It’s time for climate change dinosaurs to evolve


The Climate Institute are responsible for this great video that is currently getting airplay on Australian television:

Some dinosaurs in Australian politics and business are blocking climate action that will grow the hundreds of thousands of clean energy jobs we need now more than ever.

In a world turning to clean energy and technology, Australian industries are in danger of being left behind.

Urgent policies are needed to unlock billions of dollars of investment and deliver a just, fair and decisive transition to a clean energy economy.

It’s time for these dinosaurs to evolve and support strong action on climate change. (Read more)

Tropical Storms Ana, Bil and Hurricane Guillermo mark the late onset of the Hurricane season in the Caribbean

Hurricane season has started late this year. NOAA are issuing advisories on Hurricane Guillermo (Category 3) affecting the Pacific Baja Penninsula and heading towards Hawaii, and Tropical Storms Ana and Bill are heading straight towards the Dutch Antilles.


Quite a few commentators are describing this as an ‘odd‘ season – usually the first ‘named’ storm occurs around the 10th of July. By this time last year, five ‘named’ storms had crossed the Caribbean, including Hurricanes Bertha and Dolly.  Keep watching this space though, as the last time the Caribbean had a similair dry spell was back in 1992. Then, the first hurricane of the season (Hurricane Andrew) formed  on the 17th of August, and made landfall on Florida a week later as a Category 5 Hurricane – the second most powerful to hit the US in the last century!

In other hurricane related news, Michael Mann (the author of the infamous hockey-stick curve, not the director of Miami Vice) published an interesting paper on the history of cyclones in the journal Nature (‘Atlantic hurricanes and climate over the past 1,500 years‘, but see ‘Research to rock you like a hurricane‘ for best news article title). In a nutshell, Mann argues that the peak in Hurricane activity in the past decade is not unique, with a similar peak in Hurricane activity back in 1000AD across the tropical Atlantic. Whilst we know that in increase in sea surface temperatures as a result of global warming will trigger more hurricane activity, if climate change doesn’t increase El Nino activity, then this increase may be tempered. More from the Hurricane season and the impacts on both coral reefs and the 2009 bleaching season as it comes.

Profesor Steffens takes Senator Steve Fielding to task for climate ignorance

A few weeks ago we posted about how Australian Senator Fielding attempted to convince the Australian senate that global warming didn’t exist by questioning the link between global warming and CO2 using a few highly questionable graphs and cherry picked science (Fielding the hard questions? Not likely). Along with Bob Carter (who seems to be suffering credibility issues these days), Senator Fielding invited Professor Steffen, the Executive Director of ANU’s Climate Change Institute along to answer a few questions on the relationship of carbon dioxide and global warming. In an intriguing move, Prof Steffan (one of the co-authors of the ‘Climate change poised to feed on itself‘ article) declined the invitation, leaving Fielding to comment:

“I can’t see how any responsible senator could vote on an emission trading scheme without listening to what the world of science has to say on the issue.
The briefing will take place on 12 August, the day after Parliament resumes.

“I also wrote to the government’s climate change expert, Professor Will Steffen, but he declined my invitation to provide senators with a briefing,” Senator Fielding said.

“I’m at a loss as to why Professor Steffen doesn’t want to put forward his position if he believes in it so strongly.

“Given the science is still inconclusive I’m not willing to gamble with thousands of Australian jobs and escalating electricity prices.

Frankly, Senator Fieldings offer of “a scientific briefing on climate change with Professor Bob Carter before they vote on the Rudd Government’s Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme” is laughable. So why exactly did Professor Steffan refuse the invitation? In a nut shell, Prof Steffan rightly believes that amongst the climate science community, there is no debate of the relationship between anthropogenic emissions of CO2 and global warming, and that Senator Fielding and his Heartland Institute colleagues not only do not represent “the other side of the scientific debate”,  but lack scientific credibility entirely. So much for a “Independent Due Diligence Report” – apart from Fielding et al’s deliberate attempts at scientific obfuscation, the science is entirely conclusive.



Live blogging the annual coral spawning event across the Caribbean


So it’s that time of year again in the Caribbean where the corals undergo the annual mass spawn. Along with this ritual comes the coral researchers, who run a bunch of experiments with coral recruitment, settlement, fertilization, which involves catching coral sperm and eggs using nets (see above) and mixing it all up in jars (see pictures here – honestly, i’m not kidding). Spawning time is usually pretty hectic for all researchers, as it’s generally a once a year sort of affair to raise and settle the larvae, and gather data to write papers and justify the next funding round.

This year though, it seems that research groups have taken up blogging the whole affair blow by blow, which makes for some great photographs and intense reading. Here are five of the best are in no particular order. Comment below if I’ve missed anyone out, and special mention to Mary Alice Coffroth and the Burr Lab for some spectacular photos!, :

1. Acropora Spawn Blog – Eric Borneman, Alina Szmant, Jennifer Moore and others:

“We were watching 3 sites again last (Sunday) night and as you can see from the SCUBAnauts post, there was some spawning at Molasses Reef again. Although it was a good volume, it was unfortunately all one clone. Sand Island only saw a few bundles. One clone (same one as Saturday night) spawned even more than last night at Elbow Reef but all the other clones kinda sat around twiddling their tentacles. Oddly enough the same tiny patch of tissue in the picture from last night’s post had a few (but even fewer) bundles but that was it from the others. So for any hope of fertilization we had to high tail it home to meet up witht he gametes collected from Mollases. Talk about artificial insemination! Since Puerto Rico saw very little last night too, we are hoping that tonight will be ‘the night’ but we are getting tired of saying that!”


2. Coral Spawning 2009 – Baums Lab,  Puerto Rico

“Our corals spawned last night!  We’ve been working around the clock (literally), keeping our various crosses alive and sampling them at odd hours.  It’s a simple rotation:  +1 hour after fertilization, +4 hours after fertilization, etc., but when the corals spawn at 9:30 PM, suddenly you need to be up all night long.  Throw in water changes, tank refills, and microscope work, and none of us have had a moment to spare, or sleep!  In five minutes we’re heading out diving again.  We split up the group and sent half to Bajo Gullardo–an offshore site with huge palmata stands–in an effort to increase the diversity of our crosses.  Rest assured we’re getting what we came for.  More to follow…”


3. Coral Spawning 2009 – Baums Lab,  Curacao

“Yesterday was our 5th night of diving and our 5th attempt at gathering the amount of coral spawn needed to carry out our study. Despite a consistent showing from one of our target colonies we have been unable to collect enough from any of the others to generate the number of larvae needed. Using the small volumes of spawn we have collected over the past few nights we are seeing that the larvae rearing system we have developed is working very well.  Larvae from last night’s cross have advanced to the “cornflake” stage by 9am this morning and the larvae from 4 nights ago are already swimming happily in their kreisel. So, although we may not be able to run the full experiment this month in Curacao, with luck we should succeed in settling some larvae on tiles to plant back out on to the reef.”


4. Burr Lab – Long Key, Florida

“Spawning is not expected until Monday, but on Saturday the team went to Chica Rocks for a “practice” run of the spawning drill. This is a site with abundant heads of Montastreae faveolata. We arrived on the site at about 7 pm and jumped in the water to deploy the spawning tents. Then we returned to the boat to wait until dark. We enjoyed the evening breeze, watch the moon rise and discussed protocols on the boat until 10:00 to 10:30 and then return to the reef to check for spawning. The divers swam around for about an hour and then collected the tents and returned to the boat at 11:30. After an hour ride back to the lab, we quickly cleared up all of a gear and headed to bed. A great first night out and now we are ready!”


5. SECORE Weblog 2009 – Curacao

“During the day we take care of our coral babies. Some of them should be getting close to their swimming phase. Then the regular drill starts again. Prepare nets and diving equipment, have diner and take of to our dive sites. We do have a little lock up accident this evening. Someone did not seem to want Mitch to join in the fun… He got locked in in his room. After some running around for keys we manage to set him free. Luckily he won’t have to miss out on the last night of diving. We don’t know what to expect, but we keep on hoping for the best”


Underwater spectacular – basking sharks and sardines by the million


Loch Ness Monster? Torpedo? US Navy installation? Apparently, this image captured by tourists off the Scottish coastline is a breaching basking shark (estimated at 3m in length!). More from Wikipedia:

  • The basking shark is one of the largest known sharks, second only to the whale shark. The largest specimen accurately measured was trapped in a herring net in the Bay of Fundy, Canada in 1851. Its total length was 12.27 metres (40.3 ft), and it weighed an estimated 19 tons.
  • The basking shark is a passive filter feeder, filtering zooplankton, small fish and invertebrates from up to 2,000 tons of water per hour.
  • They feed at or close to the surface with their mouths wide open and gill rakers erect. They are slow-moving sharks (feeding at about 2 knots) and do not attempt to evade approaching boats (unlike great white sharks).
  • As a result of rapidly declining numbers, the basking shark has been protected and trade in its products restricted in many countries. It is fully protected in the UK, Malta, Florida and US Gulf and Atlantic waters. Once considered a nuisance along the Canadian Pacific coast, basking sharks were the target of a government eradication program there from 1945 to 1970.


Second: any guesses as to how many fish in the image below? Divers estimated this shoal of sardines off a reef in the Phillipines to be 50ft wide, 50 ft deep, and over 400ft long (120m!). Best estimates are around 10 per cubic foot – around 350 fish per cubic meter)




Namibian rocks reveal new clues about the Cambrian explosion

A reconstruction of the Burgess Shale site during the Cambrian explosion. Painting of the by D. W. Miller

A reconstruction of the Burgess Shale site during the Cambrian explosion. Painting by D. W. Miller

My UNC colleague Justin Ries and his collaborators just published a paper in Geology that offers an important new clue about the cause of the Cambrian explosion, the rapid radiation and appearance of new life forms on earth just over half a billion years ago.  One theory has been that suddenly increased oxygen levels made this rapid diversification of animal life possible.  But many geologists dismissed this argument because they thought that oxygen concentration had already increased in the earth’s atmosphere by then.  Justin and his team traveled to the desert of namibia to sample the Nama group carbonate rocks from which they measured the sulfur isotopic signature.  Sulfur is used as a proxy for oxygen concentration.  The teams findings indicate that oxygen concentration in shallow seas was indeed very low just before the Cambrian explosion.

Justin is a relatively new faculty in my department and UNC.  He is a carbonate geochemist and also is doing some cutting edge work on the effects of ocean acidification on calcifying organisms.


UNC marine geologist Justin Ries in the Zebra River Valley, southern Namibia. The Nama Group carbonates, which contain sulfur isotopic signatures suggesting that low marine sulfate and low atmospheric oxygen conditions persisted up until the Cambrian Explosion, loom in the background. (Credit: Gordon Love)

Read the full story on Futurity here.  Excerpted below:

“This period was a game-changer in terms of the evolutionary structure of life,” Ries says. “Our findings are consistent with the idea that it occurred because of major changes in the composition of the ocean and atmosphere at that time.”

Scientists have maintained that relatively high oxygen levels existed on the planet long before the Cambrian period, Ries says, but if that was the case and oxygen was key to the evolutionary event, why did it take until then for the few initial stems of animal life to expand into the thousands of lineages that emerged?

The new research appears to answer that puzzle. The team examined the chemical signature of limestone rocks in southern Namibia, Africa, that were deposited in the oceans between 553 million and 543 million years ago, just before the Cambrian Explosion and found that at that time, sulfate levels in the ancient ocean—and by implication, oxygen levels in the atmosphere—were much lower than previously thought.

Scientists are able to use sulfate—a molecule that is dissolved in seawater—as a proxy for the amount of oxygen that existed, because their respective levels vary in proportion with one another (marine sulfate is primarily derived from the oxidation of terrestrial sulfide).

“This implies that the subsequent alleviation of these low sulfate and low oxygen conditions may have led to the intense diversification of animals in early Cambrian time,” Ries concludes.

Economic cost of Great Barrier Reef bleaching exceeds $35 billion

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ABC News, 10th August 2009 – An international study has found that the economic cost of coral bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef would be $37.7 billion.

The Oxford Economics report, which values the reef at $51.4 billion, also found up to 50 per cent of tourists who would normally visit the reef would stay away from Queensland if bleaching was permanent.

The study was commissioned by the Great Barrier Reef Foundation to set an economic benchmark for the natural asset.

The foundation’s John Schubert says the figures paint a disturbing picture for tourism and local communities that directly benefit from their proximity to the reef.

Managing director Judy Stewart expects the economic study will set a new standard for valuing the environment.

“I expect that the methodology will be looked at in great detail by other economists looking at other environmental assets elsewhere, as well as how we value coral reefs elsewhere,” she said.

Visit the Great Barrier Reef Foundation page for background information, summary of report outcomes and the entire report (pdf link).

Update: “Life’s a bleach for Barrier Reef as climate changes” – The Australian, 10th August 2009:

THE Great Barrier Reef’s gilt-edged importance to the Australian economy has been highlighted by new research into the potential financial cost of climate change to the world heritage-listed wonder.

British consultant Oxford Economics puts the present value of the reef at $51.4 billion – approaching $2500 for every Australian alive today – but warns that nearly four-fifths of its worth would be destroyed if the coral was totally and permanently bleached.

The study goes beyond placing a dollar figure on tourism, fishing and other commercial activities involving the reef, valuing “indirect” benefits such as its role in protecting coastal communities from storms and cyclones.

The research was commissioned by the not-for-profit Great Barrier Reef Foundation. Its chairman, John Schubert, warned yesterday that the reef was at a “crossroads” because of climate change.

“We are basically at a point where we need to take action to ensure that as much of the reef as possible can be preserved,” Dr Schubert said in releasing the Oxford Economics study.

The $51.4bn figure for the reef’s net worth is calculated over a century, at a preferred discount rate of 2.65 per cent to price in the opportunity cost of tying up that capital.

Oxford Economics valued the net economic benefit and profit generated by tourism on the reef at $20.2bn, with recreational fishing worth $2.8bn. Profit from commercial fishing is $1.4bn, while the so-called indirect-use value of the reef as a coastal defence absorbing up to 90per cent of the destructive force of storm-driven waves was $10bn in present value terms.

Dr Schubert said the British firm’s estimate of the reef’s economic worth was broadly in line with that of Australian forecaster Access Economics, though each used a different form of economic modelling.

Oxford Economics also factored in a “non-use” worth of the reef of $15.2bn, representing the potential value to Australians of, say, a future visit to the reef or of its capacity to yield breakthroughs in biomedicine and other forms of research.

In costing these economic benefits, Oxford Economics said it had been able to value the potentially catastrophic effects of coral bleaching from higher ocean temperature and levels caused by climate change.

The report found that the reef had been affected by heat-related coral bleaching six times over the past 25 years, most severely in 2002, when 60per cent of reefs within the vast marine park were hit, destroying up to a tenth of the coral.

Total and permanent bleaching of the reef would cost $37.7bn, or 73 per cent of its assessed value to the economy, presently accounting for nearly 5 per cent of Australia’s gross domestic product. Tourism would be devastated, with up to half of the million or so people who visit the reef annually likely to stay away.

The Cairns region would lose 90per cent of the $17.9bn reef-related activity boosting the local economy.

“This report provides a wake-up call about the threat to one of Australia’s greatest natural assets and the potential cost to Australia,” Dr Schubert said.

“It also establishes for the first time the extent to which the Cairns region would be affected by a major bleaching event.”

Climate Change Seen as Threat to U.S. Security

From yesterday’s NYT:

Climate Change Seen as Threat to U.S. Security


Published: August 8, 2009

The changing global climate will pose profound strategic challenges to the United States in coming decades, raising the prospect of military intervention to deal with the effects of violent storms, drought, mass migration and pandemics, military and intelligence analysts say.

Such climate-induced crises could topple governments, feed terrorist movements or destabilize entire regions, say the analysts, experts at the Pentagon and intelligence agencies who for the first time are taking a serious look at the national security implications of climate change. Recent war games and intelligence studies conclude that over the next 20 to 30 years, vulnerable regions, particularly sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East and South and Southeast Asia, will face the prospect of food shortages, water crises and catastrophic flooding driven by climate change that could demand an American humanitarian relief or military response.

An exercise last December at the National Defense University, an educational institute that is overseen by the military, explored the potential impact of a destructive flood in Bangladesh that sent hundreds of thousands of refugees streaming into neighboring India, touching off religious conflict, the spread of contagious diseases and vast damage to infrastructure. “It gets real complicated real quickly,” said Amanda J. Dory, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for strategy, who is working with a Pentagon group assigned to incorporate climate change into national security strategy planning.

Much of the public and political debate on global warming has focused on finding substitutes for fossil fuels, reducing emissions that contribute to greenhouse gases and furthering negotiations toward an international climate treaty — not potential security challenges.

But a growing number of policy makers say that the world’s rising temperatures, surging seas and melting glaciers are a direct threat to the national interest. If the United States does not lead the world in reducing fossil-fuel consumption and thus emissions of global warming gases, proponents of this view say, a series of global environmental, social, political and possibly military crises loom that the nation will urgently have to address.

This argument could prove a fulcrum for debate in the Senate next month when it takes up climate and energy legislation passed in June by the House.

Lawmakers leading the debate before Congress are only now beginning to make the national security argument for approving the legislation.

Senator John Kerry, the Massachusetts Democrat who is the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee and a leading advocate for the climate legislation, said he hoped to sway Senate skeptics by pressing that issue to pass a meaningful bill.

Mr. Kerry said he did not know whether he would succeed but had spoken with 30 undecided senators on the matter.

He did not identify those senators, but the list of undecided includes many from coal and manufacturing states and from the South and Southeast, which will face the sharpest energy price increases from any carbon emissions control program.

“I’ve been making this argument for a number of years,” Mr. Kerry said, “but it has not been a focus because a lot of people had not connected the dots.” He said he had urged President Obama to make the case, too.

Mr. Kerry said the continuing conflict in southern Sudan, which has killed and displaced tens of thousands of people, is a result of drought and expansion of deserts in the north. “That is going to be repeated many times over and on a much larger scale,” he said.

The Department of Defense’s assessment of the security issue came about after prodding by Congress to include climate issues in its strategic plans — specifically, in 2008 budget authorizations by Hillary Rodham Clinton and John W. Warner, then senators. The department’s climate modeling is based on sophisticated Navy and Air Force weather programs and other government climate research programs at NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The Pentagon and the State Department have studied issues arising from dependence on foreign sources of energy for years but are only now considering the effects of global warming in their long-term planning documents. The Pentagon will include a climate section in the Quadrennial Defense Review, due in February; the State Department will address the issue in its new Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review.

“The sense that climate change poses security and geopolitical challenges is central to the thinking of the State Department and the climate office,” said Peter Ogden, chief of staff to Todd Stern, the State Department’s top climate negotiator.

Although military and intelligence planners have been aware of the challenge posed by climate changes for some years, the Obama administration has made it a central policy focus.

A changing climate presents a range of challenges for the military. Many of its critical installations are vulnerable to rising seas and storm surges. In Florida, Homestead Air Force Base was essentially destroyed by Hurricane Andrew in 1992, and Hurricane Ivan badly damaged Naval Air Station Pensacola in 2004. Military planners are studying ways to protect the major naval stations in Norfolk, Va., and San Diego from climate-induced rising seas and severe storms.

Another vulnerable installation is Diego Garcia, an atoll in the Indian Ocean that serves as a logistics hub for American and British forces in the Middle East and sits a few feet above sea level.

Read the full article here (you need a free NYT membership to log in)

Why do we fly? Ecologists’ sins of emission

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There is a neat article (or “peer-reviewed letter”) in this months Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment about the carbon contribution of conservation ecologists’ airplane flights.  Their point is that we fly too much and are clearly part of the problem.  They also point out the obvious hypocrisy.


The unease about frequent flying should be particularly acute for the community of ecologists and conservation scientists – a group of professionals who commonly speak out against emissions, yet by virtue of their own behavior have individual carbon footprints that probably exceed the per capita footprints of most Americans.

We thirteen conservation scientists span a wide range of jobs (academic institutions and non-governmental organizations) and career stages (junior to senior scientists), and – although not a random sample – we are fairly representative of those in the conservation field. The results give pause: the emissions from our flights account for an astonishing two-thirds of our average carbon footprint. Thus, in spite of considerably lower-carbon lifestyle choices (eg diet, purchasing/driving a hybrid car, home energy conservation) that made our non-flying carbon footprint 16% smaller than the average American’s, our total emissions are double that of the American average and more than ten times the global average (Figure 1WebPanel 1). The mismatch between individual behavior and conservation platitudes has already been noted (eg Bearzi 2009) and is a source of considerable embarrassment for the conservation community (Dowie 2008).

You too can calulate your carbon footprint:  using this carbon footprint calculator (which is the one Fox et al used) or several others which can be found online.  BTW, anybody know about the accuracy of these things, which one is “best”, etc.?

I have my Marine Ecology class do this every year when I give a general lecture about climate change.  Last time I did mine, I was curious how much I’d reduce my footprint if I downsized from a Hummer to a Prius (I don’t drive either-I have a Rav4 and ride my bike to work a lot); remarkably the savings barely equaled my annual carbon contribution from flying for work and I typically only fly ~20,000 per year!  Pretty amazing.  Also interesting is the importance of how MUCH you drive, which again, can wash out the benefits of driving a small car (if you drive a lot).  I have been trying to fly less.  I rarely go to conferences and only give one invited lecture a year.  But those decisions are partially because I prefer to save my travel time for field work.  It is a tough balance-just enough miles to achieve AA gold status but not so much that I melt the earth!


Helen E Fox, Peter Kareiva, Brian Silliman, Jessica Hitt, David A Lytle, Benjamin S Halpern, Christine V Hawkes, Joshua Lawler, Maile Neel, Julian D Olden, Martin A Schlaepfer, Katherine Smith, Heather Tallis (2009) Why do we fly? Ecologists’ sins of emission. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment: Vol. 7, No. 6, pp. 294-296.

Bearzi G. 2009. When swordfish conservation biologists eat swordfish. Conserv Biol 23: 1–2.

Dowie M. 2008. The wrong path to conservation. The Nation. Sep 10.