Early news reports of widespread coral bleaching from the 1980’s

Whilst the 1986 El Niño event began to dissipate across the eastern Pacific regions in mid 1987, the elevated sea surface temperatures remained in the central and western pacific until the early months of 1988. Associated with the 1986 El Niño was the widespread bleaching of reef corals throughout the Caribbean region, which at the time (over two decades ago) was a relatively poorly understood phenomenon.


Above is the Niño index for 1980 - 1998, showing the average of the sea surface temperature in the tropical Pacific Ocean (5°N to 5°S, and 150°W to 90°W) compared to a long-term average temperature (Source: NASA JPL)

Although Google News is notoriously patchy before the advent of online news sources (pre 2000), there is some interesting reading in the archive files from the late 1980’s, chronicling the 1987 Caribbean bleaching event. At the onset, the New York Times note that “Experts Are Puzzled by Widespread Coral ‘Bleaching’ in Caribbean”:

“Scientists gathered here from around the Caribbean last week to discuss a mysterious ‘bleaching’ of coral throughout the region, a change that some fear portends severe damage to rich reef ecosystems” (December 15th, 1987)

At the same time, the Chicago Tribune claimed that scientists were “… at sea about coral ‘bleach’ “:

“In the past, bleaching has occurred sporadically in the Caribbean in response to environmental stresses such as pollution and changes in water temperature or salinity. But worried scientists said they had never seen such widespread bleaching. The chief suspect is warmer waters. It is too soon to know how widespread coral mortality will be, scientists said” (January 1st 1988)

As the El Nino conditions passed, the Washington Post ran with the headline “Mysterious Coral Bleaching Abates”:

“The mysterious coral bleaching phenomenon that swept through most of the Caribbean last summer seems to be over, and there are signs that the corals may be recovering without dying off.

Scientists do not know what to make of the phenomenon, but some fear it could be an early result of a global warming trend. Water temperatures in the region were higher than normal last summer, and if the phenomenon recurs in coming summers, the corals could eventually be wiped out” (December 28th, 1987)

Several years after the El Nino event, the Washington Post followed up the story with the title “Warm Seas Killing Coral Reefs; Finding May Presage More Ecological Harm”

“Until the worldwide bleaching episode of 1987, the periodic phenomenon was “virtually ignored,” Ernest Williams said. He and his colleagues found that there was also widespread bleaching in 1979-80 and 1982-83. There have been isolated reports of bleaching since 1911, though only in recent years have the episodes been so widespread” (October 12th, 1990).

However, with the benefit of hindsight, perhaps the most telling excerpt of all comes from an article published in the New Scientist from 1989:

Corals are sensitive to changes in temperature as well as to the depth of water. If the water suddenly warms by 1 to 2 Degree C, coral polyps can expel their algal partners, so that the coral looks bleached. This sometimes leads to the death of coral. In the early stages of global warming, the increase in temperature may be slow enough for both coral and algae to adapt. If this is the case, bleaching may not be a serious problem for another 40 years or so. (11th November, 1989)

Long lasting impacts of climate change

Long Droughts, Rising Seas Predicted Despite Future CO2 Curbs

Washington Post (27th Jan) – Greenhouse gas levels currently expected by mid-century will produce devastating long-term droughts and a sea-level rise that will persist for 1,000 years regardless of how well the world curbs future emissions of carbon dioxide, an international team of scientists reported yesterday.

Top climate researchers from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Switzerland and France said their analysis shows that carbon dioxide will remain near peak levels in the atmosphere far longer than other greenhouse gases, which dissipate relatively quickly.

“I think you have to think about this stuff as more like nuclear waste than acid rain: The more we add, the worse off we’ll be,” NOAA senior scientist Susan Solomon told reporters in a conference call. “The more time that we take to make decisions about carbon dioxide, the more irreversible climate change we’ll be locked into.” (Read More)

Report: Some climate damage already irreversible

Associated Press (27th Jan)–  Many damaging effects of climate change are already basically irreversible, researchers declared Monday, warning that even if carbon emissions can somehow be halted temperatures around the globe will remain high until at least the year 3000.

“People have imagined that if we stopped emitting carbon dioxide the climate would go back to normal in 100 years, 200 years; that’s not true,” climate researcher Susan Solomon said in a teleconference.

Solomon, of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Earth System Research Laboratory in Boulder, Colo., is lead author of an international team’s paper reporting irreversible damage from climate change, being published in Tuesday’s edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. (Read More)

Raising awareness of coral reefs through the art of crochet


A fluff piece in more ways than one! The Institute For Figuring have been developing the ‘hyperbolic crochet coral reef’, a collective of crochet coral reef organisms knitted by hundreds of people across the globe. By altering the style of crochet through differing algorithms, the crochet reef has ‘evolved‘ an impressive diversity of reef associated organisms. The crochet reef has been shown at exhibitions across the US, and carries with it a serious message:

As part of the Crochet Coral Reef project the IFF has constructed a Bleached Reef, a handicrafted invocation of what happens to coral reefs under environmental stress. Most of the forms in this reef are crocheted from varying shades of white and cream, mimicking the effect of actual coral bleaching. Corals acquire their colors from microscopic zooaxanthellae that live within the polyps – these symbiotic organisms help the polyps feed. When corals get stressed by environmental toxins, or by rising water temperatures, the polyps expel the micro-organisms, leading to the washed out look known as “bleaching.” Polyps can survive for a short time in the absence of zooaxanthellae, but not over the long term. A healthy reef ecology is a co-operative one and in the long term the corals need the microorganisms to survive. Over the past decade reefs around the world have been subject to an increasing number of major bleaching events, suggesting that rising water temperatures are taking a heavy toll.

More from The Guardian and the New York Times, or click here for more photographs from Flickr.


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CO2 non-science journalism is not doing the World a favour

Remember the last time you tried to reason with someone who constantly took your words out of context in an attempt to argue an opposite futile point? If that left you smiling politely while shaking your head, you probably felt like me after reading the article “Coral Reefs and Climate Change: Unproved Assumptions” by the Idso family posted on their website “CO2 Science” at the Center for the Study of Carbon Dioxide and Global Change. The article is another sad addition to their more than 500 un-reviewed pieces – all with the obvious agenda of making their readers believe that climate change science is nothing but alarmist propaganda.

In their latest anti-science scribble (Vol 12, No 3) the Idso’s attempt to build the case that “it is premature to suggest that widespread reef collapse is a certain consequence of ongoing bleaching” and that “nature is far more resilient [to climate change] than many people give it credit for..”  All of their quotes are from a recent paper by a group of young and excellent Australian marine biologists, Maynard, Baird and Pratchett published in Coral Reefs (27:745-749). Contrary to the Idso’s claims, Maynard et al.’s paper does not question that climate change is a threat to coral reefs.  The purpose of Maynard et al.’s paper is to provoke debate around some specific assumptions of thermal thresholds and coral reef’s adaptability to climate change and the functional link between reef degradation and fisheries.

Rest assured, Maynard et al. will get the debate they have provoked within the scientific community. Critiques and responses are part of the quality control system of the scientific process and add to the foundation on which our knowledge system is built across disciplines from physics and engineering to medicine. However, by running with a few bits of quotes, stitched together in a fabricated “they say” story, the Idso’s are not doing their readers any favours. Instead, the Idso’s demonstrate two points quite clearly: (1) they have very limited understanding of the science, and (2) their agenda is to write journalism that systematically attempts to discredit the best available climate-change science.

After reading a number of their smear campaigns, the Center for the Study of Carbon Dioxide and Global Change takes shape of a law firm defending a client’s case (wonder who they could be?) that is up against an overwhelming amount of opposing evidence. Like rookies, they fumble in their exhibits folder, hoping to win the jury over by causing confusion. The danger of their practise is that they generate disinformation about climate change in a time when the public, the media and governments are in urgent need of good information.

Here’s an analogy that adds perspective. Although most addicted smokers don’t like to hear that smoking is unhealthy, confusing them about the medical recommendations based on decades of rigorous science is a crime. With good information, people can make informed choices. Similarly, keeping the media and the public confused about the seriousness of climate change by producing demagogic journalism – has the effect of delaying critical action on an issue that needs immediate action to minimise damage in the future.

Emissions pathway to return global warming beneath 1 degree Celsius

Leading climate scientist Bill Hare has published the first emissions pathway to date that brings expected global warming beneath 1°C, albeit after peaking beneath 2°C and on the scale of centuries.

This is an immensely significant research topic for coral reefs as a rise in mean global temperature of 1°C appears to be the highest target that should be set if coral reefs are to be protected from serious degradation (see previous Climate Shifts post here).

Figure 2-1 depicts the global emissions pathway that Hare (2009: 25) suggests “is plausible technically” and “goes beyond the technically and economically feasible pathways published elsewhere”. It requires getting fossil CO2 emissions down to close to zero in 2050 and being carbon negative thereafter – a commitment to action that spans centuries.


Hare (2009: 27) suggests that under this emissions pathway “global temperatures should peak below 2 degrees Celsius around mid-century and begin a slow decline, dropping to present levels by the last half of the twenty-third century.”

The means of achieving such an emissions pathway, including being carbon negative after 2050, are discussed by Hare and other authors in subsequent chapters of the Worldwatch Institute publication, ‘State of the World 2009‘. This report is peer reviewed, but Hare will hopefully publish his new modelling in a peer reviewed climate journal shortly to improve its acceptance in the scientific community.

Hare (2009: 25) acknowledges that achieving negative CO2 emissions on a global scale will be extremely difficult and “evaluation of the implications of the technologies required to achieve this are only just beginning.”

Hare’s emissions pathway builds on the recent publication by Jim Hansen and his colleagues which argued “If humanity wishes to preserve a planet similar to that on which civilization developed and to which life on Earth is adapted, paleoclimate evidence and ongoing climate change suggest that CO2 will need to be reduced from its current 385 ppm to at most 350 ppm, but likely less than that.”

The ambition of the emissions pathway suggested by Hare (2009) is far beyond any contemplated in the mainstream policy debate at present but it is likely that such radical proposals will become much more prevalent in the future.


Demise of newly discovered Australian deep water reefs, 4000m below the oceans of Tasmania

Using a submersible robot to penetrate depths of up to 4000m, a joint US-Australian team have reported some extraordinary organisms off the coast of Tasmania.

“Our sampling documented the deepest known Australian fauna, including a bizarre carnivorous sea squirt, sea spiders and giant sponges, and previously unknown marine communities dominated by gooseneck barnacles and millions of round, purple-spotted sea anemones”

However, a news report by the AFP suggests that even at 4km beneath the surface, there is cause for concern:

“Modern-day deep-water coral reefs were also found, however, there is strong evidence that this reef system is dying, with most reef-forming coral deeper than 1,300 metres newly dead,” he said.

Though close analysis of samples was still required, Thresher said modelling suggested ocean acidification could be responsible.

“If our analysis identifies this phenomenon as the cause of the reef system’s demise, then the impact we are seeing now below 1,300 metres might extend to the shallower portions of the deep-reefs over the next 50 years, threatening this entire community,” he said.

The lead researcher Dr Ron Thresher from CSIRO is blogging the voyage from the Research Vessel ‘Southern Surveyor’ in incredible detail, and is well worth a read.


The submersible vehicle "Jason" pictured on board the RV Southern Surveyor, exploring the deep reefs of the Tasman Fracture Zone, southern Australia.

According to “The Science and Public Policy Insitute”, the future of reefs couldn’t look any better

From the organization that brought you:

  • “35 Inconvenient Truths: The errors in Al Gore’s movie”
  • “Proved -There is no climate crisis”
  • “Greenhouse Warming? What Greenhouse Warming?”

comes another ‘bona fide’ report ( “CO2, Global Warming and Coral Reefs: Prospects for the Future“)  aimed at debunking the widely respected view among the scientific community that increases in temperature and atmospheric CO2 are detrimental to the future of coral reefs. In fact this report by the Science and Public Policy Institute of Washington, argues that these ‘twin evils’ actually have positive effects on coral reefs worldwide promoting growth and calcification (link). While this non peer-reviewed report claims to be based on sound science, with close to 200 references (many of which are from leading experts in the coral reefs), it is the misinterpretation of these research articles that makes this report a sure standout among climate skeptic pieces to date.

Reading through this report may make you want to pull out a red pen and scribble all over what seems reads like a misinformed undergraduate essay. The key point claiming that there is no simple linkage between high temperatures and coral bleaching may be a far reach from the evidence that shows a hot prolonged summer with temperatures above the monthly maxima will guarantee coral bleaching.

Throughout the report, the authors use ‘snippets’ from papers to attempt to justify their hypotheses. For example, discussing  the effects of thermal acclimation in reducing bleaching severity and mechanisms for adaptation (such as Middlebrook et al [2008]) is out of context, and somewhat akin to saying you can milk a cake from a cow, without consideration of the steps in between.

The report states that ‘real-world’ observations paired with the sound science reviewed in the report ‘refute the claims of climate alarmists’ through the following findings:

“A particularly ingenious way by which almost any adaptive response to any type of environmental stress may be enhanced in the face of the occurrence of that stress would be to replace the zooxanthellae expelled by the coral host during a stress-induced bleaching episode by one or more varieties of zooxanthellae that are more tolerant of the stress that caused the bleaching”

“Rising sea levels may actually have a positive effect on reefs, permitting increased coral growth in areas that have already reached the upward limit imposed by current sea level”.

“Theoretical predictions indicate that coral calcification rates should decline as a result of increasing atmospheric CO2 concentrations by as much as 40% by 2100. However, real-world observations indicate that elevated CO2 and elevated temperatures are having just the opposite effect.”

While there is hope that corals will adapt to a changing environment, the predicted rate of temperature and atmospheric CO2 change is unprecedented, higher than anything seen in the last 720,000 years during which coral reef ecosystems evolved.

These predictions, paired with the knowledge of the sensitiveness of coral reef ecosystems to change, encourage scientists to be prudent when advocating the resilience of coral reefs. Given the funding history of the institute, and their pseudoscientific interpretations of previous publications, a report like this isn’t exactly surprising. Whilst a report like this may be fodder for the likes of climate skeptics around the world, it takes on a far more serious note when it is aimed at ‘educating’ policy makers in government, whom without proper consultations with established scientists, just might take this report seriously. The irony is, this is a frightening possibility.

The Coral Reef Ecosystem: educational outreach

Coinciding with the end of the International Year of the Reef, Gerd Haegele, a biologist and film maker from Germany has released an educational DVD entitled “The Coral Reef Ecosystem”. In Gerd’s own words:

We are convinced that while it is important to raise awareness for these issues in industrialized countries, it is evenly important to support environmental education in developing countries where coral reefs can be found. We think a DVD can be a very effective and powerful tool in this effort. It could be produced comparable cheap (based on existing material) in many different languages, in a high number of copies and with the possibility to reach a maximum of people – and with the extra benefit of reaching even those who can’t read.

Gerd is currently seeking distributors for the movie, and aims to provide versions in local languages of developing countries for distributions by governments and NGO groups. I think this has a tremendous capacity to reach out to people and get the message across. Take a look at the youtube the trailer below, and check out Gert’s page for more information on ordering the DVD.


(disclosure: Along with Christian Wild and Paul Marshall, I was a scientific advisor on this project)

Australian Climate Statement 2008

The Australian Bureau of Meterology released the annual Australian climate statement for 2008 last week. Another warm year for Australia, 0.41°C above the standard 1961-90 average…


  • The mean annual temperature across Australia for 2008 was the 14th warmest on record (0.41°C above normal).
  • A warm year was recorded in most regions, apart from Queensland, northeast New South Wales and the Kimberley (Western Australia).
  • Above average annual rainfall was recorded across the Top End, eastern Queensland, northeast New South Wales and far west parts of Western Australia. Rainfall was average to below average in the remainder of the country.
  • Low rainfall over the southern Murray Darling Basin during 2008 further exacerbated the long dry spell in this region.

A warmer than average year
Data collected by the Bureau of Meteorology indicate that, overall, Australia’s annual mean temperature for 2008 was 0.41°C above the standard 1961-90 average, making it the nation’s 14th warmest year since comparable records began in 1910.

Most regions recorded a warm year overall, apart from Queensland, northeast New South Wales and the Kimberley. Particularly high temperatures were recorded across inland Western Australia and the Northern Territory in January, as well as western Victoria and southern South Australia in March, with a record-breaking heatwave during the first half of the month. Conversely, cool temperatures were recorded in southeast Australia during February and again in April, across most of the country in August, and across the southwest during November.

Australia’s mean temperature for 2008 was slightly lower than that recorded for the previous six years, partly due to a La Niña event that developed in late 2007 and continued into early 2008. Despite the cooling effect of La Niña, Australia has now recorded a warmer-than-average year for the past seven consecutive years. In line with the rest of the globe, Australia has experienced a background warming of about 0.9°C over the last Century.  On 16 December 2008, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) indicated that the global mean temperature was also warmer than normal during 2008 (about 0.31°C above average), making 2008 the globe’s 10th warmest year on record. It is now 23 years since the globe has experienced a cooler than average year.

Australia’s mean temperature for 2008 was slightly lower than that recorded for the previous six years, partly due to a La Niña event that developed in late 2007 and continued into early 2008. Despite the cooling effect of La Niña, Australia has now recorded a warmer-than-average year for the past seven consecutive years. In line with the rest of the globe, Australia has experienced a background warming of about 0.9°C over the last Century.

On 16 December 2008, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) indicated that the global mean temperature was also warmer than normal during 2008 (about 0.31°C above average), making 2008 the globe’s 10th warmest year on record. It is now 23 years since the globe has experienced a cooler than average year.

More good legislative news from the US

There is quite of bit of federal legislative action happening in the US that bodes well for marine conservation and coral reefs.   Rick MacPherson has a nice roundup at his always excellent Maleria, Bedbugs, Sea lice and Sunsets blog.

Also check out the Saipan Blog, for a great first hand account of how a small band of marine conservationist pulled off the conservation victory of the decade.  (also thanks to Rick)