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Archive for the ‘Climate Change’ Category

SETH SHULMAN for Grist, part of the Guardian U.K., August 23, 2010

The ocean has been our savior.

Besides generating about two thirds of the oxygen we breathe, oceangoing phytoplankton — those floating microscopic plants that form the base of the aquatic food chain — absorb about a third of all the carbon dioxide we pump into the atmosphere. In this way, the oceans have managed to slow the buildup of heat-trapping greenhouse gases and stave off even more dramatic warming of the planet.

But John Guinotte and colleagues are discovering that the critical role of “carbon sink” comes at a potentially devastating cost for the world’s oceans: acidification.

Guinotte is a coral specialist at the Marine Conservation Biology Institute in Bellevue, Wash. The changes he sees in ocean chemistry spell trouble for the coral that he studies closely. If the acidification process continues on its current trajectory, it poses a dire threat to the whole marine ecosystem.

“What I’m really concerned about with ocean acidification is that we are facing the prospect of a crash in marine food webs.” says Guinotte. “There is no question that many of my colleagues in marine science are scared about what is happening. We know we need a more precise understanding of the changes and biological responses now under way — and we need it as quickly as possible, before it is too late to turn things around.”

Guinotte has dedicated his life to the study of coral, especially the less well understood deep-sea varieties. Growing up in rural Kansas, his only exposure to corals was through the pages of National Geographic. But that changed when he learned to scuba dive at his grandfather’s winter home in the Florida Keys. The experience, plus his interest in biology and geography, led him to Australia, where he earned his Ph.D.

Guinotte still remembers the thrill of exploring Australia’s Great Barrier Reef for the first time. “I was absolutely blown away by the abundance and diversity of coral,” he recalls. At that time, back in the late-1990s, scientists were increasingly concerned about coral bleaching caused by environmental stresses such as warming ocean temperatures. Those threats remain, Guinotte says, but ocean acidification may be an even more serious and intractable problem.

On the macro scale, Guinotte explains, the chemistry of ocean acidification is relatively clear. Based on some 25 years’ worth of measurements scientists know that oceans absorb about 22 million tons of carbon dioxide every day. The oceans are vast. But even so, the absorption of CO2 is now occurring at such an unprecedented rate that ocean chemistry is approaching a state not seen in many millions of years. Guinotte fears that many marine species might be unable to adapt quickly enough to survive these dramatic changes.

As carbon dioxide is absorbed by seawater, hydrogen ions are released. This lower the pH, making the water more acidic. Measurements indicate that Earth’s oceans are already about 30 percent more acidic than they were before the industrial revolution. As the number of hydrogen ions has risen, the number of carbonate ions available in seawater has gone down. This carbonate deficit makes life more difficult for the “marine calcifiers,” species such as coral and shellfish that use carbonate to build their skeletons and protective shells.

“Ocean water becomes increasingly corrosive to calcium carbonate,” says Guinotte. “A reduction in carbonate ions not only impedes corals’ ability to build their skeletons, but once the calcium carbonate drops below critical levels, the ocean erodes the framework they have built up previously — the reefs upon which corals live.” Even if select coral species can survive ocean acidification, Guinotte says, when the coral reefs begin to dissolve, the effects on the entire marine ecosystem are likely to be devastating.

Scientists know from the fossil record that reefs which sustained damage from high atmospheric concentrations of CO2 in the geologic past took millions of years to recover. “Given that we need to think in human time scales, it means we’re playing for keeps here,” says Guinotte. “To me, it sometimes seems like a school bus full of children heading for a cliff. Somehow we have to slow it down enough to find some real solutions.”

Because of the very clear potential for ocean acidification to effect everything from the tiniest oxygen-providing phytoplankton to the larger fish that feed in the coral reefs — or, as Guinotte has written, “from the shallowest waters to the darkest depths of the deep sea” — the threat to humankind is immense.

To figure out precisely how much acidification many varieties of coral can tolerate, and what we can do to preserve the health of the marine ecosystem, Guinotte argues for a coordinated research effort that tackles every aspect of the problem. That includes better monitoring of ocean carbon; closer tracking of calcifying organisms and more laboratory and field studies of their physiological responses to increasingly acidicity; and more detailed studies that model the threat to the marine ecosystem as a whole. Some of this work is under way, but too much of it has been conducted in piecemeal fashion. Only a more intensive, coordinated effort, says Guinotte, can provide the detail necessary for policymakers to develop strategies that protect critical species, habitats, and ecosystems.

“From the standpoint of the oceans,” Guinotte says, “there is no escaping the fact that we are going to need major reductions in our CO2 emissions — something like 80 to 90 percent. When we see governments arguing about reductions of 10 to 15 percent, I think all of us in the marine science community need to say that CO2 reductions of this scale are simply not going to be sufficient. We have to get off fossil fuels.”

The fossil record shows that high CO2 concentrations have likely played a big role in mass extinctions of marine life in the past. “If marine systems start to crash, it may well be too late to stop the train,” says Guinotte. “Governments are likely to panic and make irrational decisions; international tensions could certainly heat up. These are the kinds of things that keep me awake at night. I continue to hope we can get it turned around. But it will take political will, and so far, that has been in short supply.”

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DAVID FOGARTY and NICK MACFIE, Reuters, August 17, 2010

A dramatic spike in ocean temperatures off Indonesia’s Aceh province has killed large areas of coral and scientists fear the event could be much larger than first thought and one of the worst in the region’s history.

The coral bleaching — whitening due to heat driving out the algae living within the coral tissues — was first reported in May after a surge in temperatures across the Andaman Sea from the northern tip of Sumatra island to Thailand and Myanmar.

An international team of scientists studying the bleaching event found that 80% of some species have died since the initial assessment in May.

More coral colonies were expected to die within the next few months and that could spell disaster for local communities reliant on the reefs for food and money from tourism.

“I would predict that what we’re seeing in Aceh, which is extraordinary, that similar mortality rates are occurring right the way through the Andaman Sea,” said Andrew Baird of James Cook University in Townsville, in the Australian state of Queensland.

If so, that would make it the worst bleaching recorded in the region, said Baird.

Scientists from the Wildlife Conservation Society and Syiah Kuala University in Aceh have also been assessing the damage.

“This one of the most rapid and severe coral mortality events ever recorded,” the U.S.-based WCS said in a statement.

It also fits a pattern of climate extremes, from heatwaves to flooding, that have hit many areas of the globe this year.

Between April and late May, sea surface temperatures in the Andaman Sea rose to 34 degrees Celsius or about 4 degrees C above the long-term average, according to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Coral Hotspots website. (See: here )

SLOW RECOVERY

“Similar mass bleaching events in 2010 have now been recorded in Sri Lanka, Thailand, Malaysia and many parts of Indonesia,” the WCS statement said.

Baird, of James Cook University’s ARC Center of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, told Reuters that climate change could have played a role in the extreme ocean temperatures around Aceh.

“There might be one of these cyclic climate phenomena driving it but it’s much more severe than you would predict unless there was something else forcing it, which is almost certainly global warming,” he told Reuters on Tuesday.

The bleaching is a blow to local communities in Aceh still recovering from the 2004 tsunami. That disaster caused relatively little damage to reefs and Baird said some areas had showed a dramatic recovery.

Baird said reefs in Indonesia would normally take 5 to 10 years to recover from localized bleaching. But if the event was spread across a much wider area, recovery would take longer.

“I suspect the scale of this event is so large there is unlikely to be many healthy reefs in the rest of Aceh.”

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JULIETTE JOWIT, Guardian UK, July 28, 2010

Phytoplankton might be too small to see with the naked eye, but they are the foundations of the ocean food chain, ultimately capturing the energy that sustains the seas’ great beasts such as whales.

A new study though has raised the alarm about fundamental changes to life underwater. It warns that populations of these microscopic organisms have plummeted in the last century, and the rate of loss has increased in recent years.

The reduction – averaging about 1% per year – is related to increasing sea surface temperatures, says the paper, published tomorrow in the journal Nature.

The decline of these tiny plankton will have impacted nearly all sea creatures and will also have affected fish stocks.

Phytoplankton provide food – by capturing energy from the sun – and recycle nutrients, and because they account for approximately half of all organic matter on earth they are hugely important as a means of absorbing carbon.

“This decline will need to be considered in future studies of marine ecosystems, geochemical cycling, ocean circulation and fisheries,” add the paper’s authors, from Dalhousie university in Nova Scotia, Canada.

The researchers looked at measurements of ocean transparency and tested for concentrations of chlorophyll, which gives large numbers of phytoplankton a distinctive green sheen. They said that although there were variations in some areas due to regional climate and coastal run-off, the long-term global decline was “unequivocal”.

The Nature article comes as climate scientists published what they said today was the “best ever” collection of evidence for global warming, including temperature over land, at sea and in the higher atmosphere, along with records of humidity, sea-level rise, and melting ice.

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ScienceDaily, June 19, 2010

The first comprehensive synthesis on the effects of climate change on the world’s oceans has found they are now changing at a rate not seen for several million years.

In an article published June 18 in Science magazine, scientists reveal the growing atmospheric concentrations of man-made greenhouse gases are driving irreversible and dramatic changes to the way the ocean functions, with potentially dire impacts for hundreds of millions of people across the planet.

The findings of the report emerged from a synthesis of recent research on the world’s oceans, carried out by two of the world’s leading marine scientists, one from The University of Queensland in Australia, and one from The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, in the USA.

Professor Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, lead author of the report and Director of The University of Queensland’s Global Change Institute, says the findings have enormous implications for mankind, particularly if the trend continues.

He said that the Earth’s ocean, which produces half of the oxygen we breathe and absorbs 30% of human-generated CO2, is equivalent to its heart and lungs. “Quite plainly, the Earth cannot do without its ocean. This study, however, shows worrying signs of ill health.

“It’s as if the Earth has been smoking two packs of cigarettes a day!”

He went on to say, “We are entering a period in which the very ocean services upon which humanity depends are undergoing massive change and in some cases beginning to fail,” says Prof. Hoegh-Guldberg. “Further degradation will continue to create enormous challenges and costs for societies worldwide.”

He warned that we may soon see “sudden, unexpected changes that have serious ramifications for the overall well-being of humans,” including the capacity of the planet to support people. “This is further evidence that we are well on the way to the next great extinction event.”

The “fundamental and comprehensive” changes to marine life identified in the report include rapidly warming and acidifying oceans, changes in water circulation and expansion of dead zones within the ocean depths.

These are driving major changes in marine ecosystems: less abundant coral reefs, sea grasses and mangroves (important fish nurseries); fewer, smaller fish; a breakdown in food chains; changes in the distribution of marine life; and more frequent diseases and pests among marine organisms.

Report co-author, Dr John F. Bruno, an Associate Professor at The University of North Carolina, says greenhouse gas emissions are modifying many physical and geochemical aspects of the planet’s oceans, in ways “unprecedented in nearly a million years.” “This is causing fundamental and comprehensive changes to the way marine ecosystems function,” Dr Bruno said.

“We are becoming increasingly certain that the world’s marine ecosystems are approaching tipping points. These tipping points are where change accelerates and causes unrelated impacts on other systems, the results of which we really have no power or model to foresee.”

The authors conclude: “These challenges underscore the urgency with which world leaders must act to limit further growth of greenhouse gases and thereby reduce the risk of these events occurring. Ignoring the science is not an option.”

In their study, the researchers sought to address a gap in previous studies that have often overlooked the affects of climate change on marine ecosystems, due to the fact that they are complex and can be logistically difficult to study.

According to leading US marine scientist, the University of Maine’s School of Marine Services Professor Robert S. Steneck, the study provides a valuable indicator of the ecological risk posed by climate change, particularly to coastal regions.

“While past studies have largely focused on single global threats such as ‘global warming’, Hoegh-Guldberg and Bruno make a compelling case for the cumulative impacts of multiple planet-scale threats,” Prof. Steneck said.

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May 22, 2010

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) and the State of California have signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) to coordinate procedures and schedules for review of hydrokinetic energy projects off the California coast.

This marks the fourth hydrokinetics MOU that FERC has signed with other states, following agreements signed last year with Washington and Maine, and with Oregon in 2008. Today’s agreement ensures that FERC and California will undertake all permitting and licensing efforts in an environmentally sensitive manner, taking into account economic and cultural concerns.

“This agreement with California shows FERC’s continuing commitment to work with the states to ensure American consumers can enjoy the environmental and financial benefits of clean, renewable hydrokinetic energy,” FERC Chairman Jon Wellinghoff said.

“I am delighted the State of California has signed an MOU with the Commission on developing hydrokinetic projects off the California coast,” Commissioner Philip Moeller said. “This completes a sweep of the West Coast which, along with Maine, is showing its commitment to bringing the benefits of clean hydrokinetic energy to the consumers of the United States.”

FERC and California have agreed to the following with respect to hydrokinetics:

  • Each will notify the other when one becomes aware of a potential applicant for a preliminary permit, pilot project license or license;
  • When considering a license application, each will agree as early as possible on a schedule for processing. The schedule will include milestones, and FERC and California will encourage other federal agencies and stakeholders to comply with the schedules;
  • They will coordinate the environmental reviews of any proposed projects in California state waters. FERC and California also will consult with stakeholders, including project developers, on the design of studies and environmental matters; and
  • They will encourage applicants to seek pilot project licenses prior to a full commercial license, to allow for testing of devices before commercial deployment.

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DAVID HELVARG, Los Angeles Times, April 4, 2010

President Obama’s decision to have Interior Secretary Ken Salazar open vast new areas of federal ocean waters to offshore oil drilling is no surprise. In his State of the Union address, the president explained that his vision for a clean energy future included offshore drilling, nuclear power and clean coal. Unfortunately, that’s like advocating a healthy diet based on fast-food snacking, amphetamines and low-tar cigarettes.

If the arguments you hear in the coming days for expanded drilling sound familiar, it’s because they’ve been repeated for generations. We’ve been hearing promises about safer drilling technologies since before Union Oil began drilling in the Santa Barbara Channel. And if you don’t remember what happened that time, you should. Soon after the wells were bored, one of them blew out in January 1969, causing a massive oil slick that slimed beaches and killed birds, fish and marine mammals. The resulting catastrophe helped spark the modern environmental movement.

The president has promised no new drilling off the West Coast, and it’s no wonder. Opposition was unified and vociferous during Salazar’s public hearing on offshore energy development in San Francisco in April 2009. More than 500 people – including Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., Gov. Ted Kulongoski of Oregon, California’s lieutenant governor and four House members – testified and rallied for clean energy and against any new oil drilling.

Boxer noted that the coast was a treasure and a huge economic asset “just as is,” generating $24 billion a year and 390,000 jobs.

Still, in the new Department of Interior announcement, one can hear echoes of President Reagan’s Interior secretary, Don Hodel, who warned us in the 1980s that if we didn’t expand offshore drilling, we’d be “putting ourselves at the tender mercies of OPEC.”

We did expand offshore drilling then, not off the stunning redwood coastline of Mendocino, Calif., as Hodel wanted, but where the oil industry knew most of the oil and gas actually was and is: in the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico. We even created a royalty moratorium for the oil companies that went after those huge deep-water fields.

But offshore drilling has done little to wean us from Middle Eastern oil. And with less than 5% of our domestic oil located offshore, more ocean drilling won’t help now either.

The only real way to quit relying on foreign oil is to wean ourselves from oil, and that’s something our leaders are unlikely to fully embrace until we’ve tapped that last reserve of sweet crude.

Nor is it likely that oil-friendly politicians in Louisiana, Alaska and Virginia, where new drilling will take place under the Obama plan, are going to embrace administration-backed climate legislation that recognizes drilling as a temporary bridge to a post-fossil-fuel world.

The only real difference in the drilling debate from 30 years ago is that back then the issue was energy versus marine pollution. Today we know it’s even more urgent. Oil, used as directed, overheats the planet.

Plus, any new platform drilled is a structural commitment to at least 30 more years of fossil fuel extraction – assuming it’s not taken out by a big storm like the jack-up rig I saw washed onto the beach at Alabama’s Dauphin Island after Hurricane Katrina.

I’ve visited offshore oil rigs in the Santa Barbara Channel and the Gulf of Mexico and was impressed by the oil patch workers I met there. The innovative technologies they use for extracting ever more inaccessible reserves of oil and gas are also impressive.

But now we need to direct that can-do spirit of innovation to large-scale carbon-free energy systems, including photovoltaics, wind turbines, biomass, hydrogen fuel cells and marine tidal, wave, current and thermal energy. The difficulties of producing energy with those technologies will make today’s drilling challenges seem simple.

I respect the roughnecks and roustabouts I’ve met who continue to practice a dangerous and challenging craft, and the contribution they’ve made to our nation’s maritime history. But I believe it’s time for them to exit the energy stage. Apparently the president does not.

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JEANNE ROBERTS, Celsias via CleanTechies, March 29, 2010

There is a cascade failure going on in the world’s oceans that promises nothing but trouble in the future, and the problem stems in part from agricultural practices developed over the last half-decade aimed at growing more food on the same amount of land to feed rising populations.

A cascade failure is the progressive collapse of an integral system. Many scientists also call them negative feedback loops, in that unfortunate situations reinforce one another, precipitating eventual and sometimes complete failure.

The agricultural practices relate to “factory farming,” in which farmers grow crops using more and more chemical fertilizers, specifically nitrogen and phosphorus, which are the first two ingredients (chemical symbols N and P) listed on any container or bag of fertilizer. The last is potassium, or K.

But farmers aren’t the only culprits. Lawn enthusiasts add to the problem with their massive applications of fertilizer designed to maintain a species of plant that doesn’t provide either food or habitat, and is grown merely to add prestige. And groundskeepers at parks and large corporate headquarters are equally guilty. In fact, a whole generation needs to rethink its addiction to lawns.

Whoever is guilty of applying the fertilizer, these megadoses are eventually washed off the fields and lawns and into waterways. From there, they migrate to the nearest large bodies of water, where they spark such tremendous and unnatural growth in aquatic plants that the result is eutrophication , or lack of oxygen in the water as bacteria act to reduce the sheer mass of dying organic matter.

One of these aquatic growths is algae, or phytoplankton. Moderate algal growth can produce higher fish yields and actually benefit lakes and oceans, but over-stimulation leads to a whole host of problems whose integral relationship to one another threatens not only aquatic but human life.

A classic example would be the Baltic Sea, where phytoplankton are raging out of control. The Baltic Sea is, as a result, home to seven out of ten of the world’s largest “dead zones,” aquatic areas where nothing survives.

One of the other three is the Gulf of Mexico, where a 2008 dead zone the size of Massachusetts is expected to grow in future years thanks to the U.S. government’s biofuel mandate. Most of the crops for biofuel are grown along the Mississippi River, which drains directly into this dead zone.

In the Baltic, as elsewhere, overfishing has exacerbated the problem. Fish feed on smaller aquatic organisms, which themselves feed on the algae. Take the fish out of the equation, and the balance is lost. It’s very much like removing the wolves that keep down the deer population in order to protect the sheep, and it doesn’t work in the ocean any better than it works on land.

Once the algal blooms begin to thrive, they block sunlight to deeper water and begin to kill off seaweeds and other aquatic plants which are home to fish species. The dying plants then consume more oxygen as bacteria consume them. And, as the seaweeds die, the few remaining fish and shellfish species move away, deprived of habitat.

This is a classic example of a negative feedback loop, and it is reinforced by every meal of fish, every instance of Scotts lawn fertilizer, and every ear of corn grown with a little help from Cargill or Dow, to name just two multinational fertilizer manufacturers.

Another example is occurring in the Pacific Northwest , along the West Coast of the United States, where — in Washington State, Oregon, and even Northern California — piles of Dungeness crab shells on the ocean floor mark areas of severe eutrophication well within sight of land.

Elsewhere along the Pacific shoreline, bird deaths – ranging from pelicans to sea ducks – predict a failure in the natural world that can’t help but reverberate among the planet’s prime predator, man.

These areas of eutrophication have always been present, but their spread – from one or two areas to miles of coastal waters – indicates a larger problem that is likely about to overwhelm not only the fishing industry and tourism but the existence of oceans as living entities.

As Oregon State University ocean sciences professor Jack Barth notes, the once-scarce areas of low oxygen have become the “new normal”, with old areas repeating and new areas cropping up every year. In many of these areas, oxygen levels are 30% lower than they were a mere half-decade ago.

Not all algal blooms are harmful or noxious, of course. But those which occur in response to eutrophication do seem to be, and these – known as HABs, or harmful algal blooms – include pseudo-nitzschia producing algae, which deliver a neurotoxin called domoic acid that can kill humans, birds and aquatic mammals that eat the affected shellfish; golden algae, which under certain conditions produce toxins that cause massive fish and bivalve (clams, mussels, oysters) kills; brown tides, which are not toxic in themselves but create aquatic conditions that can kill fish larvae; red tides, which produce brevetoxins that can affect breathing and sometimes trigger fatal, respiratory illnesses in humans; and blue-green algae, or cyanobacteria, which can form dense colonies that cause water to smell and become toxic to fish, pets and humans.

This last, which has spread from Texas to Minnesota, has led to livestock deaths in the former. In the latter, where having a lake home is a sign of prestige, many homeowners have been forced to sell at a loss to get away from once-pristine lakes so smelly and toxic that dozens of pet dogs have been killed drinking the water.

Lower oxygen levels in oceans are very attractive to one species; jellyfish, and these odd creatures with their many tentacles and poisonous sting thrive under such conditions. In fact, jellyfish have few predators except man, and those few (tuna, sharks, swordfish, a carnivorous coral , one species of Pacific salmon and the leatherback turtle) are all at great risk of extinction because of eutrophication and its related conditions, pollution, overfishing and climate change.

As one of the most prolific species in the ocean, and certainly one with a long history (the species has been around since the Cambrian), jellyfish will probably take over the oceans if things continue as they have been going since the 1960s. This is good news for the Japanese, Chinese and other Oriental cultures who regard the slimy beast as a delicacy.

For the rest of us, jellyfish are an acquired taste, and one we had better acquire if we want to keep eating seafood. Either that, or we can support legislation that, in the U.S. at least, promises some relief through research, monitoring and rule-making regarding the Great Lakes and both coasts.

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