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2018 to see Third Consecutive Mass Coral Bleaching Event for the Great Barrier Reef?

One point two degrees Celsius hotter than average (1.2 C). That’s the temperature threshold where 50 percent of the world’s corals are likely to die off according to a scientific study written in Nature during 2013.

The El Nino year 2016 was about 1.2 C hotter than 1880s averages. Meanwhile 2017 was about 1.1 C warmer than normal despite a shift toward La Nina.

We are thus entering a very harmful period for the world’s corals. One in which corals are bleaching and dying off at unprecedented rates. The global bleaching event of 2014 through 2017 was the longest lasting and most damaging in the historical record. Many reefs around the world suffered severe losses. Reefs that had never bleached before experienced bleaching and mortality. And this event included severe damage to the majestic Great Barrier Reef of Australia.

Bleached Staghorn corals on Keppel Island Reef during 2016 event that impacted 93 percent of the Great Barrier Reef. Image source: UNESCO.

Unfortunately, despite an official end to the 2014 to 2017 global bleaching event, ocean temperatures across widespread regions remain at thresholds that are likely to result in stress to corals. And it is arguable that if bleaching were so widespread as it is now in past decades, then the present 2018 period would still be considered a global bleaching event.

Regardless of how we parse official declarations, reef systems are obviously still under stress. Just this past week, reports were coming in that sections of the Great Barrier Reef were bleaching for the third year in a row. The bleaching was rather widespread for this time of year. It was occurring earlier than normal — generating concern that 2018 bleaching could be worse than expected come February and March. It was hoped that the large reef system would be given a bit of respite from the heat. But now that particular hope is in doubt.

Corals around the world are still under threat from extreme ocean heat despite the fact that the 2014-2017 global coral bleaching event was officially ended during summer of 2017. Image source: NOAA.

Corals are one of the many canaries in the climate change coal mine. These organisms are a vital aspect of global ocean health and the reefs they build are the present home for upwards of 2 million species. Humans depend on corals for the food chains they support and for the natural beauty they provide. And a global ocean with less corals provides both less food and support for human beings and for ocean life as a whole.

Because corals are so sensitive to temperature change, it is expected that about 90 percent of the world’s corals will be lost if the Earth warms by 1.5 C. Meanwhile, virtually all of the corals (more than 95 percent) could be gone if the world warms by 2 C. With global temperatures at around the 1.1 C threshold and rising, we are in the danger range for corals at this time. And the world stands at the brink of losing the majority of this vital species with the potential to see 90 percent or more of the world’s corals lost over the next 3 decades under various scenarios in which fossil fuel burning continues.

Warmer than normal sea surface temperatures are again threatening Australia’s Great Barrier Reef (GBR). Jan 15, 2018 sea surface temperature anomaly image provided by Earth Nullschool.

Danger to corals is, today, a very immediate issue. And we are in the period of risk and damage now. This reality is highlighted by the fact that what should be a relative respite period for corals is still seeing abnormally high levels of bleaching.

During 2018, La Nina in the Eastern Pacific has generated relatively cooler surface waters in a number of locations. And we would normally expect La Nina to beat back global coral bleaching severity. However, an anomalous hot blob of ocean water between Australia and New Zealand is causing an unusual spike in ocean temperatures for the zone east of Australia (see image above). The result is that the GBR is again at risk.

Early bleaching for the Great Barrier Reef in 2018 is definitely a bad sign. However, scientists aren’t yet stating that this year will see bleaching intensity hitting levels similar to 2016 and 2017. Let’s hope that remains the case. But so long as fossil fuel burning and related warming continues, the road ahead for corals is one of existential crisis.

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35 Comments

  1. Genomik

     /  January 22, 2018

    I’m very sad the Oceans are getting annhilated even more. Looking at the map is interesting it seems the Southern oceans are very very hot. Australia is really in trouble. There was a tennis match last week in Melbourne where the temp on the courts reached something like 157F!

    On a positive note it seems climate and environment are the number one topic at Davos this year. The rest of the world sees these issues even as trump chooses to close his eyes. Perhaps trump’s negation of climate as a risk will make many leaders want to advance this topic for political and economic reasons as China is. The world hates trump so much they will probably increase their efforts and talking points as a jab at trump.

    https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2018/01/the-davos-2018-environment-agenda-online-what-you-need-to-know/

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    • Jim

       /  January 22, 2018

      Ha ! I’m sure some leaders are going to use the climate “stick” to poke Trump, and yes China and a few other progressive countries, industries and individuals will push that agenda. Unfortunately, for most of the capitalist world, profit over people, profit over pollution, and profit over climate change is the dominate philosophy.

      It’s a bit off topic, but if you want unvarnished insight into how Bob Murray of Murray Energy, thinks, take a look at his letter to Trump embedded in the IEEFA analysis below. Not only does he want to further damage the environment and climate for his personal profit, he’d like to see his employees subjected to more hazardous working conditions through repeal of coal dust and mine safety regulations. What a guy.

      http://ieefa.org/ieefa-update-fake-u-s-coal-news/

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      • Jim

         /  January 22, 2018

        To your point Genomik, here’s an editorial in Nature mentioning how Trump has caused scientists to become more politically active – something badly needed as our national political leaders fiddle as Rome burns.

        https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-018-01001-9?utm_source=briefing&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=20180122

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      • Well, coal dropped below 30 percent in Q2 of 2017 and Grandma didn’t freeze… Looks like coal will be below 30 percent for all of 2018.

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        • Jim

           /  January 23, 2018

          Indeed, Robert. And EIA data of 2018 reported coal plant closures is near the previous record established in 2015 when nearly 15 GW of coal generating capacity went off line. One week into January, EIA’s reporting 13GW of planned coal closures that have been announced for 2018, so the final number depends on how many requested closures are working their way through state PUCs.

          To appreciate the seismic shift underway, check out the Texas ERCOT Interconnect planned changes for 2018. Wind energy is growing fast in Texas.

          As for PV solar, I’m actually a bit optimistic the impact won’t be too negative due to two factors. Wholesalers were already pricing in an assumed tariff increase into their sales prices. Second, there was a lot of hoarding going on in fear that there would be import quotas. We’ll see pretty quickly what effect the elimination of uncertainty has on the market. It could be minimal.

          Either way, Trump and Murray won’t be doing any coal revival happy dances in 2018.

          https://www.eia.gov/todayinenergy/detail.php?id=34452

          http://ieefa.org/analysts-global-momentum-toward-renewables/

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  2. Greg

     /  January 22, 2018

    Surprise. POTUS approves tariffs on imported solar. Another disappointment in a long line of them.

    https://m.huffpost.com/us/entry/us_5a66328de4b0022830057908

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    • Jim

       /  January 23, 2018

      The Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), predicts the 30% tariff will result in the loss of 23,000 solar jobs in the US, increase prices to consumers, and lead to the postponement of billions of dollars of investment. All to the benefit the bankrupt foreign companies (one of which is Chinese).

      https://www.seia.org/news/presidents-decision-solar-tariffs-loss-america

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    • That one move just held up billions of dollars in solar investment, possibly dismantling the industry entirely.

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      • Jim

         /  January 23, 2018

        Tango Oscar,

        I believe the industry will survive since the benefit is so great. Yet, this is a setback to the renewable energy movement that desperately needed to be encouraged and nurtured, not starved and taxed to death. ~Jim

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    • It’ll slow the rate of solar adoption in the U.S. — putting some markets back by a year or two. Not devastating, but the kind of harmful nonsense we’ve come to expect from republicans and Trump.

      Worth noting that this case is probably illegal since the U.S. is a member of the WTO. So challenges in court are coming. So is a possible trade war.

      In any case the impact to jobs hurts, the impact to clean energy hurts, the impact to US competitiveness hurts, and the impact to climate change response hurts. Lose, lose, lose, lose.

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  3. One you don’t see much mention of
    https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/jan/21/public-land-battle-private-landowners-montana
    Class war in the American west: the rich landowners blocking access to public lands

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  4. Vic

     /  January 23, 2018

    Col McKenzie, the head of a prominent Queensland tourism advocacy group recently spat the dummy at leading Great Barrier Reef scientist Professor Terry Hughes accusing him of making “false or misleading comments to the media” in relation to the work carried out by Hughes and his team that detailed the extent of the mass bleaching events in 2016 & 2017.
    McKenzie blames a recent decline in tourist numbers on Hughes’ work and has written to the Federal Government requesting that Hughes’ funding be cancelled.

    https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/jan/13/great-barrier-reef-tourism-spokesman-attacks-scientist-over-slump-in-visitors

    The Turnbull Government has responded by upping the funding for the control of Crown-of-thorns starfish, one of McKenzie’s pet passions.

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      • Vic

         /  January 23, 2018

        Time to bring in the cheerleaders like Larry Marshall, Turnbull’s appointment to the head of the CSIRO…

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      • https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/jan/21/millions-spent-on-great-barrier-reef-projects-against-expert-advice?

        Millions spent on Great Barrier Reef projects against expert advice

        One $2.2m experiment involves giant fans to cool water down, despite government’s own advisers highlighting risks
        Millions of dollars of commonwealth money is being handed to tourism-linked groups for Great Barrier Reef protection, despite official advice recommending against the projects, or repeatedly finding them to be failing.

        The contracts include millions of dollars for tourism operators to cull out-of-control coral-eating crown of thorns starfish. Funds continue to be distributed, despite researchers employed to evaluate the program repeatedly finding it to have failed, and potentially having made the problem worse.

        It also includes $2.2m spent on an unusual project involving giant fans installed on a small part of the reef to cool water down to prevent bleaching. Documents obtained by the Guardian reveal the government’s independent expert panel recommended against the project proceeding, finding the justification relied on claims that were “a major departure from reality” and that the fans could accidentally kill nearby coral.

        Funds continued to be spent on these projects – counter to expert advice – despite an investigation by the federal auditor general in 2016, which found the environment department was not able to provide any evidence for how some projects “represented a proper use of public resource”.‘
        In December 2017, the federal minister for environment and energy, Josh Frydenberg, announced that $2.2m would be given to the Reef and Rainforest Research Centre to install giant fans on a small part of the Great Barrier Reef. The project involved mixing cooler deeper water with warmer shallow water, to reduce heat stress and avoid coral bleaching.

        The document said the the panel encouraged innovative approaches and also supported the concept of protecting specific reef sites as climate refuges. However, it noted that “all approaches should be based on sound science”.
        The independent reviewers, as well as Hoegh-Guldberg, found the project’s modelling depended on there being a 3C temperature difference between the shallow and deep water. “Looking in the literature (and from my own measurements), this seems a major departure from reality,” Hoegh-Guldberg wrote.

        The reviewers also noted that since the fans would be circulating water, they would end up pumping warm water on to deep reefs. They noted that could “increase risk of thermal stress, disease and bleaching” of deeper reefs.
        The Guardian reported further criticisms of the project in April 2017, including that the deeper water could be more acidic and full of pollutants, which could do more harm than good for the shallow reefs.
        After recommending against the project, the panel found that if it did proceed, it ought to be set up as a research project.
        Frydenberg told the Guardian that, as a result, the project was approved only after it was converted into a research project three weeks later.

        ‘Startling ignorance’
        Among the biggest recipients of Reef Trust funds has been the crown-of-thorns starfish outbreak management program, established to mitigate the impacts of a major outbreak of the coral-eating crown-of-thorns starfish across the Great Barrier Reef.

        The program has been outsourced by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, again to the RRRC, in partnership with the Association of Marine Park Tourism Operators (Ampto).
        In January 2017, the government announced the RRRC and Ampto had been awarded a $5.6m contract to conduct the program. The announcement followed another $5.6m awarded to the RRRC in 2016, $7.7m in 2015 as well as almost $6m to Ampto in 2013 for the starfish program. A further $14.4m was injected in August 2017, which is yet to be awarded.

        However, an investigation by the Australian National Audit Office concluded in November 2016 that the government was unable to provide any evidence that the starfish culling program, among some other Reef Trust programs, was a proper use of public funds.

        Udo Engelhardt, a leading researcher and head of the research consultancy Reefcare International, was contracted by the RRRC to analyse the success of the program they ran.
        His reports, submitted to the RRRC and Ampto in 2015 and 2016, demonstrated widespread and consistent failure of the program.
        Engelhardt also said his reports revealed the RRRC and Ampto had “startling ignorance” of existing knowledge in the area.
        Moreover, his reports site evidence the programs to cull crown-of-thorns starfish might be making the situation worse.
        “It may, in fact, be contributing to the development of more chronic and persistent starfish outbreaks,” he said.
        Engelhardt said the experience of a Japanese control program in the 1980s showed that even much bigger culling efforts had no positive impact on coral cover, and could contribute to more chronic outbreaks.

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        • paul

           /  January 23, 2018

          We really are just flailing around blindly without a clue, causing more and more damage with each and every ‘solution’.

          Like

  5. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2018/jan/22/abortion-lets-call-the-pro-lifers-what-they-are-pro-death

    Let’s call the pro-lifers what they are: pro-death

    On the 45th anniversary of Roe v Wade, it’s time to highlight a hidden truth: restricting abortion means more maternal deaths

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  6. Vic

     /  January 23, 2018

    Sanjeev Gupta’s at it again. He’s now trying to acquire the recently closed GM Holden auto manufacturing facility in South Australia with a plan to use renewable energy to produce electric vehicles using the innovative ‘iStream’ manufacturing process.

    http://reneweconomy.com.au/gupta-plans-ev-plant-australia-powered-solar-storage-94177/

    “iStream® and iStream® Carbon can cater with annual production volumes between 1,000 and 350,000 units per year at a cycle time of 100 seconds and can reduce capital investment by up to 80% reducing manufacturing energy by up to 60% whilst offering new levels of rigidity, corrosion resistance, safety, durability and low cost light weighting.
    iStream® and iStream® Carbon represent a major step change in automotive manufacturing.”

    http://www.gordonmurraydesign.com/news-articles/gordon-murray-design-announce-istream%C2%AE-carbon-a-revolution-in-automotive-manufacturing.html

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  7. http://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-01-23/magnitude-8.2-earthquake-off-alaska-prompts-tsunami-warning/9354384
    Tsunami warning for Alaska and Canada after magnitude-7.9 earthquake

    Updated 18 minutes ago
    Photo: A map showing travel times of a possible tsunami caused by an earthquake near Alaska. (Twitter: NWS Tsunami Alerts)
    Map: United States

    A magnitude-7.9 earthquake hit the Gulf of Alaska in the early hours of Tuesday, prompting authorities to warn people in the area to move away from the coast in case it causes a tsunami.

    The quake, initially measured at magnitude-8.2, hit 256 kilometres south-east of Chiniak, Alaska at a depth of 25km at 0931 GMT, the US Geological Survey said.

    “If you are located in this coastal area, move inland to higher ground. Tsunami warnings mean that a tsunami with significant inundation is possible or is already occurring,” Anchorage Office of Emergency Management said in a warning for Alaska and British Columbia.

    Tsunami warnings for parts of Alaska and Canada and a tsunami watch for the entire US west coast were issued.

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  8. Now for a couple n Geoengineering, intentional and accidental
    http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2018/01/solar-shield-could-save-us-climate-change-its-sudden-collapse-would-doom-planet

    A solar shield could save us from climate change. But its sudden collapse would doom the planet

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    • SRM is a very bad idea IMO.

      1. Substantial risk of harmful impacts to rainfall patterns affecting crops and upwards of billions of people.
      2. Substantial risk of degrading stratospheric ozone.
      3. Likely to reduce solar energy collection.
      4. Termination shock as noted in article above.
      5. Potential to be weaponized.
      6. Substantial risk of impacting plant growth in unpredictable ways — including food plants.
      7. No positive impact on atmospheric CO2 and related toxic effects like ocean acidification.
      8. Serious moral hazard in present energy policy environment.

      So long as we have the option to rapidly build renewables and to scale various forms of atmospheric carbon capture this cure which is potentially as bad as the disease should remain off the table.

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  9. http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/nationworld/science/ct-climate-change-technology-20180122-story.html

    A technology many hoped would fight climate change would cause even bigger environmental problems, scientists say

    But in the new paper, scientists argue that deploying BECCS technology on the scale needed to address the problem would use up massive amounts of water, fertilizer, and land. That would probably lead to large environmental problems or even destabilize key planetary systems, wrote Vera Heck of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and three colleagues.

    “We could achieve substantial amounts of bioenergy potentials, but this would really come at the cost of extensive environmental damage in many other dimensions,” said Heck.

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  10. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/01/180122150754.htm
    Climate change and snowmelt — turn up the heat, but what about humidity?

    Changes in humidity may determine how the contribution of snowpack to streams, lakes and groundwater changes as the climate warms. Surprisingly, cloudy, gray and humid winter days can actually cause the snowpack to warm faster, increasing the likelihood of melt during winter months when the snowpack should be growing, the authors report. In contrast, under clear skies and low humidity the snow can become colder than the air, preserving the snowpack until spring.

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  11. https://phys.org/news/2018-01-material-fuel-cell-catalysts-hundredth.html#nRlv

    New material creates fuel cell catalysts at a hundredth of the cost
    January 22, 2018, University of California – Riverside

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  12. Vic

     /  January 23, 2018

    Here’s a possible solution to bleaching for small areas of coral reef that appears to work well. The so called ‘Biorock’ process that applies a tiny DC electrical current to metal frameworks upon which corals appear to thrive and even happily survive bleaching events strong enough to kill off the surrounding corals.

    More details here : http://www.globalcoral.org/

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  13. https://phys.org/news/2018-01-fuel-cell-technology-solid-carbon.html

    New fuel cell technology runs on solid carbon
    January 22, 2018, DOE/Idaho National Laboratory

    But still outputs CO2, however a pure stream which is easier and cheaper to capture

    They don’t give up on trying to keep a high value in fossil fuels

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    • Renewable energy + atmospheric carbon capture as follow on is still the most viable, least harmful solution. This laboratory stuff hardly ever flies. But it makes for FF company PR and greenwash from time to time.

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  14. https://phys.org/news/2018-01-eocene-fossil-climate-underestimate-future.html
    New Eocene fossil data suggest climate models may underestimate future polar warming
    January 23, 2018, Florida Museum of Natural History

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  15. And from left field we have.
    Shipping
    https://www.technologyreview.com/s/610007/were-about-to-kill-a-massive-accidental-experiment-in-halting-global-warming/

    We’re about to kill a massive, accidental experiment in reducing global warming
    A forthcoming UN regulation will slash shipping industry pollution but may also speed up climate change.

    Studies have found that ships have a net cooling effect on the planet, despite belching out nearly a billion tons of carbon dioxide each year. That’s almost entirely because they also emit sulfur, which can scatter sunlight in the atmosphere and form or thicken clouds that reflect it away.

    In effect, the shipping industry has been carrying out an unintentional experiment in climate engineering for more than a century. Global mean temperatures could be as much as 0.25 ˚C lower than they would otherwise have been, based on the mean “forcing effect” calculated by a 2009 study that pulled together other findings (see “The Growing Case for Geoengineering”). For a world struggling to keep temperatures from rising more than 2 ˚C, that’s a big helping hand.

    And we’re about to take it away.

    From my POV, we hear from learned scientists determining from analysing the weather of the last x years the upper limit of warming without taking into account not so minor matters such as this or the dimming effect of pollution in many developing especially countries (which those countries are addressing for regime survival and public health/productivity reasons) – as that is addressed the pollution’s local cooling effect will be reduced and this warming will be carried by the winds elsewhere

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    • Brian

       /  January 23, 2018

      My personal belief, and I have zero evidence for this, is that sulfur and lead in gasoline in the 1970s masked early signals of climate change, and that as those compounds were removed, and the atmosphere became cleaner over time, that carbon dioxide’s effects became more obvious.

      Removing those additives also stopped what was called at the time “acid rain”, and that’s a good thing. This would not have happened without regulatory action, which is why it’s important to have updated laws and regulations in place to deal with new threats as they are recognized. Turning the clock back in support of terrible business practices is not helpful.

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  16. Witchee

     /  January 23, 2018

    “The time has come” the Walrus said
    “to talk of many things:
    of shoes – and ships – and sealing wax –
    of cabbages and kings –
    and why the sea is boiling hot-
    and whether pigs have wings.”

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  1. 2018 to see Third Consecutive Mass Coral Bleaching Event for the Great Barrier Reef? — robertscribbler « Antinuclear

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