National Geographic photographs southern right whales

Amongst the winners of the National Geographic “best wild animal photos of 2008” (link) is this incredible photograph of a diver and a southern right whale, taken in New Zealand. Like most whale populations, the souther right whale was extensively hunted from the mid 18th century up until the early 1970’s, severely depleting the southern Pacific populations around the New Zealand coastal waters . Since the ‘official’ worldwide ban on hunting right whales in 1937, southern right whales began to appear off the coast of New Zealand from the early 1960’s onwards. See the full set of photographs by Brian Skerry over at the National Geographic website (Link)

Australian Government addresses Great Barrier Reef water quality issues

A report released yesterday by the Queensland Premier Anna Bligh showed that water quality on the Great Barrier Reef is not improving, and that further action is needed to reverse the ongoing decline. As part of the Reef Water Quality Protection Plan initiated by the Australian and Queensland governments, the 2007 Water Quality Report is the first step in a four year process, addressing water quality issues such as catchment pressures, marine ecosystem health and land management practices affecting the Queensland coastline and Great Barrier Reef.

Some of the key findings of the report seem to confirm what scientists have previously observed: that over the last 150 years, the catchments adjacent to inshore reefs have been extensively modified for agriculture (e.g. sugar cane), cattle and sheep grazing, tourism, mining and urban development, leading to significant increased in sediments, nutrients and pesticides impacting upon the inshore Great Barrier Reef. From the report, monitoring of priority catchments has shown that:

  • 6.6 million tonnes of sediment are discharged in the reef lagoon annually (four times higher than estimated pre-European settlement levels)
  • 16,600 tonnes of nitrogen are discharged in the reef lagoon annually (five times higher than estimated pre-European settlement levels)
  • 4,180 tonnes of phosphorous are discharged in the reef lagoon annually (four times higher than estimated pre-European settlement levels)

In response to the report, Premier Bligh called for a summit on reef water-quality issues in the next month:

“Work done to date as part of the Plan includes financial incentives to help farmers improve land management practices and targeting diffuse pollution from broadscale land use,”

“However, since 2003 many external factors have deteriorated including the effects of climate change, coral bleaching and ocean acidification.

“It has increased the urgency for more work to be done.

“I have discussed this matter with the Prime Minister and met with Environment Minister Peter Garrett.

“We agreed that the first step will be a joint Commonwealth-state reef water quality summit at Parliament House at the end of this month,” she said.

“The summit will bring together the best minds from the environmental and scientific fields to study the latest data and discuss what urgent action we need to take to prevent further damage to – or worse – the complete demise of the reef.” (Link to Media Statement)

The Environment Minister Peter Garrett also acknowledges the issue:

“We’ve specifically committed $200 million to reef rescue knowing that we need to provide additional resources, additional investment, and additional effort to safeguard what is one of our most important national and international natural resources and treasures” (Link)

I look forward to the proposed summit and applaud the Queensland government for taking such forward action in addressing water quality issues – it seems for Peter Garrett (pictured above left in typical Midnight Oil attire) there is no excuse!

A changing climate of opinion? The Economist reports on geoscale engineering to avert dangerous climate change

The Economist, September 4th 2008

Some scientists think climate change needs a more radical approach. As well as trying to curb greenhouse-gas emissions, they have plans to re-engineer the Earth. There is a branch of science fiction that looks at the Earth’s neighbours, Mars and Venus, and asks how they might be made habitable. The answer is planetary engineering. The Venusian atmosphere is too thick. It creates a large greenhouse effect and cooks a planet that is, in any case, closer to the sun than the Earth is to even higher temperatures than it would otherwise experience. Mars suffers from the opposite fault. A planet more distant from the sun than Earth is also has an atmosphere too thin to trap what little of the sun’s heat is available. So, fiddle with the atmospheres of these neighbours and you open new frontiers for human settlement and far-fetched story lines.

It is an intriguing idea. It may even come to pass, though probably not in the lifetime of anyone now reading such stories. But what is more worrying—and more real—is the idea that such planetary engineering may be needed to make the Earth itself habitable by humanity, and that it may be needed in the near future. Reality has a way of trumping art, and human-induced climate change is very real indeed. So real that some people are asking whether science fiction should now be converted into science fact.

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Drilling for Oil Way, Way Offshore


Time Magazine, 18th August

Anyone who ever doubted the centrality of oil and natural gas to the global economy should have been convinced by the political events of the past few months. As petroleum prices have risen to record levels, the spiraling price of gasoline has become issue number one in the American Presidential election. That’s prompted Republican candidate John McCain to make expanded offshore oil drilling a focus of his campaign. For years, offshore drilling has been illegal outside parts of the Gulf of Mexico due to environmental concerns, with public support. But that has reversed in recent months, with even green Californians moving in favor of drilling. Barring a sudden national move to adopt alternative fuels, we can expect that reversal to continue — as oil prices rise, so will pressure to "drill here and drill now," as McCain has put it.

Whatever that means for offshore drilling in the U.S., the real victims of the global thirst for petroleum will be overseas — areas that, until the recent price rise, were too remote and forbidding to be worth drilling. Case in point: the vast, impenetrable western reaches of the Amazon. Touching parts of Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Columbia and Brazil, the western Amazon has remained relatively unscathed compared to the eastern stretches of the rainforest, which have been ravaged by logging. With few roads, the western Amazon has remained so undisturbed that there are still new indigenous tribes living somewhere inside the jungle who have never encountered the outside world.

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Species already gone – Herald Sun

Herald Sun, 13th June 2008

Entire species may have already been wiped off the face of the Earth because of climate change, scientists believe.

But due to a lack of research – caused by minimal funding from governments – it may be some time before it becomes known which species, a CSIRO marine biologist says.

On the back of a study that criticised the lack of funding oceanic research has received, Australian marine biologist Elvira Poloczanska said climate change could have already killed entire populations.

“I think it’s possible … we haven’t even discovered all the animals in the ocean,” Dr Poloczanska said.

She said that compared to land animals, marine creatures responded to changes in climate more quickly, but research into ocean life was limited.

University of Queensland marine scientist Ove Hoegh-Guldberg said it would not be long until new species of animals would be discovered – after they have been wiped out.

“We know that they’re out there because we keep on discovering new species … that’s going to be one of the tragedies of our current pathway,” Professor Hoegh-Guldberg said.

“It’s a horrific thing to think about – an undiscovered gem disappears before we find it.

“But it’s already happening.”

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Coral Calcification and Photosynthesis in a CO2-Enriched World of the Future

I must admit, the first time I saw this article I nearly fell out of my chair. Entitled "Coral Calcification and Photosynthesis in a CO2-Enriched World of the Future", the article attempts to make sense of a recent publication by Lydie Herfort et al entitled "Biocarbonate stimulation of calcification and photosynthesis in two hermatypic corals" by providing a stereotypical ‘skeptic’ view:

"As ever more pertinent evidence accumulates, however, the true story appears to be just the opposite of what these climate alarmists continue to tell us."

Odd how that it is always the exception to the rule is the ‘true’ story – ignoring the vast quantity of peer-reviewed literature on the topic. A bit of background here: as part of the "Centre for the Study of Carbon Dioxide and Global Change", the Idso family (Craig, Keith and Sherwood) publish a pseudo-journal entitled CO2 Science (see here for their ‘interpretations’ on other recent coral publications). A little digging reveals that the Centre (of which Craig is the chairman and founder and Sherwood the president) is part funded by Exxon (amongst other sources). Not that this in itself is much of an issue (or indeed much of a surprise), as Sherwood Idso views it:

"It is self-evident, for example, that one need not know from whence a person’s or organization’s funding comes in order to evaluate the reasonableness of what they say, if – and this is a very important qualification – one carefully studies the writings of people on both sides of the issue"

The key problem here is that the Idso et al seem to have a fairly obvious agenda, which couldn’t be further from addressing both sides of the issue:

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Differences in opinions over Coral Sea fisheries

Compare and contrast these two news reports on the proposed Coral Sea marine park (Read the full report here):

THE Coral Sea must be declared a protected zone to save sharks and some other marine species from rapid extinction, says the conservation group WWF. The organisation says two separate reports show many Coral Sea marine species are isolated and vulnerable to overfishing.

“For this reason alone, we are renewing our calls to the federal government to declare the entire Coral Sea a marine protected area,” WWF spokeswoman Gilly Llewellyn said.

“Without protection, these species are highly vulnerable to human impacts which could easily and quickly wipe them out,” Dr Llewellyn said.

Coral Sea needs protection‘ – The Australian, 22nd May

The Queensland Seafood Industry Association says the Coral Sea needs a sustainable management plan and not a complete ban on fishing.

Association president Neil Green says some environmental groups are out of touch.

“We’ve got the world starving for fish or for food in particular and we’ve got these groups saying we shouldn’t access that resource, we should just let them die of natural causes and that’s just not acceptable to an industry that means so much to Queensland,” he said.

Seafood industry slams WWF calls for fishing ban‘ – ABC News, 22nd May

Caribbean tourism facing up to US$300m loss as coral reefs die

Jamaica Gleaner, May 2nd 2008

Coral reef degradation could result in annual losses of US$100 million to $300 million to the Caribbean tourism industry by 2015, marine scientists are predicting.

Rick MacPherson, director of conservation programmes with Coral Reef Alliance (CORAL), said at a Turks and Caicos conference this week that almost two thirds of the region’s reefs were under threat. Coastal development, he said, threatens 33 per cent of the reefs, while land-based sources of pollution have harmed 35 per cent, and over-fishing more than 60 per cent.

“Caribbean reefs have suffered an 80 per cent decline in cover during the past three decades, while 80 to 90 per cent of elkhorn and staghorn coral is gone,” MacPherson said in his presentation at the 10th annual Sustainable Tourism Conference (STC-10).

Senior research associate from Oxford University’s Centre for the Environment, Dr Murray Simpson, another conference speaker, said this new reality includes a potential geographic and seasonal shift in tourism demand which will swing business away from the region. Research in 2004 showed that 70 per cent of coral reefs were at risk of collapse because of human pressures, up from 58 per cent in 2002. Underscoring that only a very tiny portion of the sea bottom is covered by coral reefs, 0.09 per cent, with a total area about the size of Arizona or the United Kingdom, the experts say they are home or nursery ground for 25 per cent of all known marine species.

MacPherson said the dive tourism industry in the Caribbean would be the hardest hit, should the quality of the dive experience be diminished. He further warned that the effects of such a loss would be felt not only by tourism but sectors such as medicine.

“Fifty per cent of current cancer medication research focuses on marine organisms found on coral reefs,” he said. “The drug AZT, which has prolonged the lives of thousands suffering from AIDS, comes through sponge species from coral reefs.”

The world’s coral reefs, he said, yield economic value of more than US$100 billion per year from food alone.

“They are the primary source of protein for over one billion people,” said the conservationist. “Coastal tourism generates 85 per cent of all tourism – a US$385 billion dollar industry.”

However, there is, he says, an economic disconnect in the annual inverstment in research, monitoring and management, which is less than US$100 million.

“The holy crap factor” – a note from Caspar Henderson

For a while I had a T-shirt from The Onion which read Holy Sh*t! Man Walks on F*cking Moon. It made a lot of us laugh (and it was almost certainly stolen by a man called Pete Lucas. Pete, if you’re out there, please tell me this isn’t so).

Related, but different, is what Mitchell Anderson, blogging a paper by Werner Kurz et al in Nature, calls the holy crap factor (Anderson is Canadian, hence the politeness).

Mistah Kurz, he bring bad news: in this case that warming in western Canada, likely to be anthropogenic, has unleashed a chain of events that will release close to one billion tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere by 2020. The ‘holy crap’ part is that this may be just one several unplanned accelerations of climate change by human agency.

(Read more)