“Climate change: a self-fulfilling prophecy” – Monbiot

After reading that Barack Obama may be forced to delay signing the Copenhagen climate change deal due to the scale of opposition in the US Congress, I can only conclude that ignorance and complacency in our policy makers continues to reign supreme. When will we wake up to the fact that tweaking the business-as-usual approach will do nothing to prevent the catastrophes that loom?  Without a directed and massive reorganization of the way we generate energy, we are headed for disaster.  Despite this, many policy makers pretend that there are good reasons for delaying action. As George Monbiot reiterates yet again, the cost of doing nothing is far less than the costs that will swamp our societies if climate change continues to run out of control.

Quietly in public, loudly in private, climate scientists everywhere are saying the same thing: it’s over. The years in which more than two degrees of global warming could have been prevented have passed, the opportunities squandered by denial and delay. On current trajectories we’ll be lucky to get away with four degrees. Mitigation (limiting greenhouse gas pollution) has failed; now we must adapt to what nature sends our way. If we can.

This, at any rate, was the repeated whisper at the climate change conference in Copenhagen last week. It’s more or less what Bob Watson, the environment department’s chief scientific adviser, has been telling the British government. It is the obvious if unspoken conclusion of scores of scientific papers. Recent work by scientists at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, for example, suggests that even global cuts of 3% a year, starting in 2020, could leave us with four degrees of warming by the end of the century. At the moment emissions are heading in the opposite direction at roughly the same rate. If this continues, what does it mean? Six? Eight? Ten degrees? Who knows?

Faced with such figures, I can’t blame anyone for throwing up his hands. But before you succumb to this fatalism, let me talk you through the options. (Read More)

Ebay a bid to win the naming rights to a new species of shrimp


Go check out the Australian Marine Conservation Society’s latest fundraising quest over on ebay, and bid for the exclusive rights to name a new deep water shrimp species from south-west Australia! The bid is currently at $1102.00, which is an impressive effort having started at 99c. The society do a great job for conservation of Australia’s marine environment – read more about their work here. Keep any eye on the auction in the meanwhile, which is due to end on the 31st March (permanent link to the auction here).

In early April this year, a small spotted shrimp discovered deep in the waters of south west Australia will be given a new scientific name. PhD student Anna McCallum, who discovered the shrimp, has generously chosen to auction the naming rights of the shrimp and dedicate all profits from the auction towards marine conservation. This is a rare and exciting opportunity!

This newly described species is a mysterious little creature living in the cool dark depths of our South-west oceans. Despite living 400m below the surface, this shrimp species has a jewel-like appearance. Morphing from yellow to green, this spectacular shrimp is covered in scarlet spots and sports a toothed crest across the top of its body, which gives it the delightful appearance of having a mohawk. It is in the group or genus of shrimps known as Lebbeus, and is waiting for you to place your bid and choose a unique species name that will go down in scientific history (Read More).

Widespread coral mortality associated with river flood discharge in the Great Barrier Reef

Satellite image from 15 January 2009. Image courtesy of Lachlan McKinna, JCU.

Image 1: Satellite image from 15 January 2009. Image courtesy of Lachlan McKinna, JCU.

Heavy rainfall has been occurring in northern Queensland since December causing widespread flooding of coastal rivers (Burdekin, Haughton, Bohle, Herbert, Tully, O’Connell and others) as well as inland catchments. In some places all-time records were broken, especially around Townsville, and the flows in the Herbert and Burdekin were both far above average (more rain may occur as well).

The river discharge events are being tracked by satellite imagery in collaboration with Arnold Dekker’s group, CSIRO, Canberra and Lachlan McKinna in Michelle Devlin’s flood plume project at JCU. The plumes are noticeable as sediment rich in the early stages (January – image1) and extending out to near Dunk Island but colour rich (chlorophyll and coloured dissolved organic matter) in the latter stages (February – image 2) extending completely across the main reef and into the Coral Sea.

The plumes are being sampled via the GBRMPA – Reef and Rainforest Research Centre, Marine Monitoring Program run by the Catchment to Reef Group, ACTFR, JCU (Michelle Devlin coordinator) and AIMS (Britta Schaffelke). Sampling from both fixed installations and vessel surveys have been going since December.

Satellite image from 18 February 2009. Image courtesy of Arnold Dekker, CSIRO.

Image 2: from 18 February 2009. Image courtesy of Arnold Dekker, CSIRO.

Incidentally to the plume monitoring, reports from many scientists working on the reef in the area between Mackay and Cooktown have been coming in of coral ‘bleaching’ and mortality, ‘fresh’ water layers, turbid water layers, green water and stratified water. Corals in poor condition have been reported by Katharina Fabricius (Dunk Island and surrounds), Sheriden Morris (Frankland group), Angus Thompson (Pandora, Palms, Whitsundays), Michelle Devlin, Jane Waterhouse and David Haynes (Dunk and surrounds), Britta Schaffelke (Franklands, High, Fitzroy, Pandora and others), Ray Berkelmans (Magnetic Island), Stephen Lewis and Brett Baker (Burdekin plume).


Image 3: Coral mortality at Russell Island (Franklands group) 24 February 2009. Photo: Britta Schaffelke, AIMS.

Images of white/dead coral from Franklands can be seen in image 3 and white bommies from surface near Dunk Island and the Family Group in image 4. Ongoing monitoring is being coordinated by David Wachenfeld and his team at GBRMPA.

Coral mortality and ‘bleaching’ is widespread on inner-shelf reefs in the above region. I put ‘bleaching’ in commas as this event is probably not mostly normal bleaching i.e. expulsion of zooxanthellae, but rather actual death of the coral organism. This is obviously somewhat speculative but consistent with observations of coral mortality in low salinity water by van Woesik and others after similar events in 1991 in the Keppel Islands.


Image 4: White coral bommies at Coombe Island (Family Group) 5 March 2009. Photo: Jane Waterhouse, ACTFR.

The coral mortality is no doubt associated with the long period (more than 8 weeks) of low salinity flood water but other factors such as elevated suspended sediment, nutrients and pesticides may also be important. Water temperatures were also above average in the period before the floods and an element of combined stress may also be important. Disentangling the separate and combined effects of the multiple stresses and their role in the coral mortality will be a major challenge.

Rare form of albinism breeds ‘pink’ dolphin


Multiple news sources are reporting on a rare form of albinism in a bottlenose dolphin from Lake Calcasieu in Louisana, America. Apparently the dolphin (imaginatively named ‘Pinky’, which I guess is better than ‘Flipper’) was first spotted in 2007 in the saltwater inland estuary, and is part of a healthy and active pod of bottlenose dolphins.  Caused a lack of melanin production in the eyes and skin, albinism is present across a whole group of organisms (see examples in penguins, sea turtles, alligators and humans), although is incredibly rare – about 1 in 17,000 humans are born with a form of albinism. Whilst ‘Pinky’ stands out from the crowd for fairly obvious reasons (pictured above with its dark grey mother), interestingly the other known albino dolphins (only 14 have ever been spotted in the wild) are pure white.

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Update (12/03/09):

Thanks to Claire for pointing out that Hong Kong sustains large populations of ‘pink’ dolphins, and that this phenomena might not actually be all that rare at all. See here for video footage of pink dolphins in Hong Kong Harbour. Furthermore, according to a Washington Post article:

Technically, Hong Kong’s famous pink dolphins are white. One of the first things Ho explained to us is that when they swim, blood rushes to the surface of their pale skin, lending them a rosy glow. “Just like when we exercise and our faces get red,” she said. “They’re blushing.”

Two new fish identified from Indo-Pacific coral reefs

a20087951741New fish is psychadelica” (Seattle Times, Feb 28th 2008)

There are 320 known species of anglerfish, and Ted Pietsch can describe each one down to the number of spines on its dorsal fin. So, when the picture from Indonesia flopped into his e-mail, his pulse started pounding.

“I pretty much freaked out,” the University of Washington fish biologist said.

With its flattened face, undulating stripes and turquoise-rimmed eyes that peer straight ahead, this fish looked like something out of a fever dream — and like nothing Pietsch had ever seen before. Now, after a year of lab work, DNA analysis and a race halfway around the globe, he and his colleagues have confirmed the find as a new species. And they have given the 4-inch fish a name that fits its style: psychedelica.

“This is such an amazingly different fish that people immediately get excited when they see it,” Pietsch said.

The first to lay eyes on the new species were commercial divers on the small island of Ambon, at the eastern edge of the Indonesian archipelago. The owners of Maluku Divers discreetly circulated photos early last year to see if anyone could identify the unfamiliar fish. The photos made their way to Jack Randall, a famed ichthyologist at Honolulu’s Bishop Museum. (Read more)

afangblenny-470x01Fang Blenny has coat of many colours” (SMH, March 3rd 2008)

A MASTER of disguise has been uncovered living in Australian waters. The blue-striped fangblenny is the first fish found to be able to change its colour at will to mimic a variety of other fish.

Its repertoire of colour changes includes olive, orange, and black and electric blue, and it appears to use colour vision to achieve its incognito exploits, new research shows.

University of Queensland biologist, Karen Cheney, said that her examination of the little fish’s eyes showed they should be able to detect different hues. They also have a habit of curling their tail around to touch their head, so they can see their body. “It is possible that fangblennies can view some of their own colouration,” Dr Cheney said.

The only other creature known to be able to imitate other species is the mimic octopus, which alters its colour and shape to resemble lionfish, flatfish and sea snakes. Dr Cheney and her colleagues had studied the habits of fangblennies on coral reefs in Australia and Indonesia. Their results are published in the journal Proceedings Of The Royal Society.

For food, fangblennies dart out and attack larger reef fish, nipping off tiny pieces of their fins, scales or mucus. In olive mode they tend to hang out in shoals of similarly coloured damselfish, and in orange mode they mingle with yellow anthias. (Read More)

Politics of climate change in Australia

It’s been a busy few weeks in the media. Hilary Clinton and her climate change envoy met with officials in China, Obama says that the upcoming climate bill is needed to ‘save our planet’, the ‘danger threat’ of global warming was increased, Dr Hansen took the final leap from scientist to activist, and NASA’s newly launched carbon tracking satellite came to an abrupt end as it crashed into the Pacific Ocean.

However, nothing seems to beat news from home soil. In a week where the Australian government announced the emissions trading scheme (which plans to reduce emissions by 5 to 15 per cent before 2020) is full steam ahead, Australian Liberal Member of Parliament Dr Dennis Jensen (a well known climate skeptic, who holds a PhD in the physics of ceramics) managed to violate Godwin’s law by pointing to Adolf Hitler as a classic example of how scientists (and therefore climate change) can be wrong.

“Albert Einstein was very much criticised by Hitler, and Hitler actually had a group of 100 top scientists in Germany write a book called 100 scientists against Einstein,” Dr Jensen told reporters in Canberra.

“Einstein was asked: ‘Doesn’t it bother you Dr Einstein that you’ve got so many scientists against you?’

“And he said: `It doesn’t take 100 scientists to prove me wrong, it takes a single fact’.”

James Hansen: Coal-fired power stations are death factories. Close them

The Observer, Sunday 15th February:

A year ago, I wrote to Gordon Brown asking him to place a moratorium on new coal-fired power plants in Britain. I have asked the same of Angela Merkel, Barack Obama, Kevin Rudd and other leaders. The reason is this – coal is the single greatest threat to civilisation and all life on our planet.

The climate is nearing tipping points. Changes are beginning to appear and there is a potential for explosive changes, effects that would be irreversible, if we do not rapidly slow fossil-fuel emissions over the next few decades. As Arctic sea ice melts, the darker ocean absorbs more sunlight and speeds melting. As the tundra melts, methane, a strong greenhouse gas, is released, causing more warming. As species are exterminated by shifting climate zones, ecosystems can collapse, destroying more species.

The public, buffeted by weather fluctuations and economic turmoil, has little time to analyse decadal changes. How can people be expected to evaluate and filter out advice emanating from those pushing special interests? How can people distinguish between top-notch science and pseudo-science?

Those who lead us have no excuse – they are elected to guide, to protect the public and its best interests. They have at their disposal the best scientific organisations in the world, such as the Royal Society and the US National Academy of Sciences. Only in the past few years did the science crystallise, revealing the urgency. Our planet is in peril. If we do not change course, we’ll hand our children a situation that is out of their control. One ecological collapse will lead to another, in amplifying feedbacks.

The amount of carbon dioxide in the air has already risen to a dangerous level. The pre-industrial carbon dioxide amount was 280 parts per million (ppm). Humans, by burning coal, oil and gas, have increased this to 385 ppm; it continues to grow by about 2 ppm per year.

Earth, with its four-kilometre-deep oceans, responds only slowly to changes of carbon dioxide. So the climate will continue to change, even if we make maximum effort to slow the growth of carbon dioxide. Arctic sea ice will melt away in the summer season within the next few decades. Mountain glaciers, providing fresh water for rivers that supply hundreds of millions of people, will disappear – practically all of the glaciers could be gone within 50 years – if carbon dioxide continues to increase at current rates. Coral reefs, harbouring a quarter of ocean species, are threatened.

The greatest danger hanging over our children and grandchildren is initiation of changes that will be irreversible on any time scale that humans can imagine. If coastal ice shelves buttressing the west Antarctic ice sheet continue to disintegrate, the sheet could disgorge into the ocean, raising sea levels by several metres in a century. Such rates of sea level change have occurred many times in Earth’s history in response to global warming rates no higher than those of the past 30 years. Almost half of the world’s great cities are located on coastlines.

The most threatening change, from my perspective, is extermination of species. Several times in Earth’s history, rapid global warming occurred, apparently spurred by amplifying feedbacks. In each case, more than half of plant and animal species became extinct. New species came into being over tens and hundreds of thousands of years. But these are time scales and generations that we cannot imagine. If we drive our fellow species to extinction, we will leave a far more desolate planet for our descendants than the world we inherited from our elders.

Clearly, if we burn all fossil fuels, we will destroy the planet we know. Carbon dioxide would increase to 500 ppm or more. We would set the planet on a course to the ice-free state, with sea level 75 metres higher. Climatic disasters would occur continually. The tragedy of the situation, if we do not wake up in time, is that the changes that must be made to stabilise the atmosphere and climate make sense for other reasons. They would produce a healthier atmosphere, improved agricultural productivity, clean water and an ocean providing fish that are safe to eat. (Read more)

Obama’s energy secretary outlines dire climate change scenario – The Guardian

The Guardian has a fascinating article on Steve Chu, the Nobel laureate physicist appointed as the Secretary for Energy under the Obama administration. Chu has been a long time advocate for alternative energy sources and nuclear power, and is a member of the Copenhagen Climate Council, established to help promote global awareness of the upcoming UN climate summit in Copenhagen later this year. Listen to the audio discussion below by Suzanne Goldberg, or click below the jump for the full article.


Steve Chu’s warning the clearest sign to date of the greening of America’s political class under Obama:

Unless there is timely action on climate change, California’s agricultural bounty could be reduced to a dust bowl and its cities disappear, Barack Obama’s energy secretary said yesterday.

The apocalyptic scenario sketched out by Steven Chu, the Nobel laureate appointed as energy secretary, was the clearest sign to date of the greening of America’s political class under the new president.

In blunt language, Chu said Americans had yet to fully understand the urgency of dealing with climate change. “I don’t think the American public has gripped in its gut what could happen,” he told the Los Angeles Times in his first interview since taking the post. “We’re looking at a scenario where there’s no more agriculture in California. I don’t actually see how they can keep their cities going.”

Chu’s doomsday descriptions were seen yesterday as further evidence that, after eight years of denial under George Bush, the Obama White House recognises the severity of climate change. (Read more)

Monaco Declaration by scientists urges ambitious, urgent plans to cut emissions drastically

155 scientists from 26 countries have issued a declaration on the severe threat posed by ocean acidification following the 2nd symposium on “The Ocean in a High-CO2 World” held on 6-9 October 2008 at the Oceanography Museum of Monaco.

The Monaco Declaration, issued on 30 January 2009, states:

Ocean acidification is accelerating and severe damages are imminent
Currently the average concentration of atmospheric CO2 is 385 parts per million (ppm) [and increasing] At that 560-ppm level, it is expected that coral calcification rates would decline by about one-third. Yet even before that happens, formation of many coral reefs is expected to slow to the point that reef erosion will dominate. Reefs would no longer be sustainable. By the time that atmospheric CO2 reaches 450 ppm, it is projected that large areas of the polar oceans will have become corrosive to shells of key marine calcifiers.

Unfortunately, despite these specific findings, the policy recommendations made by the Declaration are vague and do not state a quantitative level to stabilise atmospheric carbon dioxide that will avoid significant impacts to the marine ecosystem.

The Declaration merely urged policymakers to develop “ambitious, urgent plans to cut emissions drastically” as one of four types of qualitative initiatives.

The Declaration is one of several made by marine scientists in recent years on the threat of climate change and ocean acidification, such as the Consensus Declaration on Coral Reef Futures issued by 50 Australian scientists from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies in 2007.
Some previous statements by similar international symposia have been more specific and suggested quantitative stabilisation targets. The Third International Tropical Marine Ecosystem Management Symposium in Mexico in October 2006 and the International Coral Reef Initiative General Meeting held in Japan in April 2007 stated that the actions required to support reef resilience to climate change include:

Limit climate change to ensure that further increases in sea temperature are limited to 2°C above preindustrial levels and ocean carbonate ion concentrations do not fall below 200 mol. kg-1.

The Monaco Declaration adds to the calls for urgent action to address the threats of climate change and ocean acidification but the vagueness of its recommendations means it is unlikely to alter national policies in this area.

Long lasting impacts of climate change

Long Droughts, Rising Seas Predicted Despite Future CO2 Curbs

Washington Post (27th Jan) – Greenhouse gas levels currently expected by mid-century will produce devastating long-term droughts and a sea-level rise that will persist for 1,000 years regardless of how well the world curbs future emissions of carbon dioxide, an international team of scientists reported yesterday.

Top climate researchers from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Switzerland and France said their analysis shows that carbon dioxide will remain near peak levels in the atmosphere far longer than other greenhouse gases, which dissipate relatively quickly.

“I think you have to think about this stuff as more like nuclear waste than acid rain: The more we add, the worse off we’ll be,” NOAA senior scientist Susan Solomon told reporters in a conference call. “The more time that we take to make decisions about carbon dioxide, the more irreversible climate change we’ll be locked into.” (Read More)

Report: Some climate damage already irreversible

Associated Press (27th Jan)–  Many damaging effects of climate change are already basically irreversible, researchers declared Monday, warning that even if carbon emissions can somehow be halted temperatures around the globe will remain high until at least the year 3000.

“People have imagined that if we stopped emitting carbon dioxide the climate would go back to normal in 100 years, 200 years; that’s not true,” climate researcher Susan Solomon said in a teleconference.

Solomon, of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Earth System Research Laboratory in Boulder, Colo., is lead author of an international team’s paper reporting irreversible damage from climate change, being published in Tuesday’s edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. (Read More)