Assisted colonization: Home on the range, or not?

Our rapidly changing climate is shrinking ecological ranges of many species to the point where extinction is a real likelihood within the next couple of decades.  One option is to move these species to new habitats where the future might be rosier.  A number of us discussed this during a workshop in 2008 and produced an article in Science’s Policy Forum section.  The issue is again in the news.  Richard Stone from Science magazine has written a thoughtful piece which exposes the latest thinking.

Science Magazine, Richard Stone

One of the hottest debates in conservation biology these days is to what extent scientists should help embattled species cope with climate change. All life forms, including our own, must adapt to climate change or dwindle and possibly perish. Scientists generally agree that first they should protect or shore up ecosystems, especially fragile ones such as cloud forests and coral reefs. Consensus breaks down, however, on what to do when a species can’t keep pace with a changing world. One camp insists that desperate times call for desperate measures. Habitat fragmentation caused by human activity has made it difficult or impossible for many species to migrate on their own to more suitable environments. Thus, a growing number of researchers argue that assisted colonization, also called managed relocation, is a vital conservation tool. Other scientists worry that momentum for translocations is building too fast.  For the full article, read it in Science magazine.

Coral reefs sending a warning signal – A note from Drew Harvell

I work at an inland university in chilly upstate New York. Around here, many people feel a little global warming is good and there is really nothing that they can see or hear that will make them feel differently. News of warming sea surfaces and bleached coral reefs inspire little response when there’s a chill in the air and the ocean is hundreds of miles away.

Sure, the ice is off the lakes a few weeks earlier and the growing season is a couple of weeks longer. But there are costs we are seeing now — mosquitoes, ticks and other species of insects are really thriving with the warmer weather while some species of trees, like sugar maple, are suffering slow declines.

However, none of these small, incremental impacts gives one a sense of imminent disaster, but the reality is that increased sea-surface temperatures will impact hundreds of millions of people, whether they live in Key West or Kalamazoo.

In contrast to the incremental changes we are seeing here in the heartland, the sea is already undergoing catastrophic changes on a massive scale, ones that are unprecedented in human history and that may be largely irreversible on human time scales.

(Read more over @ CNN)

This is a news website article about a scientific paper

Classic article by The Guardian which seems to nicely sum up the state of science reporting by the general media these days:

This is a news website article about a scientific paper

In the standfirst I will make a fairly obvious pun about the subject matter before posing an inane question I have no intention of really answering: is this an important scientific finding?

In this paragraph I will state the main claim that the research makes, making appropriate use of “scare quotes” to ensure that it’s clear that I have no opinion about this research whatsoever.

In this paragraph I will briefly (because no paragraph should be more than one line) state which existing scientific ideas this new research “challenges”.

If the research is about a potential cure, or a solution to a problem, this paragraph will describe how it will raise hopes for a group of sufferers or victims.

This paragraph elaborates on the claim, adding weasel-words like “the scientists say” to shift responsibility for establishing the likely truth or accuracy of the research findings on to absolutely anybody else but me, the journalist.

In this paragraph I will state in which journal the research will be published. I won’t provide a link because either a) the concept of adding links to web pages is alien to the editors, b) I can’t be bothered, or c) the journal inexplicably set the embargo on the press release to expire before the paper was actually published.

“Basically, this is a brief soundbite,” the scientist will say, from a department and university that I will give brief credit to. “The existing science is a bit dodgy, whereas my conclusion seems bang on” she or he will continue.

I will then briefly state how many years the scientist spent leading the study, to reinforce the fact that this is a serious study and worthy of being published by the BBC the website.

This picture has been optimised by SEO experts to appeal to our key target demographics

This is a sub-heading that gives the impression I am about to add useful context.

Here I will state that whatever was being researched was first discovered in some year, presenting a vague timeline in a token gesture toward establishing context for the reader.

To pad out this section I will include a variety of inane facts about the subject of the research that I gathered by Googling the topic and reading the Wikipedia article that appeared as the first link.

I will preface them with “it is believed” or “scientists think” to avoid giving the impression of passing any sort of personal judgement on even the most inane facts.

This fragment will be put on its own line for no obvious reason.

In this paragraph I will reference or quote some minor celebrity, historical figure, eccentric, or a group of sufferers; because my editors are ideologically committed to the idea that all news stories need a “human interest”, and I’m not convinced that the scientists are interesting enough.

At this point I will include a picture, because our search engine optimisation experts have determined that humans are incapable of reading more than 400 words without one.

This subheading hints at controversy with a curt phrase and a question mark?

This paragraph will explain that while some scientists believe one thing to be true, other people believe another, different thing to be true.

In this paragraph I will provide balance with a quote from another scientist in the field. Since I picked their name at random from a Google search, and since the research probably hasn’t even been published yet for them to see it, their response to my e-mail will be bland and non-committal.

“The research is useful”, they will say, “and gives us new information. However, we need more research before we can say if the conclusions are correct, so I would advise caution for now.”

If the subject is politically sensitive this paragraph will contain quotes from some fringe special interest group of people who, though having no apparent understanding of the subject, help to give the impression that genuine public “controversy” exists.

This paragraph will provide more comments from the author restating their beliefs about the research by basically repeating the same stuff they said in the earlier quotes but with slightly different words. They won’t address any of the criticisms above because I only had time to send out one round of e-mails.

This paragraph contained useful information or context, but was removed by the sub-editor to keep the article within an arbitrary word limit in case the internet runs out of space.

The final paragraph will state that some part of the result is still ambiguous, and that research will continue.

Related Links:

The Journal (not the actual paper, we don’t link to papers)

The University Home Page (finding the researcher’s page would be too much effort).

Unrelated story from 2007 matched by keyword analysis.

Special interest group linked to for balance

Coral reefs are bleaching worldwide

Kuwait loses 90 % of corals reefs in the Arab Gulf

“The comprehensive survey, conducted by the team, included the major locations of coral reefs 50 miles along the shores and 70 km from the southern coast borders, with depths ranging from 1-13 meters.”

Scientists watching V.I. coral bleaching

“The water temperatures have been warm for almost a year,” he said. “The corals have been stressed; they haven’t had their usual environment, as far as water temperatures go. A third to a half are experiencing some level of paling, very few corals are 100 percent bleached, which means stark white,” Smith said.”

Predicting coral bleaching in Kimbe Bay

“Most of the bleached corals were from susceptible genera like branching and plate Acropora, with a few massive and mushroom corals also bleached.  Bleaching was quite mild with 1-2% of corals bleached from 3-25m deep.  There was more bleaching in shallow water (5-10%), but this was probably related to unusually low tides at the time.”

Widespread Coral Bleaching In Sepanggar Bay Serves As Reminder

“The recent discovery of widespread coral bleaching off Sepanggar Bay should serve as a reminder that the marine ecosystem demands attention, Universiti Malaysia Sabah (UMS) Director of Borneo Marine Research Institute Prof Dr Saleem Mustafa said.”

Climate Changes Causes Massive Coral Die-Off Underway Globally

“…last month scientists with the Wildlife Conservation Society reported on what they say is one of the most rapid and severe coral mortality events ever recorded, unfolding in Indonesia.”

NOAA: Coral Bleaching Likely in Caribbean This Year

“Large areas of the southeastern Caribbean Sea are experiencing thermal stress capable of causing coral bleaching. The western Gulf of Mexico and the southern portion of the Bahamas have also experienced significant bleaching thermal stress.”

Philippine coral reefs – in hot water

“Since last May, the water temperature of the western Philippines (from Luzon to the Visayas, Palawan and Mindanao) has been 2 to 3°C above normal. The abnormally high water temperature is killing plenty of coral.”

Extreme Heat Bleaches Coral, and Threat Is Seen

Just when my friend Andrew Bolt thought it was safe to go in the water again, up jumps this ominous New York Times article.

By JUSTIN GILLIS, New York Times, Septempber 20, 2010

This year’s extreme heat is putting the world’s coral reefs under such severe stress that scientists fear widespread die-offs, endangering not only the richest ecosystems in the ocean but also fisheries that feed millions of people.

From Thailand to Texas, corals are reacting to the heat stress by bleaching, or shedding their color and going into survival mode. Many have already died, and more are expected to do so in coming months. Computer forecasts of water temperature suggest that corals in the Caribbean may undergo drastic bleaching in the next few weeks.

What is unfolding this year is only the second known global bleaching of coral reefs. Scientists are holding out hope that this year will not be as bad, over all, as 1998, the hottest year in the historical record, when an estimated 16 percent of the world’s shallow-water reefs died. But in some places, including Thailand, the situation is looking worse than in 1998.

Scientists say the trouble with the reefs is linked to climate change. For years they have warned that corals, highly sensitive to excess heat, would serve as an early indicator of the ecological distress on the planet caused by the buildup of greenhouse gases.

“I am significantly depressed by the whole situation,” said Clive Wilkinson, director of the Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network, an organization in Australia that is tracking this year’s disaster.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the first eight months of 2010 matched 1998 as the hottest January to August period on record. High ocean temperatures are taxing the organisms most sensitive to them, the shallow-water corals that create some of the world’s most vibrant and colorful seascapes.

Coral reefs occupy a tiny fraction of the ocean, but they harbor perhaps a quarter of all marine species, including a profusion of fish. Often called the rain forests of the sea, they are the foundation not only of important fishing industries but also of tourist economies worth billions.

Drastic die-offs of coral were seen for the first time in 1983 in the eastern Pacific and the Caribbean, during a large-scale weather event known as El Niño. During an El Niño, warm waters normally confined to the western Pacific flow to the east; 2010 is also an El Niño year.

Serious regional bleaching has occurred intermittently since the 1983 disaster. It is clear that natural weather variability plays a role in overheating the reefs, but scientists say it cannot, by itself, explain what has become a recurring phenomenon.

“It is a lot easier for oceans to heat up above the corals’ thresholds for bleaching when climate change is warming the baseline temperatures,” said C. Mark Eakin, who runs a program called Coral Reef Watch for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “If you get an event like El Niño or you just get a hot summer, it’s going to be on top of the warmest temperatures we’ve ever seen.”

Coral reefs are made up of millions of tiny animals, called polyps, that form symbiotic relationships with algae. The polyps essentially act as farmers, supplying the algae with nutrients and a place to live. The algae in turn capture sunlight and carbon dioxide to make sugars that feed the coral polyps.

The captive algae give reefs their brilliant colors. Many reef fish sport fantastical colors and patterns themselves, as though dressing to match their surroundings.

Coral bleaching occurs when high heat and bright sunshine cause the metabolism of the algae to speed out of control, and they start creating toxins. The polyps essentially recoil. “The algae are spat out,” Dr. Wilkinson said.

The corals look white afterward, as though they have been bleached. If temperatures drop, the corals’ few remaining algae can reproduce and help the polyps recover. But corals are vulnerable to disease in their denuded condition, and if the heat stress continues, the corals starve to death.

Even on dead reefs, new coral polyps will often take hold, though the overall ecology of the reef may be permanently altered. The worst case is that a reef dies and never recovers.

In dozens of small island nations and on some coasts of Indonesia and the Philippines, people rely heavily on reef fish for food. When corals die, the fish are not immediately doomed, but if the coral polyps do not recover, the reef can eventually collapse, scientists say, leaving the fishery far less productive.

Research shows that is already happening in parts of the Caribbean, though people there are not as dependent on fishing as those living on Pacific islands.

It will be months before this year’s toll is known for sure. But scientists tracking the fate of corals say they have already seen widespread bleaching in Southeast Asia and the western Pacific, with corals in Thailand, parts of Indonesia and some smaller island nations being hit especially hard earlier this year.

Temperatures have since cooled in the western Pacific, and the immediate crisis has passed there, even as it accelerates in places like the Caribbean, where the waters are still warming. Serious bleaching has been seen recently in the Flower Garden Banks, a marine sanctuary off the Texas-Louisiana border.

In Thailand, “there some signs of recovery in places,” said James True, a biologist at Prince of Songkla University. But in other spots, he said, corals were hit so hard that it was not clear young polyps would be available from nearby areas to repopulate dead reefs.

“The concern we have now is that the bleaching is so widespread that potential source reefs upstream have been affected,” Dr. True said.

Even in a hot year, of course, climate varies considerably from place to place. The water temperatures in the Florida Keys are only slightly above normal this year, and the beloved reefs of that region have so far escaped serious harm.

Parts of the northern Caribbean, including the United States Virgin Islands, saw incipient bleaching this summer, but the tropical storms and hurricanes moving through the Atlantic have cooled the water there and may have saved some corals. Farther south, though, temperatures are still remarkably high, putting many Caribbean reefs at risk.

Summer is only just beginning in the Southern Hemisphere, but water temperatures off Australia are also above normal, and some scientists are worried about the single most impressive reef on earth. The best hope now, Dr. Wilkinson said, is for mild tropical storms that would help to cool Australian waters.

“If we get a poor monsoon season,” he said, “I think we’re in for a serious bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef.”

COAL: Limit on climate, and the catch.

Adam Morton
The Age
September 10, 2010
FOR those who think the worst climate-change projections would become a reality no matter what we do, think again.

According to research published today in the journal Science, global warming can be limited to 1.3 degrees above pre-industrial levels by 2060 – less than the 2-degree rise that UN climate scientists warn is likely to trigger dangerous tipping points.

The catch? We can’t build any new carbon dioxide-emitting power stations or cars. Effective immediately.

The researchers acknowledge this is not realistic, but say it underlines that the most threatening sources of man-made climate change are yet to be built. ”If existing energy infrastructure [power plants, motor vehicles, furnaces] were used for its normal life span and no new devices were built … atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide would peak below 430 parts per million and future warming would be less than 0.7 degrees Celsius [above today],” says the paper, led by Carnegie Institution of Washington academic Steven Davis.

The researchers found locked-in emissions were greatest in the world’s richest countries – the US, western Europe, Japan – and the emerging economic giants, particularly China.

Nearly one quarter of the world’s new electricity generation over the past decade has been coal-fired plant commissioned in Beijing.

Globally, the shift to clean energy sources has been gradual. Since 2000, nearly a third of new power generation has come from burning coal. Another third has been fired by natural gas – less greenhouse gas-intensive, but still a fossil fuel. Carbon dioxide-free energy sources have made up less than one fifth of the new generation. Of that, 17 per cent has been renewable energy – largely solar, wind and hydroelectricity.

Nuclear power, the largest source of installed low-carbon energy, has declined markedly since the 1980s and made up just 2 per cent.

The study only examined industries that emit greenhouse gas directly. Those that encourage people to boost emissions through the products they produce – petrol stations, oil refineries and factories that produce internal combustion engines – were not counted.