratify; if Kyoto came into effect, they would be legally obligated by treaty to reduce emissions by a specified amount.

Although Bill Clinton had signed Kyoto in 1997, newly-elected George W Bush announced in 2001 that the USA would not be ratifying because it would no longer support the decision made back in 1995 that developing countries, including China, would not have reductions required in the first Kyoto period (to 2012). Bush also raised questions about the science, and expressed concerns for impacts on the US economy. In 2002, Australia, another developed country that had participated until then, had a change of heart and Liberal (= right of center) PM John Howard announced that they would not ratify for many of the same reasons. Canada did ratify Kyoto in 2002 when a bill was passed through the House of Commons and the Senate, but prospects for the Protocol coming into effect looked dim. Without the USA, it was going to be difficult to obtain signatories responsible together for 55% of emissions.

By early 2004, most European countries, Canada, Japan and New Zealand had ratified, but they accounted together for just 44% of emissions. Vladimir Putin, then President of Russia, rode up on his white horse with Russia’s 17% of emissions in hand, extracted a promise from European countries to back Russia’s request to join the World Trade Organization, ratified Kyoto, and brought it into effect. Thus are important environmental treaties put together; just like making sausages.

Canada’s Kyoto obligation

Kyoto required each developed country signatory to reduce GHG emissions by a specified amount, close to 5%, compared to that country’s emissions in 1990. For Canada, the required reduction was 6% from the 1990 base rate of emissions for all GHGs combined, not including any benefits from sequestration due to land use and forestry. This was to be achieved over the 2008-2012 period. Kyoto documents refer to an initial assigned amount, the total of GHG emissions (measured as CO2 equivalents) permitted during that five year period. For Canada, that amount was 2,792 MtCO2 eq (millions of tonnes of CO2 equivalents). Countries were free to decide the best way to make the emissions adjustments including by increasing energy efficiency, by increasing carbon sequestration by forests or other land, and even by paying for emissions reductions in developing countries.

So how did Canada do? Well, to begin with, it’s quite difficult to find out! Given that, as a signatory to UNFCCC, Canada is required to report details of GHG emissions each year, one might expect the emissions tables to be neatly summarized on a government website. I’ve searched high and low. I found an Environment Canada website titled National Greenhouse Gas Emissions. That sounded promising; it provided one graph, the simple data table behind that graph, and a link to the National Inventory Report 1990-2013.

GreenhouseGasEmissions_Canada from Env Can 2015
Canada’s total GHG emissions (not including LULUCF) as displayed on Environment Canada website, based on data reported to UNFCCC in 2015.

But the National Inventory Report page provided only the Executive Summary and a dead link to the full report, and the problem was that the numbers on the graph did not conform to numbers I had in Environment Canada publications such as the 2012 and 2013 editions of Canada’s Emission Trends. Nor did they agree with numbers on a helpful timeline on the CBC website. Fact is that calculating GHG emissions is a complex process, and there have been revisions to the numbers over the years as methods have improved. Plus there is the issue of LULUCF – land use, land use changes and forestry for the uninitiated. Sometimes total emissions are quoted excluding the sequestration or emissions from lands and forests, and sometimes these are included. I’ve struggled with this problem of getting the correct numbers in the past; this time I decided to see if the UN had made the annual reports available. Lo and behold! I found the relevant site quickly and downloaded a zipped folder containing Canada’s latest National Inventory Report (and the numbers for total GHG emissions not including effects of LULUCF proved to be the same as shown on the Environment Canada site I first visited). So what follows uses the numbers that Canada reported to the UNFCCC in 2015 and posted on an Environment Canada site. These are the most up-to-date numbers available, including data for every year since 1990 as subsequently adjusted. (One minor consequence is that posts on this blog in 2012 and 2013, dealing with Canada’s peculiar way of measuring progress in emissions reduction, and based on Environment Canada data in those years, include numbers that are now viewed as incorrect – although the general story remains correct.)

Back in 1997 when Canada signed Kyoto, the accepted value for its total GHG emissions in 1990 was 590 MtCO2 eq (590.908 to be precise), and its ‘initial assigned amount’ of emissions for 2008 to 2012 was accordingly 2,791 MtCO2 eq (5 years at 94% of base amount). The revised 1990 value reported in 2015 is 613 MtCO2 eq, and it seems fair to look at trends using these most recent figures. So, from 1990 to the time of Kyoto (1997), emissions had increased 88 million tonnes to 701 MtCO2 eq. They were up 37 million more by the time of ratification (2002), and a further 20 million to 758 MtCO2 eq by the time the agreement came into effect in 2004. Clearly, Canada’s then Liberal (= left of center) government was not trying very hard to contain emissions during those years when the Kyoto Protocol was not yet a legal treaty! Still, over the next two years there was an encouraging downward trend, to 740 MtCO2 eq in 2006.

Cretien cartoon re Kyoto sep802
Truth is that the Liberals did not make a great effort to comply with the Kyoto Protocol.
Cartoon © Tim Dolighan

The change of government to the Conservatives and Stephen Harper does not seem to have made much difference in Canada’s performance, but the trend did reverse and emissions were 761 MtCO2 eq in 2007. The downward trend resumed, driven at least partly by the slowdown in the economy, but also by a slow improvement in energy intensity of the Canadian economy and the various, mostly provincial, moves to reduce emissions. They reached 699 MtCO2 eq in 2009. Since then they have increased every year.

The original target, specified under Kyoto, should have got Canada’s total GHG emissions down to an average of about 558 MtCO2 eq per year during 2008 to 2012. Actual emissions over those five years total 3,571 MtCO2 eq, 780 million tonnes, or an average of 156 MtCO2 eq per year higher than the target. That is a 28% overshoot of the target. True, Canada withdrew from Kyoto in December 2011, but there is scant evidence in the figures that Canada was attempting to meet the target it had formally agreed to when it ratified Kyoto back in 2002. PM Harper’s long promised emissions regulations for the tar sands industry were still not in place (nor are they yet), and growth in that industry had resulted in a 79% increase in emissions between 2005 and 2012, accounting for 9% of total Canadian emissions. That industry has been projected to continue its rapid expansion into the future, becoming an every larger part of the emissions problem.

No fear, onward to Copenhagen

In early December, 2009, as final preparations were under way for the Copenhagen climate conference, COP-15, there were hopes for a formal commitment to a 1.5oC maximum rise in global temperature, and some binding agreements on GHG reductions. That is not how things turned out. With some 115 world leaders present, the acrimonious debates stretched into the night. In the end all references to 1.5oC were stripped out and replaced by 2oC, and individual countries made voluntary, unenforceable commitments re GHG emissions in 2020.

Canada, initially talking about a 20% reduction from 2006 emissions levels, quickly changed that to 17% below 2005 levels, ostensibly to mirror the US pledge. (Smart move, given that as can be seen in the figure above, 17% below 749 MtCO2 eq is a larger permitted rate of emissions than 20% below 740 MtCO2 eq – Canada’s delegates were looking out for Canada!)

Mostly people were polite about this cleverness, and also by the fact that ‘17% below 2005 levels‘ was an easing of the target initially made under Kyoto. While Kyoto obligated Canada to reach 558 MtCO2 eq by 2012, the non-binding pledge made at Copenhagen was to reach 607 MtCO2 eq of emissions, or 9% more, by 2020. (Astute readers may have noticed that reducing 2005’s 749 MtCO2 eq by 17% results in an allowed 2020 amount of 622 MtCO2 eq, not 607. The 607 MtCO2 eq target derives from the fact that the 2005 emissions had initially been estimated at 731 MtCO2 eq.)
bella_center_activists1 COP15 Copenhagen

There was plenty of frustration at COP-15 in Copenhagen, and Canada was recognized as a major impediment to progress. Canada came home with Fossil of the Year, and several Fossil of the Day awards, its first of many. This has been the one way in which Canada stands out as a winner at the climate conferences. Photo © A. Libisch/TerraViva

Of course, the results since 2009 show that, despite this astute deal, Canada continued to show no evidence that it was moving towards the target. Emissions have increased, almost linearly, since that year. A strengthening economy until recently, and a failure at the federal level to institute any substantive curbs on emissions, have resulted in Canada moving backwards, while the Harper government continued until 2014 with its vapid declarations that Canada was “half-way towards meeting its Copenhagen commitment”. Tell the same lie over and over, sometimes it starts to stick. However this one was so blatantly ridiculous the government finally ceased, and now Environment Minister, Leona Aglukkaq, busies herself with the claim that “Canada is working hard on climate change”.

Believe it or not, things could have been worse

Without in any way exonerating the Harper government for their appalling record on GHG emissions, it’s important to remember that things could have been worse. Over the years, a number of moves at the Provincial level have served to reduce GHG emissions in Canada. Most notable are the introduction of carbon pricing mechanisms in Quebec, British Columbia, and most recently Ontario, and the aggressive courting by Ontario of renewable sources of electricity along with its phase out of coal powered generation capacity. Ontario ceased all coal-fired generation early in 2014, and its FIT and micro-Fit feed-in tariff programs obligate the power grid to accept power from small solar, wind, and water-power sources at guaranteed prices. Together, these actions are bringing about a significant diversification in power generation and a reduction in GHG emissions in that largest Canadian province.

At the federal level, there has been funding to assist in the development in Saskatchewan of a prototype, industrial scale coal-fired power generation plant using CCS (carbon capture and storage), and a program to phase out use of incandescent lightbulbs. Wow! There has also been some funding in the EcoEnergy program to assist Canadians in improving the energy efficiency in their homes; this program replaced an earlier (better) one which Harper cancelled on taking office. The new program ran from 2007 to 2010, was renewed in 2011 and abruptly cancelled in 2012 – it seemed to be too popular. And, of course, the Harper government eventually announced new fuel efficiency regulations for automobiles, to great fanfare, despite the fact that earlier US action guaranteed the changes were going to happen anyway.

And so to the future

Canada’s poor performance on climate has been well recognized over the years by a string of Fossil awards at climate conferences. At COP-14, held in Warsaw in 2013, Canada was awarded a Lifetime Unachievement Fossil Award on the last day of the conference. It’s the only way Canada can be said to lead at the COP events, and a sad commentary on our performance internationally. One senses that if the Federal government has a heart, its heart certainly is not in addressing GHG emissions in meaningful ways. And yet, Canada has now submitted its draft commitment for the Paris COP meeting in December of this year. Late on Friday May 15th, 2015, in Winnipeg, Leona Aglukkaq announced that Canada will reduce its GHG emissions by 30% below 2005 levels by 2030. She rambled on about the commitment being “fair and ambitious, an ambitious commitment based on our national circumstances, which includes a growing population, a diversified growing economy and Canada’s position as a world leader in clean-electricity generation” and “Canada’s ambitious new target and planned regulatory actions underscore our continued commitment to cut emissions at home and work with our international partners to establish an international agreement in Paris that includes meaningful and transparent commitments from all major emitters. We will work cooperatively with the provinces and territories on these goals while respecting their jurisdiction.
Aglukkaq question period counting on fingers commons-20140331

Leona Aglukkaq, Canada’s Environment Minister. So authoritative, so little information. Does PM Harper’s attitude to environment get revealed in his choice of Ministers?
Photo © Huffington Post

Somehow I am not convinced, and neither are lots of folks around the world. Canada’s long list of failed GHG promises makes her hollow words sound even more empty. Reducing GHG emissions is not part of the Harper program, no matter what his ministers say, far away from Ottawa, late on a Friday afternoon. Her announcement, and the minimal follow-up, provide no indication that any regulations will be imposed on the tar sands (although the 30% plan does depend upon continuing weak economic growth and a less than originally hoped for rate of growth in that industry). Nor is there much evidence of any other programs that will be needed, beyond some attention to methane releases in fracking operations. Given the lack of progress since 2002, why should anyone believe Canada this time around.

Even if Canada’s word is taken at face value, the commitment is the weakest among G7 countries, committing Canada to a later, and slower rate of reduction in emissions than any other developed country. But of course, there is no need to worry, because Harper has now committed Canada to foregoing use of fossil fuels entirely by 2100. Out of the mouths of politicians….

And this leads me back, briefly, to that G7 pledge to eliminate all fossil fuels by 2100. It was a pledge coupled with a commitment to keep the global temperature increase to no more than 2oC. And there were no details on how all this was to be done! If one wants to be really negative about that G7 pledge, it is only necessary to note that if countries really wish to keep the global temperature increase to 2oC (an increase which is on the edge of being dangerous), the global economy has to decarbonize at over 6.2% per year, every year from now to 2100. That is more than five times faster than what is happening now. Bold aspirational promises for a distant time are not worth the breath used to utter them without some evidence of sleeves being rolled up, and tough new decisions being made that will rachet back GHG emissions today and tomorrow. The G7 pledge is a sham, and Canada’s Stephen Harper, as one of the least enthusiastic about it (he helped weaken it by 50 years, remember), is simply shameless.

Why does this all matter?

The Harper government has been quick to point out that Canada is a large country with a widely scattered population, that it has a resource extraction-based export economy, that it has a cold climate with concomitant high costs for building and road maintenance. All are legitimate arguments to cut the country some slack when looking at its efforts to reduce greenhouse gases. But Canada is also a wealthy country, with an educated workforce able to tackle demanding challenges, and other countries share each of Canada’s impediments.

The Harper government likes to focus on Canada’s contribution to total global GHG emissions. It’s tiny. Less than 2% of the total. Definitely not important. But, Canada ranks 11th out of 186 countries, ranks 5th among developed countries, and ranks 3rd among developed countries in rate of emissions per capita, using 15.6 tonnes CO2eq per person in 2012 just behind USA’s 16.3 and Australia’s 17.2. If Canada does not have a substantial responsibility to reduce its GHG emissions, who does? The chronic Federal failure over the past 20, and especially over the 13 years since we signed on to Kyoto should be an embarrassment to every Canadian. We have an election coming soon. My concern is that we may get through that exercise, with the same, or a replacement crew in power, and still continue the poor performance into the future. This pattern of behavior just doesn’t seem very Canadian. And it certainly does not help solve our climate problem.

Is just one of these leaders willing to really lead on climate, willing to take the kind of action Canada should take, action that goes beyond the minimum required, setting a standard that other countries could follow, restoring Canada’s international reputation, and helping to build a better world? We only need one.

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

What are We Doing to Our Oceans?

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This post is in celebration of World Oceans Day. We should be at one with the oceans, they course through our blood. But we are not, and we are changing them, perhaps irrevocably. I hope not.

Image © Pixshark.com

Elementary, my dear Watson – the Warming of the Oceans

Stand a bucket of cold water in the sun and it will slowly warm up. Eventually it will become as warm as the air around it, and if the day turns cool, the water may even end up being warmer in the evening than the air. This is all due to basic physics; heat energy flows from warm to cool objects and the specific heat of water (4.186 J.g-1.degree C-1) is nearly four times that of an equivalent mass – and much larger volume – of air (1.005 J.g-1.degree C-1). (The hieroglyphics mean it takes just over 4 Joules of energy to raise the temperature of 1 gram of water by 1oC, versus just over 1 Joule for a gram of air.) As a consequence, warming up water requires a lot more heat than warming air, and the bucket of water tends to lag the temperature of the air around it, as heat flows between the two. As another consequence, a gram of water at a particular temperature will ‘hold’ a larger amount of heat energy than will a gram of air. Now consider an ocean of water in contact with an atmosphere of air. If the air is warmer than the water, heat will flow into the ocean and warm it until the surface water is at the same temperature as the air it contacts. If we warm up the atmosphere, the temperature of the ocean will lag, but will also eventually warm up too. As I said, just basic physics, and we have been warming up the air.

The relatively high capacity of water to hold heat energy, and the tendency for the surface layers of the ocean to equilibrate with the surrounding atmosphere account for the fact that the world’s oceans have absorbed 93% of the ‘excess’ heat that has been generated via climate change over the past 45 years. Sunlight brings a continuous stream of light energy to the Earth, and much of that light is transformed into heat as it is absorbed by surfaces. As we emitted CO2 and other greenhouse gases, our atmosphere became a better insulator, impeding the rate at which heat radiates away from the planet. The result is that the planet has been warming, but most of this extra heat is now stored in the warmer oceans.

Fig 1 Box 3-1 Chap 3 IPCC WG1 AR5 heat energy stored
Figure 1, Box 3.1, Chapter 3 of the report of WG1 for IPCC’s Fifth Assessment (2013 showing the amount of additional heat energy (in ZJ, or 1021 Joules) that has been measured to have accumulated in each of several portions of the planet. Largest by far, and together accounting in 2011 for about 25.5 ZJ, are the upper 700 m, and the deeper ocean. The recent (2014) paper by Durack and colleagues has shown the correct amount for the upper ocean should be increased by some 22-71 ZJ above that shown here. Figure © IPCC.

How much ‘excess’ heat is currently stored there? In its 2013 report, The IPCC Working Group 1 provided a figure showing the accumulation of heat in different components of the planet since 1970. It shows the upper ocean (to 700 m depth) accumulating about 170 ZJ (zeta joules or 1021 Joules) of heat over that time period while approximately 80 additional ZJ have accumulated in deeper waters. A recent (5 Oct 2014) article in Nature Climate Change by Paul Durack and three colleagues at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and Cal. Tech’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, provided an updated estimate for the upper ocean revealing that limited data from the southern ocean had resulted in a substantial underestimate (approximately 22–71 ZJ more heat), and helping explain where the heat had been going during the period in the early 2000s when air temperatures seemed to suggest global warming was slowing down. The revised total, some 290 or so ZJ for the entire global ocean, is an enormous quantity of heat, and while it means that our climate has warmed far less than it otherwise would (if all that heat had stayed in and warmed the atmosphere), it has several very important consequences for the oceans. In honor of World Ocean Day, June 8th, let’s examine what our greenhouse gas emissions have been doing to our oceans. (I’ve used the IPCC Fifth Assessment, completed in 2014, for much of the information here.)

How the Ocean Warms

Continuing with basic physics, all that extra heat has entered the ocean from its surface, and most of it still remains in the uppermost layers because there has not been time for the slow diffusive processes of the ocean to mix the heat into deeper waters. To be specific, while the upper 75 m of water are warming at a rate of about 0.11oC per decade, at 200 m depth the warming rate is about 0.04oC per decade, and at 500 m the rate is only about 0.02oC per decade.

This extra warming of the upper layers of the ocean is creating a stronger depth gradient for temperature. This has the effect of increasing the density gradient between light, warm surface and denser, cooler deeper waters making vertical mixing more difficult. One result of this is that upper ocean concentrations of dissolved oxygen, which diffuses down from the surface, and concentrations of nutrients such as nitrates or phosphates, which diffuse up from deeper waters, are falling. But it does not end here.

To begin with, warming by the sun is not uniform across the planet, and the differential warming plays a critical role in driving the global ocean circulation and in transporting heat from the tropics towards the poles. The increasingly warmer surface waters may in future begin to slow down the so-called ocean conveyor system by impeding the meridional overturning circulation (MOC) whereby surface waters in polar seas cool, become denser, and sink to become part of the deeper, or bottom water, moving back towards the equator in the deep ocean basins. Sinking of surface waters in northern seas draws surface water up from more equatorial regions.

This global conveyor system delivers heat from the tropics to the poles, and oxygen to the deep ocean. With surface waters now becoming warmer and less dense, there is the possibility that cooling in polar seas will become insufficient to make them dense enough to sink below the deeper water. (This argument is more complex than I have suggested here, because changes in salinity also affect the density of water, and surface waters of the polar oceans are becoming supplied with more low salinity water due to melting of ice caps. Low salinity water is less dense, warmer water is less dense; will the cooling taking place be sufficient to drive the sinking, and therefore the circulation via the ocean conveyor system? (I’ve written previously about this system and the risks of a slow-down.)

In addition, as water warms it expands very slightly and becomes less dense. This fact means that the warming of the oceans is contributing to sea level rise through the very slight expansion of that enormous quantity of water. Melting of glaciers on land (Greenland, Antarctica, and continental montane glaciers elsewhere), also being enhanced by global climate change, adds to the supply of liquid water and also contributes to sea level rise. Sea level has risen at about 1.7 mm per year between 1900 and 2010, however the actual rate has been increasing during that time, and averages 2.1 mm per year if we consider only years since 1970. The thermal expansion caused by warming has been responsible for about 30% of the total sea level rise; the remainder is due to melting of glaciers, and other redistribution of water between the land and the ocean. Overall, while estimates of sea level rise are imprecise, IPCC anticipates an increase of 0.5 to 1.0 m by 2100, and significant further increases beyond that point. The real significance of sea level rise is cultural; human civilization developed and has prospered under a regime of near stasis in sea level over the past several thousand years. It’s also worth noting that in past geological periods, such as the mid Pliocene, 3.3 to 3.0 million years ago, when temperatures were 2o to 3.5oC warmer than now, sea level was up to 20 m higher than today. It is not going to happen quickly, but if substantial melting of glaciers occurs, sea level could reach such heights over the next couple of centuries.

Changes in the Arctic

While it does not alter sea level, the melting of Arctic sea ice is now closely monitored, and is another consequence of warming of the oceans. In recent years the seasonal melt has grown more extensive, and it is clear that in a few more years, we may come to have brief summer ice-free periods in that ocean.

NSDIC Arctic sea ice 1June 2015
A graph of the seasonal trend in sea ice extent in the Arctic for the period through February and June. The mean trend over all years since 1981 is shown as solid black line, with a gray zone denoting ± 2 SD around this mean. Colored lines show the trends for each of the last five years; they fall consistently below the mean, meaning a more rapid and more extensive loss of ice cover than average. At present, 2015 looks set to be lower than any of the most recent years.
Figure courtesy NOAA NSIDC

While plenty of corporations and national governments are eyeing these trends hungrily because they will greatly expand access to the Arctic and its resources, the full environmental impacts of the changes to Arctic seas have yet to be assessed. As of May, 2015 is turning out to be a year in which the Arctic sea ice melt is more rapid and more extensive than any recent year.

Turning the Oceans more Acid

Our emissions of CO2 do not only lead to addition of heat to the ocean. Any gas in our atmosphere tends to equilibrate at the ocean surface, and as a consequence, the increasing concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere has led to increasing amounts of CO2 dissolving in surface ocean waters. About 28% of all anthropogenic emissions of CO2, or about 155 Pg (that’s 155 x 1015 grams CO2) have now dissolved into the oceans, and climate warming has been far less than it would have been if that CO2 had remained in the atmosphere. But dissolving CO2 in the ocean leads to the phenomenon called ocean acidification, a progressive lowering of pH of ocean waters. I discussed this phenomenon in some detail back in March of 2012, and some of its likely environmental impacts in July 2013.

The CO2 is concentrated in surface waters for the same reason that heat and O2 are concentrated there – slow diffusive mixing processes take time. Thus acidification is a problem of the upper levels of the ocean. Indeed, mixing will eventually distribute the increased H+ throughout the water column and problematic low pH surface waters will be a thing of the past. Only problem is that this mixing will take many centuries and surface waters will suffer low pH in the meantime.

In many ways, ocean acidification is a misnomer. The most acid ocean waters on the planet still have a pH greater than 7, the neutral value. The ocean is not turning into lemon juice. But the changes that have occurred over the past century are greater than at any time in the recent past.

Another Time in Another World

It was a very long time ago, in a very different world, but the Permian seas were rich in life including creatures we would quickly recognize as fish, as sharks, as molluscs, as corals. They also included creatures such as the trilobites and eurypterids, which, while they shouted out ‘arthropod’ being clearly related to all those other well-armored, jointed-leg creatures like crabs, spiders, and insects, were unlike anything we have ever seen. And then the seas were nearly dead. The end-Permian mass extinction was the most severe of all mass extinction events that have occurred since the Cambrian period began 550 million years ago. It happened over a span of some 60,000 years, 252 million years ago. Life nearly disappeared; in the oceans, 51% of all families, 82% of all genera, and somewhere between 92 and 97% of all species disappeared permanently from the planet. On land, the extent of the extinctions was not quite so bad – many of the early groups of insects disappeared entirely, and overall, about 70% of species of animal or plant were lost. Just try to imagine what our world would look like if 70-90% of all living species became extinct.

Permian seafloor U Mich Gallery_Image_11118
Permian seas were rich in abundant and diverse life, much like tropical seas today, and yet, so very different. In the space of 60,000 years, 90% of the creatures present became extinct.
Image © University of Michigan Museum

This mass extinction, which occurred in two phases over its 60,000 year course, had major effects on the evolution of life on Earth because it winnowed biodiversity so extremely. Indeed, it came close to terminating the grand experiment that eventually produced, among many other wonderful species, a naked ape now capable of severely jostling his planet. It’s fun to speculate on what might have happened if the winnowing had been less extensive, or had eliminated all amphibia instead of all trilobites – what would a world that had never evolved primates be like today?

While the cause or causes of the end Permian mass extinction are not yet fully understood, one primary culprit is the massive series of volcanic eruptions that took place in a region called the Siberian Traps – some two million square kilometers of central Siberia built of basaltic rock. This was the largest episode of volcanism known on the planet, and occurred during the time of the mass extinction. A report in Science this April, by Edinburgh University’s Matthew Clarkson and 9 colleagues from UK and German schools, (see also here) has revealed that the final, 10,000 year-long extinction pulse coincided with a rapid collapse of ocean pH that seems best explained as due to eruptions of massive amounts of carbon into the atmosphere, leading to rapid ocean acidification. They based this hypothesis on a detailed analysis of specific isotopes of carbon and boron in rock formed as sediments in a shallow part of the Tethys Sea, a major ocean of the Permian world. Shifts in proportional abundance of the isotopes, 13C and 11B, together can signal delivery of carbon, and associated shifts in pH in the ocean where the rock is being deposited. The analyses showed a rapid shift of 0.6 – 0.7 pH units at the time of the second phase of extinctions. The rate of change of ocean pH was apparently slower than the rate today (although it went on for a very long time). Earlier phases of the volcanism may have been at least partially responsible for ocean warming, increased anoxia, and other changes that contributed to the earlier pulse of the mass extinction.

Clarkson Musamdam rock section Permian Hand Science April 2015
The rocks near Musandam, UAE, that revealed a story to Matthew Clarkson of rapid ocean acidification at the close of the Permian, the likely cause of the second of two pulses of extinction that together nearly wiped out life on Earth. Photo © Science.

So Why Does All This Matter?

The changes we are bringing to the upper levels of the ocean – the portion where the vast majority of life resides – are multiple and profound. Just how profound? Well, when I took a course in introductory oceanography a few decades ago, we were taught that features like pH were essentially non-varying characteristics of ocean water. The pH of surface waters (upper several hundred meters) is changing perhaps 70 times more rapidly than in any of the Pleistocene deglaciations and is rapidly approaching values not seen since the Pliocene. Changes in temperature, and concentrations of Oxygen and nutrients are also pronounced compared to any time during the Holocene (last 10,000 years). These changes could be sufficient, if they are allowed to continue, to bring the oceans to a point of rapid, dangerous change, as has happened several times before. I think we should be profoundly concerned.
Taken together, the changes occurring in the ocean are having a variety of impacts on marine life. Geographic distributions and timing of seasonal patterns of abundance are being altered for many marine species. Physiological processes are being altered, and capacity to complete reproduction and early embryonic or larval development is being impeded. As a consequence of these ‘species-level’ changes, ecosystems are being altered as different species do well or less well under the changed circumstances.

small-scale-fisheries JA Bruson FFI
We have always depended on the ocean for food. Can we continue to depend on it while we change it so substantially? Photo © JA Bruson, FFI

Ultimately, of course, it matters to us. Our civilizations developed at a time of stable sea level and mostly centered on productive estuaries and deltas at sea level. Those places are now being submerged. We have always used the oceans as a major source of food, particularly for its animal protein, but even beyond the effects of our overfishing, failures by fishery species to cope with the changing environment, are impacting our ability to continue to extract food from the sea.

Categories: Arctic, Biodiversity Loss, Changing Oceans, Climate change | 2 Comments

Underwater conversations: Why I wish we could have them.

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We are not at one with the oceans

The majority of humans now live in cities. Some are the great cities, rich in history, filled with modern delights; others are less great cities, cities that never were much to talk about or cities that long ago lost their vitality. But all cities provide a layer of insulation between the individual and the natural world that sustains his/her life. When your food comes from the supermarket, your water from a tap, and your shelter from the efforts of specialists called construction workers, it is easy to forget that ultimately food, water and shelter are provided by nature. Separated from nature it is also easy to become detached from nature, to fail to recognize the damage we do, day by day, to the natural systems that underlie our own lives. How else to explain the relative lack of urgency about an environmental crisis that grows steadily worse? Oh, we know about the environmental crisis, but we do not see it as the life-threatening monster it is. We do not fear it; we have lots of other concerns that are more important. Finding ways to break through to urban populations is a major task for those who would change our perceptions of the environmental damage we are creating.
Toronto Aron Brand dreamstimemaximum_1242772

Photo of downtown Toronto © Aron Brand

Our impacts on the planet are not uniform. There are still places lightly touched as well as places made virtually uninhabitable by our past activities. True, there are ever fewer lightly touched places, but the fact that some still exist gives hope that it is not yet too late for us to recover a world that we need if our lives are to continue to prosper. Our appreciation of places varies, and our understanding of how they are being changed also varies – we are simply more aware of certain types of ecosystem and can see more easily how our actions are disturbing them.
Cristina Saenz de Santamaria Freedive-apnea-total3--644x362

Cristina and Eusebio Sáenz de Santamaría know the ocean in a special way.
Photo © Cristina Sáenz de Santamaria

When it comes to the oceans, our ability to understand and appreciate is particularly weak. We simply do not know the oceans in the way in which we know the land. Reports appear regularly documenting the extent of our ocean impacts. We are changing ocean pH more rapidly and to a greater extent than it has been changed for 55 million years. We have initiated a process of sea level rise which is unprecedented during the last 8000 years, essentially all of human history, and it is going to disrupt all our coastal cities as well as our smaller coastal villages. It’s a process that will not stop for several hundred years no matter what steps we take to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases. Our warming of the oceans risks substantial changes to the pattern of global ocean circulation and a reordering of the planetary heat budget. The accumulation of plastic waste in the open ocean, never mind all the other forms of oceanic pollution, appears to be having substantive consequences for trophic structures of plankton communities as well as for unfortunate turtles, dolphins and other larger creatures which become inextricably tangled up or constipated and die unnecessary deaths. We have created some 400 coastal dead zones, regions of the ocean where nutrient enrichment, due to mismanaged agriculture and land use and to releases of inadequately treated sewage, both lowers fisheries production and leads to the massive toxic algal blooms that are red tides. And our overfishing, nearly everywhere, has reduced the total biomass of fish in the world’s oceans by 90%. Yet, mostly, we assume the oceans will endure.

The special case of coral reefs

Many of us can understand, and express concern for, the widespread clear cutting of tropical rainforests; not so loss of coral reefs. We know trees far better than we know corals. We recognize how rainforest loss can have serious consequences for weather, climate, biological productivity, global biodiversity and carbon sequestration, not to mention economic well-being of nations that have rainforests to harvest, but we are far less able to appreciate the consequences of coral reef loss. Coral reefs cover about 100 times less area than do rainforests, they are being lost at a far greater rate than are rainforests, and the suggestion that none will remain viable by mid-century is a dispassionate deduction from the available evidence by knowledgeable scientists rather than over-the-top hysteria by anxious greenies. Coral reefs are the most productive marine ecosystem by far and a vital storehouse of biodiversity, while playing a critical role in protecting nearby shores from the ravages of oceanic storms, and serving both as the larder and the employment bureau for many coastal communities. Many people have heard that climate change, overfishing, pollution and other factors are having serious consequences on coral reefs, and the notion that they are disappearing from the planet has been widely reported. Yet for most people this is just another unfortunate statistic, one of many to be tut-tutted about, but not something of real concern.

Yet think about this fact for a minute. Many coral reef scientists are convinced that there is only a remote chance that the world of mid-century will have any coral reefs resembling the reefs that were abundant as recently as the 1960s. Not fewer than now. None at all. In another 35 years. Yes, there will be living corals. Yes, there will be limestone reefs, slowly eroding away, with occasional colonies of coral growing on their surfaces. But there will not be any vigorously growing coral reefs, adding new limestone at rates that equal or exceed the rates at which reefs are eroded by storms, wave-action, and the rasping, crunching, drilling out, and dissolving away that takes place continuously on healthy reefs due to the actions of a diverse array of bio-eroders including fishes, worms, snails, sea urchins, and sponges.

We have nothing to compare this to. In human history we have caused the extinction of a great many species, but we have never yet achieved the elimination from the planet of an entire ecosystem. That is what we are doing to coral reefs. It is really too bad, isn’t it? Quite sad, really. Unfortunate. But not nearly as important as what Kim Kardashian did this morning!

Why we need to be able to talk underwater

And this is why I wish we could have underwater conversations. There is a big difference between knowing about the ocean, and knowing the ocean. You can learn about any natural environment from books, videos, Wikipedia, Google, and even by listening to other people who know about that environment when they reminisce. Rather than knowing about, you get to know a natural environment by becoming immersed in it. And you get to know it best, by being immersed in it in the company of other people who know more about it than you do. It’s a left brain, right brain thing. You learn about the natural world using your analytical mind; getting to know or even to love the natural world requires a different approach. Unfortunately, the ocean is hard to love, because we cannot have conversations beneath the waves.
underwater restaurant in Maldives ithaa-m

Maybe a few more restaurants like Ithaa, in the Maldives, would help us get to know the ocean?
Photo © Ithaa Undersea.

Yes, I know there is technology that permits oral communication under water. Technology is available ranging from submarines and underwater telephone booths (called ‘talk bubbles’) to throat microphones, microphones built into the regulator mouthpiece, and bone conducting audio receivers. The technology has improved greatly over the years, but remains pricy, demands use of cumbersome full- or lower-face masks, and produces sound rich with the gurgles, bubbling, clicks and clanks that seem to happen when someone tries to speak under water. Darth Vader would find the sounds familiar; the rest of us, not so much. The prices of the technology are high enough that the average sport diver never has the experience of talking under water. Instead, we use hand signals, short messages scrawled illegibly onto underwater slates, odd grunts and squeaks, and the rat-tat-tat of a convenient rock or other object against the scuba tank when it is really important to get someone’s attention. As a consequence, most dives are a solitary affair, even when one dives as part of a group.
NOAA talk bubble nur08052

Divers using a talk bubble, a rigid plastic hemisphere big enough for two, to have a short conversation. Photo courtesy NOAA Photo Library

Throughout the tropics there are dive shops affiliated with hotels that provide an opportunity for sport divers to explore the nearby reefs. The typical dive (there are brilliantly organized exceptions) begins with paying your money and checking out any rental gear you need. Then you assemble at the dive vessel, and take the short ride out to the destination. The dive master and any associated staff introduce themselves, provide a one- or two-sentence description of where you are going and perhaps what you will see there. More time is (rightly) spent on safety aspects, including how long the dive will be and how deep, and where to aggregate at its conclusion. Then it is time to gear up and jump in. The group assembles at depth, OK signals are exchanged, and the dive leader sets off on his or her chosen path, followed by everyone else. Typically there will be a few stops at particular points of interest – perhaps the hang-out of a friendly moray, or a particularly fine coral formation or seascape. Sometimes these stops are really just an opportunity for the dive leader to do a count, ensure nobody has wandered off, check on the stragglers, and especially query each participant on the state of his or her air supply. Eventually, after a time that should be manageable by the most air-hungry member of the group, the dive leader brings you back to the rendezvous point, usually with a safety stop hanging off the anchor line, and back on board. The post mortem period is spent in taking off and stowing the gear, getting dry and warm if conditions have been chilly, and sharing some soft drinks or something more elaborate. Only rarely will the dive leader talk about what has been seen, although with prodding many are quite knowledgeable. Back on shore, you have enjoyed yourself, you are ready for the next item on your to-do list for that day, but you really have not added to your understanding of what you saw down below the surface. And if your background does not include the preliminaries of the natural sciences, you may not even know how to begin finding out about what you have seen.

Contrast this with a walk through a rainforest with someone who knows it well. Or a ramble along a rocky shore. Or, indeed, a hike in any natural environment on land. You’d be talking more or less continuously, and you would be learning. You’d discover that the creatures you might initially have been at a loss to describe have names, relationships, and patterns of life that are quite their own. You’d discover that creatures that look similar may or may not be closely related; that certain activities only occur in certain seasons or certain places, that some objects you did not even realize were alive are animals of particular kinds. And you’d learn about the relationships among all these creatures that occupy that particular landscape, about the ways in which the seasons affect their lives, and about how they affect each other. Gaining all this knowledge will not force you to know and love that particular ecosystem, but without gaining all this knowledge it will be much more difficult, perhaps impossible to come to know it. It will remain the other. That is the problem for marine systems – they remain the other.

Over the years, I have come to understand that I have accumulated a lot of knowledge about my chosen undersea world, the reef, and my chosen creatures, the fishes. I know many people who have a far deeper well of such knowledge, but I also know I am more knowledgeable than most. When I put on my facemask, grab the regulator between my teeth and descend to a reef, I am entering a neighborhood I know quite well. I recognize the inhabitants I expect to see there, and I know that they have complicated, busy lives; lives which, if I am careful, I will not interrupt too much. I marvel at the complexity of their lives, the richness of their interactions both within and across species, the apparent orderliness of their day. I wonder how it is that prey species seem to be fully aware of whether a predator is hunting or just hanging out. I’ve learned to spot this same awareness when I am in the water with a microspear intent on ‘harvesting’ certain individuals for research! I wonder how the myriad species of reef fish recognize each other as fish, though clearly not their own species, and how they recognize the various crabs, snails and starfishes as alive. How do predatory groupers know that they should open their mouths and flare their operculae to allow a bite-sized cleaner wrasse to swim in and nibble away? How do they know to return regularly to a cleaner station to be ‘serviced’? Why do they not try feeding on other fishes aggregating at the cleaner station awaiting their turn to be cleaned? I confess to even wondering sometimes what a goby is thinking while it rests on the bottom, winnowing a mouthful of sand to extract the micro crustaceans while letting the sand grains fall out through its gills? Are gobies particularly contemplative fishes? Never mind what it is thinking about, how does it even manage to take a mouthful of sand and swirl it about in its mouth retrieving and swallowing the micro crustaceans while discarding the sand? These are perhaps not the thoughts a scientist should have while collecting field data, but they are my thoughts, and wondering about these things is what makes a reef real to me. If only I could convey just a few of these crazy thoughts to other divers while on a dive.

The fact is that we are having profound impacts on the ocean, and these impacts are affecting the lives of the various species that live there in diverse, often rather bad ways. We care relatively little for the damage we are doing because we do not know the creatures that are being impacted. If we did, maybe we would rate our damage to the ocean as the globally serious problem it is. If we loved the ocean more, maybe we would take much better care of it.

An apt slogan! The title banner in an article by Rick MacPherson of the Coral Reef Alliance.
Image © Terrain.org

Categories: Changing lifestyles, Changing Oceans, coral reef science, Stories from a Coral Reef | Comments Off on Underwater conversations: Why I wish we could have them.