The ‘giants’ of coral reefs

I thought i’d post this this spectacular image from an article from the Taipei Times quoting Dr Allen Chen on the recent increases in sponge overgrowth affecting reefs off the coast of Taiwan. The photograph appears to be a massive coral (Porites spp), affected by what the researchers are calling the “black plague“. For perspective compare the size of the two divers with the coral beneath them – these massive creature are the behemoths of the oceans, with a single colonies recorded over 7m in width. The largest of these corals are estimated to be up to 700 years old, often recording numerous environmental events such as floods, temperature and even oil spills.

More on the coral-sunscreen ‘issue’

I’m not entirely sure why the “sunscreen causes coral bleaching” story is doing the rounds in the news again (see here and here – it seems to make for a very media-friendly story), but i’m still amazed at the mileage these authors are getting from a highly questionable study. I’ve debated this before on Climate Shifts with Robert Danavaro, the lead author of the study. Statements such as “New research highlights sunscreen as major cause of coral bleaching” are stretching the findings and conclusions of this paper to ridiculous extremes – the concept that “sunscreens may now be posing a significant risk to marine life” are missing the point. Durwood Dugger, the founder of the aquaculture company Biocepts wrote an excellent critique in response to my last post:

The authors conclusions “We conclude that sunscreens, by promoting viral infection, can potentially play an important role in coral bleaching in areas prone to high levels of recreational use by humans.” are neither valid or supported scientifically, they are rather the author’s theories. While pieces of this research are informative – they are informative only under the exact conditions under which they were demonstrated – improbable levels of sunscreen contaminants. Essentially they don’t support any conclusion other than in the experimental environment described in the research – that the experimental levels of various sunscreen ingredients produce increased short term viral activity.

I don’t doubt for a second that sunscreens kill corals – almost anything will cause mortality in high enough doses. A colleague of mine put this succinctly in a previous article:

“Any contaminant can experimentally damage a coral under artificially high concentrations. The amount [in the wild] must be tiny due to dilution,” commented Terry Hughes, director of the Australian Research Council’s Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University in Queensland.

“Imagine how much water a tourist wearing one teaspoon of sunscreen swims through in an hour-long snorkel. Compared to real threats like global warming, runoff and overfishing, any impact of sunscreen is unproven and undoubtedly trivial,” he said.

News Roundup

BIODIVERSITY: The Twilight Age of Coral Reefs

Coral reefs will be the first global ecosystem to collapse in our lifetimes. The one-two punch of climate change that is warming ocean temperatures and increasing acidification is making the oceans uninhabitable for corals and other marine species, researchers said at a scientific symposium in Spain. And now other regions are being affected. Acidic or corrosive waters have been detected for the first time on the continental shelf of the west coast of North America, posing a serious threat to fisheries, Richard Feely, an oceanographer with the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), told attendees in Gijon, Spain Wednesday. More than 450 scientists from over 60 countries are participating in the “Effects of Climate Change on the World’s Oceans” symposium. (Link to IPS article)

‘Record greenhouse gas fall’

Greenhouse gas emissions by all the Group of Eight industrial nations except Russia fell in 2006 in the broadest dip since the world started trying to slow climate change in 1990, a Reuters survey showed today. Rising oil prices, some measures to curb global warming and a milder winter in the United States in 2006 that depressed energy demand for heating all contributed to an overall 0.6 per cent dip in G8 emissions in 2006 from 2005. “It is an encouraging sign that emissions decreased in 2006 in some major developed economies,” Michael Raupach, leader of the Earth Observation Centre in Canberra, said. “However, we have scarcely begun,” he said, adding that the world would need far tougher action to stabilise emissions at levels to avert “dangerous” climate changes of ever more heatwaves, food shortages, floods, droughts and rising seas. (Link to article)

Climate change: ‘Mutiny’ needed against government inaction

Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) president Professor Ian Lowe called on Australians to “mutiny” against government inaction on climate change, at a public forum on May 17. Forty people attended the event organised by Friends of the Earth (FoE). “In ecological terms, there can be little doubt that we are booked on the Titanic and steaming towards the iceberg of runaway climate change”, Lowe said.“The people who should know better are still in the first-class bar ordering smoked salmon and the best vintage champagne, secure in the knowledge that their cheque will not reach the bank. “The apathetic approach is [to assume] that the crew must know what they are doing. But the activist approach, my view, is that, if the crew on the bridge won’t change course, we should organise a mutiny”, Lowe urged a cheering audience. (Link to GreenLeft article)

A Stinging analysis

This year’s surveyed beekeepers reported a total loss of 36.1 percent of their honey bee colonies, up 13.5 percent from the previous year. The crisis of the vanishing bees is worse and proceeding faster than anyone imagined it might. Our emission of the hundreds of billions of tonnes of CO2 from burning of fossil fuels has filled our and the bees atmosphere with a concentration of CO2 40% higher than in the previous century. Every feature of form and function in bees focuses their evolution on living and managing with a slightly high CO2 level common to their hives — but not so high as our present air. Bees manage their social lives around CO2 in their colonies; and, when CO2 rises just a few percent above normal levels they exhibit what had, until now, been a workable and wonderful response. (Link to Responsible Nanotechnology blog)

Differences in opinions over Coral Sea fisheries

Compare and contrast these two news reports on the proposed Coral Sea marine park (Read the full report here):

THE Coral Sea must be declared a protected zone to save sharks and some other marine species from rapid extinction, says the conservation group WWF. The organisation says two separate reports show many Coral Sea marine species are isolated and vulnerable to overfishing.

“For this reason alone, we are renewing our calls to the federal government to declare the entire Coral Sea a marine protected area,” WWF spokeswoman Gilly Llewellyn said.

“Without protection, these species are highly vulnerable to human impacts which could easily and quickly wipe them out,” Dr Llewellyn said.

Coral Sea needs protection‘ – The Australian, 22nd May

The Queensland Seafood Industry Association says the Coral Sea needs a sustainable management plan and not a complete ban on fishing.

Association president Neil Green says some environmental groups are out of touch.

“We’ve got the world starving for fish or for food in particular and we’ve got these groups saying we shouldn’t access that resource, we should just let them die of natural causes and that’s just not acceptable to an industry that means so much to Queensland,” he said.

Seafood industry slams WWF calls for fishing ban‘ – ABC News, 22nd May

“UQ is the climate for a Smart State hat trick”

I didn’t write this but thought you might like to know of my good luck!

UQ News, 21st May

A University of Queensland expert who pioneered research linking climate change projections with coral reef distress is the 2008 Smart State Premier’s Fellow.

Professor Ove Hoegh-Guldberg is the third UQ researcher to win the government’s top science prize, now in its third year.

He was one of the world’s first scientists to show how projected changes in global climate threaten coral reefs including Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.

“For some time now Professor Hoegh-Guldberg has been saying that unless we act to protect the Great Barrier Reef, we could see a situation where in 30 years’ time we won’t have much of our wonderful Reef left,” Premier Anna Bligh said as she announced the award at UQ in Brisbane today (May 21, 2008).

With Professor Hoegh-Guldberg leading a scientific session at an important climate change and oceans conference in Spain, Premier Bligh presented the award to his partner in research and life, Dr Sophie Dove.

The five-year fellowship gives a boost of more than $2.5 million to Great Barrier Reef research by Professor Hoegh-Guldberg and a large team. The Queensland Government’s $1.25 million contribution is matched by UQ, and the Great Barrier Reef Foundation, the Reef and Rainforest Research Centre and the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority are also sponsors.
Continue reading

Nudibranch photography (National Geographic)



Check out the recent National Geographic article on nudibranchs (small colourful snail-like invertebrates that inhabit coral reefs) – there are some astounding images of these fascinating underwater creatures (link to photo gallery).


Nudibranchs crawl through life as slick and naked as a newborn. Snail kin whose ancestors shrugged off the shell millions of years ago, they are just skin, muscle, and organs sliding on trails of slime across ocean floors and coral heads the world over.


Found from sandy shallows and reefs to the murky seabed nearly a mile down, nudibranchs thrive in waters both warm and cold and even around billowing deep-sea vents. Members of the gastropod class, and more broadly the mollusks, the mostly finger-size morsels live fully exposed, their gills forming tufts on their backs. (Nudibranch means “naked gill,” a feature that separates them from other sea slugs.) Although they can release their muscular foothold to tumble in a current—a few can even swim freely—they are rarely in a hurry. (Read More)

Tim Flannery’s radical climate change ’solution’

Scientist Tim Flannery has proposed a radical solution to climate change which may change the colour of the sky.

But he says it may be necessary, as the “last barrier to climate collapse.”

Professor Flannery says climate change is happening so quickly that mankind may need to pump sulphur into the atmosphere to survive.

Australia’s best-known expert on global warming has updated his climate forecast for the world – and it’s much worse than he thought just three years ago.

He has called for a radical suite of emergency measures to be put in place.

The gas sulphur could be inserted into the earth’s stratosphere to keep out the sun’s rays and slow global warming, a process called global dimming.

“It would change the colour of the sky,” Prof Flannery told AAP.

“It’s the last resort that we have, it’s the last barrier to a climate collapse.

“We need to be ready to start doing it in perhaps five years time if we fail to achieve what we’re trying to achieve.”

Prof Flannery, the 2007 Australian of the Year, said the sulphur could be dispersed above the earth’s surface by adding it to jet fuel.

He conceded there were risks to global dimming via sulphur.

“The consequences of doing that are unknown.”

(Read More)

Draft carbon capture legislation unveiled

RESOURCES Minister Martin Ferguson today unveiled draft legislation to establish the world’s first framework for carbon dioxide capture and geological storage (CCS).

Mr Ferguson said it involved capturing greenhouse gas emissions, predominantly from coal-fired power stations, before they reached the atmosphere.

The gas is then injected and stored deep underground in geological formations similar to those which have stored oil and gas for millions of years, he said.

“With 83 per cent of Australia’s electricity generated from coal, no serious response to climate change can ignore the need to clean up coal and the Government’s establishment of a CCS framework represents a major step towards making clean coal a reality,” he said in a statement.

“CCS is essential for the long-term sustainability of coal-fired power generation and the potential of new industries such as coal-to-liquids, which could improve Australia’s liquid transport fuel security.”

Mr Ferguson said the draft legislation had been referred to the House of Representatives Primary Industries and Resources Committee to conduct comprehensive review before the bill was introduced to Parliament later this year.

The legislation establishes access and property rights for injection and storage of greenhouse gases into a stable sub-surface geological reservoir in commonwealth waters more than three nautical miles offshore. (Read More)

The Starck truth? Starck naked is more like it…

So it seems like Walther Starck (with his post graduate training and “professional experience in fisheries biology“) has come running to the rescue with a critique entitled “The Great Barrier Reef prophets of doom”, in response to a recent online piece by Charlie Veron (“The plight of the Great Barrier Reef”):

Although Charlie Veron is a highly respected coral taxonomist many of the statements he made regarding climate change are at best doubtful. Like most biologists he appears to have accepted the “consensus” view of catastrophic climate change without being aware of a vast body of peer reviewed non-biological research that casts doubt on or directly refutes all of the major climatic claims he asserts as unqualified facts.

Good to see Starck again criticising someone else on the lack of peer-reviewed research whilst failing to cite anything in response. Perhaps a reference or two from the peer reviewed scientific literature would help us evaluate the veracity of his claims.

Living, subfossil and fossil corals all indicate that bleaching associated with high temperatures is a common occurrence in reef corals. There is no evidence to indicate that either the frequency or severity of such events has increased.

Huh? Where are the papers to back up those rather sweeping statements?

The fact that Starck responds to Veron’s comment “(Corals)… once survived in a world where carbon dioxide from volcanoes and methane was much higher than anything predicted today. But that was 50 million years ago. The accumulation of carbon dioxide then took millions of years, not just a few decades.” by using the throw-away sentence “Many current reef coral genera survived this event” highlights his complete ignorance of the geological history of reefs. I’m fascinated by statements like these – corals have survived throughout geological history (over 500 million years) and have indeed gone through several extinction events. However, what interests me is that this fact is often used as support for coral longevity. Don’t worry about the loss of entire reef systems (as we are seeing world-wide) – Starck implies that as long as some species of coral within a genera survive, we can ignore the issue. Even though reefs as we know them today (and as Charlie points out) will be long gone – “survival” simply isn’t enough.

It seems like the same old story all over again. As a final point worthy of mention, Walther doesn’t seem to have a full grasp of the scientific literature:

Although there is credible evidence for past carbon dioxide levels greater than any increase we may experience before all fossil fuel is consumed there is no evidence to indicate that past such increases took place much slower than the present one or that slower or faster would make any real difference

Starck again confuses the rate of change with the limit of change. I would direct him to Table 1 in our recent Science article. Here we calculated the rate of change over the past 420,000 years and found that the rate of change over the past 136 years was up to 1000 fold higher any previous rate of change. Stands to reason given that it took 30,000 years for atmospheric carbon dioxide to change by 100 ppm in the past, and we have just changed the atmosphere by a similar amount in only 100 years!