Coral in Crisis – Science Friday interview with Ken Caldeira

Below is a great interview by Science Friday of my colleague, Dr Ken Caldeira on the topic of ocean acidification of the worlds coral reefs (as a co-author on the recent science paper, Ken clearly echoes my sentiments on this issue) – click below to listen.

The world’s coral reefs are in great danger, threatened by climate change and rising carbon dioxide levels. In an article published in the journal Science, researchers provide provide three different scenarios for the fate of reef-building corals worldwide as they face higher concentrations of atmospheric carbon dioxide and the related ocean acidification that slows coral calcification, the process needed for a reef to grow. Increasing CO2 levels have the potential to greatly shift the chemistry of ocean waters, threatening the existence of most coral species.

The fragile corals also face a phenomenon known as ‘bleaching,’ caused by rising temperatures, and damage from overfishing, pollution, and oil and gas exploration. We’ll hear about the forecast for the future of the world’s coral”


Barrier Reef’s future clouded (The Australian Newspaper)

The Australian, 14th December 2007
It is probably too late to save the Great Barrier Reef and other coral reefs from global warming.
Even if governments implement far-reaching measures to cut greenhouse gas emissions, they will not prevent the annihilation of coral reefs around the world.

These are the conclusions of analysis by leading marine scientists to be published today in the prestigious journal Science.

“There is a terrible future in front of us for the reefs,” said Canada-based United Nations University professor Peter Sale, one of 17 authors from seven nations of the Science paper.

On Wednesday, Kevin Rudd told the UN’s Bali climate change conference that global warming was threatening Australian natural wonders such as the Great Barrier Reef, Kakadu National Park and rainforests, killing rivers and exposing people to more frequent and ferocious bushfires.

The scientists present three scenarios for the future of coral reefs – the world’s largest lifeforms – under different climatic conditions.

If current conditions continue, with the stabilisation of temperatures and emissions at today’s level of 380 parts per million, reefs will survive but undergo fundamental changes.

However, scientists agree that stabilisation of current conditions is not possible. The paper warns that if emissions rise to between 450 and 500ppm, with an associated temperature rise of 2C by 2050 – the most optimistic outcome predicted by the landmark study by British economist Nicholas Stern – reefs will suffer “vastly reduced habitat complexity and loss of biodiversity”.

But if they rise above 500ppm, the minimum emission level forecast by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climage Change by 2050, reefs will become “rapidly eroding rubble banks”.

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Global action call to save reefs

Eminent coral scientists have given world leaders in Bali more reason to act urgently against climate change, by producing a new report that warns coral reefs will disappear within decades if atmospheric CO2 levels continue to rise.

Their paper, published today in the prestigious Science magazine, is the most compelling scientific case yet that unchecked global warming will be a disaster for coral reefs and the 100 million people and one million species depending on them.

CO2 concentration in the earth’s atmosphere is currently 380 parts per million (ppm) but the authors say if future emissions exceed 450ppm we risk losing reefs.

“This is a very ambitious target and should represent yet another reality check for world leaders meeting in Bali,” lead author UQ Professor Ove Hoegh-Guldberg said.

Reducing CO2 emissions must also be accompanied by reducing reef risks such as overfishing, pollution and unsustainable coastal developments, a cross-section of the report’s authors (all of whom are members of the Coral Reef Targeted Research and Capacity Building for Management Program, CRTR) said at UQ.
Tools needed to reduce stress on coral reefs already exist, and include: increased protection of river catchment and coastal areas; co-management arrangements between governments and local communities; improved catchment, water quality and environmental flow measures; fishing regulation enforcement; restoration of reefs and coastal vegetation; and sustainable tourism.
The study has found serious consequences follow on from even small increases in CO2.

“The warmer and more acidic oceans caused by the rise of CO2 from the burning of fossil fuels threaten to destroy coral dominated reef ecosystems, exposing people to flooding, coastal erosion and the loss of food and income from reef-based fisheries and tourism,” Professor Hoegh-Guldberg said.
“This is happening just when many nations are hoping that growing industries like tourism and fisheries will allow them to develop beyond their often impoverished state.
“Increased CO2 not only warms the climate but also dissolves in sea water making it more acidic.
“This, in turn, decreases the ability of corals to produce calcium carbonate, which is what the all-important framework of coral reefs is made of.”

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Coral reefs as CO2 sinks?

An interesting article that has appeared in the news recently suggests that countries in the Asia Pacific region have proposed to utilise their coral reefs as carbon sinks under the new climate change protocol being developed in Bali.

Indonesian Fisheries and Marine Affairs Minister, Freddy Numberi, who opened the six countries’ senior official meeting to discuss the action plan to conserve the coral area, said that the area, which is dubbed as the Amazon of the Seas because it contains 53 percent of the world’s coral reef and over 3,000 fish species, was the earth’s epicenter of marine life and diversity.

“We have made efforts to conserve it during the past five years, so we want the world to appreciate it. One of the ways is to include it into the Kyoto Protocol framework so that it can be turned into a carbon sink, and later trade it for carbon credit,” Freddy told reporters. (Read more)

On the topic of coral reef sequestration of carbon, Dr Thomas Goreau from the Global Coral Reef Allience (a delegate at the United Nations conference in Bali) has the following to say:

Not only is the entire claim that coral reefs are a CO2 sink completely incorrect, they are in fact a source of CO2 to the atmosphere even while they remove carbon from the ocean. This has been understood by carbonate chemists for a very long time but we keep having to deal with this popular error over
and over again.

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Australia ratifies Kyoto

As Ecolog reports that green house gas emissions reach near-record level highs, Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has broken the stalemate and ratified kyoto just weeks after coming into power on his first day in office. Senator Penny Wong, the newly instated Minister for Climate Change, was quoted to say that the decision sets Australia up for a leadership role at the United Nations Climate Change conference in Bali later this month.

“Ratifying the Kyoto Protocol puts Australia back on the map,” she said.

“The world now knows that this nation is prepared to do its bit and be part of the global solution to climate change. This gives us an impetus to go into the Bali conference to set that leadership role. The purpose of the Bali conference is to set out the road map for what happens post the Kyoto period. We want to ensure that what we agree in Bali gives Australia and the world the best chance to moving towards a solution on climate change.”

Rudd’s decision has run into some interesting commentary in the news. Despite previous concern of greenhouse gas emissions from India and China, The India Times ran with the headline “India to gain as Australia signs Kyoto“, quoting “India smiled from the sidelines knowing that, in the least, it would augur well for Indian industry and, at best, would push its case in global negotiations. Meanwhile, Germany’s Environment Minister has called for an international market in carbon dioxide emissions to combat climate change, with a stronger focus on emission reduction from G8 countries and emerging nations. A joint statement released at the 10th China – European Union Leaders meeting has further stressed the importance of climate change and the willingness to cooperate in stabilising and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

As one astute commentator summarised, “No continent is an island“, but all this leaves the ABC news wondering “Can climate progress succeed without the US?

More commentary from me on this during the lead up to Bali.

‘Young guns’ of coral reef research head downunder

A worldwide network of the next generation of leading coral reef scientists and managers is set to meet for the first time at The University of Queensland (UQ) in Brisbane on December 10-14, 2007.

Sponsored by the Coral Reef Targeted Research and Capacity Building for Management Program (CRTR), the Leadership Forum will attract 55 postgraduate and postdoctoral students in coral reef studies from 20 countries.

The students will be joined by internationally-renowned coral reef scientists and managers and together they will build the students’ understanding of a wide range of issues surrounding coral reef ecosystems.

“These future leaders in coral reef science will hone their leadership skills and learn how to increase their influence among networks that manage and set policy for coral reefs worldwide,” said Professor Paul Greenfield, Senior Deputy Vice-Chancellor at UQ, a key partner in the CRTR Program.

“One of the major goals of the CRTR Program is to build the scientific capacity and knowledge necessary to give coastal managers and policy-makers the information they need to sustain the world’s coral reefs.”

The CRTR Program sponsors or associates with more than 55 students in coral reef studies worldwide. Students from Mexico, The Philippines, Cuba, Tanzania, Kenya, USA, Australia, United Kingdom, Colombia, Venezuela, Palau, Thailand, Canada, Costa Rica, Belize and Guatemala will attend the event.

The CRTR Program is a leading international coral reef research initiative that provides a coordinated approach to credible, factual and scientifically-proven knowledge for improved coral reef management. The CRTR Program is a partnership between the Global Environment Facility, the World Bank, UQ, the United States National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and about 40 research institutions and other third-parties around the world.