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Is the End in Sight for The World’s Coral Reefs?

7 Dec

It is a difficult idea to fathom. But the science is clear: Unless we change the way we live, the Earth’s coral reefs will be utterly destroyed within our children’s lifetimes.

by j.e.n. veron

Over the past decades, there have dozens of articles in the media describing dire futures for coral reefs. In the 1960s and ‘70s, we were informed that many reefs were being consumed by a voracious coral predator, the crown-of-thorns starfish. In the 1980s and ‘90s, although these starfish still reared their thorny heads from time to time, the principal threats had moved on — to sediment runoff, nutrients, overfishing, and general habitat destruction.

For me, an Australian marine scientist who has spent the past 40 years working on reefs the world over, these threats were of real concern, but their implications were limited in time or in space or both. Although crown-of-thorns starfish can certainly devastate reefs, the impacts of sediments, nutrients and habitat loss have usually been of greater concern, and I have been repeatedly shocked by the destruction I have witnessed. However, nothing comes close to the devastation waiting in the wings at the moment.

Great Barrier Reef

Photo courtesy of J.E.N. Veron
Ribbon reefs have formed the outer edge of the Great Barrier Reef for millions of years.

You may well feel that dire predictions about anything almost always turn out to be exaggerations. You may think there may be something in it to worry about, but it won’t be as bad as doomsayers like me are predicting. This view is understandable given that only a few decades ago I, myself, would have thought it ridiculous to imagine that reefs might have a limited lifespan on Earth as a consequence of human actions. It would have seemed preposterous that, for example, the Great Barrier Reef — the biggest structure ever made by life on Earth — could be mortally threatened by any present or foreseeable environmental change.

Yet here I am today, humbled to have spent the most productive scientific years of my life around the rich wonders of the underwater world, and utterly convinced that they will not be there for our children’s children to enjoy unless we drastically change our priorities and the way we live.

A decade ago, my increasing concern for the plight of reefs in the face of global temperature changes led me to start researching the effects of climate change on reefs, drawing on my experience in reef science, evolution, biodiversity, genetics, and conservation, as well as my profound interests in geology, palaeontology, and oceanography, not to mention the challenging task of understanding the climate science, geochemical processes, and ocean chemistry.

When I started researching my book, A Reef in Time: The Great Barrier Reef from Beginning to End (Harvard, 2008), I knew that climate change was likely to have serious consequences for coral reefs. But the big picture that gradually emerged from my integration of these disparate disciplines left me shocked to the core.

In a long period of deep personal anguish, I turned to specialists in many different fields of science to find anything that might suggest a fault in my own conclusions. But in this quest I was depressingly unsuccessful. The bottom line remains: Science argues that coral reefs can indeed be utterly trashed in the lifetime of today’s children. That certainty is what motivates me to spread this message as clearly, and accurately, as I can.

So what are the issues? Most readers will know that there have been several major episodes of mass bleaching on major reef areas worldwide over the past 20 years. In the late-1980s when the first mass bleaching occurred, there was a great deal of concern among reef scientists and conservation organizations, but the phenomenon had no clear explanation. Since then, the number and frequency of mass bleachings have increased and sparked widespread research efforts.

Corals have an intimate symbiotic relationship with single-celled algae, zooxanthellae, which live in their cells and provide the photosynthetic fuel for them to grow and reefs to form. The research showed that this

‘Ecosystems can recover from all sorts of abuse, and coral reefs are no exception.’

relationship can be surprisingly fragile if corals are exposed to high light conditions at the same time as above-normal water temperatures, because the algae produce toxic levels of oxygen, and excessive levels of oxygen are toxic to most animal life. Under these conditions, corals must expel the zooxanthellae, bleach, and probably die or succumb to the toxin and definitely die. A tough choice, one they have not had to make at any time in their long genetic history.

read more – whole article here

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Documentary review: ‘Into Eternity’

24 Nov

review by NoFishLeft

From the 17e till 27e of November 2010 the IDFA (International Documentary Film Festival) is held in Amsterdam. Last night I went to ‘into eternity’ a beautiful aesthetic, surreal, somewhat disturbing documentary about the legacy of nuclear waste.

In a desolated landscape in finland, the government is working on a 3 billion euro costing hiding place for nuclear waste. A place to protect our future generations from the toxic we produce. This immense tomb called ‘Onkalo’ (hiding place) will be build out of solid rock 500 meters under the ground, a place that supposedly should be save from any possible threats like earthquakes, volcanoes, wars or human economic instability. This mind-blowing project takes more than 100 years to build and will be finished in the 22th century.

Madsen the director of the film examines the possible implications and questions that rise when building a colossus tomb like this. He focus on how to build, protect and secure a structure that has to remains for at least 100.000 years. Is it even possible to build a structure that remains for more than 100.000 years? Is humanity capable to make this and how to warn future generations for this deathly tomb?

This intriguing documentary examines a very width range of questions about possible human evolutions. All breaks at the point that 100.000 years is far beyond imaging even for our brightest minds. In the end we can only assume what will happen in the future. Civilizations will fall, new ones will rise maybe on total different key pillars than our civilization now. How to warn these new possible human civilization in the far future? with language, symbols or maybe something as the painting the scream? How to warn them instead of creating curiosity of any future visitors that might seen it as a religious tomb. The engineers confess that the biggest threat will possibly lie in what they call ‘human intrusion.’

Where will the human race be in a 100, 1000 or even 10.000 years from now? The simple questions asked in this film and the honest answers by lawmakers, theologians, engineers makes this film powerful yet very disturbing. One of the serious options proposed is to try to forget this place, erase it from our human history, but than you have to be sure the structure and  roaming earth has no flaws for the coming 100.000 years

Through focusing on this immense project this documentary really shows us the bigger picture of the unsolved problem we have with nuclear waste, a growing and inevitable problem. Our nuclear reactors maybe safer than ever, but the problem of nuclear waste grows. ‘Onkalo’ at this moment is the most high tech, safest way to store the toxic waste. But it will only store 1% of the current nuclear waste there is.

With the coming prognoses of more countries embracing nuclear power again it rise some very important unanswered questions. Politicians, policy makers and lobbyists who running a successful campaign for nuclear energy keeping the waste problem out of the debate. The world looks mostly focused on the safety of it nuclear reactors instead of focusing and bringing real solution on the inevitable toxic waste that comes along with it.

Madsen didn’t made this film as an activist, he isn’t, and that’s what makes the documentary even more powerful. His background as a conceptual artist makes this documentary a stunning aesthetic film. The visual shots fits perfect with the unreal upsetting reality of the film. In a poetic style he’s telling our far future generations about this ‘Onkalo’.

This documentary is a must see for everybody who thinks about nuclear energy as a real solution for our coming energy crisis. We can not make proper decisions with out asking ourselves some serious and needed questions about the waste it brings. You can’t talk about nuclear power, without talking about the big problem that nuclear waste brings for future generations.

Production year: 2010
Runtime: 75 mins
Directors: Michael Madsen

Whale Poop Pumps Up Ocean Health

17 Oct

ScienceDaily (Oct. 12, 2010) — Whale feces — should you be forced to consider such matters — probably conjures images of, well, whale-scale hunks of crud, heavy lumps that sink to the bottom. But most whales actually deposit waste that floats at the surface of the ocean, “very liquidy, a flocculent plume,” says University of Vermont whale biologist, Joe Roman.

A conceptual model of the whale pump. In the common concept of the biological pump, zooplankton feed in the euphotic zone and export nutrients via sinking fecal pellets, and vertical migration. Fish typically release nutrients at the same depth at which they feed. Excretion for marine mammals, tethered to the surface for respiration, is expected to be shallower in the water column than where they feed. (Credit: Peter Roopnarine, Joe Roman, James J. McCarthy. The Whale Pump: Marine Mammals Enhance Primary Productivity in a Coastal Basin. PLoS ONE, 2010; 5 (10): e13255 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0013255)

And this liquid fecal matter, rich in nutrients, has a huge positive influence on the productivity of ocean fisheries, Roman and his colleague, James McCarthy from Harvard University, have discovered.

Their discovery, published Oct. 11 in the journal PLoS ONE, is what Roman calls a “whale pump.”

Whales, they found, carry nutrients such as nitrogen from the depths where they feed back to the surface via their feces. This functions as an upward biological pump, reversing the assumption of some scientists that whales accelerate the loss of nutrients to the bottom.

And this nitrogen input in the Gulf of Maine is “more than the input of all rivers combined,” they write, some 23,000 metric tons each year.

Nitrogen limits

It is well known that microbes, plankton, and fish recycle nutrients in ocean waters, but whales and other marine mammals have largely been ignored in this cycle. Yet this study shows that whales historically played a central role in the productivity of ocean ecosystems — and continue to do so despite diminished populations.

Despite the problems of coastal eutrophication — like the infamous “dead zones” in the Gulf of Mexico caused by excess nitrogen washing down the Mississippi River — many places in the ocean of the Northern Hemisphere have a limited nitrogen supply.

Including where Roman and McCarthy completed their study: the once fish-rich Gulf of Maine in the western North Atlantic. There, phytoplankton, the base of the food chain, has a brake on its productivity when nitrogen is used up in the otherwise productive summer months. (In other parts of the ocean, other elements are limiting, like iron in some regions of the Southern oceans.)

“We think whales form a really important direct influence on the production of plants at the base of this food web,” says McCarthy.

“We found that whales increase primary productivity,” Roman says, allowing more phytoplankton to grow, which then “pushes up the secondary productivity,” he says, of the critters that rely on the plankton. The result: “bigger fisheries and higher abundances throughout regions where whales occur in high densities,” Roman says.

“In areas where whales were once more numerous than they are today, we suggest that they were more productive,” say McCarthy.

The numbers of whales that swam the oceans before human harvests began is a question of some controversy. “Conservative estimates are that large whales have been cut to 25 percent,” says Roman, “though the work done on whale genetics shows that we’re probably closer to 10 percent,” of historical levels. To cover the range of possibilities, Roman and McCarthy’s study considered several scenarios, estimating current whale stocks as 10, 25, or 50 percent of historical levels.

“Anyway you look at it, whales played a much bigger role in ecosystems in the past than they do now,” says Roman, a conservation biologist in the University of Vermont’s Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources and the author of a book on whales.

“And everything that we do to enhance recovery and restoration of the great whales to something like pre-harvest levels works against other deleterious effects that humans are causing in the oceans,” says McCarthy, like the decline of overall ocean productivity as climate change drives up water temperatures, which, in turn, causes a decline in nutrients for phytoplankton.

Save the whales, save the fishermen

A further implication of the new study is that ongoing calls by some governments to relax international whaling restrictions are ill-considered. Culls and bounty programs would reduce nitrogen and “decrease overall productivity,” Roman and McCarthy note.

“For a long time, and still today, Japan and other countries have policies to justify the harvest of marine mammals,” says Roman. These countries argue that whales compete with their commercial fisheries.

“Our study flips that idea on its head,” Roman says, “Not only is that competition small or non-existent, but actually the whales present can increase nutrients and help fisheries and the health of systems wherever they are found. By restoring populations we have a chance to glimpse how amazingly productive these ecosystems were in the past.”

Science Daily

Egypt must go green to save Red Sea

17 Oct

The Red Sea’s ecosystem is under threat from pollution and Egyptians refusing to accept there is an environmental problem

Coral reefs in the Red Sea north of Jeddah Coral reefs in the Red Sea are under threat from oil spills and plastic waste. Photograph: Hassan Ammar/AFP/Getty Images

The Red Sea is facing a crisis that could see much of its wonderful marine life cease to exist. Continued polluting of the water, constant oil spillage from offshore rigs and a lack of awareness in Egypt and around the region about the importance of maintaining vital ecosystems all contribute to the threat.

A few travellers passing through Cairo earlier this month sent me an email describing their disappointment at the diving they experienced off Egypt’s top resort, Sharm el-Sheikh. What they saw was “completely a different scene” from their first visit in 2004. “The coral was turning grey and dying,” they said.

Over and over I have heard stories from divers about the decaying state of the Red Sea’s coral reefs. It is unfortunate, but true. No longer is the Red Sea a pristine location to witness the spectacle of marine life and coral reefs. One of the main causes is the constant pouring of waste from hotels along the coastal areas, but the tourism industry more generally has done further harm by pumping chemicals and other waste products into the sea. Resolving these problems is proving extremely difficult.

Not only are coral reefs under threat, but other marine life, too. Offshore oil rigs have been in the Red Sea waters for decades, but little has been done to ensure the equipment is up to date. These rigs stream a constant pool of oil into the sea. Ahmed el-Droubi of the Hurghada Environmental Protection and Conservation Agency (Hepca) told me earlier this year that much of the dolphin population has migrated further and further south as a result.

read whole article at the Guardian.co.uk

Call to Heal the World’s Coral Reefs

14 Oct

ScienceDaily (Oct. 6, 2010) — There is still time to save the world’s ailing coral reefs, if prompt and decisive action can be taken to improve their overall health, leading marine researchers say

Writing in the journal Trends in Ecology and Evolution, eminent marine scientists from Australia and the USA have called for an international effort to improve the resilience of coral reefs, so they can withstand the impacts of climate change and other human activities.

“The world’s coral reefs are important economic, social and environmental assets, and they are in deep trouble. How much trouble, and why, are critical research questions that have obvious implications for formulating policy and improving the governance and management of these tropical maritime resources,” explains Jeremy Jackson from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

The key to saving the reefs lies in understanding why some reefs degenerate into a mass of weeds and never recover — an event known as a ‘phase shift’ — while on other reefs the corals manage to bounce back successfully, showing a quality known as resilience.

This underlines the importance of managing reefs in ways that promote their resilience, the researchers say.

They presented evidence that coral decline due to human activity has been going on for centuries, but has been particularly alarming in the past 50 years. In all some 125,000 square kilometres of the world’s corals have disappeared so far.

The most recent global report card (2008) estimated that 19% of all reefs were effectively lost, another 15% were critical and likely to be lost in 10-20 years, and a further 20% are under threat from local human pressures (already experiencing 20-50% loss of corals). The remaining 46% of reefs were at low risk from direct human impacts, but were nevertheless vulnerable to climate change and ocean acidification.

read whole article at Science Daily

Back Biodiversity 100, save our wildlife

4 Oct

Biodiversity in focues: Amazon, Brazil A resident paddles his canoe past dead fish found on the banks of the Parana de Manaquiri River, a tributary of the Amazon, in Brazil. Photograph: Amazona Spress/Reuters

n less than a month, unless we can rouse sufficient public indignation to avert it, a widespread suspicion that humanity is incapable of looking after this planet will be confirmed. The world’s governments will meet at Nagoya in Japan to discuss the catastrophic decline of life on the planet. The outcome is expected to be as tragic and as impotent as the collapse of last year’s climate talks in Copenhagen

We cannot accept this. We cannot stand back and watch while the wonders of this world are sacrificed to crass carelessness and short-termism. So, a few weeks ago, the Guardian launched the Biodiversity 100 campaign to prod governments into action. We asked the public and some of the world’s top ecologists to help us compile a list of 100 specific tasks that will show whether or not governments are serious about protecting biodiversity. Each task would be aimed at a government among the G20 nations, and they would be asked to sign up to it at Nagoya.

The threat hanging over these talks is not the same as in Copenhagen. We anticipate no high drama, no ultimata or walkouts. The danger is not that the governments discussing the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) will fail to agree, but that they will agree all too easily: to a set of proposals so vague, so lacking in either content or ambition that they can do nothing to address the extinction crisis facing animals and plants all over the world.The result will not just be the loss of species but also the “work” they do for the environment — cleaning water, absorbing carbon and improving soils.

Unless something changes, governments intend to decide that wild species and wild places will not be allowed to compete with special interest groups or industrial lobbyists, however narrow their interests or perverse their desires. Wildlife doesn’t fund political parties, control newspapers or threaten to take its business elsewhere. As soon as money can be made from its destruction, it goes.

The government’s complacency about biodiversity is matched, so far, by the public’s. Perhaps it’s issue fatigue, perhaps there’s a sense — as the topic doesn’t receive much coverage — that someone, somewhere must be taking care of it. Well they aren’t. Last week Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary-general, admitted that the 2010 deadline for reducing the rate of biodiversity loss has been missed. In fact, as a study in Science earlier this year suggested, the commitment governments made in 2002 appears to have had no significant impact at all.

read whole article @ guardian.co.uk

Tens Of Thousands Of Walruses Crowd Ashore In Alaska Due To Melting Sea Ice (VIDEO)

2 Oct
The AP recently reported on tens of thousands of walruses that have been forced ashore in northwest Alaska because their usual habitat, sea ice, has melted.

This footage from the USGS, via National Geographic, shows an astonishing aerial perspective of the walruses, crowded together on the beach. The situation is especially dangerous because walruses are easily spooked, and the younger ones can be trampled to death in a resulting stampede. Because of this, the area has been declared as a no-fly zone.

According to National Geographic, this is the first time this many walruses have taken to the beach in this particular area, though similar incidents have occurred in other parts of Alaska and Russia in years past.