“Understanding and managing the threats to our Reef, Rainforest and Torres Strait environment”

MTSRF Annual Research Conference, 28th April

“Many of Australia’s leading environmental and social scientists will be joining industry leaders in Cairns for a four day conference on the environmental risks facing our Reef, Rainforest and
the Torres Strait.

The 2008 Marine and Tropical Science Research Facility (MTSRF) Conference is being held from Monday 28th April until Thursday 1st May 2008. The Conference will provide an opportunity to share information and explore solutions to the threats facing the unique natural systems of North Queensland.

Managing Director, Sheriden Morris, said “Over 300 of Australia’s best scientists are involved in the MTSRF program and are working on answering questions such as what can we do about climate change impacts on tropical rainforests and the reef? How do we fix up poor water quality? How do we deal with a rapidly increasing population in this region and what will the impact be on our surroundings? Will the Cassowary survive? How will recreational fishers respond to more people and less fish? What do we do about sea level rise for the low lying islands in the Torres Strait?”

“This Conference is an opportunity for scientists, government and industry leaders to hear about the latest research and to discuss solutions to the problems we are facing now and into the future.”

The Reef & Rainforest Research Centre represents the Australian Government’s Marine and Tropical Sciences Research Facility (MTSRF) and is part of the Commonwealth Environmental Research Facilities Program. The aim of MTSRF is to provide world class solution based science to ensure the future health of North Queensland’s public environmental assets.

The Australian Government has invested $40 million over four years into North Queensland to fund scientific research to support the conservation and sustainable use of our environment. The fund also aims to build capacity in the north to assist in the understanding and management of our environment.

“Industries such as tourism rely heavily on our environment to generate over $8 million annually and employ over 50,000 people so it is crucial that the scientific research generated through the MTSRF program delivers meaningful and useful solutions for both our region and Australia as a vital part of our natural heritage,” said Ms Morris”

“The holy crap factor” – a note from Caspar Henderson

For a while I had a T-shirt from The Onion which read Holy Sh*t! Man Walks on F*cking Moon. It made a lot of us laugh (and it was almost certainly stolen by a man called Pete Lucas. Pete, if you’re out there, please tell me this isn’t so).

Related, but different, is what Mitchell Anderson, blogging a paper by Werner Kurz et al in Nature, calls the holy crap factor (Anderson is Canadian, hence the politeness).

Mistah Kurz, he bring bad news: in this case that warming in western Canada, likely to be anthropogenic, has unleashed a chain of events that will release close to one billion tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere by 2020. The ‘holy crap’ part is that this may be just one several unplanned accelerations of climate change by human agency.

(Read more)

Coral adaptation in the face of climate change – response by Hoegh-Guldberg et al

We certainly hope that Baird and Maynard are right and that in the coming years corals will exhibit an adaptive capability that they have not yet exhibited in situ or in the laboratory. At this point, however, it appears unlikely.
As Baird and Maynard point out, the coral genera Acropora and Pocillopora have generation times that are short (several years) relative to the generation times of other corals. The majority of coral generation times, however, are still long (decades) relative to the accelerating pace of climate change, throwing doubt on the scope of most coral species for rapid adaptation (1).

Corals, like other organisms, can also modify the risk of coral bleaching over the short term through physiological acclimation (2). Acclimation, however, as with any phenotypic change, is limited. In the same vein, corals that form symbioses with more than one variety of dinoflagellate can shift their populations so that they are dominated by their more thermally tolerant dinoflagellate genotypes during thermal stress. Unfortunately, these short-lived changes have not yet resulted in the novel host-symbiont combinations that will be required for survival in the challenging temperatures and acidities of future oceans under rising atmospheric carbon dioxide.

It is important not to confuse genetic adaptation with the increased average thermal tolerance observed for some coral communities over the past 25 years, which has occurred largely because thermally sensitive species have died out, leaving robust species behind (3). Equally important is the lack of evidence that corals have the capacity to either acclimate or adapt to falling aragonite saturation states. It seems unlikely that genetic adaptation will solve the problems of global change facing corals. Indeed, paleontological evidence indicates that calcifying marine organisms including corals suffered a protracted period of absence after large and rapid changes in atmospheric carbon dioxide associated with the Permian-riassic extinction event (4, 5). It took millions of years for these organisms and ecosystems to recover.

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Coral adaptation in the face of climate change – Baird & Maynard

cover.gifIn their Review, “Coral reefs under rapid climate change and ocean acidification” (14 December 2007, p. 1737), O. Hoegh-Guldberg et al. present future reef scenarios that range from coral-dominated communities to rapidly eroding rubble banks. Notably, none of their scenarios considers the capacity for corals to adapt. The authors dismiss adaptation because “[r]eef-building corals have relatively long generation times and low genetic diversity, making for slow rates of adaptation [relative to rates of change].” We think the possibility of adaptation deserves a second look.
Many features of coral life histories, such as extended life spans, delayed maturation, and colony fission, do result in long generation times (1) [some between 33 and 37 years (2)]. However, other corals, such as many species of Acropora and Pocillopora, mature early, grow rapidly, and suffer whole-colony mortality, as opposed to colony fission, after mechanical disturbances (3) and thermal stress (4). The life histories of these ecologically important and abundant species suggest an underappreciated capacity to adapt rapidly to changing environments.

Repeated bleaching episodes in the same coral assemblages and the increasing scale and frequency of coral bleaching have been cited as evidence that corals have exhausted their genetic capacity to adapt to rising sea surface temperatures (5). However, comparisons of the rates of mortality within populations among bleaching events are not available. Without these data, it is not possible to assess whether the adaptive response has been exhausted. Indeed, the effects of temperature and acidification on even the most basic vital rates in corals, such as growth, mortality, and fecundity, are largely unknown, as are the physiological trade-offs among these traits. Consequently, the sensitivity of population growth to climate-induced changes in vital rates remains almost completely unexplored [but see (6)]. In the absence of long-term demographic studies to detect temporal trends in life history traits, predicting rates of adaptation, and whether they will be exceeded by rates of environmental change, is pure speculation. Indeed, where such data are available for terrestrial organisms they demonstrate that contemporary evolution in response to climate change is possible (7).

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“Catching corals’ spectacular moment” – BBC News

“By the light of April’s full moon on Sunday or, quite likely a night or two after, corals will be mating en masse. Along the length of the island archipelago that makes up the Republic of Palau, millions of coral colonies will simultaneously release billion upon billion of eggs and sperm into the dark waters.

An hour or so after sunset, each spawning coral will discharge showers of sex cells, packaged in orange and pink blobs. They will rise to the surface in such huge numbers that they may form oily slicks metres long.

If the sea conditions are right, spawn slicks can coalesce to be large enough to be visible from space.

Once on the surface, the packages burst open, liberating eggs and sperm for fertilisation. Countless free-swimming coral larvae then develop and three or four days later, a few will have survived long enough to make it to the sea bed. There they attach to a suitable hard surface and develop into single baby coral polyps. The next generation of corals on the reefs will be launched.

A team of marine biologists from Australia, Britain and the Philippines has come to Palau to take advantage of this wonder of nature in the cause of coral reef restoration.

The scientists are here to investigate the potential of an experimental technique known as coral seeding – in other words, collecting some of the spawn from mass mating events and using it to promote the growth of new corals on reefs in need of rescue.

” (Read more)

Microalgae as a biodiesel fuel source?

Every now and then an amazing idea comes along. Even though I graduated with a major in marine botany, I must say that I didn’t think of this one! Here is a company that is producing microalgae (which grow like the crackers) in sealed plastic bags that are hung in desert areas and in which, due to being contained, conserve water and allow enrichment with CO2. If it is a good as it appears, this could be a great step forward in creating oils from algae.

“U.S.-based Valcent Products Inc. and Canadian Global Green Solutions Inc. are set to build a pilot facility to produce algae for biodiesel production. The duo claimed to have made a breakthrough with their Vertigo system, which could be used to mass produce the biodiesel feedstock cheaply in any part of the world.
Unlike the ‘open pond’ methods studied by the government, the new system uses tall, clear plastic bags, hung in rows in a greenhouse to breed algae. The bags, which are pumped with carbon dioxide and exposed to the sun, help the algae speed along photosynthesis.

Glen Kertz, CEO of Valcent, told local media the microorganisms can reproduce up to six times every 24 hours in this setting, yielding 100,000 gallons of algae oil from just one acre of land each year. (Read more)”

Australian attitudes towards climate change: putting words into action.

The Climate Institute’s Climate of the Nation has released a report that shows that the attitudes of Australians has shifted from 5 years ago and that climate change is a primary concern. What is curious is that the Rudd government hasn’t convinced us that real and effective action will be possible..

"Australian attitudes towards climate change have crystallised into solid support for action, new research shows. But, equally, there is widespread scepticism about the ability of major political parties to deliver the necessary action. The Climate Institute’s Climate of the Nation report details the attitudes of Australians since the November federal election.

"In the aftermath of the world’s first climate change election, public concern and hunger for action remains high," the institute’s chief executive John Connor said.

"The majority of Australians (52 per cent) are unable to discern between the two major parties on climate change, meaning political brand ownership of climate leadership remains up for grabs." (Read more)

Meanwhile, federal environment minister Peter Garrett has decided against a national levy on plastic bags, despite Victoria introducing a levy, and South Australia banning plastic bags from 2009

"What we’ve decided today is that there will not be a national mandated charge on plastic bags in checkouts but we do want to see increased action to reduce plastic bag use in the community," Mr Garrett said.

"We’ve identified the need for an urgent working group to be established between government and industry to look at making sure retailers are exploring all the options that they have in front of them to increase the use of the green recycle bags and to lessen the use of plastic bags."

South Australian Environment Minister Gail Gago said she was "deeply disappointed" there had not been national agreement to phase out plastic bags or introduce a charge, but her state would push ahead with a ban regardless.

"After six years of the council, we’re still unable to come to a nationally consistent approach," Ms Gago said. (Read more)

Who’s putting the “political” in climate science, now? – a note from Philip Machanick

Below is a excellent response from a fellow blogger Philip Machanick over at Opinionations regarding the recent article in The Australian newspaper by Don Aitken (social scientist, retired Vice-Chancellor and President of University of Canberra, in addition to being one of Senator Inhofe’s “concerned scientists“) – why this recieved front page coverage in such a prominent newspaper is beyond me, and Philip does an great job of debunking the rhetoric:

“On 9 April, The Australian published an article titled “Good science isn’t about consensus” on its front page.The New York Times‘s masthead motto is “All the news that’s fit to print.” The Australian‘s might as well be “All the news that fits our prejudice.”

Don Aitkin is of course entitled to his opinion (though as the late Senator Moynihan reminded us, he is not entitled to his own facts). The paper could have run his piece as an op ed on the inner pages (though for what purpose, I don’t know). But by running it with the prominence they have, you have to wonder at their motivation. Don Aitkin is a political scientist, no doubt eminent in his field. But no one can pretend he is an authority on climate science. What’s more, his article contains nothing of any novelty. So what purpose can there be in not only publishing the article, but in giving it the prominence of a page 1 placement? All I can think of is that The Australian wishes to continue to stoke controversy — whether to generate circulation (which doesn’t work with me, I stopped buying the paper) or to pursue its own agenda on climate science.

However, since they have done this, and in addition, posted a lengthier paper (an address he gave to the Planning Institute of Australia), his views demand rebuttal. Here it is, based on the lengthier paper.

  • Arguing about “consensus” is silly. There was a consensus before Einstein’s time that Newton had the Laws of Physics stitched up. Einstein found a more general theory. “Consensus” in science is not a deep concept — just a way of expressing the fact that most scientists do not see the point in arguing over something that has been shown to be valid, and no one has successfully invalidated. There was a similar “consensus” about the link between tobacco and cancer, which the relevant industry attacked vigorously, using similar language to the anti-AGW movement. That consensus remains to be overturned, despite the fact that we still have a lot to learn about the mechanisms of cancer.
  • He claims that he is “presently agnostic about the central Anthropogenic Global Warming…proposition” but this is not borne out by his article, which dwells on arguments against AGW. To quote Monty Python, that’s not debate, it’s contradiction.
  • The “panicky media mood” he talks about is no reason to trash the science, rather to be skeptical about the quality of science journalism in popular media. There was a similarly panicky media mood about global cooling in the 1970s (he quotes Newsweek further on) but if you actually search the scientific literature, there was very little basis in science for this. I don’t think you will find a “panicky mood” if you read Science or Nature. A paper has been published showing that 7 papers in the 1970s predicted cooling, compared with 42 predicting warming. The cooling papers attracted only 12% of the citations counted. In other words, even in the 1970s, the evidence available at the time — Newsweek and other popular media notwithstanding — was that warming was more supportable than cooling.
  • Einstein and Feynman on refutation and uncertainty in science: the anti-AGW movement can be accused of a higher degree of certainty with considerably less evidence on their side. Read Bob Carter’s polemics. Is there a hint in any of his writing the he could be wrong? On the contrary, there is a bellicose certainty in his writing which I have not found in the scientific literature — which I find odd from a scientist of his experience (here’s a classic example).

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More checks as coral suffers

Courier Mail, 5th April 2008

Southeast Queensland’s coral reefs are set to get regular health checks under a worldwide United Nations program. The better known coral ecosystems on the Great Barrier Reef have been kept under the UN’s watchful eye for the past seven years but until now equally important reefs around the southeast have missed out.

Renewed threats from pollution and global warming have prompted Reef Check to turn its goggled sights on the vast marine wonderland stretching from the NSW border to the Sunshine Coast. Marine biologists and volunteer divers will measure and study the reefs around Moreton Bay and off the Gold and Sunshine coasts to help determine the impacts of climate change, nutrient run-off and over-fishing.

“A lot of people aren’t aware that we have some great coral reefs, even off the Gold Coast here,” Griffith University marine biologist Jonathan Werry said.

Mr Werry, who was at Sea World yesterday to launch the extended Reef Check monitoring program, said there were already signs of destructive coral bleaching on southeast Queensland reefs. He said, however, the biggest threat so far still came from land-based pollutants washing into the ocean.

“Our reefs are very important for biodiversity off the coast. You lose your reef and you lose a good chunk of biodiversity from the area,” he said.

Sea World marine sciences director Trevor Long said he had seen some worrying changes in the decades he has spent diving the southeast’s reefs.

“There’s far less diversity of marine species now than there used to be.”

Mr Long said Reef Check would yield scientific “ammunition” to help in the fight to save the reefs. About 20 volunteer divers have been recruited for the campaign and will be trained at the artificial reef at Sea World’s Shark Bay.

Flat-Faced Fish: First in Family?

Scientific American, 5th April 2008

Divers have discovered an unusual flat-faced fish with forward-looking eyes that may represent an entirely new piscine family. If so, researchers say, it would be one of only a handful of new fish families found in the past 50 years. First photographed in January off Ambon Island, Indonesia, the critter has crooked, leglike pectoral fins on its sides—typical of anglerfish, which crawl or walk along the seafloor. Unlike others of its kind, however, which typically use lures on their heads to attract prey, this new flathead works its pliable body into crevices and cracks of coral reefs in search of food. Researchers say that DNA testing is needed to determine whether this zebra-striped fish will inaugurate a 19th family of anglerfish, or whether it simply had an unfortunate run-in with the business end of a hammerhead shark.