“You could make a fairly tight argument to say that it is the single greatest health threat that has ever faced the human species. I suspect this will shorten lives, if it turns out that this is what’s going on”

Analysis of nearly 1,000 sperm whale tissues (sampled using a dart gun, not the Japanese harpoon method) reveals ‘jaw dropping’ levels of cadmium, aluminum, chromium, lead, silver, mercury, and titanium:

“The entire ocean life is just loaded with a series of contaminants, most of which have been released by human beings,’’ Payne said in an interview at the International Whaling Commission’s annual meeting.

“These contaminants, I think, are threatening the human food supply. They certainly are threatening the whales and the other animals that live in the ocean,’’ he said.

Roger Payne (a man with some pretty serious whale science credentials, being the first researcher to document whale songs back in the late 1960’s) went on to say “You could make a fairly tight argument to say that it is the single greatest health threat that has ever faced the human species. I suspect this will shorten lives, if it turns out that this is what’s going on”. If this holds true, it’s pretty disturbing:

“The biggest surprise was chromium,’’ Payne said. “That’s an absolute shocker. Nobody was even looking for it.’’

Chromium, a corrosion-resistant material, is used in stainless steel, paints, dyes, and the tanning of leather, and can cause lung cancer in people who work in industries where it is commonly used.

Wise applied chromium to healthy whale cells in the laboratory to study its effect. He found that the concentration of chromium found in whales was several times higher than the level required to kill healthy cells in a petri dish, Payne said.

Link to full story here.

University of Queensland Scientist named Coordinating Lead Author for next IPCC report

Go Ove!

The Director of UQ’s Global Change Institute, Professor Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, has been selected as the Coordinating Lead Author of Chapter 30, “Open Oceans”, to the Working Group II (WGII) contribution of the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

The Fifth Assessment Report (AR5), scheduled for completion in 2013-2014, will be the next comprehensive assessment of all aspects of climate change by the IPCC.

UQ Vice-Chancellor & President Professor Paul Greenfield said Professor Ove Hoegh-Guldberg was an excellent scientist and a fine choice by the IPCC.

“Ove has pioneered knowledge of the links between climate change and coral reefs,” Professor Greenfield said.

“His service to the IPCC will exemplify how UQ researchers can help communities around the world understand and manage the most challenging issues.”

The IPCC Working Group II assesses the vulnerability of socio-economic and natural systems to climate change, negative and positive consequences of climate change, and options for adapting to its consequences.

Coordinating Lead Authors play a leading role in ensuring that any cross-cutting scientific or technical issues, which may involve several sections of a report, are addressed in a complete and coherent manner and reflect the latest information available.

The author teams will conduct the scientific-technical assessment using procedures that emphasise comprehensiveness, scientific independence, openness, thorough review and transparency.

Professor Hoegh-Guldberg has published works that include over 180 refereed publications and book chapters and is one of the most cited authors within the peer-reviewed literature on climate change and its impacts on natural ecosystems.

Other Coordinating Lead Authors from Australia in Working Group II include:

• Roger Jones, Victoria University, Ch. 2, “Foundations for Decision Making”
• Ian Noble, The World Bank, Ch. 14, “Adaptation Needs and Options”
• Roger Kitching, Griffith University, Ch. 25, “Australasia”
• Roger McLean, University of New South Wales, Ch. 29 “Small Islands”

A number of other Australians have also been selected to participate in WGII as Contributing Authors and Reviewing Editors, as the work on the Fifth Assessment Report progresses.

A full list of the authors may be accessed at http://www.ipcc-wg2.gov/AR5/AR5_authors.html.
More information about the IPCC’s 5AR may be found at http://www.ipcc-wg2.gov/AR5/ar5.html.

Chemosynthesis: dark water communities in the Gulf of Mexico live off crude oil as a primary food source

Here’s an interesting perspective on the current oil spill from the NYT: cold, dark, teeming with life:

The deep seabed was once considered a biological desert. Life, the logic went, was synonymous with light and photosynthesis. The sun powered the planet’s food chains, and only a few scavengers could ply the preternaturally dark abyss.

Then, in 1977, oceanographers working in the deep Pacific stumbled on bizarre ecosystems lush with clams, mussels and big tube worms — a cornucopia of abyssal life built on microbes that thrived in hot, mineral-rich waters welling up from volcanic cracks, feeding on the chemicals that leached into the seawater and serving as the basis for whole chains of life that got along just fine without sunlight.

In 1984, scientists found that the heat was not necessary. In exploring the depths of the Gulf of Mexico, they discovered sunless habitats powered by a new form of nourishment. The microbes that founded the food chain lived not on hot minerals but on cold petrochemicals seeping up from the icy seabed (Read More)

Reply to Ridd et al.’s Technical Comment to Science: “Have coral calcification rates slowed in the last twenty years?”

Several denialists have sort to deliberately confuse the readership over the important evidence gathered by De’ath et al. (2009) on slowing coral calcification on the Great Barrier Reef.  Given the recent resurgence in this misinformation, I thought it would be a good idea to post Dr Glenn De’ath, Dr Janice M. Lough and Dr Katharina E. Fabricius’s recent reply  to Dr Peter Ridd’s confused and misleading claims.

The maintenance of coral calcification rates is critical for the future of coral reefs and it is, therefore, important to identify spatial patterns and temporal trends in the rates of coral calcification. Our recent report showed that substantial declines in coral calcification have occurred on the Great Barrier Reef in the last 20 years (De’ath et al., 2009), and similar reports are now emerging from other parts of the world (Tanzil et al., 2009). Ridd et al. here suggest that (1) ontogenetic effects, and (2) the last data points at the end of the recent cores, largely explain the ~14% decline in coral calcification we have shown across the Great Barrier Reef. We believe the assertions of Ridd et al. are erroneous due to: (1) their invalid assumptions about the data, and (2) their inappropriate statistical analyses.

Ontogenetic effects

Ridd et al. argue that we ignored the possibility that ontogentic effects contributed to the reported decline, namely that corals in their youngest years calcify at a faster rate than later in life. However, their main underlying assumption, that age of each short core is given by its number of growth records is wrong. Thus their Fig 2b derived from this assumption, is also wrong. Short cores are ~50 cm long (the length of the coring barrel), whereas the median height of the corals from which the short cores were taken was 1.5 m. The innermost year bands in short cores do not thus reflect early years of the corals’ life in the colonies sampled. Rather, corals were on average ~50 years old (rather than 1 year old, as Ridd et al assume) when the innermost year ring of the short cores was deposited.

In contrast, ontogenetic effects can be accurately assessed in whole colonies where the first years of the corals are preserved. However, Ridd et al. do not include year as a covariate factor, so their analysis is unable to disentangle the two potentially confounded effects of age and temporal trends in environmental conditions.

In the Report, we also investigated ontogenetic effects by comparing calcification in the last 15 years in the life of a coral (the outermost bands) in the 189 colonies collected from 1990 to 2005, and the 139 colonies sampled prior to 1990. We showed that for the cohort prior to 1990, the number of colonies and the number of reefs with increasing and declining rates were approximately equal in number, with 29 of the 56 reefs (51.7%) declining at an average rate of 0.11% yr-1 (SE=0.18%). However, in the 1990–2005 period, 12 of the 13 reefs (92.3%) declined at an average rate of 1.44% yr-1 (SE=0.31%), indicating a strong decline specific to that period, rather than reflecting ontogenetic properties of the outermost annual growth bands in coral skeletons.

End of core data

Ridd et al. argue that the last annual growth layer for each coral of the 2004 and 2005 series are negatively biased estimates of growth due to unspecified problems of measurement and should, therefore, be discarded. Such specific measurement problems are only likely if those corals were measured separately from the remainder. This was not the case as the data are based on the re-measuring and re-dating of all the material using the same methods and the same instrument, and conducted by one person (JML) within the past 5 years.

Ridd et al also argue that the series ending in 2005 (21 corals) did not show a significant decline in 2004, when the series ending in 2004 (containing 77 corals) showed a decline. It is perhaps also worth noting that Ridd et al use the term “significant” on six occasions without any statistical reference or justification. This statement was neither supported by their Fig 1D, nor by any form of statistical analysis or significance tests.

However, we also re-ran the temporal change model excluding the records of corals in 2004-5 (Fig. 1). The decline in calcification from 1990 – 2005 reduces to ~77% of that predicted when all data were included; still a decline of ~11.0%.

Figure 1. Decline in calcification based on all data and with the final years records for 2004-5 removed. The predicted reduction in the current decline for 1990-2005 is reduced from ~14.2% to ~11.0%.

Statistical analyses

Ridd et al. standardise the measurements of individual calcification records, average them for each year, and then analyse the temporal trends using an antiquated smoothing technique (Savitzky-Golay, 1964). There are three major problems with their approach:

(1)   It fails to account for the sampling structure whereby coral colonies are sampled from different reefs in highly variable numbers. There are between 1 and 46 colonies per reef, and the analyses in De’ath et al (2009) accounts for this structure by including random effects of reef and colony nested in reef in their generalized additive models (GAMs). The latter approach also takes into account the correlation across time due to repeated measures on colonies.

(2)   The fitted curves of Ridd et al. have no basis for the selection of smoothness (such procedures did not exist in 1964) and are mostly over-fitted (i.e. they are too wriggly), in particular in the last few years at which time Ridd et al. claim the anomalies exist. For example, the rapid increase in the last year or so of the truncated series is extreme. This contrasts with the failure of their fit to capture a rapid rise in the period 1940-45. All efforts to recapture their fits (no details were provided in Ridd et al.) failed despite using the Savitzky-Golay procedure with a wide range of smoothing.

The analyses of De’ath et al (2009) [SOM] used widely accepted model selection procedures for both random and fixed effect components of the GAMs, within which the smoothness of the temporal profiles was based on cross-validation.

(3)   None of Ridd et al.’s analyses use an inferential statistical model other than linear regression in their Fig. 2., and in that instance no confidence intervals or significance of the regressions are provided. It is also clear from inspection of those plots that strong serial correlation is present, which is not catered for in their analyses.


For the above reasons, we disagree with Ridd et al that the observed declines in coral calcification on the Great Barrier Reef are due to ontogenetic effects in corals, and that the last two years of record should be omitted from the data set. The predicted decline in calcification would drop from ~14.2% to ~11.0% were the last two records omitted; still a major decline. We maintain that this decline in calcification, probably due to synergistic effects of prolonged and repeated temperature stress and ocean acidification in tropical waters, is a real and serious issue for massive Porites on the Great Barrier Reef, and indeed for coral reefs around the world (Tanzil et al., 2009).

Dr Glenn De’ath, Dr Janice M. Lough and Dr Katharina E. Fabricius

Australian Institute of Marine Science, PMB 3, Townsville Qld 4810, Australia.

Expert credibility in climate change: not all climate research and expertise are equal.

A fairly convoluted (but interesting none the less) paper just got published in PNAS by Anderegg et al (2010) looking at climate change and scientific credibility (more coverage by the Guardian here). Why don’t we trust climate scientists? To answer this question, the authors conducted a literature search of 1,372 climate researchers whose work “constitutes expertise or credibility in technical and policy-relevant scientific research”, and conclude what we’ve been blogging here for some time: “Despite media tendencies to present both sides in debates, which can contribute to continued public misunderstanding,not all climate researchers are equal in scientific credibility and expertise in the climate system

Although preliminary estimates from published literature and expert surveys suggest striking agreement among climate scientists on the tenets of anthropogenic climate change (ACC), the American public expresses substantial doubt about both the anthropogenic cause and the level of scientific agreement underpinning ACC. A broad analysis of the climate scientist community itself, the distribution of credibility of dissenting researchers relative to agreeing researchers, and the level of agreement among top climate experts has not been conducted and would inform future ACC discussions. Here, we use an extensive dataset of 1,372 climate researchers and their publication and citation data to show that (i) 97–98% of the climate researchers most actively publishing in the field support the tenets of ACC outlined by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and (ii) the relative climate expertise and scientific prominence of the researchers unconvinced of ACC are substantially below that of the convinced researchers.

Here’s the nuts and bolts of the paper (CE = convinced by the evidence, UE = unconvinced by the evidence):

So: not only is there a pretty considerable difference between the number of expert researchers between CE and UE groups, the mean expertise of the UE group was around half (60 publications) that of the CE group (119 publications). Here’s the real interesting statistic: researchers with fewer than 20 climate publications comprise ≈80% the UE group, as opposed to less than 10% of the CE group. To quote the authors: “This indicates that the bulk of UE researchers on the most prominent multisignatory statements about climate change have not published extensively in the peer-reviewed climate literature.

From a subsample of the 50 most-published researchers from each group, there was a considerable difference in relative expertise between the CE and UE groups:

Of these top 50 researchers, the CE group have an average of 408 climate publications, whilst the UE researchers averaged only 89 publications. Again, to quote the authors. this suggests that not all experts are equal, and top CE researchers have much stronger expertise in climate science than those in the top UE group“.

So who’s citing who? Anderegg et al use citation metrics to determine “…the quality and impact of a researcher’s contribution—a critical component to overall scientific credibility—as opposed to measuring a researcher’s involvement in a field, or expertise“. In examining the top four most-cited papers for each CE and UE researcher with 20 or more climate publications, the disparity in citation metrics between the CE and UE groups is astonishing:


(i) 97–98% of the climate researchers most actively publishing in the field support the tenets of Anthropogenic Climate Change (ACC) outlined by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change

(ii) the relative climate expertise and scientific prominence of the researchers unconvinced of ACC are substantially below that of the convinced researchers.

As Phil M commented on a post the other day, the UE group:

1) Also happen to have close ties to fossil fuel & mining industries.
2) Have ties to right wing lobby groups.
3) Have only a handful of scientists who back the denier side, of whom few have published or conducted research in any relevant climate science field, much less publish any papers in reputable journals debunking AGW.
4) Have not a single scientific instituion backing them.

Anderegg W.R.L., Prall J.W., Harold J. & Schneider S.H. (2010 Online Early) Expert credibility in climate change. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 21 June 2010, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1003187107

Is cap and trade the solution? Don’t bank on it!

Watch this: “The Story of Cap and Trade” from the people that brought you “The Story of Stuff”. I love this animation for so many reasons, starting with the Einstein quote in the opening credits, “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them”.

Annie Leonard outlines that there are three major problems with cap and trade: free permits, false offsetting, and distractions from the real solutions.

Cap and trade has previously been used for sulfur dioxide to stop acid rain. Its success was limited because the permits were over allocated and “banked” by the polluters so that they could drag out their emissions. And while some reports claim that cap and trade worked, a 40% reduction in SO2 emissions is not entirely a success.

K-Rudd recently tried to bring cap and trade to Australia but his Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) was opposed and now he is directly attacking the polluters with the proposed Mining Tax. This carbon tax methodology is similar to the cap and trade except that it doesn’t involve trading on the market and has the potential to be implemented fairly by the government.

Unfortunately, these solutions are essentially the same- the carbon tax is just implemented through the government while cap and trade is implemented through the market. Through the market, there are loopholes and incentives to cheat which could lead to the next bubble and stock market crash. Through the government, the same loopholes and cheating incentives exist but the bubble could crash the Australian budget rather than the carbon market. As Annie Leonard points out, a crash in the market (or budget) is too risky when our planet is the collateral. Furthermore, we haven’t really been very creative here… what happened to using a new kind of thinking as Einstein suggested?

K-Rudd couldn’t get the ETS through and now he has shifted to the Mining Tax in an attempt to save his position as Prime Minister. K-Rudd’s incentive relies on the power of the democratic voter. However, there is no monetary incentive to vote for Cap and Trade or the Carbon Tax because both of these methods will potentially lead to less money in the bank as the costs are passed on to the consumer. If there is no incentive to vote for it, then there is no incentive for K-Rudd to bring in the policy. At the moment, green energy costs more than fossil fuel energy and this needs to change. K-Rudd should give money to green energy initiatives now so that the price of green energy is cheaper than fossil fuel energy. To fund this we will need to stop fossil fuel subsidies and add the carbon tax. But the only way this will work is if the voters can see that Carbon Tax + Green Energy = no extra cost to consumer. Good luck! I still think we need some more creativity in our solution to this problem.

And while Watts tours, global warming continues.

Professor Neville Nicholls, Monash University

Contrary to the impression you might have gained from the media, the global climate is NOT cooling. In fact, the last twelve months, June 2009 – May 2010, has been the hottest June-May period on record, in both the 31-year satellite record of lower atmosphere global temperature and the 131-year surface global temperature record. In both data series the last 12 months have been more than 0.4C hotter than the average temperature of the last two decades of the 20th century.

The figure below plots the time series of twelve-month (June-May) global mean temperature anomalies. The data in the figure are the Spencer-Christy lower atmospheric temperatures from satellites (labelled “UAH” in the figure) and the surface temperatures from the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies (labelled “GISS”). Both datasets are freely available (UAH from http://vortex.nsstc.uah.edu/data/msu/t2lt/uahncdc.lt; GISS from http://data.giss.nasa.gov/gistemp/tabledata/GLB.Ts+dSST.txt). Both datasets have been plotted as anomalies relative to 1979/80-1998/99, ie the first twenty years of the satellite observations.

Simply eyeballing the graphs of the surface and satellite temperature record should convince anyone that global warming never “stopped”. Fitting linear trends to the data since the start of the satellite observations produces virtually identical trends in the two data sets. Even the variations from year-to-year in the two temperature series are close matches.

The close match between the surface and satellite variations and trends confirms that the warming trend at the surface is NOT due to the urban heat island effect. Nor is it due to changes in the numbers of stations used in the surface analysis, or any problems with the locations of the surface instruments. None of these potential problems affects the satellite data, and the satellite data are completely independent of the surface data.

Nor is the warming due to the Sun getting stronger. Satellite measurements show that total solar irradiance has decreased since the start of the 21st century, and this would probably have caused some weak cooling rather than any warming (http://acrim.com/TSI%20Monitoring.htm).

Neville Nicholls is an Australian Research Council Professorial Fellow in the School of Geography and Environmental Science at Monash University, President of the Australian Meteorological and Oceanographic Society (www.amos.org.au), and an Executive Editor of Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change (wires.wiley.com).

Watts Up With That? Tour hits an obstacle: the truth.

I have just returned from a series of off-campus meetings to find that there has been little excitement in my absence.  Apparently, I have been portrayed as some sort of hothead who tried to interfere with the “Watts up with that?” tour by denialists Anthony Watts, David Archibald and Bob Carter.

“Unprofessional and arrogant academic interrupts poor old denialist weatherman.”  Goodness– that does sound believable.  That is until one examines the complete audio record, which my trusty ‘photographer’ (Dr. John Bruno) and I were able to obtain.

What transpired was triggered by some inconvenient questions John and I that I asked during question time.  Nothing more and nothing less.  Judge for yourself – here are my responses to the following outlandish claims:

a.    Bob Carter: “billions of dollars had been spent and the scientific community has not come to a consensus”  Have a listen.  How hostile do I sound?  Persistent yes, but that is something else.


b.    David Archibald: “Ocean acidification is the last resort of the global warming  scoundrel”. Yep – he said it.  Have a listen (yes, I do get a little hot under the collar – but who wouldn’t.  After all, Oilman Dave had essentially called me corrupt.)


By the way, I tried to say hello to Anthony when I arrived, but he turned his back on me.  So much for a friendly discussion.  Who are these people?

A profile of Josh Cinner in Science mag

See a great profile of Josh Cinner by Helen Fields in Science mag here.   And see our past coverage of Josh’s work here and here.

In the late 1980s, things were not going well for the coral reefs at Jamaica’s Montego Bay Marine Park. Overfishing had taken out a lot of the fish that eat algae, and algae were taking over the reef. “It was a classic case of ecosystem decline,” human geographer Joshua Cinner says. He arrived in Jamaica in 1996 as a Peace Corps volunteer after graduating from the University of Colorado, Boulder, with a double major in environmental conservation and geography. He was particularly interested in parks and preserves.

He’d landed in the middle of a war. Lobbying by tour operators and others got spearfishing, one of the main culprits in overfishing, banned in the park. The ban did not go over well with local people. “All the park equipment got vandalized. We had park rangers get threatened; their families got threatened at spear point,” Cinner says. Spearfishing equipment is cheap and you don’t need a boat; men who do it are generally poor and are fishing as a last resort. “The cultural lens through which the fishermen viewed this issue was of struggle in a post-slavery society, of the rich, predominantly white expatriates making a law that oppressed the poorest of the poor locals to benefit the wealthy.”

The Rational Optimist is greatly exaggerated

So I missed all the initial discussion, but apparently the New Scientist published a critique of a recent book by Matt Ridley called “The Rational Optimist”, who amongst other things believes that ocean acidification is ‘greatly exaggerated’. You can read his response to the critique over at his website. It’s an entertaining dialogue, but here’s where his argument starts to fall down:

My source was the Herfort et al 2008 paper, which Ridgwell says is irrelevant, because of its experimental design. That’s his opinion, which others in the field do not share (Read more)

His opinion? As Chris Langdon pointed out, the Herfort paper it is not relevant to predicting what will happen in the future. What Ridley misunderstands is that it isn’t based opinion. Journalism is based upon opinion, science is based upon fact. Here’s what Chris Langdon had to say about the Herfort paper:

In their experiments, they increased both the bicarbonate and the carbonate concentration. This is what happens when you add sodium bicarbonate to seawater. They have no way of knowing if the increase in coral calcification was due to the increase in the bicarbonate or the carbonate.

In the real world, and in the experiments that I and others have performed, the bicarbonate concentration is increased by 13 per cent and the carbonate concentration is decreased by 40 per cent. When you do this the calcification of the corals is observed to decrease.

Here’s what we had to say about the Herfort paper back in June 2008:

Herfort’s experiment focused on the effects of increasing bicarbonate concentrations on rates of photosynthesis and calcification of coral reef organisms. I hear some of you ask: “But, is that not the same as ocean acidification?” Well, in a nutshell – no. Ocean acidification is the result of declining pH caused by the uptake of atmospheric CO2. Herfort et al. kept their pH (the parameter that determines acidity) constant at 8.2 across all treatments. This also means that Herfort’s results are totally irrelevant to the major problems of ocean acidification – (1) carbonate saturation state and (2) acidosis of cellular mechanisms such as photosynthesis.

The lowered pH from ocean acidification leads to low concentrations of carbonate ions, the building blocks of all marine calcifying organisms, which can lead to critically low rates of calcification and even shift to net rates of calcium carbonate dissolution. Also, the proper functioning of cellular mechanisms such as photosynthesis are sensitive to pH change, so keeping pH constant would not capture those stresses.

Bottom line, Herforts’ experiment did the opposite of any realistic future scenario: by keeping pH constant while increasing bicarbonate (HCO3-) concentrations they boosted carbonate ion (CO3=) concentrations and thereby rates of calcification, and ignored any effects of acidosis. Idso et al (2008) is another sad example of uninformed propaganda, running with one of two sentences from a study they do not comprehend – and then leaping to their own naive conclusion that the overwhelming amount of good science predicting negative effects of ocean acidification, is simply alarmist (Read more)

Matt Ridley concludes with:

In conclusion, I rest my case. My five critics have not only failed to contradict, but have explicitly confirmed the truth of every single one of my factual statements. We differ only in how we interpret the facts.

Interpreting the facts? Oh well. I guess opinion sells books! See this paper released today in Science (Ocean Acidification Unprecedented, Unsettling) by Richard Kerr:

As hydrogen ion concentrations go up, more and more of the ocean’s carbonate ions—the building block of all carbonate shells and skeletons—combine with hydrogen ions to form bicarbonate, driving down the concentration of the essential carbonate. Organisms have a harder time extracting the carbonate they need from the surrounding water. In a compilation of controlled acidification studies, marine chemist Scott Doney of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts and his colleagues found that all 11 species of tropical coral studied under falling pH slowed their aragonite production. Among noncoral calcifiers, most also slowed their carbonate building, though a few, such as certain coralline red algae and echinoderms, increased it.