Australia comes last in climate effectiveness

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According to a new report commisioned by the Climate Institute, only two of the G20 countries are currently improving carbon productivity quickly enough to meet carbon reduction targets. What’s more surprising is that Australia ranks 15th in improving carbon productivity, lagged only by South Africa, India, Saudia Arabia and Indonesia. Although a part of this is due to ‘green-house intensive’ exports, the report also blames the use of cars and reliance on coal-based electricity:

(The report)… illustrates that there are a number of countries, including Turkey, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Australia and Canada, that are currently falling well short of the required improvement in carbon productivity and that require significant turnarounds in their performance. The longer these countries take to achieve these turnarounds, the more costly (economically, as well as socially and politically) the eventual transition will be.

(Click here for pdf of full report, or here for The Age newspaper report)

From coal to Copenhagen

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With Australia being a huge exporter of coal, the government seems set on the adoption and use of clean-coal technology. But, is time running out for coal?

“I grew up to a Rolling Stones song that said, “Time is on my side. Yes it is.” For our coal industry, sadly, it is not. In fact, if the US experience is anything to go by, time is fast running out. Projects to build new coal-fired power stations are being abandoned from Florida to Utah. Money is pouring in for renewable energy and legislation is being enacted to support it.

The only long-term hope for coal in the US is clean coal. The same is true for Australia. Australia needs to take a long-term, 20-year view on energy and not just look at the increased demand projections for coal for the next five or 10 years. We need to look at what the energy mix will be in 2030.

The clear and present danger for Australia’s coal industry is, unless there is a powerful push to see clean-coal technology developed and implemented, the traditional markets for its product will start slowly shutting down as green energy becomes more price-competitive and public policy continues to demand greener outcomes”
(“Coal on the outer as US goes green” – The Australian, September 5th 2009)

“There’s an irony in the rushed construction of a new security fence around the Hazelwood power station, in anticipation of a community protest this weekend. The Government, it seems, is more in interested in protecting Hazelwood from protesters, than protecting our climate from Hazelwood.

Victoria has been shamed as the least climate-friendly state, running three of Australia’s four dirtiest power stations. And Hazelwood is one of the dirtiest in the developed world, scheduled to close this year but in 2005 given a lifeline by the State Government to 2031. The timing is significant, because it reflects the climate policy strategy of the major parties: hang on with dirty coal till 2030-35, and hope that by then carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology will work. For now, pour money into CCS research, but stall on serious emission-reduction strategies”
(“Punting on coal is a loser, but try telling the Government” – The Age, September 10th 2009)

Northeast passage opens as the Arctic melts


There is an interesting, if scary, article in the NYT today about the thawing of Arctic ice sheets which are making it feasible for cargo ships to use the Northeast passage from Europe, over the top of Russia, and into the western Pacific ocean.


MOSCOW — For hundreds of years, mariners have dreamed of an Arctic shortcut that would allow them to speed trade between Asia and the West. Two German ships are poised to complete that transit for the first time, aided by the retreat of Arctic ice that scientists have linked to global warming. The ships started their voyage in South Korea in late July and will begin the last leg of the trip this week, leaving a Siberian port for Rotterdam in the Netherlands carrying 3,500 tons of construction materials.

Russian ships have long moved goods along the country’s sprawling Arctic coastline. And two tankers, one Finnish and the other Latvian, hauled fuel between Russian ports using the route, which is variously called the Northern Sea Route or the Northeast Passage.

But the Russians hope that the transit of the German ships will inaugurate the passage as a reliable shipping route, and that the combination of the melting ice and the economic benefits of the shortcut — it is thousands of miles shorter than various southerly routes — will eventually make the Arctic passage a summer competitor with the Suez Canal.

“It is global warming that enables us to think about using that route,” Verena Beckhusen, a spokeswoman for the shipping company, the Beluga Group of Bremen, Germany, said in a telephone interview.

Read the full story here and related articles about Arctic melting here

Annual trends in reporting of climate change in the media and scientific literature

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Here’s an interesting graph taken from a recent publication by Russill & Nyssa in the journal Global Environmental Change (“The tipping point trend in climate change communication”, 19:336-344). The entire article is a fascinating read, but if the methods are to be believed, the data implies a HUGE increase in the reporting of the phrase “Climate Change” by the Australian media in the last five years – more than the US and UK media combined at last count (2007). The solid line (ISI Web of Science) represents the use of the phrase “Climate Change” in the scientific literature. Methodological bias or a genuine representation of the climate change ‘feeding-frenzy’ by the Australian press in recent years? Food for thought.

Humpty dumpty and the ghosts

There is a nice, new essay on the by Olivia Judson about the complexity of ecological communities.  And about how ecologists strive to understand the impacts of loosing key species from complex ecosystems.  She also discusses the challenges of understanding or untangling how complex systems like coral reefs operate.

I couldn’t help chuckling at myself the other morning as I typed “Humpty Dumpty” into the search box of one of the big science databases. Humpty Dumpty, as anyone who remembers their nursery rhymes will recall, is an egg-shaped fellow who takes a bad fall. At which point, “All the King’s horses / and all the King’s men / Couldn’t put Humpty together again”.

But, as I discovered during my researches, Humpty Dumpty is an important personage. He has, for example, had a gene named after him. In fruit flies, mutations to the Humpty Dumpty gene produce a number of unfortunate effects, including thin egg shells. He has also lent his name to a scale that measures the severity of falls.

But neither of those is what I was looking for. I was looking for papers on the Humpty Dumpty community.

To see what this means, imagine a small pond. Let’s say that it’s home to a flourishing community of species — insects, fishes, algae, weeds, and so on. Now, suppose one of the species disappears — let’s say that humans fish out all members of one of the fish species. You want to undo this little extinction.

The obvious thing to do is to add fish of the missing species back into the pond. Which might work. But it might not. It might be that some other animal has occupied the fish’s niche, preventing the fish from moving in again.

Or it might be that the fish can only become established in the presence of, say, a certain species of insect — but that insect has long-since vanished. If this were the case, you’d have a Humpty Dumpty community: if it disintegrates, you cannot rebuild it from its parts. In other words, the ability to reconstitute the community depends on species that are no longer there.

How common is this phenomenon? It’s not clear. Humpty Dumpty effects often occur in mathematical models of ecosystems. But whether Humpty is important in nature is an open question.

Which isn’t surprising. Ecology is one of the hardest branches of biology, possibly of all science. Real ecological communities are fantastically complex — think of a rainforest, or a coral reef — and hard to dissect and understand. Experiments in the wild are difficult to control, and important variables are often hard to measure. Imagine trying to measure the impact that, say, earthworms have on oak trees: it’s damnably difficult.

Experiments in the laboratory are problematic too. Microcosm experiments — where you set up miniature worlds inhabited by just a few species of single-celled beings — quickly become massive. For instance, suppose you’re interested in the question of whether individuals of different species can live together. (This is an important question, for it bears on how ecosystems form.) To keep things simple, you decide to investigate a mere six species. You want to be thorough, so you’re going to consider all combinations, from each species living alone, to all six together.

But that’s already 63 combinations. Worse, in order to be more confident about the results, you can’t just do each one once, you need to replicate them. So you set up each combination six times. That’s 378 microcosms. Worse still, ecosystems — even small and simple ones — don’t stabilize in an afternoon. You have to wait for several months before you can be sure the system has settled into a “final” form. See what I mean? (Incidentally, I didn’t invent this experiment: it has actually been done. Those 60-plus combinations produced only eight different communities that were stable and persistent. Most of these were simple, containing only one or two species.)

Of course, Out There in Nature, there’s no such thing as a “final” form. New immigrants regularly arrive, whether we’re talking about a mangrove swamp in Florida, or the most remote islands in the Pacific. Sometimes these new arrivals fail to thrive. Sometimes they become established, perhaps driving other species extinct as they do so.

Or perhaps they have a more subtle effect: they fail to thrive and yet they drive other species extinct. Such species have been called “ghosts,”, the idea being that they have a definite, but unseen, impact on the stability of the community.

Again, ghosts have been detected in mathematical models more often than they’ve been sighted in nature. In fact, it’s not clear that they exist. The best evidence that they might be important comes from those microcosms I was mentioning. Earlier, I described only the first half of the experiment. The second half took the persistent, “final” form communities and subjected them to various invasions. In several cases, the invaders could not become established, yet the composition of the community shifted, with one of the original species going extinct.

Humpty Dumpty and the ghosts — the names are light-hearted, the theory is esoteric, but the problems they touch on are urgent. How do ecosystems form? How much impact do invaders have? What are our chances of restoring damage done by fishing or farming? We are pushing our ecosystems to the brink. If we don’t understand how they work, we can’t hope to limit the damage. And we need to try: after all, this is our home.


PS-for you climate shifts junkies following the horse race, I just tied Jez in our race to 100 posts and the grand prize sponsored by OHG.

PSS-for UQ people, I am in Chapel Hill in a seminar sitting next to Ann Mooney!

Deep sea coral reefs discovered in Hawaii

Off the back of the last post, here is an interesting article from the Washington Post on the discovery of deep sea reefs in Hawaii. Deep reefs (‘mesophotic’ coral reefs) exist at the edge of the photic zone (upto 150m depth) and are still dependent on light. These are fascinating ecosystems that to date have been poorly studied:

“We were seeing reefs that no human has ever laid eyes on before,” Randall Kosaki, the research mission’s lead scientist and diver, said Tuesday. “We literally have better maps of the moon than we do of coral reefs in the Hawaiian archipelago.”

Between the area where scuba divers and submersible vehicles have traveled is a “twilight zone” that has long been unexplored, he said. It includes large swaths of coral reefs that can grow up to 400 feet underwater.

“The coral reef habitat goes four times deeper than where we’ve been working prior to this,” Kosaki told reporters.

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(Read M0re)

As a footnote: one of my PhD students, Pim Bongaerts runs an online resource for deep sea coral reefs over at which has some amazing photographs and video footage of research on deep reefs – see here for news and updates.

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