The ocean – large, complex, not well understood, and changing rapidly: a big problem as we seek to understand global environmental change.

Digg This

Recent articles in the technical journals and in the media convince me we should be getting a lot more concerned about the state of the ocean than we are. Sure there has been progress. IPCC devotes whole chapters to discussion of ocean phenomena, numerous reports have appeared calling for more attention to the ocean, and oceanic processes are increasingly invoked to explain observed changes in climate. But I was prodded to attention when calls appeared earlier this month in both Science and Nature, urging the commencement of carefully controlled experimentation on possible geo-engineering solutions to the problem of global warming.

In their ‘comment’ in Nature, Jane Long, formerly of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and two equally senior US colleagues, called for the US government and others to begin programs to fund small-scale, low-risk, outdoor, climate-engineering research, and develop a framework for governing it. They argued that it was important to grow the science and the regulatory framework together, and to commence now, before rogue operators do something the world will regret. Their assumption, of course, is that US science and US scientists would not do anything reckless.

Science reported in its 13th February issue that the US National Research Council (NRC) has recommended that the US government commence funding for a coordinated program of research on albedo modification and on atmospheric carbon removal technologies. The article does not mention the risk of rogue operators, but talks instead of the likely need for such techniques “to avoid the worst impacts of climate change”, and the reluctance of funding agencies until now to fund such research. This article also reports that the NRC study was requested and partially funded by the CIA.

Geo-engineering is the term used to cover engineered or technological fixes for climate change and other environmental problems, and geo-engineering has its cheerleaders. Using geo-engineering, we invent our way out of difficulties rather than correct behavior that over-taxes the planetary systems. Many of those in favor of geo-engineering are the same people who believe we can establish colonies on the moon, or replace natural systems on this planet entirely with engineered ones. They believe we already understand environmental systems sufficiently to build a world where we can do what we want to do even if that includes exceeding currently existing limits set by the natural planetary system. They seek to bend the planet to our will rather than operate in ways that sustain the planet. They are definitely rah-rah engineers rather than scientists. We saw one, not too long ago, bilking First Nations people out of millions by promising to fertilize the oceans around Haida Gwai.

Albedo modification is a term used for various technological approaches to cooling the Earth, usually by making the atmosphere more reflective thereby reducing the amount of sunlight reaching and warming the planet. Most techniques involve polluting the atmosphere with small particles or molecules of some type. Carbon removal refers to approaches that would suck carbon, or CO2, out of the air for sequestration deep underground or elsewhere. Geo-engineering fans see these as obvious solutions to present problems. The problem is that any exploration of such approaches outside a lab necessarily makes use of our shared environment. Experiments are experimental – they can go badly wrong. I would much prefer carefully regulated research to rogue experiments in any science done outside the laboratory, but I am also concerned that the enthusiasm for research in this area, well regulated or not, smacks too much of an ‘if we build it they will come’ mentality that guarantees the upscaling and use of these approaches to managing climate whether or not other solutions are available. How much better to solve our CO2 pollution by adding commercial air pollution with reflective particles, than to reduce our problematic CO2 emissions? It becomes a new, money-making activity, and allows us to continue our profligate polluting ways.

At the same time, I am concerned that our very slow progress towards CO2 emissions reductions may well leave humanity exposed to an ugly climate in the near future, one that is so bad it must be improved temporarily using some geo-engineering strategy because the real fix (reductions in emissions) is taking too long. While they express it differently, authors of both recent articles share this concern. Indeed, the NRC report takes pains to discriminate between albedo manipulation and carbon removal, and lead author, Marcia McNutt referred to albedo manipulation as “really scary” and something to do our best to avoid. Nevertheless the report sees starting some well-regulated geo-engineering research as sound insurance.

In my view, the correct approach, difficult though it may be, is to put in place an international, enforced moratorium on any albedo manipulating experiments while continuing to encourage approaches for carbon capture and storage (CCS), and to work hard for the international agreement on reducing CO2 emissions that we all know we must have. It is the right approach because you do not solve pollution by creating additional pollution, and because you do not achieve difficult political agreements by reducing the pressure to agree. It is also the right approach because adjusting the planet’s albedo only addresses the warming due to addition of CO2 to the atmosphere – it totally ignores the impacts of all that added CO2 on the world’s ocean. We cannot afford to forget about the health of our ocean and proponents of geo-engineering frequently do.

The Ocean – most important ecosystem on the planet – is changing

The ocean is a massive yet moving heat sink that both stores immense quantities of heat and moves heat from the tropics toward the poles. Covering about 70% of the planet’s surface, and containing 13.7 billion km3 or 97% of the planet’s water, the ocean is enormous and the major heat sink on the planet. The ocean has absorbed about 93% of the excess heat entering the Earth system over the last 45 years, and about 30% of the CO2 which we have been emitting into the atmosphere.

Most of that heat remains in the upper 700 m of depth, which has warmed most appreciably in recent years. Some of this heat has diffused to deeper layers and there is now measurable warming down to about 2000 m depth. Below that depth, temperature has not increased significantly in recent years. Part of the reason for this is that the ocean is only slowly mixed vertically via the giant ocean conveyor system which operates on time-scales measured in hundreds to thousands of years. Surface warming has strengthened the stratification of surface layers, further limiting vertical mixing and heat diffusion.

Fig 3.18 IPCC WG1AR5 pH changes

Figure 3.18 from the IPCC Working Group I Report, part of their 5th Assessment Report, 2013. Plots show similar trends through time in [CO32-], pCO2, and pH for surface waters at Bermuda (BATS), Hawaii (ALOHA), and in the north-east Atlantic (ESTOC). At all sites, CO2 has been increasing while pH and CO32- have been declining. Image © IPCC.

The same slow mixing is responsible for most of the CO2 absorbed in recent years remaining in the upper layers. It is in these surface layers that increased CO2 is causing a decline in pH, which has fallen about 0.1 unit since the beginning of the industrial era. Present-day surface water pH ranges regionally from 7.8 to 8.4 (average about 8.1). The link between CO2 and pH concerns the chemical equilibrium of ions of CO2 and CaCO3. Increasing CO2 leads to an increase in availability of CO32- and a decrease in HCO3-. This decrease of 0.1 pH units represents a 26% increase in availability of H+ ions. On time-scales of 100 to 1000 years, the added CO2 will be distributed to deeper layers of the ocean, and on time-scales of 100,000 years, CO2 will be precipitated as CaCO3 sequestered into oceanic sediments.

Whether being warmed and carbonated or not, the ocean basin-scale circulation pattern termed the giant ocean conveyor transports heat and salinity away from the tropics in surface flows which tend to cool and sink beneath now less dense, less saline polar waters. There is some concern among ocean scientists, but little direct evidence so far, that changes in surface water temperatures, and rates of melting of ice may act to slow this ‘turnover’ between surface and deeper waters by slowing down the ocean conveyor.

As well as being an important storehouse for heat and CO2, the ocean has immense biological importance. Photosynthesis by marine phytoplankton currently rivals that of terrestrial vegetation in production of organic matter, and in release of oxygen to the atmosphere. Changes that reduce the effectiveness of phytoplankton would have major, and long-term, impacts on food production and on oxygen concentration in our atmosphere.

In a major review of the complexities of the microbiota of the marine plankton, Alexandra Worden of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI), and five colleagues from MBARI, MIT, University of British Columbia, and Oregon State University, recently drew attention to the enormous variety of types of organisms represented in the marine plankton.

Their paper, in the 13th February issue of Science, pointed out that the huge diversity of lifestyles among the protists in particular made any presentation of the single-celled plankton as ‘photosynthetic’ far too simplistic. Their paper, an ode to the rich, and as yet poorly understood biodiversity of these smallest of oceanic species, included a fascinating diagram representing all of eukaryotic (non-bacterial) life on our planet. That we understand so little of so many of these types of organism, and that the marine plankton is rich in representatives of all seven major and many of the sub-groups in their diagram, must give us pause when we consider likely impacts on the ocean’s biological capacities of our additions of CO2. Perhaps we should all take a look at their diagram once a week as a way of instilling humility, and driving out the hubris that leads to simplistic notions of being able to geo-engineer our way out of the problems our CO2 emissions are creating for us.

Worden Science ocean plankton F3.large

Figure 2 from Alexandra Worden’s review. Single-celled protists of many types are well represented in every one of the seven major branches of the eukaryote tree of life, and representatives of all seven groups make up the marine plankton. We are located along with all the rest of the ‘higher animals’ (Bilateria), alongside the Cnidarians (corals), Ctenophores (comb jellies), and Porifera (sponges), within the Opisthokonts. Fungi are another type of Opisthokont, and mosses and green plants are among the Archaeplastids. This tree omits all the prokaryotes that are even more numerous.
Image © Science.

Although it came out a month earlier, the article in Nature Climate Change for January 2015, by Phillip Boyd of University of Hobart, Australia, and colleagues from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, USA, and Braunschweig Technical University, Germany, provides a nice reinforcement of Worden’s primary message that we do not yet understand oceanic biology well. Boyd and colleagues demonstrate that there is significant regional variation in the strength and direction of trends in various aspects of ocean condition (temperature, salinity, pH, concentration of certain nutrients) being caused by our CO2 emissions, and that these differing patterns of overall change are going to impact different members of the plankton in different ways. They suggest the responses to some variables range from shifts of 20% to 300% in various physiological rates. Numerous interactions will occur among species that are more or less favored by the changed environment. Yet another set of voices arguing for caution when evaluating the likely effects on primary oceanic processes when we consider the changes we are causing.

And it’s not just climate change

Our impacts on the ocean are numerous. I won’t even waste space here talking about our over-fishing. Nor will I say anything about our ocean pollution. Other than to point out that in mid-February, Science published the most up-to-date estimate of the amount of plastic waste that gets to the ocean. The paper by Jenna Jambeck of University of Georgia, and six colleagues from across the US (plus one from CSIRO, Australia), indirectly calculated amount of plastic waste entering the oceans by first estimating amount of solid waste produced, extent to which that waste was plastics, and the effectiveness of waste management for each of 190 countries. The proportion of waste production that was within 50km of a coast was used to estimate the extent of the mismanaged waste in each country that would likely end up in the oceans.

Jambeck and colleagues calculated that in 2010, 192 countries generated 275 million Mt of plastic waste, and that between 4.8 and 12.7 million Mt of this entered the oceans. That’s somewhere between 4 and 12 million metric tonnes of it! Their estimate is one to three orders of magnitude greater than the mass of plastic reported to be floating in oceanic gyres (about 50 to 60% of plastic waste produced would be buoyant). While the discrepancy is large, the quantities of plastic waste they calculated are reasonable given the amount of plastic resins being manufactured. Jambeck and colleagues also report they expect the amount of plastic waste produced to increase an order of magnitude by 2025 as economies and standards of living grow. They include a table of the top 20 countries in terms of quantity of mismanaged plastic waste per year which shows large variations in quantity of waste, effectiveness of waste management, and per capita rate of waste generation. Not surprisingly, China tops the list. Its huge population mismanages 8.82 million Mt of plastic waste per year, while that of the US, 20th on the list, mismanages 0.28 million Mt per year. On the other hand, per capita, Americans generate 2.58 kg plastic waste per day, while the Chinese generate just 1.10 kg per day. While lots of plastic waste forms unsightly flotsam, or entangles iconic marine creatures, the greatest damage to the oceans happens at far smaller spatial scales where minute marine zooplankton and larval fish ingest micro-particles (a recent article is available here).

I blogged earlier this month about the paper in Science by Doug McCauley and colleagues suggesting that marine defaunation is likely to proceed rapidly as we continue to intensify our use of the oceans. They detail the many ways we are impacting marine life, and the many ways in which marine systems currently provide important goods and services for us.

And our ocean modulates our climate

Just as our changing climate is changing the ocean, the ocean modulates our climate. The warming effects of our CO2 pollution would have been far more severe if the ocean was less able to absorb heat. And yet, the complexity of ocean dynamics continues to make it quite difficult for us to comprehend exactly how it acts on climate, or to anticipate how it will act on climate in the future.

Just this week, Byron Steinman, of U. Minnesota, Duluth, with Michael Mann and Sonya Miller of Penn State, reported additional details in Science of the relationship between large-scale, multi-decadal oscillations in sea surface temperature in the North Atlantic (AMO) and North Pacific (PMO) and northern hemisphere temperatures. The so-called pause in warming since about 2000 (‘so-called’ because while the atmosphere has warmed more slowly, the oceans have continued to warm in response to our continued emissions of CO2) has been argued about ad nauseum ever since denialists first grabbed onto it as the latest proof that climate was not changing. Over the past several years, there has been a series of reports by various scientists filling in the gaps in knowledge of the oceans, and this paper is the latest. Steinman and colleagues show that we have been going through a period when the AMO was in a modestly positive phase while the PMO was in a strongly negative phase. The result is that air temperatures in the Northern Hemisphere have been cooler than they might have been. The expectation is that quite soon, the PMO will shift more positive and atmospheric warming will pick up noticeably.

Meanwhile, with warmer sea surface temperatures, and with a warmer Arctic causing the jet stream to slow and wobble, eastern North America has seen another bruising February, and record snowfalls in many locations. The Thinkprogress blog had a nice piece on our interesting winter. Despite a warming world, those of us in eastern North America may have to become used to a shorter, but more intense winter, at least for a while.


Sean Davey Aurora Photos surf-waves-adventure_22958_600x450

If we understand the ocean, we can work with it. If we take it for granted… Photo © Sean Davey/Aurora

Putting all these things together, I think we should be far more appreciative of our ocean, far more aware of all the things it does for us, and far more concerned about the things we are doing to it. Our changes to CO2 concentrations have already set in train oceanic processes that will continue for thousands of years as heat and carbon are redistributed about the ocean. The acidification alone may have major biological repercussions, as may our plastic pollution and all the other types of pollution we spill into the ocean. The reduction or loss of services as fundamental to life as the production of atmospheric oxygen are not outside the realm of possibilities, and we really need humility as we work to increase our understanding of just what we are doing.

News Flash – China is colonizing the high seas

Nothing to do with this week’s topic except it definitely concerns the ocean: China has for some time now laid claim to the Spratly Islands, an archipelago of some 750 reefs and cays in the South China Sea.

Spratly Islands Google Map

This screengrab from Google Maps shows the Spratly Islands close to the Philippine island of Palawan, and also closer to Viet Nam and Maylasia than to China. Nevertheless, China claims them. Map ©

China’s interest, and indeed that of the Philippines, Malaysia and Viet Nam, has to do with the fisheries in these productive waters, and perhaps also with likely oil and gas reserves. However, China has recently upped the ante, with extensive island building. Borrowing the destructive techniques pioneered in the Arabian Gulf by the Dubai builders of Palm Jumeirah and The World, islands are being created on top of reefs, by dredging with no effort to contain sediment or siltation.

Now, it is true that most of the other claiming nations have also established outposts from time to time on one or more of the few small sand cays that are the only land. But building islands where no land previously existed, and islands big enough for runways and wharves; that is different. There is an excellent series of aerial photos here, and the Los Angeles Times provides a good account.

Ironic fact is that the building approach is not one that is compatible with continued sustainable management of productive reef waters. This is a blatant grab of high seas territory. Not only do we not understand the ocean, behavior such as this shows we do not respect it.

Categories: Biodiversity Loss, Changing Oceans, Climate change | Leave a comment

Loss of Biodiversity – a bigger problem than most of us realize?

Digg This

Building local understanding

One of the wonders of this part of Ontario is the Muskoka Watershed Council – a unique made-in-Muskoka solution to the need for effective environmental management in a region strongly dependent on its natural environment for its economic well-being. Now in its 14th year, the Watershed Council is an on-going, voluntary collaboration between our municipal government and our community. Its purpose is to promote the wise management and use of our wonderful natural environment, through environmental assessment, advocacy for wise management, communication and education concerning environmental issues, and demonstration of effective management or remediation strategies. Government provides two part-time staff, and access to meeting space and the considerable resources of its planning department, while the community provides a suite of volunteers and, through the small non-profit, Friends of the Muskoka Watershed, office space, equipment and supplies, financial management, and access to sources of grant funding inaccessible to a government department. My involvement as one of those volunteers in the Watershed Council over the last several years has been a gratifying use of my time, my experience and my skills.

Late in 2010, the Muskoka Watershed Council commenced an investigation of the status of biodiversity in our region by undertaking an unusual and rewarding set of conversations with long-time residents. Yes, scientists like me travelled around the distant corners of Muskoka talking to old-timers, people who had been on the land for generations, asking them to talk about the changes they had seen.

I remember the first of these meetings, in a small meeting room at the Bracebridge United Church, seated on mis-matched kitchen chairs, late on a snowy afternoon in November, with coffee and cookies to sustain us. Six of us from the Watershed Council sat and listened as eight long-time residents remembered the past. They were all older than any of us (and some of us are ‘up there’). They included retired farmers, loggers, a hydraulic engineer, a retired teacher, a former government worker and businessman. We told them what we were trying to do – gain a picture of how our environment had changed over the almost 200 years since European settlement commenced, and then we sat back and listened as the memories poured forth. They knew this part of the world, and their knowledge frequently included lessons from previous generations that had also lived here. Their knowledge was also definitely land knowledge rather than town knowledge. They knew how this place had changed.

It was a great meeting, because the memories were rich in detail, and included such irrelevancies as how stupid certain other individuals, not present, had been; how crazy certain government policies had been; and how wonderful certain long-remembered events that they had shared had been. I came away knowing that I had just been listening to wise elders talking around the campfire, handing down the stories that keep our communities whole. Stories rich in traditional knowledge and deeply held beliefs, stories derived from experience rather than from books, YouTube, or Twitter. Beyoncé was not mentioned once. I recommend such conversations even if you are not chasing information on biodiversity.

That meeting was followed by five others, in various venues over the course of the winter. I met some amazing people, and heard some amazing stories. We combined what we learned from these meetings, with what we could learn from the science literature to produce a report which is found here. (Having written the report, we also produced a short summary brochure, and incorporated biodiversity loss into our communication and education effort. The 2nd Muskoka Summit on Environment in 2012 focused on biodiversity.)

The primary messages I derived from these conversations were that 1) people who had lived on the land had seen measurable changes in abundances of certain species, 2) most of these changes were ones in which a species became less common or disappeared, but that 3) in explaining these changes to themselves, most people spoke eloquently about the cycles that exist in nature, and about the balance of nature, except when they were accounting for obvious losses due to hunting out of game, removal of forest to create farmland, or eradication of pests. There were fewer beaver (still too damned many in some people’s view) for obvious reasons to do with trapping and draining of swampland, but the losses of Canada jays or bluebirds were likely part of a cycle in which balance would ultimately be restored. While these old-timers were concerned at the extent of development, and the influx of lots of city people who do not understand Muskoka, even they did not clearly see the reductions in abundance of wild flora and fauna which have taken place.

Biodiversity – What is it? What does it do? Why does it matter?

Biodiversity is a complicated concept. It refers to the extent of variety in an ecosystem – the variety of distinctive habitats present, the number of species, their relative and absolute abundances in each habitat, the genetic diversity within each species population, and so on. Species extinction is the most obvious evidence of loss of biodiversity, but more subtle changes such as loss of genetic variability within populations (a common result if a population falls to very low numbers), loss in overall abundance of organisms, and simplification/homogenization of the landscape so that fewer habitats are present all represent loss of biodiversity. Ecological theory and empirical knowledge both suggest strongly that loss of biodiversity is something to avoid because of its impacts on the ecological functioning of ecosystems. In particular, high biodiversity confers resilience on an ecosystem, equipping it to better withstand environmental changes whether these be long-term shifts or shorter-term episodes of flooding, drought or fire.

Humanity has a long history of degrading biodiversity, starting in the Pleistocene with our progressive hunting out of large mammals in many parts of the world, and continuing with over-harvest, introduction of invasive pests, and destruction of habitat all important at the present time. Unfortunately, the pace with which we reduce biodiversity has been increasing rapidly as our numbers and our economy grow. Large portions of the planet’s surface are now radically altered by human activities, and these radically altered places are also far simpler biologically. Biodiversity has been greatly reduced, but people tend not to notice slow changes in biodiversity. It has proved difficult to build any sense of urgency concerning this problem.
McCauley defaunation Science 2015 F1.large

Over the last 50,000+ years, humans have been defaunating the planet, initially by hunting out large terrestrial species, and later by degrading and expropriating habitat. We started later in the oceans and are only now beginning extensive habitat alteration there. Image © DJ McCauley & Science.

People tend not to notice biodiversity loss because we are not evolved to pay attention to slow processes, and we simply don’t see them happening. Also, we mostly seek stability in our lives, cherishing beliefs in the balance of nature or the compassion of a personal god, while avoiding thinking about the fact that we are all perched perilously on a beautiful blue marble hurtling through space at phenomenal speed, on a path and towards a destination totally outside our knowledge or control. If something were to happen to that blue marble, such as being hit by a modestly large asteroid, there is little we could do to avoid the consequences for our lives, so best wrap ourselves in the comfort of a belief in balance and stability. Under these circumstances, biodiversity loss, which is gradual and subtle, can be a very tough sell. And yet, we should be very concerned.

The Push to Make Biodiversity Relevant

On February 5th 2015, Nature published a one-page commentary by Ehsan Masood, arguing that a major international initiative to stem biodiversity loss is going to require strong support if it is to be effective. The Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) was established three years ago by the international community to build a scientific basis, and political support, for global actions to stop the losses of biodiversity and move us toward a more sustainable management of the planet. Patterned on the IPCC, it will need to develop a stature and a record of performance sufficient to do for biodiversity what IPCC has done for the climate – build an unimpeachable science-based argument that will support the need, and provide a basis, for the international legal instruments essential to achieve, real changes in our impacts on global biodiversity.

Because our impacts on biodiversity are a direct consequence of the rapid growth in our economy, there are likely to be powerful opponents to any actions designed to protect biodiversity. IPBES held its third meeting in late January; its first report due in 2019 will deal specifically with the issue of loss of pollinators and the consequences for agriculture and the well-being of natural plant communities.

All species ultimately disappear, either becoming extinct or evolving into a recognizably different species. Some 99% of species that have ever existed on this planet are already extinct, but the pattern of extinction through time is not constant. Instead there has been a general ‘background’ level, and five episodes of far higher rates, termed mass extinctions, in which at least 75% of all species present go extinct. The last mass extinction, at the end of the Cretaceous, killed off the last of the dinosaurs. Estimates of the present rate of extinctions for well-known, mostly larger organisms, such as mammals, birds and amphibians, range from about 0.01% to 0.7% of species per year. These are about 100 times higher than equivalent rates over the past 65 million years, and rates likely over the next century may be as much as 100 times higher still. By 2100, if expectations are fulfilled, a substantial proportion of currently living species will no longer exist, and our world will be that much poorer. Potentially, we will be moving into a sixth mass extinction, and our world will be radically simplified.

Last October, Derek Tittensor of UNEP’s World Conservation Monitoring Centre and Dalhousie University, together with dozens of co-authors from all over the world, published a sober analysis of how we are doing on biodiversity in Science. They reviewed progress on each of the 20 biodiversity-related Aichi Targets agreed on by the Convention on Biological Diversity when it met in Aichi, Japan in 2010. Their analysis suggested that “despite accelerating policy and management responses to the biodiversity crisis, the impacts of these efforts are unlikely to be reflected in improved trends in the state of biodiversity by 2020” We are making some progress, but not nearly enough.

The reason for such dire expectations for biodiversity is that our assault on the planet, far from easing, has continued its rapid expansion. First, as Patrick Gerland, of the UN Population Division, and several colleagues pointed out in Science on 10th October 2014, The UN has revised its projections for the global human population upwards. At 2100, our global population will likely lie between 9.6 and 12.3 billion; while growth rate will have continued to fall, our population will still be growing. More people means more demands on the planet.

Second, in an article set to appear in Anthropocene Review in April, and now available on-line, Will Steffan of Stockholm University and Australian National University, and four colleagues in Australia and Sweden, have updated the ‘great acceleration’ graphs first produced in 2004. These graphs are plots of 12 indicators that record the trajectory since 1750 of the ‘human enterprise’ and plots that track the trajectory, over the same time frame, of 12 key indicators of the structure and functioning of the Earth system. Updating these graphs from 2000 to 2010 has scarcely altered the story they tell.

Beginning in about 1950, there has been a dramatic increase in the size of our ecological footprint. In their words, quoted from their original 2004 report,

One feature stands out as remarkable. The second half of the twentieth century is unique in the entire history of human existence on Earth. Many human activities reached take-off points sometime in the twentieth century and have accelerated sharply towards the end of the century. The last 50 years have without doubt seen the most rapid transformation of the human relationship with the natural world in the history of humankind.

Steffan Fig 1 Anthropocene_The_Great_Acceleration_-_2015-02-08_17.06.23

Figure 1 from Steffan et al Anthropocene Review 2015. These 12 indicators reveal a rapidly growing human impact on the planet since about 1950 – an increase that does not yet appear to be slowing. Image © W. Steffan.

Steffan Fig 3 Anthropocene_The_Great_Acceleration_-_2015-02-08_17.07.56

Figure 3 from Steffan et al Anthropocene Review 2015. These 12 indicators reveal rapidly growing changes to the planet since about 1950 – changes likely due to the growing human impacts. Image © W. Steffan.

In the new report, Steffan and colleagues have replaced two indicators with alternatives, and have partitioned 10 of the 12 human enterprise indicators to reveal increases in OECD countries, the BRICS, and the rest of the world. Still, despite the economic slowdown of 2008-9, the new graphs confirm that the rampant changes taking place since 1950 have continued through the first decade of the 21st century – rampant changes in human activities, and rampant changes in the nature of the Earth system. It is this phenomenal growth in our footprint on the planet that is responsible for the growing impacts on biodiversity.

One of the replaced indicators had been the rate of species extinctions. The new graphs instead use the percentage decrease in modeled mean abundance for terrestrial mammal species, relative to their abundance in undisturbed ecosystems (actually a better indicator of the aggregated human pressure on the terrestrial biosphere). This indicator begins to rise slowly around 1850, more steeply by 1950, and is now approaching a 30% decline. Think about that. The average terrestrial mammal is now 30% less abundant than it would be if its ecosystem was undisturbed. Less abundant populations are necessarily more prone to extinction when a bad year, a disease outbreak, or some other variable event makes life difficult.

Present-day changes in biodiversity

So let’s talk about the changes in biodiversity that are occurring. Rates of extinction for well-studied groups like mammals, birds and amphibians are substantially higher than they were for ancestors to those groups throughout the Cenozoic and appear likely to go higher. If these are representative of other types of organism, we could be entering the sixth mass extinction in a few years with more than 75% of all living species disappearing from the earth. The average abundance of terrestrial mammals has declined close to 30% as humans expropriate habitat, or kill them off. Again, if a reduction in abundance of that magnitude is typical for all types of organisms, we are simplifying ecosystems, allowing for less genetic diversity within populations, and pushing populations towards extinction. Is there other available evidence that the situation is really this dire?

Evidence of the severity of the human impact on the planet is all around us. In the 16th January issue of Science, Doug McCauley of U.C. Santa Barbara, and four colleagues from other US universities published a report drawing attention to our defaunation of the oceans. In it, they make the point that we have had a >50,000 year head start in defaunating the land, but are now starting to catch up in the oceans as well. Using IUCN Red List data on species extinctions since 1500, they contrast the rapid rise in terrestrial extinctions with the modest increase in extinctions of marine species, but they caution that we may be about to enter a period of rapid increase in the oceans as well. A graph showing this is hidden in the supplementary material for their paper. It compares IUCN-recorded extinctions since 1500 for terrestrial and marine organisms. Their main text includes a set of graphs that are eerily similar to those Steffan and colleagues provided to show the growing global human impact on the planet, except they mostly start in the mid- to late-20th century. Given that trawling has already had significant impact on the structure of benthic communities covering some 50 million km2 of seafloor, and that we are now commencing other forms of ‘interference’ with the marine environment, we should anticipate an increase in impacts on marine biodiversity.

cumulative extinctions land and sea McCauley et al Science 2015

Figure S1 from McCauley et al 2015 showing the pattern of extinctions since 1500 for terrestrial (green) and marine (blue) organisms. Only 15 extinctions of marine species have been recorded by IUCN. Both curves should be considered minimal estimates since many ‘unknown’ species have doubtless also been lost. The unlabeled box to the right is a probably period of a marine industrial revolution. Graph © DJ McCauley & Science

Figure 5 McCauley et al Science 2015 marine footprint

Figure 5 from McCauley et al, Science 2015 showing rates of increase in several indicators of human impact on marine ecosystems. The graphs are reminiscent of the indicators of the ‘great acceleration’ identified by Steffan and colleagues, except that the timelines commence in the mid- to late-20th century. Image © DJ McCauley & Science

More than 90% of large pelagic fish are now less extensively distributed than before our commercial fishing commenced – a consequence of our overfishing. Close to a third of coastal species of smaller fish and invertebrates also reveal significant reductions in range. And overfishing has reduced global abundance of marine fishes by about 90% — that is, there is only 10% of biomass of fish flesh swimming in the oceans compared to when we first commenced commercial fishing.

Back on land there are many pieces of evidence of reduced biodiversity beyond the increasing rate of extinction. We have appropriated close to 40% of all land to human uses (see Steffan’s Fig 3 above). While this land is not devoid of life, it is occupied by monoculture agriculture, highways, parking lots, and cities offering far fewer opportunities for biodiversity than natural environments. We have radically reduced the amount of old-growth forest, and significantly reduced the amount of all forests including less biodiverse secondary forests and tree plantations. We also have polluted rivers and estuaries, and created enormous dead zones in the coastal ocean.

On 24th June 2012, Lonesome George, the last living member of the Pinta Island race of Galapagos tortoise died. He had lived many years at the Charles Darwin Research Center, but attempts to breed him with females of other races had all failed. His genetic line came to an end, but he is now on permanent display at the American Museum of Natural History. On September 1st 2014, we were briefly reminded to remember the passing of Martha, the last passenger pigeon, which had died that day, one hundred years earlier at the Cincinnati Zoo. On September 6th, Australia’s Daily Mail published a short piece, including a link to a 1933 video, to acknowledge the death of Benjamin, the last known Tasmanian tiger, which died September 7th 1936 at the Hobart Zoo (the video, embedded in a 1964 short film, is a hoot). While his species may have persisted a bit longer in the wild, the last confirmed sighting was in 1930. In 1996, Australia declared September 7th National Threatened Species Day. On 14th December 2014, news reports bubbled up that one of the six remaining northern white rhinoceros had died. An animal that formerly ranged over parts of north-western Uganda, southern Chad, south-western Sudan, the eastern part of Central African Republic, and north-eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo had already been reduced to three animals living at Ol Pejeta Conservancy in central Kenya, one animal in a zoo in the Czech Republic and two in San Diego. The San Diego male died, likely of old age. There is argument over whether the northern subspecies is sufficiently distinct to be considered a separate species from the far more numerous southern subspecies, but IUCN considers this issue largely moot, because with only five closely related individuals (the Kenyan three all came from the Czech zoo, and the remaining female in San Diego is past reproductive age) it seems highly unlikely that it will be possible to reestablish a pure-bred population large enough to resist extinction. The northern white rhino genes might be saved by successfully cross-breeding with the southern subspecies, and there is even discussion of long-term cryo-storage of eggs and sperm.

four extinctions

The Thylacine or Tasmanian tiger; Martha, the last Passenger pigeon; one of the remaining Northern white rhinos; and Lonesome George, last of the Pinta Galapagos tortoises. All except the rhino are now gone. Images (from left to right) © Neitshade5 (colored version of 1933 photo), Carl Hansen/Smithsonian Inst., Jason Prince/Shutterstock, Peter Sale.

We are likely to hear more stories like those of the northern white rhino, the Tasmanian tiger, the passenger pigeon, or the various Galapagos tortoises. Each is poignant, sometime quite personal; each marks a final end to a wonderful example of what life can be. All four of these examples fell because of human hunting. They were more valuable dead than alive. The giant tortoises found on several of the tropical archipelagos were enormously abundant in the 16th to 18th century, were easily captured, could live many weeks on their backs on the deck of a ship, and were simply too valuable as food to be left to lead their tortoise lives on their home islands. They belonged to no man and were therefore free for the taking. Passenger pigeons are described by IUCN as a nomadic species, breeding and foraging in vast flocks millions of birds strong. They exploited seasonally available crops of beechmast, acorns and chestnuts; scouting for food sources and information-sharing were likely to have required flocks of a certain critical size, below which survival would be compromised. Birds nested in April or May in vast colonies typically 16 by 5 km in size. They were easily shot and provided tasty food, however, it was the expansion of the railroads and the felling of the eastern and mid-western forests that provided easy access to both the birds and an enormous market in the cities on the east coast during the mid- to late-1800s. Commercial hunting, on a vast scale became practical. The last wild bird was shot in 1900. The Tasmanian tiger, as a predator was seen by the early sheep-herding settlers of Tasmania as vermin to be eradicated. The government helped with a handsome bounty. In fact, it was shy, nocturnal, and probably would have done little damage to animals the size of sheep. The advent of dogs, and changes to its habitat probably aided its demise. And the northern white rhino, like all rhinos, has suffered dearly because of the value attached to rhino horn in Chinese traditional medicine. All five species of these magnificently lumbering land mammals that used to range widely over Eurasia and Africa are in danger of extinction. The Javan and Sumatran species, currently with 40-60 and about 250 animals respectively, are termed Critically Endangered by IUCN. The ~2,500 greater one-horned, or Indian rhinos are Vulnerable, the 4000 or so black rhino of southern Africa are Critically Endangered, and the white rhino is divided into the northern race Extinct in the Wild, and the southern race Near Threatened with a population of about 20,000 animals. Only the southern white rhino has increased its numbers substantially in recent years, and all species are far less abundant than they were 100 years ago. (The black rhino has declined 90% since 1960, for example.) Sport hunting initially, now closely controlled, and poaching for horn are the chief reasons for their perilous status, although alteration of habitat and appropriation of habitat to human use also have played a role.

It is simply not true that only the rare species, or the one with a restricted range, is at risk of extinction. The passenger pigeon was at one time the most abundant bird in the North American sky. One fell over giant tortoises on oceanic islands. And rhinos were a major part of the African savannah fauna.

I’ve just finished reading a book by Andrew Isenberg about the near extinction of the American bison (Cambridge UP, 2000). Some of the numbers are astounding. The western short-grass prairie likely supported about 30 million bison early in the 18th century when native Americans had not yet commenced use of the horse. However, because of their habit of aggregating in enormous herds during the summer rutting season there are many eye-witness accounts of enormous numbers being seen – herds that extended from horizon to horizon for three days, herds numbering 100,000 or more. They lived in a very variable environment with fire, drought, and severe winters all taking turns to cut into bison production. They were well adapted to this environment, and could recover their numbers quickly in good years.


The American bison, once the largest and most important animal of the short-grass prairie, almost became extinct because of over-hunting. Photo © Julie Larsen Maher WCS

Initially, native Americans used the bison as just one of a number of sources of food and other materials. Their hunts, on foot, required close coordination and cooperation among large numbers of hunters – a factor which Isenberg suggests helped maintain group cohesion and cooperative social structures. With the advent of the horse, traders seeking buffalo robes and other furs, and a commercial economy there was a shift in the mode of hunting, the purpose for hunting, and the degree to which hunting of bison dominated native life. The European diseases that fragmented communities no doubt contributed to these changes. Native Americans began hunting bison from horses, operating in far smaller, independent groups, and taking hides for trade, and their impact on the bison grew markedly. Euroamericans also began to enter the bison trade, for skins almost exclusively, and the railroads increased the access to the rapidly industrializing cities to the east. The US government saw removal of the bison as a good step to ‘prepare’ the range for cattle, and as a good way to force the remaining native Americans onto reservations. Impact on the bison grew further, and an animal that needed to assemble in large herds to reproduce effectively rapidly declined in numbers.

Commercial harvest rose sharply from essentially nothing in 1800 to some 150,000 skins a year by 1850 when the market began to fall as bison became increasingly rare. In the late 1800s some urban folk began arguing for the protection of some of what remained, largely out of romantic ideals that conferred mythic value on the presumed pattern of frontier life with natives, traders and bison all living in happy harmony – a harmony that had never existed. Other preservationists wanted bison for recreational hunting, even arguing that bison should be preserved for shooting by the upper classes rather than left to be used by natives. Out of such muddled philosophies gradually emerged the idea of conservation, and that idea is the only reason there are any bison around today. Yet, 250 years ago, the bison was the largest, and the dominant animal of North America. People can change the world radially in remarkably short time; in this case they did it with a few horses, some early repeating rifles, and a market that could use all the leather that could be procured. It’s the same story as the story of depletion of world fisheries, or the removal of old-growth forests. Consumption today rather than sustainable management for tomorrow. I know we are not finished.

buffalo hunt

The iconic image of the plains natives riding bareback and hunting bison with bow and spear marks a brief period in a rapidly changing history, not a static image of a glorious time now past. It was a history of decline, both for the bison and for the natives.

And so we have a biodiversity crisis, a steady simplification of ecosystems, a continuing removal of redundancy and variability. Just what we do not need in a world which is changing rapidly, a world in which life needs to be adaptable, and capable of responding effectively to new environmental conditions.

An APP for ecological resilience?

It might be efficient to channel all terrestrial production of organic matter through a handful of inbred creatures to feed humans, foregoing the myriad pathways that sometimes lead to other endpoints, like eagles, and mountain lions, and soil microbes. But doing so does not offer flexibility as conditions for life change. I don’t think it is prudent or wise. And it certainly leaves the world a tattered remnant of what it used to be. The extent of our hubris is such that we vaguely see the biodiversity crisis happening without ever giving a thought to whether our own security as a species on this planet might be in danger if it continues. Maybe Google will develop an app for ecological resilience and we can all download it to our phones?

Categories: Biodiversity Loss, Changing Oceans, Land Use | 1 Comment

So Much Bad Environmental News – How to Remain Optimistic

Digg This

In my final post for 2014, I confessed that I was optimistic about our struggle to combat climate change. I began 2015 with a report on the continuing problems faced by coral reefs, and some despair that we were not conveying the coral reef message effectively enough. Now, over the past week or so, I’ve found myself inundated by bad news on several fronts. Time to talk up optimism again!

While I call it bad news, the news I am referring to is mostly expected, and some of it refers to events that are very slow-acting even in comparison to climate change. Some of the news simply confirms what we all knew was going to be true. Still, one does not have to look very far these days, in the media or in the technical journals, to find bad news of many types. And good news stories are few, far between, and frequently quite modest.

On January 14th, I had the experience of a 90 minute interview in front of a live audience on the issue of climate change and the environmental crisis more generally. Peter Jennings has been hosting a monthly interview program on local television for about a year now, and I have been in his audience a number of times. He has interviewed a selection of interesting people on a wide diversity of topics. Our community benefits from such events, and I only hope my interview stacked up against the rest of them. (There is a short teaser clip here – I look suitably uncomfortable, and I am wearing boots because it is winter in Muskoka!) While you cannot really prepare for an interview, I did take a quick look in the latest issue of Nature when it hit my in-box the morning of our get-together. I found three relevant articles that led me to four other recent articles in other journals – seven articles in one scan of a ‘contents’ page!

Resettlement need – another aspect of climate change

The first of these was an Op-Ed style ‘Comment’ by David Lopez-Carr and Jessica Marter-Kenyon on the need for guidelines for governments on how to plan and execute the resettlement of people being impacted by effects of climate change. Their thesis is that the planned relocation of entire communities is NOT a usual practice with which governments are familiar; that, indeed, such relocation is fraught with difficulties to do with ensuring the retention of livelihoods, community networks and societal traditions, while battling complexities to do with land ownership, cost of relocation, and the will to move. Their article includes numerous stories of communities that need to relocate, but have not succeeded in doing so, and they make the point that such cases are going to become more numerous as climate change affects more and more of the planet’s surface. Most of their examples relate to coastal communities that need to move to higher ground, but drought, and mudslides due to altered patterns of precipitation are also included.

Kivalina artic-warming-villages

Kivalina, a 400 person community on a small barrier island on the Alaska coast, needs to relocate because climate change is making its location untenable. Photo © Millie Hawley/AP

Their opening example, the 400 resident Alaskan village of Kivalina, is being ravaged by heightened storm surge, and flooding and erosion due to melting of sea ice and permafrost. The people of Kivalina voted in 1998 and 2000 to move together to a site on higher ground. More than a decade and a half later, Kivalina remains in limbo, its move stymied by institutional, financial and physical barriers. No US federal or state agency has a mandate to undertake such mass resettlement, even though the government spent more than US$15 million on erosion control there between 2006 and 2009. Kivalina has failed to raise funds through climate lawsuits against oil and gas companies, and it has yet to identify suitable relocation sites. Meanwhile, the village’s water-supply and waste-storage systems have been damaged, and it could become uninhabitable within a decade. How many far northern Canadian communities face similar problems?

The authors’ choice of an Alaskan village helps bring home the fact that this issue is not a problem for ‘the other’; these are citizens (albeit marginalized) of the strongest nation on the planet. The difficulties faced by Kivalina are likely exceeded in Bangladesh, the Maldives or Kiribati. That Miami is investing $400 million to renovate its drainage system to combat coastal flooding and storms suggests to me that we will be spending a lot of money on flood control infrastructure over the next few years because the will to move, and the facilitating mechanisms, are simply not there yet. (Stockmarket tip: Buy flood control equipment and expertise!) This article put the issue of sea level rise into a more human frame for me – it’s all very well to say the Bangladeshis will have to move, but accomplishing that task in a way that is cost effective, and preserving of societal connections is not going to be an easy task. It’s one we have to add to our growing to-do list.

Human impacts on the oceans

A second article in that issue of Nature was an editorial concerning the many human impacts on the oceans. It nicely supplemented the discussion of resettlement, because it reported results of a new analysis of sea level rise from a paper just published on Nature’s website (many articles are published on-line before appearing in the pages of the journal). The new data, by Carling C. Hay and colleagues at Harvard and Rutgers, show that sea level rise during the 20th century has been very slightly overestimated – the new estimate is 1.2 mm per year, not 1.6 to 1.9. But the new data show that the rate since about 1993, 3 mm per year, has accelerated far faster than previously believed – about 2.5 times the rate during last century. And just in case anyone is wondering, the sea level rise we have put in motion by warming the planet will not stop the moment we bring our CO2 emissions under control. Time lags in the system ensure it will continue for several hundred years. (Investment tip: Florida swampland is even less valuable than it used to be.)


Sea level rise – just one part of climate change. Cartoon © Jim Morin, Miami Herald and CartoonArts International.

This editorial was mainly focused on an article published in Bioscience on 31st December by Carlos Duarte of University of Western Australia and Instituto Mediterráneo de Estudios Avanzados in Spain, together with seven colleagues from Australia, the US, Chile and Argentina. In their view the proliferation of a number of pressures affecting the ocean is leading to a growing concern that the state of the ocean is compromised, which is driving society into pessimism. Their article explores how environmental damage to the ocean is being reported (both by scientists and the media), and argues for retention by scientists of a more skeptical view of the data. This is a perspective I have heard before – often crudely as “we must emphasize the good news in order to keep people engaged” – and it is one that can encourage Pollyannaism instead of accurate science reporting. To the credit of Duarte and his team this is not the approach taken in their article. Instead they look at a number of “calamities”, examining the underlying science, and show that some are truly serious, others may be serious but the data available are not yet sufficient to know, and some seem to be wildly exaggerated. I was vaguely reassured to learn that there is not yet any sound evidence showing that jellyfish numbers are exploding in the world’s oceans. On the other hand, I am concerned that the denialist community will take sections of this paper out of context to argue a) that the scientists cannot agree, and b) that the evidence for all sorts of claims is simply not there. Whether Duarte and company would agree or not, I maintain that there are many substantial, well-documented examples of serious ocean impacts caused by our activities. We scientists have a responsibility to be critical evaluators of data before drawing conclusions, but we also still need to state explicitly that the real calamities are indeed calamitous. Sugar-coating does not help.

Still, at a time when scientists seem to be getting as much information from Twitter, Google, and Facebook as they are getting from a careful (critical) reading of papers published in the peer-reviewed literature, and a time when papers in the literature have trouble getting noticed unless there has been a staged media frenzy timed to coincide with their publication, Duarte and colleagues make some excellent points about failures to cite appropriately, willingness to repeat hypotheses that have been accepted uncritically by others, and the tendency to dig in and defend theories that would have been supplanted if the growing body of data had been critically assessed. It’s a paper all marine scientists should read.

jellyfish + diver

Good to learn that jellyfish outbreaks may not be a crisis for the oceans! Photo © AFP/GETTY IMAGES

Recovery, or not, of bleached coral reefs in the Seychelles

That same editorial in Nature also drew my attention to a new report just published on the Nature website on the recovery from bleaching of Seychelles reefs. In it, Nick Graham, of Australia’s James Cook University, and colleagues in Australia, the UK and France, report on the results of a study of 21 sites across the Seychelles reefs, sampled in 1994 and again in 2005, 2008 and 2011.

The Seychelles are one of several archipelagos in the western Indian Ocean, and were particularly hard hit by the massive bleaching episode that hit during 1998. Fortunately, detailed sampling of the 21 sites four years earlier provided a precise baseline of coral cover, abundance of algae, and abundances of a broad range of fish and other mobile inhabitants. By resampling each site, using the same monitoring methods, in 2005, 2008 and 2011, Graham and colleagues were able to assess the impact of the bleaching, and the subsequent changes in the reef system at each site over the next 13 years. While they chose to present their results in complex ways using concepts such as Euclidian distances to measure departure from prior ecological state, they provide some photographs in the on-line extended data that tell the story clearly.

Graham et al Seychelles nature14140-sf1 small

Reef sites in the Seychelles in 1994 (a, b), in 2005 showing the lingering effects of the 1998 bleaching (c, d), and in 2011 when some had largely recovered (e) while others had become dominated by fleshy algae (f). Photos © N. Graham and Nature

Prior to 1998, sites were well covered in coral, with little evident large algae. By 2005, the effects of the 1998 events were still clearly apparent with little if any live coral present, but some sites still retained the complex structure typical of coral reefs while others had been further eroded and were topographically far simpler. By 2011, 12 of the 21 sites had shown considerable regrowth of coral and were approaching the state they had been in in 1994. However, 9 other sites were still largely without coral and heavily dominated by large algae. Graham and colleagues suggest that whether or not a bleached site retains its complex topography, and the depth at which it is situated may help predict whether it is likely to recover from severe bleaching.

This Seychelles story is very good news in that it shows that some, a majority, of very severely bleached reef sites can recover after a decade or so. However, it also confirms that a sizeable minority of sites, 9 of 21, became transformed into algae-dominated rocky structures of much lesser ecological or economic value. The phase shift from coral- to algae-dominated is a pattern seen in other instances of severe reef damage, most notably with severe over-fishing in Jamaica and other Caribbean locations. It is not a shift that gets reversed very easily if at all. The future that is currently coming towards us is one in which bleaching likely will be a more frequent event – these Seychelles data increase our wiggle room to get things right, but they don’t make the problem of reef loss go away.

Oh no! We are running out of lots of things all at once!

My final discovery on that Nature contents page was a brief news item directing me to a report published late in 2014 in Ecology and Society. The article, by Rolf Seppelt of the Helmholz Centre for Environmental Research, Germany, and four colleagues in German and US institutions, examines the global pattern of use of some 27 major resources by humanity over time spans that were typically 20 to 50 years long, but in one case (phosphate) 112 years in length.

In their introduction, the authors point out that the typical pattern of use of a resource, such as eggs, or fish, or rice, or oil, is that it is first discovered and uses developed; its use then expands over time; then increasing scarcity or the arrival of a superior replacement causes its use to diminish and eventually cease. This is true for renewable resources such as timber, foods, and furs which can be expected to be replenished as they are consumed, and for non-renewable resources such as coal, oil or acres of farmland which will be regenerated only on much longer time scales. Their interest was on when the increase in the rate of use of a particular resource peaked. The timing of this peak appropriation rate signals the time when scarcity or other factors begin to intervene in use of that resource.

Using time-series of global quantities used, they worked to determine the year at which the rate of increase in consumption peaked for each resource. They discovered, surprisingly, that of the 27 resources considered, 21 had already passed their peak appropriation year, and these peak years clustered between 1960 and 2010 with a median year of 2006 – a surprisingly narrow range within human history. Of the 20 renewable resources, only farmed fish and renewable energy (solar, wind, etc) had yet to peak. Of the 7 non-renewable resource, coal, gas, oil, and phosphates had yet to peak.

So, what is the significance of all this? Seppelt and colleagues suggest that the fact that most of the resources used have already reached their peaks means we could be running short of resources we need in the near future. Secondly, they suggest that the concentration of peak years around 2006, and the surprisingly narrow range among them suggests that we are running out of lots of resources at the same time. The reasons for this are probably tied to the fact that the rate of increase of the global population peaked in 1989, and that of the global GDP peaked in 2010. More people and a larger economy drive a greater use of resources. In addition, our lives demand a suite of resources satisfying different needs, and the use of one resource, such as any of our basic foods, requires use of other resources to obtain it. So the congruence in peak appropriation rates, and their clustering in recent years is expected. But confirming these facts should still give us pause. The passing of a peak assimilation rate is a signal of possible shortages to come, but it does not predict the timing of that shortage. The passing of many such peaks during a short span of years suggests that we can anticipate many shortages simultaneously. Not a pretty situation to contemplate, and a much larger challenge than if we had to deal with one resource shortage at a time. Seppelt and colleagues suggest we need a paradigm shift in resource use toward a sustainable path for the Anthropocene.

Tokyo_fish_market Daniel S Walsh

Tuna for sale on the floor of the Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo; note the fog of CO2 arising from the flash frozen fish. The largest fish market in the world, Tsukiji sees about $28 M worth, or 2200 tonnes of fishery products from around the world sold every day. That’s just one of the resources we use. Photo © Daniel S Walsh

2014 – warmest year on record

So, that’s what I learned from scanning the contents page of one issue of Nature. It was a fairly typical week. Later in the week, NOAA published its annual analysis of the global climate for 2014, confirming what we all knew was inevitable, and what other agencies had already proclaimed – that globally, 2014 was the warmest year since we began to collect weather records (about 1880). This proclamation was followed by a twitterstorm (yep, I joined in) repeating this news, and a counterstorm of doubt suggesting it does not actually prove anything at all.

Let me summarize the main point in this twittertempest: that the 14 warmest years globally, since about 1880 have all occurred since 2000 (the other warm year was 1998), and that this is a highly unlikely event if the world is not warming up. Seems pretty obvious to me! But it’s amazing how many people were willing to proclaim proudly “I am not a scientist” before casting doubt of the strangest type: Climate change is not a hoax but it has nothing to do with us98 of the 100 US Senators in a meaningless vote. I can quote from the Bible that climate is not changing – US Senator James Inhofe. By calling Greenland “green land” we know that the climate has been changing pretty regularly within recorded memory – US Senator Mark Kirk. (I picked idiocy from US Senators on purpose; I know they are not the only denialists with such impeccable logic.)

Also in the news

Also in the news, and catching my eye, over the past couple of weeks (a small sample): Margaret Munro wrote in the Financial Post on 8th January that Canada could be a big loser if the world gets serious about climate change. She referred specifically to the 8th January article in Nature, by Christofe McGlade and Paul Eakins of University College London, which stated that 75% of Canada’s oil reserves and 85% of its tar sands bitumen must stay in the ground if a 2oC limit is to be met. The Guardian carried a story on 14th January concerning our growing understanding of the melting of ice sheets in Antarctica, and how the western Antarctic ice sheet appears now to have reached a point of no return. It quoted Ted Scambos, of the National Snow and Ice Data Center, as saying:
Antarctica’s ice sheet has been called the ‘sleeping giant’ of sea level, but it’s beginning to stir. Everything we’ve seen about this change points to human influences on climate – and now we’re at the point where human actions will be needed to stop it.

On 15th January, in the Guardian, leading UK environmentalist Jonathon Porritt called his years working on green energy projects with Shell and BP a ‘painful journey’ that had led him to believe no major fossil fuel company will commit to renewables in the near future. They are simply too trapped by a short-term mandate that leaves little room for maneuver. Shareholder expectations still dominate, and are still largely untouched by any kind of ‘unburnable carbon’ analysis of the staggering amount of economic value now at risk. Also on 15th January, Carl Zimmer reported in the New York Times on a study just published in Science by Douglas McCauley from UC Santa Barbara, with five colleagues from Rutgers, Stanford, UC Santa Cruz and UC Santa Barbara. Their argument is that while human-caused defaunation commenced 50,000 years ago on land, but only in the past few hundred years in the oceans, and while we have yet to cause many global extinctions in the oceans, we have already profoundly affected marine wildlife, altering the functioning and provisioning of services in every ocean. They argue that marine defaunation rates will rapidly intensify as human use of the oceans industrializes, and that it is necessary to put in place more effective ocean management. Tying marine defaunation to climate change, one of the study authors, Steve Palumbi of Stanford said,
If by the end of the century we’re not off the business-as-usual curve we are now, I honestly feel there’s not much hope for normal ecosystems in the ocean. But in the meantime, we do have a chance to do what we can. We have a couple decades more than we thought we had, so let’s please not waste it.

Climate scientist Michael Mann wrote an opinion piece in the New York Times on 17th January that dealt with the need for scientists to speak out on policy issues rather than restrict their comments only to their particular scientific expertise – a thoughtful piece that scientists need to read. As he said, scientists are citizens too. And finally, on 22nd January, John Abraham reported on the Guardian website that the increase in heat held in the oceans has been growing so quickly that it has “broken the chart”. He referred to the chart which has been on a NOAA NODC website for some time now, and the fact that total ocean heat content had now reached its upper border, and the graph has had to be redrawn with a longer y-axis measuring heat content. He was alluding to the need, a year ago, for the Australian weather service to redraw its temperature graph when prolonged summer heat broke through an upper boundary. While breaking the upper border of a graph is hardly a monumental event, 20 x 1022 Joules of heat is an enormous quantity of warmth, and the graph shows zero evidence of any slowdown in global warming during recent years. Our home really is getting warmer.

NOAA NODC ocean heat_content2000m

Graph showing change in global ocean heat content for the upper 2000 meters of depth, from 1957 to 2014. The 20 x 1022 Joules now present in the upper ocean represents about 90% of all heat in the Earth planetary system. Graph courtesy NOAA National Oceanographic Data Center.

What does it all really mean?

So, that is a synopsis of the things that caught my eye during a couple of busy weeks in January. What does it all mean, and how do I maintain my optimism? First of all, there was nothing in the items I saw that really surprised me. I know the world is getting warmer, that we are over-using our resources and damaging our oceans, that substantial biodiversity loss remains a big problem, and that there are plenty of people ready to deny each of these. But I did learn added details. The quantity of information coming out, and the extensive coverage of the science in the media are both encouraging signs. The science community is really attending closely to climate change and the other aspects of our environmental crisis. There is a continuous stream of solid information, each item of which deepens our understanding, or extends our knowledge in small ways. If you believe, as I do, that we will do a better job of rectifying some of the problems we are causing if we understand the problems and their causes more fully, then this enormous tide of scientific study is a very good thing. If you believe, as I do, that by communicating the science to the community, we have a greater chance of moving communities to action, and to effective action, then the interest in the science evidenced by the coverage in the media is also a very good thing. And if you find frequent references to the idiocy spouted by denialist politicians increasingly funny, even if slightly alarming, then you too can enjoy the coverage in the social media.

Of course I am naively confident that rational voices will ultimately win the political battles, and quite capable of refusing to notice that voices of illogic are very much in charge in the Harper government and in the corridors of power at the US Capital. Every now and then I am reminded of this, and then I become a bit dispirited. But most of the time, I happily go forward, convinced of the ultimate correctness of the views of those who see a need for real change in our ways of acting in our only home. And marveling in the way a scrawny, naked ape has been able to exert so much power that he is in danger of substantially altering that only home. I guess I must be a human stupidity denialist!

Categories: Biodiversity Loss, Changing Oceans, Climate change, coral reef science, Economics, In the News | Comments Off