Spring Cleaning

Climate shifts web guru and contributor Jez Roff has an eye for peculiar marine critters and phenomena including large worms, pink dolphins , giant crabs, and fashionable turtles.

He is the lead author of a new Reef Site article published in the journal Coral Reefs about corals that extrude mesenterial filament to tidy up new surfaces before then grow onto them.

Peripheral polyp mesenterial filaments at the lesion margins were observed to actively “sweep” and remove detritus within the perimeter surrounding the recovering lesions (Fig. 1b). Our observations of pre-emptive cleaning appeared to be linked with extracoelenteric digestion of detritus by the mesenterial filaments (Fig. 1c), exposing the glass slide to a width of several polyps. The continuous removal of detrital and algal material facilitated tissue expansion by the prevention of competitor settlement and by the preparation of substrates for calcified coral growth (Fig. 1d).


Fig. 1 a Accumulation of detrital matter on glass slides following lesion induction of Acropora pulchra branches. b Pre-emptive cleaning of substrates (perimeter marked by black arrows) surrounding growing margins ofAcropora pulchra by mesenterial filaments (white arrows). c Close-up of protruding mesenterial filaments actively feeding and removing detritus. d Tissue growth and calcification onto cleaned surface 90 days following lesion formation (scale = 3 mm)

The secret history of nuclear testing and coral reefs


I stumbled cross these stunning satellite images of Bikini and Enewatak Atoll on the Artificial Owl blog. Top left is a 2000m crater left by Castle Bravo in 1954, the second biggest thermonuclear hydrogen bomb (weighing in at 15 megatons, 1200 times more powerful than Hiroshima). Top right is the 120m blast crater in the reef flat created by the Cactus test in 1958. The ‘dome’ construction on the island in the same image is a concrete cover built in 1977 to cover over 85,000 cubic metres of radioactive soil and debris from across the Marshall Islands. I’m staggered by the scale of these tests – whilst I remember the end of the French underground nuclear weapons testing at Muroroa and Fangataufa Atolls in the late 1990’s (after 147 tests had been conducted), I had no idea of the sheer size of the early impact craters left from earlier explosions. The good news is that recent surveys of the coral reefs surrounding Bikini Atoll  shows signs of recovery from the disaster, and the bomb crater itself now supports vibrant and diverse coral communities. However, when  compared to surveys conducted ‘pre-bomb’ in the early 1950’s, at least 28 species of coral have now become locally extinct, most likely as a result of the initial impact, radiation, increased sedimentation or altered atoll hydrology. A few highlight pictures are featured below, but go check out the original postings here and here for more information and photographs.

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Geoengineering, climate change and ‘albedo flips’

As it has become increasingly clear that we are well into a period of dangerous or even catastrophic climate change, discussions about geoengineering have become more intense and public.  Now the US government is openly admitting that it too is discussing the pros and cons of geo-engineering.  This article includes some fascinating insights into these discussions.   Newly appointed White House science advisor, John Holdren, told the Associated Press, for example, that “as the global climate picture gets gloomier, geoengineering is sneaking into White House conversations”.

“It’s got to be looked at,” Holdren said. “We don’t have the luxury of taking any approach off the table.”


Percentage of diffusely reflected sun light in relation to various surface conditions of the Earth (source: Wikipedia)

Sounds to me like geoengineering is very much on the agenda! There are various aspects which contribute to the diffuse reflectivity of the planet – such as clouds, ice and snow and even vegetation.  The graph on the left shows the various contributions of different aspects of the planet to its albedo.  These various characteristics have a powerful role in determining the earth temperature.  The recent loss of summer Arctic ice is a case in point.  Calculations show that the resulting “albedo flip” from reflective ice to darker ice-free ocean will dramatically increase the energy being absorbed by the earth and drive its temperature upward by over a degree Celsius.

Various ideas have been floated about on how to increase the reflectivity of the earth – including pumping reflective particles into the outer atmosphere of the earth in order to bounce more energy back into space.  These calculations suggest that relatively small amounts of material could lower the earth’s temperature by as much as 1-2°C.  The contribution to lowering temperature such as this would certainly take some of the pressure off and buy us important time as we urgently struggle to get greenhouse emissions under control.

But there is reason for great caution. Apart from the fact that there are many uncertainties and unknowns (i.e. are we certain that we know how much of these yet-to-be-invented particles to add to the atmosphere?), there is the concern that offering this option will take the pressure off governments to act decisively on the problem of fossil fuels and their emissions.  It also has a range of legal and ethical issues.  For example, should any particular government be able to unilaterally decide whether or not to manipulate the earth’s albedo and temperature without the agreement from all?  And if manipulating temperature downward were to result in deaths from cooling temperatures or disturbances in the weather, what then?

And it is important to remember that changing the albedo of the earth will not solve all the problems associated with upwardly spiralling atmospheric carbon dioxide.  For example, decreasing the temperature of the planet will do nothing to solve the problem of ocean acidification.

“What will global warming look like? Scientists point to Australia”


Los Angeles Times Online (April 9th 2008): They call Australia the Lucky Country, with good reason. Generations of hardy castoffs tamed the world’s driest inhabited continent, created a robust economy and cultivated an image of irresistibly resilient people who can’t be held down. Australia exports itself as a place of captivating landscapes, brilliant sunshine, glittering beaches and an enviable lifestyle.

Look again. Climate scientists say Australia — beset by prolonged drought and deadly bush fires in the south, monsoon flooding and mosquito-borne fevers in the north, widespread wildlife decline, economic collapse in agriculture and killer heat waves — epitomizes the “accelerated climate crisis” that global warming models have forecast.

With few skeptics among them, Australians appear to be coming to an awakening: Adapt to a rapidly shifting climate, and soon. Scientists here warn that the experience of this island continent is an early cautionary tale for the rest of the world.” (Link to full article)

Parrotfish in Swedish fishmarkets

Svenska Dagbladet, Swedens second largest daily newspaper, recently ran a story on the appearance of parrotfish in Swedish fishmarkets. Parrotfish can be likened to lawnmowers of the reef, and keep algae from smothering coral reefs.

Parrotfish sold for 269 SEK/kg at a Swedish fishmarket. Photo courtesy of Jerker Lokrantz/Azote

Parrotfish sold for 269 SEK/kg at a Swedish fishmarket. Photo courtesy of Jerker Lokrantz/Azote

Parrotfish are not known to be an essential part of the Scandinavian kitchen, so one wonders what they are doing being flown halfway across the world to a country that has enough tasty seafood to satisfy its needs? When contacted by reporters store managers claimed that distributors would recomend parrotfish as a colourful species that would certainly attract buyers. They also explained that they did have policies regarding the sale of red-listed species, but that parrotfish do not appear on any such lists (WWF and IUCN). This is problematic, as models and observation suggest that the levels of parrotfish biomass required to safeguard reefs against algal domination, are probably much higher than those that would classify them as being red-listed.

And this doesn’t seem to be a one-off incident. Two PhD-students from Stockholm University, Jerker Lokrantz and Matilda Thyresson, are currently following up reports of large (several tons) shipments of parrotfish from Vietnam arriving to Sweden via the Netherlands. This whole story really illustrates the challenges facing marine resource management in the face of rapid exploitation driven by a globalized market, as highlighted by Berkes et al in the 2006 Science article “Globalization, Roving Bandits, and Marine Resources“.

Microdocs and podcasts

ANU environmental podcast
Australian National University are podcasting a series of lectures and seminars on the environment, and are covering some hard hitting topics, ranging from policy and economy to oceanography (several of which I might not entirely agree with) . Below are three of the best – see the full listing here.

The microdoc project: ‘short attention span science videos’
Steve Palumbi and colleagues at Stanford University have produced an exceptional collection of microdocs (2-3 minute documentaries on a single topic), focused around a central theme of “Sustainability on Coral Reefs”. To paraphrase Rick McPherson, microdocs ‘take on macro ocean issues’, and are a great way to get key messages on ecological sustainability and coral reefs across to the media, general public and schools. The Stanford microdocs website has a full listing of all microdocs, and below are some of the highlights:

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The worm will turn: a tale of a (large) marine polychaete


I stumbled across this creature whilst reading The Other 95% (a fantastic blog documenting the oddities of invertebrate life). As Eric points out, “I guess it’s fortunate that they didn’t comment on the hyper cool, but horror movie inspiring, evertable pharynx and the jaws which look awfully like giant fangs.” Have a read through the original newspaper article below (with slightly dramatic headline “Barry the giant sea worm discovered by aquarium staff after mysterious attacks on coral reef“).

Aquarium staff have unearthed a ‘giant sea’ worm that was attacking coral reef and prize fish. The 4ft long monster, named Barry, had launched a sustained attack on the reef in a display tank at Newquay’s Blue Reef Aquarium over recent months. Workers at the Cornwall-based attraction had been left scratching their heads as to why the coral had been left devastated and – in some cases – cut in half.

After staking out the display for several weeks, the last resort was to completely dismantle it, rock by rock. Halfway through the process the predator was revealed as a four-foot polychaete worm. Staff eventually lured it out with fish scraps, but not before it bit through 20lb fishing line.

Matt Slater, the aquarium’s curator, said: ‘Something was guzzling our reef but we had no idea what, we also found an injured Tang Fish so we laid traps but they got ripped apart in the night.

‘That worm must have obliterated the traps. The bait was full of hooks which he must have just digested.’

He added: ‘It really does look like something out of a horror movie. It’s over four feet long with these bizarre-looking jaws.

Predictive science and the dangers of ignoring warning signs

One of the more common critiques banded around by the media and skeptics is that climate models are useless, and that “nature is too complicated to predict“. Here is a seemingly stark warning on the dangers of taking the advice of politicians over science:

An Italian scientist who predicted a major earthquake near L’Aquila a few weeks ago was forced to remove warnings from the internet after being reported to the police, it emerged today. The first tremors in the region were felt in mid-January and continued at regular intervals, leading to concerns that a large earthquake was imminent in the medieval city.

Giampaolo Giuliani, a seismologist at the nearby Gran Sasso National Laboratory in Abruzzo, predicted, following months of small tremors in the area, that a much bigger jolt was on its way. The researcher had said that a “disastrous” earthquake would strike on March 29, but when it didn’t, Guido Bertolaso, head of Italy’s Civil Protection Agency, officially denounced Giuliani in court last week for “false alarm.” “These imbeciles enjoy spreading false news,” Bertolaso was quoted as saying. “Everyone knows that you can’t predict earthquakes.” (Read more)

Using the internet as an early warning of ecological change

A recent paper out in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment  (Galaz et al 2009) identifies novel and fascinating ways on how to capture looming ecological crises.

The basic problem addressed by the authors is this: The six billion people on Earth are changing the biosphere at unprecedented rates. Ecosystems tend to respond to such change in unpredictable ways; collapsing fisheries and sudden phase shifts observed in freshwater ecosystems and coral reefs are good examples of such phenomena. The challenge is that existing ecological monitoring systems are not in tune with the speed of social, economical and ecological change and early warnings of pending ecological crisis are to a large extent limited by insufficient data, and geographical gaps in official monitoring systems.

So how do we deal with this situation? Look to the internet for guidance! Not quite so simple, but the researchers from the Stockholm Resilience Centre and the University of east Anglia, explore the possibilities of using information posted on the Internet to detect ecosystems on the brink of change.

Much of the pioneering work in this type of Internet surveillance has come in the public health field, where software programs that search the Internet in methodical and automated manners, web crawlers, are used to track disease.

The potential of web crawlers is illustrated by the success of the Global Public Health Intelligence Network (GPHIN), an early disease detection system developed by Health Canada for the World Health Organization (WHO). GPHIN gathers information about unusual disease events by monitoring internet-based global media sources, such as news wires, web sites, local online newspapers, and public health e-mail information services, in eight languages, with non-English articles filtered through a translation engine. The system retrieves approximately 2000–3000 news items per day; roughly 30% are rejected as duplicative or irrelevant, but the remainder are sorted by GPHIN analysts and posted on GPHIN’s secure website.  

Web crawlers could be designed to complement conventional ecological monitoring. The authors use coral reef ecosystems to illustrate how such a process could progress. Data-mining the internet for information on potential drivers of coral ecosystem change (e.g. heavy investment in fish gear that can precede heavy exploitation of key reef organisms) and ecosystem responses (changes in coral cover, fish community composition) can be the basis for early warning assessments of ecological change.


Fig. 1 Examples of drivers and impact signals regarding a coral reef social-ecological system, that in principle could be detected by a web-crawler

Addtionally, by searching the internet for reports of local scale coral reef degradation can provide early indicators of large scale systemic collapses of reef systems. The success of such web-crawlers will be highly dependent on information becoming rapidly accessible online via”web 2.o” applications such as blogs, wikis and other networking tools such as electronic mailing lists (Coral-List is highlighted as an example).


Fig. 2 Ecological shifts at smaller scales can provide warnings of impending changes to large-scale systems

I guess that a problem, and one highlighted by the authors, is that fragmented and insufficient data from several sources, could lead to information junkyards instead of robust ecological monitoring systems. Any web crawler based monitoring system would therefore need to be plugged into a coupled knowledge management and expert judgement system. Would that slow the process down to the extent of nullyfying any gains made through the rapid information sweeps generated by the web crawler?  In any case, its a refreshing approach and a fascinating read.

The other CO2 problem – animated adventures into ocean acidification

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=55D8TGRsl4k&hl=en&fs=1&w=425&h=344]

Take a look at this light-hearted video on a serious subject. This animation on ocean acidification was made by students from the Ridgeway School (Plymouth, UK) and the Plymouth Marine Laboratory – an excellent production!

Ridgeway students have made a short animated film which is being used internationally to highlight the acidification of the world’s seas. Called ‘The Other CO2 Problem’, the film was commissioned by Dr Carol Turley from Plymouth Marine Laboratory, a leading authority on ocean acidification who had seen a previous film (which won a Europe wide film making competition held by Euroceans) made by the students which highlighted the problem of pollution in the seas.

Sixteen students drew up the storyline, designed and made the starring characters from plasticine then filmed the stop frame animation. Seventy other students composed and played the accompanying music