Spotting the killer hot spots

Killer hotspots of over-heated ocean water which destroy huge areas of coral and bring starvation to birds, fish and other sea creatures can now be pinpointed, thanks to a major advance in the use of satellite technology by Australian and American researchers.

Advanced satellites and smart mathematics are enabling the scientists to detect the events which cause mass bleaching of corals and disruption of marine food chains with unprecedented precision.

This is revealing the Great Barrier Reef’s most threatened areas under global warming.

“Until now we have only been able to detect large-scale events under typical seasonal conditions,” team leader and University of Queensland researcher Dr Scarla Weeks said.

“The new technology gives us the power to see what is happening in the ocean around the Great Barrier Reef in much finer scale in both space and time,” said Dr Scarla Weeks, of UQ’s Centre for Marine Studies (CMS) and Centre for Remote Sensing and Spatial Information Science (CRSSIS).

“It means we can identify those areas most at risk of being hit by hot water, enabling managers and reef visitors to take greater steps to protect them.

“It also means that we can observe coral bleaching events taking place, which were missedbefore because the satellite data didn’t have the fine scales necessary.”

Dr Weeks said that the 2002 bleaching event, which hit 54 per cent of the Great Barrier Reef was clearly detected using satellite data from the US National Oceans and Atmosphere Administration (NOAA) – but the subsequent 2005/6 event, which hit the southern GBR hard, was not picked up.

“One reason was the 2005/6 bleaching was an anomaly. It struck in November/December, whereas the usual time that warm water enters the GBR is in late summer, around February.

“The existing technology used didn’t have the resolution to pick it up. In fact it couldn’t observe any reefs close inshore.”

Dr Weeks’ team has announced the development of a satellite and mathematical tool that provides a dramatic improvement in the ability to read sea surface temperature anomalies from outer space. It is more accurate in time and can see much smaller areas of water.

“Using this we can identify individual reefs or groups of reefs which are most at risk of hot water and coral bleaching under climate change,” she said.

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“Barrier Reef to get stronger protection”

The Age, 25th June 2008

“The federal government and opposition have backed updating laws designed to protect the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.

The changes would provide a wider range of enforcement options in terms of protection for the reef, encourage responsible use of the marine park and establish new emergency management powers.

The new laws would also reflect the reef’s updated status as a world heritage area.

Opposition environment spokesman Greg Hunt said the Great Barrier Reef was arguably one of the largest and most complex ecosystems in the world.

“The reef is one of the most visually spectacular and richly diverse ecosystems on the planet,” Mr Hunt told parliament.

“We are its custodians, we are its managers, we are proud to have this responsibility and we work on a bipartisan basis across this chamber on this profound responsibility,” he said.

Labor MP Kelvin Thomson said the updated laws would encourage more sustainable use of the reef.

“I believe that these legislative changes will form part of a robust, comprehensive framework for protecting the Great Barrier Reef,” he told parliament.

Mr Thomson said strengthening the laws was a much better idea than covering the more than 340,000 square kilometres of reef with shade cloth, as suggested by Howard government tourism minister Fran Bailey.

“She proposed to turn the Great Barrier Reef into the great barrier roof,” he said.

Debate was adjourned.”

Climate Change in Queensland – What the science is telling us.

The Queensland EPA has just released a major report outlining the escalating risks of a changing climate for this great state. Out of the Australian states, Queensland looks like it will particularly hard hit – perhaps with a 5oC increase in temperature by 2070. Maybe we should think twice about exporting so much coal without any real strategy for the associated emissions? The future is in our hands. Read on …

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True colours? Liberal bid to delay emission trading scheme.

The Australian, Lenore Taylor and Matthew Franklin | June 25, 2008

COALITION frontbenchers are pushing for a delay in the introduction of emissions trading in a move that threatens bipartisan support for the main mechanism to cut greenhouse gases and tackle climate change.

With Labor committed to introducing emissions trading by 2010, several Opposition frontbenchers have told The Australian they favour a delay amid concerns about the potential economic costs of a carbon trading scheme.

But Opposition Treasury spokesman Malcolm Turnbull and climate change spokesman Greg Hunt insisted last night the Coalition would stick with its election commitment of supporting emissions trading by 2011.

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd seized on doubts about the Opposition’s commitment to accuse it of reneging on its pre-election promise to support an emissions trading system.

Under an emissions trading system, polluters such as coal-fired power stations that cannot meet greenhouse gas reduction targets will be forced to buy carbon credits on an open market. This is expected to force the cost of services such as electricity and transport higher as companies adapt to the new environment. Continue reading

Guest Opinion: Global Warming Twenty Years Later

James Hansen on June 23, 2008

Tipping Points Near

Today, I will testify to Congress about global warming, 20 years after my June 23, 1988 testimony, which alerted the public that global warming was under way. There are striking similarities between then and now, but one big difference.

Again a wide gap has developed between what is understood about global warming by the relevant scientific community and what is known by policymakers and the public. Now, as then, frank assessment of scientific data yields conclusions that are shocking to the body politic. Now, as then, I can assert that these conclusions have a certainty exceeding 99 percent.

The difference is that now we have used up all slack in the schedule for actions needed to defuse the global warming time bomb. The next President and Congress must define a course next year in which the United States exerts leadership commensurate with our responsibility for the present dangerous situation.

Otherwise, it will become impractical to constrain atmospheric carbon dioxide, the greenhouse gas produced in burning fossil fuels, to a level that prevents the climate system from passing tipping points that lead to disastrous climate changes that spiral dynamically out of humanity’s control. Continue reading

What does abrupt climate change look like?

For some time now, I have been fascinated by the growing evidence that the earth’s climate has undergone extremely rapid changes over relatively short periods of time. Although very rare over the past million years, events such those associated with the Bølling-Allerød and Younger Dryas periods (11k to 15k BP) have attracted growing interest, especially in what they can tell us about the sensitivity of the climate to small shifts in forcing factors. Steffensen et al (2008) have just published a fascinating and detailed study of these phenomena within the Greenland NGRIP ice core. In this paper in Science, they report on the rapid switches between glacial and mild conditions that occurred periods as short as 1-3 years! Knowing what we know today, these periods must have been associated with vast disruptions to our planet’s climate and biological systems. It is fascinating to think that this disruption immediately preceded the rise of human civilizations in many parts of the world (adversity spawning invention?). While we do not have any clear understanding of why these events occurred (or for that matter, their impact), they serve as reminders of the volatility of the earth’s climate. Further investigation of these rapid spikes in the earth’s climate will no doubt yield some interesting yet foreboding science.

Does humanity have the foresight to save itself?

Mark Lynas is well known for his excellent book Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet from 2007. In a recent edition of the Guardian (June 12 2008), he reports on the outcome of the Stockholm Network think tank examining current and future responses to climate change. The think tank concluded that the present scenario, which is called “agree and ignore”, and one which is referred to as “Kyoto Plus”, will not result in emission reductions before 2030.

The consensus within the modeling community is that we will exceed 450 ppm if global emissions do not begin to decline within the next 8 years. At this point, as argued here and elsewhere, we will lose coral reefs, wet tropical rain forests and many other high biodiversity systems. We will almost certainly enter in a period of very dangerous climate change at this point. Food and water security will decrease and conflicts will escalate.

The third scenario is termed “step change” and is particularly interesting and plausible. In this scenario, major catastrophes driven by climate change over the next decade lead to robust international commitments to cap emissions. Interestingly, this is done by regulating fossil fuel heavy companies as opposed to individuals and governments. Whatever the mechanism, however, many of us believe that this type of shock maybe required before any real action begins – a result of the apparently eternally optimistic nature of humankind.

Pity it has to be this way. Why can’t we just wake now and avoid all the pain? Read Mark Lynas’s account of why this will not happen.

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Species already gone – Herald Sun

Herald Sun, 13th June 2008

Entire species may have already been wiped off the face of the Earth because of climate change, scientists believe.

But due to a lack of research – caused by minimal funding from governments – it may be some time before it becomes known which species, a CSIRO marine biologist says.

On the back of a study that criticised the lack of funding oceanic research has received, Australian marine biologist Elvira Poloczanska said climate change could have already killed entire populations.

“I think it’s possible … we haven’t even discovered all the animals in the ocean,” Dr Poloczanska said.

She said that compared to land animals, marine creatures responded to changes in climate more quickly, but research into ocean life was limited.

University of Queensland marine scientist Ove Hoegh-Guldberg said it would not be long until new species of animals would be discovered – after they have been wiped out.

“We know that they’re out there because we keep on discovering new species … that’s going to be one of the tragedies of our current pathway,” Professor Hoegh-Guldberg said.

“It’s a horrific thing to think about – an undiscovered gem disappears before we find it.

“But it’s already happening.”

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Coral reefs, climate change and tourism

Red Orbit, 9th June

A changing global climate may have profound effects on the Florida Keys coral reef, an Australian researcher says, but at least people are paying attention.

“People are concerned about tourism and the reef, of course,” economist Hans Hoegh-Guldberg said after his first Keys workshop Friday in Islamorada.

“But one positive thing about the environment is that people here see is an increasing environmental consciousness on both the corporate and personal level,” Hoegh-Guldberg said. “People are taking more and more notice.”

Hoegh-Guldberg will spend this week in the Keys to conduct four more workshops with residents as part of a scenario-planning process commissioned by the National Marine Sanctuaries Program of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“That means developing a set of alternative possible future worlds from ‘best case’ to ‘worst case,’ all equally credible and equally likely to occur,” said Hoegh-Guldberg. “We must plan to avert the worst and encourage the best.”

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