News roundup

“And now for Australia’s next great challenge — saving our environment”

Australia’s vast oceans cover twice as much area as our land. They include some of the world’s most significant marine ecosystems such as the Great Barrier Reef, Ningaloo Reef, Shark Bay and the Great Australian Bight. More than 80 per cent of plants and animals living in our southern ocean waters are found nowhere else. Establishing Australia’s first Ocean Act would provide a legal foundation for the good management of our oceans.This should be backed by a national network of marine national parks and an Australian Oceans Fund. This fund could help urban and regional coastal communities better protect their local environments and would improve the management of estuary and marine environments. (Link to The Age article)

“UN scientists to hammer out final climate change report”The UN’s top climate scientists gathered in the Spanish port city of Valencia Monday to boil down their landmark report on global warming into a summary version for policymakers. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which won this year’s Nobel Peace Prize, has warned of dire consequences unless rising temperatures caused by greenhouse gases are held in check. The document to be issued in Valencia next Saturday distills its 2,500-page, three-volume assessment — the first since 2001 — into a 25-page synthesis designed to guide government decisions on how to best accomplish this.

The more forceful the panel’s conclusions, the more pressure it will put on policymakers to adopt measures — some of them politically costly — ranging from carbon taxes and mandatory caps on CO2 emissions to huge investment in renewable energy. But even as it basks in the limelight of the Nobel Prize, the IPCC has been criticized for being too conservative in the face of mounting evidence of a global crisis. (Link to AFP article)

“Scientists strive to pinpoint warming forecasts”Moving on from the risk of global warming, scientists are now looking for ways to pinpoint the areas set to be affected by climate change, to help countries plan everything from new crops to hydropower dams. Billion-dollar investments, ranging from irrigation and flood defences to the site of wind farms or ski resorts, could hinge on assessments about how much drier, wetter, windier or warmer a particular area will become. (Link to Reuters article)

More on CO2 emissions and reduction strategies

Two interesting news articles have come out of Harvard this week: firstly an excellent speech by John Holdren (a Professor of Enviromental Policy) hitting back at the global warming skeptics which is well worth reading: “Global warming is a misnomer… It implies something gradual, uniform, and benign. What we’re experiencing is none of these” (Link). Second, I came across this article (in Fox News of all places) discussing research by Harvard geoscientist Professor Kurt House that suggests de-acidifying oceans could combat climate change. Professor House’s approach seems slightly different than the age old suggestions of seeding the oceans with iron to stimulate phytoplankton blooms (thereby using photosynthesis to absorb CO2) – instead envisioning “treatment plants” that intake water from the oceans and remove naturally occuring hydrochloric acid. In theory, this would work: by making th oceans less acidic, it goes some way to reducing the problems of ocean acidification and increases the CO2 absorbing capacities of the ocean sinks. To quote the lead author of the study: Essentially, our technology dramatically accelerates a cleaning process that nature herself uses for greenhouse gas accumulation.”

Such methods may seem radical, but given the dramatic increases in CO2 emissions as i mentioned in my last post, such approaches may become inevitable. A colleague of mine, Dr Ken Caldeira from the Carnegie Institute, Stanford, recently wrote an op-ed piece in the New York Times entitled “How to cool the globe” (link), proposing the seeding of small particles of sulfur into the stratosphere to counteract the effects of global warming. In essence, similar to the eruption of Mt Pinatubo in 1992, pouring a five-gallon bucket’s worth of sulfate particles per second into the stratosphere may just be enough to stop global warming for 50yrs. A quick browse of the literature suggests that the theory behind such a statement rings true enough (link). The best part of this plan? It is easy to achieve through current technology, relatively cheap, and sulfur particles naturally degrade in the environment over time. Although such geoengineering solutions sound like something from a science-fiction novel (I don’t think that our ever skeptic friend Michael Crichton will include one in his novels soon!) they may not be so far-fetched given the growing risk of catastrophe that appears to face us.

While it would be my preference not to interfere in the atmospheric and geological cycles of the planet, the fact that we are doing it anyway with disastrous results, means that we may have to rethink the ethics and begin to play ‘gardener’ to the planet. It may be our last chance given that we have may have kicked off the types of devastating runaway climate impacts that many climate experts are now talking about. Whether we like it or not, we now have to play earth’s gardener or face a very difficult and different future.

CO2 emissions rising faster than expected

A new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences from an international team of scientists (headed by Josep Candell of the Global Carbon Project, CSIRO) shows that the recent increases in CO2 are rising faster this decade than during the 1990’s (link to pdf). The authors blame rapid increases in a synergy of factors, primarily economic growth, fossil fuel usage and somewhat more worryingly a decline in the efficiency of natural sinks, such as ability of the oceans to absorb CO2 from the atmosphere (read more). It looks like we may be reaching the upper end of the modeling predictions (the 500ppm tipping point) sooner than anyone thought: these findings are alarming, and strongly imply that the UN Climate Report may already be out of date.

Someone yesterday reminded me of a great analogy similar to that of the rise in CO2 emissions: for example, if you start driving from point A to point B, and half-way there realise that you are driving north instead of south (and hence that you are likely to arrive in point C rather than point B), the only way of getting to point B is to stop and turn around – slowing down isn’t going to help the situation. Given the evidence presented in this paper – It is too late to alleviate or ‘slow down’ fossil fuel usage. And with that, do we need a global revolution in what we do rather than pretending we can ease our way out of this problem with waterdowned commitments and wishy washy policy (remember the ‘aspirational’ non-existent targets of APEC?).

Parrotfish key to saving Caribbean reefs

Recent research published in the journal Nature by Peter Mumby and co-authors at the University of Exter (United Kingdom) and University of California shows that in the Caribbean, the parrotfish (see image on the left) plays a key role in preventing coral reefs from being dominated by macro-algae (Link to abstract). Following the mass mortality of sea-urchins across the Caribbean reefs in the early 1980’s due to an unknown disease, the majority of the grazing of macro-algae is conducted by the humble parrot fish (Link to Reuters article). Dr Mumby gave a fascinating seminar earlier this year at the University of Queensland entitled “Marine Protected Areas & Coral Reef Ecosystem Resilience” detailing this and other research from his team in this area:

ABC Scienceshow on Cryptochromes – The biggest sex event on earth

I was interviewed recently by Robyn Williams for ABC’s “Science show” on the moonlight mass spawning of corals on the GBR I posted here earlier this month (“Keylight found to moonlight romance“). Click below to listen to the interview, read the transcript here or download the podcast.



“There are 400 species of corals and hundreds of invertebrates on the Great Barrier Reef. Many spawn in mass over a couple of nights after the full moon in October or November. So how do they all know to do it together? It seems that corals can detect moonlight. Ove Hoegh-Guldberg explains how a class of proteins has been discovered which tune circadian rhythms. They are produced by a particular gene. So despite the faintness of moonlight, organisms can detect it and time their spawning to maximise the chance of reproduction.

When the spawning happens, the sea is clouded with eggs and sperm. Mass spawning is a strategy to lessen the impact of predators. It may be the biggest sex event on earth. Ove Hoegh-Guldberg speculates on the origin of this mechanism.”

New coral species identified in the Phillipines

A recent news article citing by Professor Edgardo Gomez (University of the Phillipines Marine Science Institute) reports that new coral species are being discovered in the Kalayaan islands, Phillipines, such as Leptoseris kalayaanensis (a vase shaped coral similair to the Leptoseris on the left). Other findings presented by Professor Gomez at the Coral Reef Targeted Research and Capacity Building for Management Program forum in the Phillipines recently included recording over 36 coral species in a square metre in Talim Bay- this is quite an astounding find in a country with a population of 88 million where only 4-5% of the reefs are listed in “excellent” condition! Given that the reefs in the region have been devastated by deforestation, overfishing (blast & cyanide fishing, and uptill 1986 the ever destructive muro-ami, now banned by Phillipine law) and widespread coral bleaching in 1998, Professor Gomez rightly points out “…we may be losing some species before we discover them. This is what we call invisible extinctions“.

Pacific ‘rubbish superhighway’ going unnoticed

ABC News, 1st November 2007

A vast rubbish dump, which covers an area bigger than Australia, is floating in the Pacific Ocean and research shows it is growing bigger.

The rubbish collects in one area because of a clockwise trade wind that circulates around the Pacific rim.

In his Tasmanian-built research vessel, Captain Charles Moore has just returned from a trip through the plastic stew floating between Hawaii and San Francisco.

“Toothbrushes are quite common, plastic bags are quite common, soap bottles are quite common, we’ve been finding a good many umbrella handles, minus the umbrella,” he said.

“We find toolboxes, and oddly enough an item that seems to be quite prevalent now is plastic hard hats. I found one upside down with fish living in the upturned helmet.”

The rubbish patch is extremely remote – it takes a week to reach it in a boat.

Captain Moore, founder of the Algalita Marine Research Foundation, says the eastern part of what is labelled the “Pacific Garbage Patch” is joined by a rubbish superhighway to a western collection of debris off Japan.

“We’re talking about an area larger than the continent of Australia,” he said.

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