Obama’s win refreshes key climate talks – Nature Special Report

As all eyes turn to Poland for the start of the United Nations meeting next week, Jeff Tollefson (Nature Special Report) looks at what progress is likely to be made.

Nature News, 27th November 2008

The United Nations Climate Change Conference that begins in Poznań, Poland, on 1 December will in some ways mark the end of an era. The United States’ long-standing opposition to climate regulation is vanishing, offering new opportunities for cooperation with its allies in Europe and beyond.

But to some extent, international climate negotiators will remain in limbo until 20 January 2009, when US President-elect Barack Obama enters the White House. Obama has advocated forceful domestic action on global warming and re-engagement with the international community.

“There is a lot of hope and a lot of optimism,” says Rob Bradley, who heads international climate policy at the World Resources Institute, an environmental think tank in Washington DC. “A lot of countries will be willing to give the benefit of the doubt to the new administration — but they are all very aware that in Poznań they will be talking to the old administration.”

The meeting will bring together representatives from some 192 countries in an ongoing effort to craft a global-warming accord to succeed the Kyoto Protocol, which was adopted in 1997 and expires in 2012. UN officials hope to reach a successor agreement in Copenhagen next year to leave time for implementation and ratification. Yet many think that goal is too ambitious, especially at a time when world leaders are worried about the global economy.

Poland has cited economic reasons in trying to build a coalition to block a European Union rule that, among other things, would require full auctioning of carbon allowances in 2013. But Saleemul Huq, of the International Institute for Environment and Development in London, thinks that opposition is now waning. He says the European Council might even move ahead with the rule as early as 12 December, the last day of the Poznań conference. The US re-engagement will only help, he says. “People will have a more rosy outlook in terms of being able to achieve something,” says Huq, “and that will probably bend the European position in a more positive direction.”

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Coral Reef news round-up

“Reef guide to benefit research” (Sydney Morning Herald, 26/11/08)

‘I mean we’re not going to have reefs for much longer but we can at least have them a bit longer.” Pat Hutchings, a 40-year veteran of coral reef research, is not optimistic for the long-term future of the Great Barrier Reef but she is determined to do everything within her power to help its survival.

Hutchings has been poking around reefs since her student days, before scuba diving existed outside the armed forces. “When I went to learn in the mid to late ’60s, we had to make our own wetsuits – you couldn’t buy them,” she says. “There were a few naval divers but it wasn’t available to students. Prior to that people swam around with a box with glass on the bottom to look through.” (Read More)

“Ending the reef madness”
(The Australian, 26/11/08)

OVE Hoegh-Guldberg is blunt about the gloomy prospects for the Great Barrier Reef.

“We have no time to lose,” said the director of the University of Queensland’s Centre for Marine Studies.

“We are three decades away from having a reef with no coral and less than half the species we have today. It is crunch time.”

Speaking on the eve of the publication of a unique book, The Great Barrier Reef, the first comprehensive field guide to the world’s largest continous reef, he stressed the imperative to act. “Part of the mission for us as scientists is to pass on the urgency and excitement about these issues.” (Read More)

“Climate change, starfish hit Fiji Reefs: Study”
(ABC News, 24/11/08)

Climate change and a starfish outbreak have shrunk coral reefs near Fiji, forcing locals to change their lifestyle.

A new study, published in Global Change Biology, has found that from 2000-2006 the size of coral reefs around Fiji’s remote Lau Islands contracted by about 50 per cent.

Dr Nick Graham from James Cook University, who took part in the study, says fishing and habitat disturbance are having a big impact.

“The area was disturbed by a crown of thorns starfish outbreak in about 2000 and then, the subsequent year, there was also a coral bleaching event associated with climate change,” Mr Graham said.

“We were pretty shocked at just how severe the impact was.” (Read More)

“Oceans acidifying faster than predicted, threatening shellfish”
(Bloomberg, 25/11/08)

Oceans are acidifying 10 times faster than predicted, threatening heightened damage to coral reefs and shellfish, University of Chicago scientists said.

Researchers took more than 24,000 pH measurements over eight years and found the rate at which the ocean is becoming more acidic correlates with the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide, or CO2, the university said in a statement. When CO2, which helps cause global warming, dissolves in water, it forms carbonic acid.

“The acidity increased more than 10 times faster than had been predicted by climate change models and other studies,” University of Chicago ecology and evolution professor Timothy Wooton said in the statement. “This increase will have a severe impact on marine food webs and suggests that ocean acidification may be a more urgent issue than previously thought.” (Read More)

“A Sea Biscuit’s Life”


This video is nothing short of incredible – the lifecycle of a sea biscuit filmed entirely under a microscope (more).

We collected adults from sand beds of São Sebastião Channel (São Sebastião, SP, Brazil) and induced gamete release (eggs and sperm). We did the fertilization in vitro and followed the embryonic development in the laboratory, under light microscopy. Embryos become swimming larvae, approximately 0.2 mm wide, which we fed with microalgae until metamorphosis. A diminute sea biscuit grows inside the larva. When the minuscule podia and spines are formed the larva sinks and undergoes metamorphosis. The juvenile sea biscuit resorbs the larval tissue and begins to explore its new habitat, between sand grains.

New book release: The Great Barrier Reef

“The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park is 344,400 square kilometres in size and is home to one of the most diverse ecosystems in the world. This comprehensive guide describes the organisms and ecosystems of the Great Barrier Reef, as well as the biological, chemical and physical processes that influence them. Contemporary pressing issues such as climate change, coral bleaching, coral disease and the challenges of coral reef fisheries are also discussed.

In addition,the book includes a field guide that will help people to identify the common animals and plants on the reef, then to delve into the book to learn more about the roles the biota play.

Beautifully illustrated and with contributions from 33 international experts, The Great Barrier Reef is a must-read for the interested reef tourist, student, researcher and environmental manager. While it has an Australian focus, it can equally be used as a baseline text for most Indo-Pacific coral reefs”

(View sample pdf or see CSIRO publishing website for ordering information)

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Study identifies disease resistant coral genotypes

A recovering staghorn coral population from Jamaica in 2003. Photo credit: J. Bruno

If you visited a Caribbean coral reef any time over the last few thousand years up until the early 1980s, you would have seen vast forests of branching elkhorn and staghorn corals, Acropora palmata and Acropora cervicornis.  I have very clear memories of snorkeling over vast golden landscapes of coral in the Florida Keys with my family in the 1970s.  In some places, huge staghorn colonies would reach up from 3-5 meters below, nearly up to the surface.

All that is gone.  Both species were nearly wiped out by white band disease in the 1980s.  During the outbreak, mortality was very high, probably greater than 95%.  In many places both species nearly or actually became locally extinct.  The result was a rapid, severe loss of coral cover on reefs throughout the region.  The loss of these two dominant reef-builders had countless cascading effects on community inhabitants and ecosystem functioning.  Imagine the impact of loosing all the dominant trees across a vast forested region.

Elkhorn and staghorn corals are currently listed as threatened under the US Endangered Species Act and as critically endangered under the IUCN Red List criteria.  The pathogen of a very similar, more recent, and probably synonymous disease, white band type II, is thought to be a Vibrio bacteria (Gil-Agudelo et al. 2006).  But nobody knows what factors triggered the white band outbreak of the 1980s.  I doubt it was temperature, since this was a relatively cool period in the Caribbean (Barton and Casey 2005).  And given the regional scale of the epizootic – and the fact that isolated, pristine reefs were hit just as hard as reefs adjacent to urban and agricultural centers – we know nutrient pollution didn’t play a role.

But there are signs of hope.  In some places, small populations are beginning to recover.  And a very interesting paper published last week in the online, open access journal PLoS One (Vollmer and Kline 2008) has identified several genotypes of A. cervicornis that appear to be totally resistant to white band disease.

The research demonstrates clearly that staghorn corals have the innate ability to resist and recover from the disease that put them on the endangered species list. Interestingly, our study also revealed a huge range of phenotypic variation in disease resistance, from highly resistant  genotypes to colonies that nearly always contract the disease when exposed to it. – Dr. Steve Vollmer, lead author and Assistant Professor at Northeastern University’s Marine Science Center.

William Precht, a restoration specialist for the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary who is charged with overseeing the restoration of A. cervicornis added; “This is an outstanding study that has broad application to coral reef managers especially those involved in active restoration programs. In addition, with the recent listing of this coral under the US ESA – this study will contribute significantly to the recovery plan that is being developed for this species.”


Barton AD, Casey KS (2005) Climatological context for large-scale coral bleaching. Coral Reefs 24: 536-554

Gil-Agudelo DL, Smith GW, Weil E (2006) The white band disease type II pathogen in Puerto Rico. International Journal of Tropical Biology and Conservation 54: 59-67

Vollmer SV, Kline DI (2008) Natural Disease Resistance in Threatened Staghorn Corals. PLoS ONE 3(11): e3718 doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0003718

Appreciating the immense timescales of climate change and ocean acidification

While the present policy debate on climate change focuses on 2020, 2050 and 2100 targets, our present use of fossil fuels will continue to affect the atmosphere and the oceans for many, many thousands of years.

David Archer and Victor Brovkin (2008: 292) point out, “the notion that global warming will last only a few centuries is widespread in the popular and even in the scientific literature on climate change. This misconception may have its roots in an oversimplification of the carbon cycle.”

The IPCC (2007: 515) illustrated the carbon cycle in the 1990s in the following diagram of carbon reservoirs and main annual fluxes (pre-industrial ‘natural’ fluxes in black and anthropogenic fluxes in red):

[Note: Reservoir and main annual fluxes are in Gigatonnes of carbon. These may be converted to CO2 figures by multiplying by 44/12].

In a significant revision of its earlier reports, the IPCC (2007) concluded that natural processes in the carbon cycle will be slow to remove the current levels of CO2 from the atmosphere. Following perturbation of the natural Carbon Cycle about 50% of an increase in atmospheric CO2 will be removed within 30 years, a further 30% will be removed within a few centuries and the remaining 20% may remain in the atmosphere for many thousands of years (IPCC 2007: 514).

Archer and Brovkin (2008) reviewed long-term carbon cycle models from the recently published literature. They noted, “carbon cycle models respond to a release of new CO2 into the atmosphere in a series of several well-defined stages lasting for many millennia.” In the first stage, fossil fuel CO2 released into the atmosphere equilibrates with the ocean, which takes centuries or a millennium due to the slow overturning circulation of the ocean.

Archer and Brovkin (2008: 284) noted that the lifetime of individual CO2 molecules released into the atmosphere may only be a few years because of the copious exchange of carbon with the ocean and the land surface. However, the CO2 concentration in the air remains higher than it would have been, because of the larger inventory of CO2 in the atmosphere/ocean/land carbon cycle.

That is, the equilibrium processes removing fossil fuel CO2 emissions from the atmosphere operate at a system-wide level and individual CO2 molecules do not last for millennia in the atmosphere. Thus today’s fossil fuel CO2 emissions will not be “in” the atmosphere (literally) for a long period but they will continue to “affect” the atmosphere, the climate, and the oceans for many thousands of years.

The equilibrium processes have a major negative side for the oceans. A consequence of the oceans acting as a “sink” for CO2 emitted from burning fossil fuels is ocean acidification, discussed in several recent posts here.

Archer and Brovkin (2008: 288) point out, “after the invasion of fossil fuel CO2 into the ocean, the acidity from the CO2 provokes the dissolution of CaCO3 from the sea floor. … In the models it takes thousands of years for this imbalance to restore the pH of the ocean to a natural value.”

After fossil fuel CO2 in the atmosphere equilibrates with the oceans, atmospheric CO2 will still remain about 20-25% higher than pre-industrial levels. Archer and Brovkin (2008: 287) note that, “eventually, the excess CO2 will be consumed by chemical reactions with CaCO3 and igneous rocks, but this takes thousands of years.”

In an earlier publication, Archer (2005) found that the immense longevity of the tail on the lifetime of CO2 released into the atmosphere means 7% released by burning fossil fuels today will still be affecting the atmosphere in 100,000 years, and the mean lifetime of CO2 in the atmosphere is 30,000-35,000 years. He suggested an appropriate approximation of the lifetime of CO2 released by the burning of fossil fuels for public discussion is “300 years, plus 25% that lasts forever”.

We commonly think of our children and grandchildren to appreciate the consequences of our present actions but as our present emissions of fossil fuel will continue to affect the atmosphere for over 100,000 years, we should appreciate the decisions on climate policies today will affect the next 5,000 generations of humanity and beyond.


Archer D (2005), “Fate of Fossil Fuel in Geologic Time” 110 Journal of Geophysical Research C09S05, doi: 10.1029/2004/2004JC002625

Archer D and Brovkin V (2008), “The millennial atmospheric lifetime of anthropogenic CO2” Climatic Change 90:283-297 DOI 10.1007/s10584-008-9413-1, available at http://geosci.uchicago.edu/~archer/reprints/archer.2008.tail_implications.pdf

IPCC (2007), Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fourth Assessment Report of the IPCC (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge). References in text are to Ch 7, pp 514-515 and available at http://www.ipcc.ch/pdf/assessment-report/ar4/wg1/ar4-wg1-chapter7.pdf

Advice for Obama: improving the management of ocean ecosystems

Now that he won the election, everyone has advice for Barack Obama on how he should govern and what policies he should support and focus on.  Given the importance of ocean ecosystems and coral reefs, shouldn’t we get into the act?  In fact, several individuals and organizations are drafting advice on environmental policy, pressing environmental issues, etc.  Dr. Steve Carpenter (a prominent limnologist at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, USA), recently posted his advice for Obama on the Ecolog lister server (an international discussion board for ecologists).  Ill insert his letter to Obama below, but his four main recommendations are:

Decrease America’s dependency on coal and oil and increase the supply of energy from non-polluting technologies.

Stop subsidizing agriculture that destroys land, water and health.

Have a population policy.

Invest in the education and innovation needed to create a society that could thrive in the 21st century and beyond.

Andrew Revkin at the New York Times blog dot earth recently discussed environmental advice for Obama, particularly that related to climate change.

Dr. Paul Erlich of Stanford University and “The Population Bomb” fame has made his own recommendations for making our society more sustainable that you can read about here.  They include; One: Put births on a par with deaths and Two: Put conserving on a par with consuming.

As part of the Year of The Reef celebration, a consortium of groups put together a list of 25 things individuals can do to save coral reefs.  (personally, I think most of their suggestions are silly and would be ineffectual)

And even former vice president Al Gore has contributed his two cents in a recent New York Times op ed “The Climate for Change“.

So what advice should we, as marine scientists, conservationists and advocates, give to Obama?  Ill make a pitch for a few policies and issues below, but I’d really like to hear from other climate shifts authors and readers what they recommend.

1) Implement a series of no-take marine reserves. There is overwhelming scientific evidence that marine reserves work and have tangible benefits outside their boundaries for people and ecosystems.  Less than 1% of the ocean is fully protected.  We should be protecting closer to 30 or 40% of all marine habitats.  We should also insulate the management of our fisheries from local politics as much as possible, so that managers can make more decisions based on science.

2) Radically reduce greenhouse gas emissions nationally and facilitate international reductions by heavily investing in clean technologies, smart urban and social planning, etc.  Or as Al Gore argues:

We can make an immediate and large strategic investment to put people to work replacing 19th-century energy technologies that depend on dangerous and expensive carbon-based fuels with 21st-century technologies that use fuel that is free forever: the sun, the wind and the natural heat of the earth.

3) Increase the federal budget for ocean research, observing and exploration tenfold. Currently, the US space program (NASA) receives 700X more federal funding than the US government allocates for all combined ocean sciences.  Given the enormous social and economic importance of the oceans and the rate at which ocean ecosystems are being degraded, this is simply crazy.  Despite what you may hear from some advocates, we simply don’t have realistic solutions to many environmental problems and we won’t without a greater investment in basic ocean science.  There is so much about marine ecosystems that we don’t understand and in lots of cases we don’t even have the resources to quantify and/or forecast the impacts of various human activities.

So, what do YOU recommend president-elect Obama do?

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450 ppm must become the catch-cry for serious political action on climate change

Ben McNeil and Richard Matear from the University of New South Wales have just published a very important article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of United States (Link to full text).  This paper further emphasises the critical importance of keeping carbon dioxide levels lower than 450 ppm, as Chris McGrath highlighted earlier this week.  While politicians fumble over the issue of gaining effective control of carbon dioxide, there is growing evidence that we must keep CO2 levels below 450 ppm or be prepared to suffer serious consequences to life on Earth.

This is a significant paper which highlights the importance of understanding the dynamics of carbonate equilibrium in seawater in our greenhouse world.   Rapid acidification of our oceans, as we now know, is an important impact of rising anthropogenic carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.   More importantly, this study confirms the worrying conclusion that calcification in the worlds oceans is in big trouble if atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide exceed 450 ppm.   We came to a similar conclusion for coral reefs in a recent article in Science magazine (Hoegh-Guldberg et al 2007) – finding as well that net calcification on coral reef ecosystems dwindles to zero at about 450-500 ppm.   The implications of failing ecosystems as important as those in the Southern Ocean are considerable. Rigorous observations such as these should spur our political leaders to make much more decisive steps to curb the rise of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere – anything less will be disastrous.

McNeil & Matear (2008) Southern Ocean acidification: A tipping point at 450-ppm atmospheric CO2. PNAS

Southern Ocean acidification via anthropogenic CO2 uptake is expected to be detrimental to multiple calcifying plankton species by lowering the concentration of carbonate ion (CO32-) to levels where calcium carbonate (both aragonite and calcite) shells begin to dissolve. Natural seasonal variations in carbonate ion concentrations could either hasten or dampen the future onset of this undersaturation of calcium carbonate. We present a large-scale Southern Ocean observational analysis that examines the seasonal magnitude and variability of CO32- and pH. Our analysis shows an intense wintertime minimum in CO32- south of the Antarctic Polar Front and when combined with anthropogenic CO2 uptake is likely to induce aragonite undersaturation when atmospheric CO2 levels reach ~450 ppm. Under the IPCC IS92a scenario, Southern Ocean wintertime aragonite undersaturation is projected to occur by the year 2030 and no later than 2038. Some prominent calcifying plankton, in particular the Pteropod species Limacina helicina, have important veliger larval development during winter and will have to experience detrimental carbonate conditions much earlier than previously thought, with possible deleterious flow-on impacts for the wider Southern Ocean marine ecosystem. Our results highlight the critical importance of understanding seasonal carbon dynamics within all calcifying marine ecosystems such as continental shelves and coral reefs, because natural variability may potentially hasten the onset of future ocean acidification.

Plot of the year in which the onset of wintertime undersaturation occurs under equilibrium conditions (McNeil & Matear 2008)

Great Barrier Reef ‘could adapt to avoid climate doom’

Great Barrier Reef ‘could adapt to avoid climate doom” (1/11/2008) missed the bigger picture. While I agree that corals have a capacity to adapt to warming waters, it is my firm view that the rate of adaption will be too slow to prevent major loss of biodiversity at current levels and trends in greenhouse gas emissions.

Serious threat to the future of the Reef is not a distant theoretical possibility. The Great Barrier Reef has already had two near misses. Unprecedented, widespread coral death from bleaching occurred in 1998 and 2002. About 50 per cent of the Reef’s corals bleached over a very hot summer with most corals then recovering when peak temperatures eased (only five per cent died).

The Great Barrier Reef’s capacity to survive this mounting pressure is through building the Reef’s health and its ability to repair itself. Poor quality water not only contributes to the risk of bleaching it can also inhibit the corals ability to recover after a bleaching event. Australians are responding to this challenge. We are cleaning up our rivers that now carry excess fertiliser and pesticides; restoring coastal wetlands that not only catch excess silt from floods but provide nursery habitats for many species of fish; preventing pollution from sewage; preventing overfishing of top predators such as sharks and avoiding the accidental loss of iconic species such as dugong and turtle.

The UN report “Confronting Climate Change: Avoiding the Unmanageable and Managing the Unavoidable” captures the  essence of this global problem. The strongest possible action on emissions reduction is needed on a global scale, and local action is needed to help maintain the Reef’s ability to withstand the inevitable and increasing pressure it faces each summer.

R  Reichelt
Chairman, Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority

National Geographic photographs southern right whales

Amongst the winners of the National Geographic “best wild animal photos of 2008” (link) is this incredible photograph of a diver and a southern right whale, taken in New Zealand. Like most whale populations, the souther right whale was extensively hunted from the mid 18th century up until the early 1970’s, severely depleting the southern Pacific populations around the New Zealand coastal waters . Since the ‘official’ worldwide ban on hunting right whales in 1937, southern right whales began to appear off the coast of New Zealand from the early 1960’s onwards. See the full set of photographs by Brian Skerry over at the National Geographic website (Link)