Bush administration considering two massive Pacific marine reserves

One of the many big political surprises in the US yesterday was news that the Bush administration was considering implementing two or more massive marine reserves in US territories in the Pacific.  The move  would protect some of the regions most remote coral reefs.  What isn’t so surprising is that, according to the Washington Post, über vice president Dick Cheney is trying to scale back or block Bush’s plans (doesn’t the former work for the latter?).

Read the whole story in the Washington Post here.

President Bush’s vision for protecting two vast areas of the Pacific Ocean from fishing and mineral exploitation, a move that would constitute a major expansion of his environmental legacy, is running into dogged resistance both inside and outside the White House and has placed his wife and his vice president on opposite sides of the issue.

In 2006 he designated the nearly 140,000-square-mile Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument in the northwestern Hawaiian Islands, creating what at the time was the world’s largest protected marine area. Scientists have advocated designating more such areas to protect them from the effects of overfishing, pollution and global warming, which are degrading oceans worldwide.

“There’s pretty strong evidence that everyone will benefit from the establishment of no-take reserves,” said Jane Lubchenco, a professor of marine biology at Oregon State University, adding that fish populations rebound both within the protected reserves and in nearby fishing grounds. “The administration made a major step forward in designating the Papahanaumokuakea National Monument, but that one alone is not enough to protect the full range of places and habitats and species that need to be protected. It will be part of [Bush’s] legacy, but his ocean and environmental legacy could be much, much more.”

One of the two marine reserves, or “marine conservation management areas”, includes a wide swath of the central Pacific ocean and some of the world’s most remote and pristine coral reefs, such as Kingman Atoll in the Line Islands.

Sadly, the article also highlights how close we came to having some similar reserves implemented closer to the continental US:

Bush initially explored the idea of establishing other protected areas closer to U.S. shores, including one off the southeastern coast near a group of deep-sea corals and another in the Gulf of Mexico. After commercial and recreational fishing interests and oil companies objected, the administration decided to pursue existing resource-management plans in those areas instead.

Political analysts interpret these moves as an attempt by Bush to build some sort of legacy before leaving office in early 2009.  We should know later in the year whether any of his planned reserves are indeed implemented.  And if they aren’t, I suspect the next president will be even more amenable to such logical solutions to some of our major environmental crises.

“Protecting places like this is one of the few things a sitting president can do that will live on in posterity and be remembered long after the other decrees and orders have been forgotten,”  said Joshua Reichert, managing director of the Pew Environmental Group.  “It would signal to the nation and the world that the sea needs to be treated as a threatened resource, and it will open up an era of global ocean conservation.”

Claudia McMurray, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for oceans, environment and science, said the administration will be “working up until the last week” of Bush’s term on the initiatives.  “While it would take a significant amount of work, we haven’t ruled it out,” she said. “We feel fairly confident, scientifically, there are so many unique species in that area, from that standpoint, we think it’s important to wall off as much as we can.”

Avoiding confusion for stabilization targets for climate change and ocean acidification

Long Cao and Ken Caldeira from the Carnegie Institution at Stanford have a new paper in Geophysical Research Letters on atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) stabilization and ocean acidification, a critical topic for current marine science and public policy. Hoegh-Guldberg et al (2007) illustrated the essential chemistry at the heart of this problem as follows:

Essentially, as CO2 dissolves into the oceans it forms an acid leading to decreased coral calcification and growth through the inhibition of aragonite formation (the principal crystalline form of calcium carbonate deposited in coral skeletons). The increased acidity caused by increasing atmospheric CO2 is known as ocean acidification and it is a separate, though inter-related, phenomenon to increased temperatures caused by CO2 acting as a greenhouse gas.

Cao and Caldeira (2008) found “that even at a CO2 stabilization level as low as 450 ppm, parts of the Southern Ocean become undersaturated with respect to aragonite [and] therefore, preservation of existing marine ecosystems could require a CO2 stabilization level that is lower than what might be chosen based on climate considerations alone.”

These results are similar to Hoegh-Gulberg et al (2007), who concluded “… contemplating policies that result in [CO2]atm above 500 ppm appears extremely risky for coral reefs and the tens of millions of people who depend on them directly, even under the most optimistic circumstances.”

Hoegh-Guldberg et al (2007) illustrated the expected the conditions of coral reefs under different levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide and temperature increases as follows:

These findings are very significant for governments around the world and other policy-makers because much of the current policy debate on climate change focuses on stabilizing greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide, between 450-550 parts per million carbon dioxide equivalents, thereby allowing a rise in mean global temperatures of around 2-3°C (e.g. Stern 2007; Garnaut 2008; Australian Treasury 2008).

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“Great Barrier Reef could adapt to climate change, scientists say” – Facts, fallacies and fanciful thinking.

The Australian newspaper published an article this weekend entitled “Great Barrier Reef could adapt to climate change, scientists say”.

THE prediction of a prominent marine biologist that climate change could render the Great Barrier Reef extinct within 30 years has been labelled overly pessimistic for failing to account for the adaptive capabilities of coral reefs.

University of Queensland marine biologist Ove Hoegh-Guldberg said yesterday that sea temperatures were likely to rise 2C over the next three decades, which would undoubtedly kill the reef.

But several of Professor Hoegh-Guldberg’s colleagues have taken issue with his prognosis.

Andrew Baird, principal research fellow at the Australian Research Council’s Centre for Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, said there were “serious knowledge gaps” about the impact rising sea temperatures would have on coral.

“Ove is very dismissive of coral’s ability to adapt, to respond in an evolutionary manner to climate change,” Dr Baird said.

“I believe coral has an underappreciated capacity to evolve. It’s one of the biological laws that, wherever you look, organisms have adapted to radical changes.”

Dr Baird acknowledged that, if left unaddressed, climate change would result in major changes to the Great Barrier Reef.

“There will be sweeping changes in the relative abundance of species,” he said. “There’ll be changes in what species occur where.

“But wholesale destruction of reefs? I think that’s overly pessimistic.”

Dr Baird said the adaptive qualities of coral reefs would mitigate the effects of climate change.

I must say I’m a little amazed that Andrew Baird has come out with such poorly supported statements.  In fact, his conclusions seem to depend almost entirely on his personal opinion!  The argument that corals are able to magically “adapt” over one or two decades to climate change (even though their generation times are often longer) has come up many times over the years – always, with a complete dearth of evidence to support it.

I wrote to Andrew Baird yesterday, to try and understand if there was something that he knew that I might have missed in the scientific lecture.  In response, Andrew sent me a recent article published by Jeff Maynard and himself (Maynard et al 2008).

Unfortunately, the article is an opinion piece (a bit like the newspaper article) that is poorly supported by anything but the most scant evidence (if you could actually call it that) from literature.   I have responded to these types of articles before, but frustrated, here we go again:

Maynard et al (2008) state the following as important evidence that corals can adapt to changes in the environment, and therefore that they can adapt to the current very rapid changes in ocean temperature and acidity.

“..geographic variation in bleaching thresholds within species, sometimes over scales <100km, provides circumstantial evidence for ongoing evolution of temperature tolerance between both species and reef”

Let me start by saying that no credible biologist would doubt the role of evolution in the shaping of the physiology and ecology of corals with respect to temperature.  Biological populations evolve in response to stress.  However, the mere observation of geographic variation in thermal tolerance, does not give any hint  about the rates or the length of time that these changes have taken to occur.  Importantly, this statement does not equate to evidence that thermal tolerance can evolve in ecological time.  The only way that Andrew Baird could convince anyone of this particular somewhat fanciful leap of logic is to present data that show that coral populations can rapidly evolved in the period of years.  They can’t, and they haven’t.

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Jacques Piccard, deep sea explorer dies at age 86

Jacques Piccard, the legendary scientist, explorer (and childhood hero of mine)  passed away yesterday at his home in Lake Geneva.

Jacques Piccard helped his father invent the bathyscaphe, a vessel that allows people to descend to great depths. On Jan. 23, 1960, he and Lt. Don Walsh of the United States Navy took the vessel, named the Trieste, into the Mariana Trench in the Pacific to a depth of 35,800 feet, nearly seven miles below sea level. It remains the deepest human dive ever.

“By far the most interesting find was the fish that came floating by our porthole,” Mr. Piccard said. “We were astounded to find higher marine life forms down there at all.” Solar Impulse said the discovery of living organisms at such a depth played a crucial role in the prohibition of nuclear waste dumping in ocean trenches. (link to NY Times obituary)

“Estate agents told me not to talk: climate expert”

ABC News, 29th October 2008

A climate change scientist says real estate agents have threatened to make his life difficult if he continues to publish research about how vulnerable particular properties are to rising sea levels and coastal erosion.

Professor Andrew Pitman works at the Climate Change Research Centre at the University of New South Wales.

He says real estate agents do not like potential buyers asking questions about climate change based on his research.

Professor Pitman has told the ABC’s Local Radio that several agents have asked him to stop talking about how vulnerable certain properties are.

“More explicitly [they said] ‘We’re nervous about our particular market niche in a particular suburb’,” he said.

“And, ‘We are going to start making your life difficult if you keep pointing to climate change affecting our particular location’.”

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