Does humanity have the foresight to save itself?

Mark Lynas is well known for his excellent book Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet from 2007. In a recent edition of the Guardian (June 12 2008), he reports on the outcome of the Stockholm Network think tank examining current and future responses to climate change. The think tank concluded that the present scenario, which is called “agree and ignore”, and one which is referred to as “Kyoto Plus”, will not result in emission reductions before 2030.

The consensus within the modeling community is that we will exceed 450 ppm if global emissions do not begin to decline within the next 8 years. At this point, as argued here and elsewhere, we will lose coral reefs, wet tropical rain forests and many other high biodiversity systems. We will almost certainly enter in a period of very dangerous climate change at this point. Food and water security will decrease and conflicts will escalate.

The third scenario is termed “step change” and is particularly interesting and plausible. In this scenario, major catastrophes driven by climate change over the next decade lead to robust international commitments to cap emissions. Interestingly, this is done by regulating fossil fuel heavy companies as opposed to individuals and governments. Whatever the mechanism, however, many of us believe that this type of shock maybe required before any real action begins – a result of the apparently eternally optimistic nature of humankind.

Pity it has to be this way. Why can’t we just wake now and avoid all the pain? Read Mark Lynas’s account of why this will not happen.

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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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Rising ocean acidity threatens low-lying islands – Reuters

A woman sits atop a section of a dyke built to protect the tiny island from the ravages of the sea during a sunrise in the Maldives capital Male in this July 12, 2001 file photo.Reuters, 1st June 2008

Rising acidity in the ocean caused by seas absorbing greenhouse carbon dioxide could make low-lying island nations like Kiribati and the Maldives more vulnerable to storms as their coral reefs struggle to survive, say scientists.

Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is at its highest level in the past 650,000 years, possible 23 million years, and half has now been dissolved into the oceans making them more acidic.

Ocean acidification, which is projected to spread extensively north from the Antarctic by 2100, makes it difficult or impossible for some animals, like coral and starfish, to produce their shells and skeletons.

“If ocean acidification weakens the structure of reef-forming corals and algae, tropical systems (islands) will be more vulnerable to physical impacts from storms and cyclones,” said a new report by some of the world’s leading marine scientists.

“By 2100, it is expected that some reefs will become marginal and reef calcification will decline,” said the report, by the Antarctic Climate & Ecosystems Cooperative Research Centre, released on Monday.

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The ‘giants’ of coral reefs

I thought i’d post this this spectacular image from an article from the Taipei Times quoting Dr Allen Chen on the recent increases in sponge overgrowth affecting reefs off the coast of Taiwan. The photograph appears to be a massive coral (Porites spp), affected by what the researchers are calling the “black plague“. For perspective compare the size of the two divers with the coral beneath them – these massive creature are the behemoths of the oceans, with a single colonies recorded over 7m in width. The largest of these corals are estimated to be up to 700 years old, often recording numerous environmental events such as floods, temperature and even oil spills.

“UQ is the climate for a Smart State hat trick”

I didn’t write this but thought you might like to know of my good luck!

UQ News, 21st May

A University of Queensland expert who pioneered research linking climate change projections with coral reef distress is the 2008 Smart State Premier’s Fellow.

Professor Ove Hoegh-Guldberg is the third UQ researcher to win the government’s top science prize, now in its third year.

He was one of the world’s first scientists to show how projected changes in global climate threaten coral reefs including Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.

“For some time now Professor Hoegh-Guldberg has been saying that unless we act to protect the Great Barrier Reef, we could see a situation where in 30 years’ time we won’t have much of our wonderful Reef left,” Premier Anna Bligh said as she announced the award at UQ in Brisbane today (May 21, 2008).

With Professor Hoegh-Guldberg leading a scientific session at an important climate change and oceans conference in Spain, Premier Bligh presented the award to his partner in research and life, Dr Sophie Dove.

The five-year fellowship gives a boost of more than $2.5 million to Great Barrier Reef research by Professor Hoegh-Guldberg and a large team. The Queensland Government’s $1.25 million contribution is matched by UQ, and the Great Barrier Reef Foundation, the Reef and Rainforest Research Centre and the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority are also sponsors.
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Nudibranch photography (National Geographic)



Check out the recent National Geographic article on nudibranchs (small colourful snail-like invertebrates that inhabit coral reefs) – there are some astounding images of these fascinating underwater creatures (link to photo gallery).


Nudibranchs crawl through life as slick and naked as a newborn. Snail kin whose ancestors shrugged off the shell millions of years ago, they are just skin, muscle, and organs sliding on trails of slime across ocean floors and coral heads the world over.


Found from sandy shallows and reefs to the murky seabed nearly a mile down, nudibranchs thrive in waters both warm and cold and even around billowing deep-sea vents. Members of the gastropod class, and more broadly the mollusks, the mostly finger-size morsels live fully exposed, their gills forming tufts on their backs. (Nudibranch means “naked gill,” a feature that separates them from other sea slugs.) Although they can release their muscular foothold to tumble in a current—a few can even swim freely—they are rarely in a hurry. (Read More)

The Starck truth? Starck naked is more like it…

So it seems like Walther Starck (with his post graduate training and “professional experience in fisheries biology“) has come running to the rescue with a critique entitled “The Great Barrier Reef prophets of doom”, in response to a recent online piece by Charlie Veron (“The plight of the Great Barrier Reef”):

Although Charlie Veron is a highly respected coral taxonomist many of the statements he made regarding climate change are at best doubtful. Like most biologists he appears to have accepted the “consensus” view of catastrophic climate change without being aware of a vast body of peer reviewed non-biological research that casts doubt on or directly refutes all of the major climatic claims he asserts as unqualified facts.

Good to see Starck again criticising someone else on the lack of peer-reviewed research whilst failing to cite anything in response. Perhaps a reference or two from the peer reviewed scientific literature would help us evaluate the veracity of his claims.

Living, subfossil and fossil corals all indicate that bleaching associated with high temperatures is a common occurrence in reef corals. There is no evidence to indicate that either the frequency or severity of such events has increased.

Huh? Where are the papers to back up those rather sweeping statements?

The fact that Starck responds to Veron’s comment “(Corals)… once survived in a world where carbon dioxide from volcanoes and methane was much higher than anything predicted today. But that was 50 million years ago. The accumulation of carbon dioxide then took millions of years, not just a few decades.” by using the throw-away sentence “Many current reef coral genera survived this event” highlights his complete ignorance of the geological history of reefs. I’m fascinated by statements like these – corals have survived throughout geological history (over 500 million years) and have indeed gone through several extinction events. However, what interests me is that this fact is often used as support for coral longevity. Don’t worry about the loss of entire reef systems (as we are seeing world-wide) – Starck implies that as long as some species of coral within a genera survive, we can ignore the issue. Even though reefs as we know them today (and as Charlie points out) will be long gone – “survival” simply isn’t enough.

It seems like the same old story all over again. As a final point worthy of mention, Walther doesn’t seem to have a full grasp of the scientific literature:

Although there is credible evidence for past carbon dioxide levels greater than any increase we may experience before all fossil fuel is consumed there is no evidence to indicate that past such increases took place much slower than the present one or that slower or faster would make any real difference

Starck again confuses the rate of change with the limit of change. I would direct him to Table 1 in our recent Science article. Here we calculated the rate of change over the past 420,000 years and found that the rate of change over the past 136 years was up to 1000 fold higher any previous rate of change. Stands to reason given that it took 30,000 years for atmospheric carbon dioxide to change by 100 ppm in the past, and we have just changed the atmosphere by a similar amount in only 100 years!


Online web seminars detail the future of coral reefs

As part of the International Year of the Reef, the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies has uploaded a series of online seminars from the the ‘Coral Reef Futures’ symposium (held in Canberra late last year) as a way to convey the pressing issues surrounding reefs today to the general public. See the full news brief here, and check out the links to the videos below on a wide range of topics, from climate change and anthropogenic threats to sustainable management and the economy of reefs. There really are some great presentations in here from some of the worlds leading scientists on coral reefs – I strongly urge you to explore some of these seminars.


  Climate change and coral reefs
  44.8 mb 24min Ten things you need to know about Climate Change and coral reefs Ove Hoegh-Guldberg
  42.8 mb 24min Ocean acidification and coral reefs Malcolm McCulloch
  46.5 mb 27min The risk of coral bleaching to coral reef biodiversity Morgan Pratchett
  44.6 mb 26min Can reefs respond quickly enough? Line Bay
  48.4 mb 28min Rising Plague: Diseases in marine organisms and climate change Bette Willis
  47.7 mb 26min What next? Managing the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park under climate change Laurence McCook
  New paradigms for ecosystem-based management of coral reefs  
  32.2 mb 18min How to kill a coral reef: Lessons from the Caribbean Bob Steneck
  46.4 mb 26min Anticipating ecological surprises: Managing reef resilience Terry Hughes
  37.6 mb 21min Blast from the Past: Messages for reef management from the fossil record John Pandolfi
  24.1 mb 14min A role for aquaculture in ecosystem restoration? Rocky de Nys
  28.6 mb 18min Coral reefs and the nascent economics of resilience John Quiggin
  Sustainable Reef Resources  
  40.7 mb 23min Marine protected areas: What they can and cannot do Geoff Jones
  33.2 mb 19min Marine protected areas: Will they provide resilience through reduced stress? Mark McCormick
  36.6 mb 21min Connectivity, climate change and the future for reef fishes Philip Munday
  41.7 mb 22min Power to the people: 25 years of reef management in the Philippines Garry Russ
  37.2 mb 22min Managing top predators: Reef shark fisheries Howard Choat
  Catchments to Reefs: Integrated planning, management and governance  
  84.6 mb 47min Australian coral reefs: Adaptive management of critical natural resources John Tanzer
  76 mb 42min Muddy Waters: Water quality and run-off Jon Brodie
  40.6 mb 22min Before and after the Asian tsunami: Lessons for coastal management Andrew Baird
  46.6 mb 26min Capacity building on our doorstep: Governance of near-shore marine systems in Melanesia Simon Foale
  33 mb 17min Conservation in a changing climate Josh Cinner

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.