Friday, March 3, 2017 Climate Change Open Discussion: Permafrost Decay, Ocean Acidification, Renewable Energy Advances, Trump Turning EPA into Fossil Fuel Vending Machine

Over the past week, it became clear that considerable changes were underway in the global climate system, in the realm of government policy, and in the world’s energy markets. This blog post will touch on as many of these issues as possible. More importantly, it will serve as an open forum for discussing these recent trends over the coming weekend.

52,000 Square Miles of Permafrost Decaying in Canada

This week, Inside Climate News produced a must-read report high-lighting the latest science on permafrost thaw. The report found that:

“Huge slabs of Arctic permafrost in northwest Canada are slumping and disintegrating, sending large amounts of carbon-rich mud and silt into streams and rivers. A new study that analyzed nearly a half-million square miles in northwest Canada found that this permafrost decay is affecting 52,000 square miles of that vast stretch of earth—an expanse the size of Alabama.”

The article linked various permafrost thaw studies and produced a broad overview of the many and wide-ranging local and regional impacts. It identified major geophysical changes due to permafrost subsidence and erosion along the Arctic coastline (which in places is losing as much as 70-80 feet per year). It covered large regions experiencing land deformation due to permafrost thaw — some of which were quite large. As an example, one permafrost thaw related sink hole in Russia was a quarter mile across and growing. And it also identified a threat to river and estuary health posed by soil outflows produced by the thaw:

According to researchers with the Northwest Territories Geological Survey, the permafrost collapse is intensifying and causing landslides into rivers and lakes that can choke off life downstream, all the way to where the rivers discharge into the Arctic Ocean.

But perhaps what is more concerning are the implications of the research highlighted by Inside Climate News. To this point, permafrost thaw isn’t just a local issue — it’s a geophysical change the produces global impacts.

permafrost_feedback

(Carbon and albedo feedback produced by permafrost thaw is a serious concern. However, impacts produced by permafrost thaw are even more wide-ranging. Image source: Carbon Brief.)

Permafrost thaw can add amplifying feedback carbon emissions to the Earth System at a time when atmospheric carbon levels are already the highest we’ve seen in about 5-15 million years. Frozen permafrost is a carbon sink –taking in more atmospheric carbon than it produces. Active, thawed permafrost generates the opposite effect. Microbes coming alive in the soil produce methane and carbon dioxide that contribute to the growing pools of carbon in the atmosphere and the world ocean. And with so much permafrost thawing as the world warms, the issue is one that simply will not go away.

Such amplifying feedbacks are a serious concern due to the fact that they make the need for global carbon emissions cuts more immediate and urgent. Carbon budgets, for example, become considerably more constrained when you can expect 50, 100, 250 billion tons or more of additional carbon emission coming from the thawing permafrost over timeframes relevant to human civilizations.

In addition, soil flushed down streams and into estuaries eventually deposits carbon into the world ocean system. As a result, you end up with still more carbon hitting an ocean that is already reeling from acidification stresses. The nutrients in the soil also feed algae blooms that speed acidification and potentially rob the ocean surface regions of vital oxygen when they decay. Considerable and rapid permafrost thaw has the potential, therefore, to also add to the larger and ongoing damages to ocean health due to fossil fuel emissions and to push the world to warm at a more rapid rate. So the Inside Climate News report is important, not just for the various regional impacts that it highlights, but for the larger implications due to the wide-ranging permafrost thaw that the research currently identifies.

Advancing Ocean Acidification

Recently, we highlighted threats to the world’s corals and, in particular, to the Great Barrier Reef as a result of a big warm-up in the world’s ocean system. One that is now producing a global coral bleaching event that could last for decades.

But warming ocean waters aren’t the only threat to corals and other marine species produced by human-caused climate change. Ocean acidification and ocean anoxia (in which warming combines with algae blooms and other factors to rob the oceans of oxygen) represent two of the other major threats to oceans related to climate change. Of these, ocean acidification has received a good deal of attention in the scientific press recently. In particular, this comprehensive piece in DW this week highlighted growing scientific concerns over ocean acidification.

The DW report shined a light on a new study:

in Nature Climate Change this week [that] says ocean acidification is spreading rapidly in the western Arctic Ocean in both area and depth. That means a much wider, deeper area than before is becoming so acidic that many marine organisms of key importance to the food chain will no longer be able to survive there.

The study found that the region in which the ocean is uptaking high levels of CO2 and coordinately increasing ocean acidification has enlarged and expanded northward by 5 degrees of latitude. In particular, the zone of ocean acidification in the Western Arctic Ocean has expanded considerably. As a result, the rate at which the Arctic Ocean is acidifying is increasing.

ocean-acification-through-2050

(As atmospheric CO2 levels increase, the oceans take up more carbon and become more acidic. Polar oceans become acidic first. Then acidified waters expand southward. With atmospheric CO2 levels hitting around 410 ppm this year [peak value] polar ocean species are now threatened by acidification. Eventually, at around 500 ppm CO2, levels of acidity are high enough to threaten key ocean species the world over. Image source: Threat to Coral Reefs From Ocean Acidification.)

The study sounds an alarm among ocean researchers and environmentalists concerned about key ocean species vulnerable to acidification. The threat to species posed by climate change in the Arctic is now expanding from walruses, whales, polar bears, puffins and various fishes to include calcareous creatures like star fish, mollusks, shrimps, sea snails, various crabs and others. Where warmth has robbed some species of habitats, acidification dissolves the shells that protect the bodies of these creatures or kills off the chief food source of other key ocean animals.

As the oceans take up more and more of the amazing overburden of carbon flooding into the atmosphere chiefly from fossil fuel emissions, the cooler polar waters acidify first. And that’s where ocean researchers are seeing the early warning signs of harm. But acidic waters at the poles don’t just stay there. They expand southward — bringing the damage they cause with them. In this way, the lower latitude corals that are already experiencing mass die-offs spurred by warming waters will soon face the threat of acidic oceans as well.

Renewable Energy — An Economic Force of Nature

Despite a rightward shift in various global economic dynamos like the U.S., the U.K, and Australia, the hope for rapidly transitioning away from fossil fuels and related carbon emissions remains alive as renewable energy becomes an ever more powerful economic and political force.

In the U.S., 23 cities, townships and counties have now pledged to run their economies on 100 percent renewable electricity and California has just introduced legislation aiming at achieving 50 percent of its electricity generation from renewable sources by 2025 and 100 percent by 2045. More good news also came from the auto sector as electric vehicle sales in the U.S. jumped 59 percent year on year during the month of January.

us-unsubsidized-levelized-cost-of-energy

(In the US, the unsubsidized, levelized cost of wind and solar now beat out every other competing energy system. Image source: Clean Technica.)

Globally, even the Pope is going electric as solar cell production is expected to hit near 80 gigawatts in 2017 — another record year following 10 years of uninterrupted expansion. And wind energy is racing to catch up to solar by setting new record low prices near 5 cents per kilowatt hour at power purchase bids in India. At such low prices, wind and solar now boast the lowest levelized costs of all major power sources according to this research. Meanwhile, in a trend that’s fantastic enough to make even computer chip manufacturers jealous, clean energy prices just keep falling even as renewable energy capabilities keep on improving.

The good news continues in China where 110 gigawatts of solar energy capacity is expected to be installed by 2020 and where sales of zero oil electric buses are now exploding. The adds to clean tech are also contributing to China’s plans to cut coal burning by a further 30 percent in 2017. These cuts are helping to spur planned cuts of 1.8 million coal and steel jobs coordinate with a responsible (something republicans and Trump would never consider) 15 billion dollar effort to retrain and place these workers in the new, less dangerous, cleaner industries of the future.

Trump — the Chief Beneficiary of a Russian Cyberwarfare Campaign Against the U.S. Electoral System — is Trying to Turn EPA into a ‘Vending Machine for Fossil Fuel Companies’

All this great news on the renewable energy front is, of course, tempered by the terrible and rapidly deteriorating state of the global climate. In addition, the forces opposing responses to climate change and actively seeking to throw a wrench into the amazing works of the renewable energy revolution have taken power in the form of the corrupt and Russian-influenced Trump Administration in the U.S.

It’s worth noting that Donald Trump and his ilk in the form of republicans in the U.S. and various allied fossil fueled politicians around the world are unlikely to be able to completely sabotage the economic juggernaught that renewable energy has become unless they succeed in a campaign aimed at total political dominance. And as Trump and his Russian helpers have learned, total dominance in a country with considerable separation of powers, as in the U.S., is a very difficult thing to achieve. Especially when the opposition to the forces of that dominance are as invigorated and diverse as they are today.

(Scott Pruitt spent most of his career attacking the EPA. Now, under Trump, he heads it. It could well be said that the environmental version of Bizzaro superman now sits at the helm of the agency that, in the US, is responsible for protecting the environment. Video source: Youtube.)

Despite these difficulties, Trump and his allies can probably effectively slow the renewable energy revolution down — to the great harm of pretty much everything living on Earth. Despite this fact, it’s well worth noting that renewable energy grew up into the economic force it is today despite continued attempts to stymie its growth by fossil fuel special interest groups over at least the past half-century. The rise of Trump and of so many powerful fossil fuel connected politicians around the world today can well be seen as a reactionary outgrowth of the old and inherently autocratic economic power associated with fossil fuels. One that is arguably now suffering an existential crisis. For the threat to fossil fuels now posed by renewables has grown considerably. In the U.S., solar alone accounted for 1 in 50 new jobs in 2016. In other words, substantially rolling back the renewable industry at this time would be very harmful to the U.S. economy. The systemic forces now protecting renewables are stronger than ever before simply due to the fact that the U.S. economic system increasingly has come to rely and depend on them.

But this inherent system change hasn’t stopped the Trump administration and its allied republicans from trying to sabotage the very forces that threaten a big chunk of their power base. And their initial efforts to this end since the election have involved rolling back key environmental laws and practices (those helpful bits of government that republicans like to blanket-label ‘regulation’). An example of this is the recent removal of rules requiring fossil fuel companies to report methane emissions at the EPA. A move that Vera Pardee of the Center for Biological Diversity identified as an attempt to turn “the EPA into an oil industry vending machine.”

Where the Trump Administration isn’t withdrawing the EPA from its responsibilities to prevent environmental harms by applying publicly helpful government oversight to industry, it’s attempting to de-fund the EPA altogether. A recent budget proposal by Trump aimed at raising defense spending by 54 billion on the backs of cuts to domestic agencies would have slashed the EPA’s scientific workforce, removed funding for key protections like preventing lead from entering U.S. drinking water, and slashed the EPA climate change prevention program by 70 percent.

Thankfully, Trump’s draconian cuts to domestic spending, the EPA, and public health are unlikely to make it through even a republican controlled Congress. But his budget proposal is an excellent illustration of how a far-right government tries to govern in the US these days — leverage puffed up fears of outsiders and a hyper-focus on security and defense to force cuts in critical programs while always denying the necessity of actually raising revenues through taxation to fund beneficial public programs.

In a related reference, Steve Hanley, responding to Trump’s transport secretary’s cuts to electric rail funding succinctly noted today that:

Republicans hate high-speed rail. In fact, Republicans pretty much hate spending taxpayer dollars on anything that might benefit taxpayers. They would prefer to give the money to defense contractors, corporate executives, and Wall Street investment bankers. After all, those are the folks who paid to get them elected.

The same could be said for the Trump Admin overall which was a monstrosity that grew up out of Wall Street and that apparently got a huge assist from the Russian petrostate by hacking and cyber-warfaring their way to electoral success in the 2016 U.S. Presidential race. And to this final point it’s worth noting that the significant political headwinds those concerned about climate change now face issue from all the groups that have produced so much resistance to helpful climate action in the past. From corrupt smokestack industries and from even more corrupt petrostates headed by autocratic dictators with a penchant for funding right wing groups in an attempt destabilize the world’s democratic governments as apparently now happened (at least to some degree) to the Executive Branch in the United States.

(UPDATED)

Hat tips

Colorado Bob

Cate

Keith

Andy in San Diego

Ryan in New England

Redsky

Sean Redmond

Dave W

Mlparrish

Spike

Wharf Rat

Clean Technica

Gas2

DW

The Washington Post

The New York Times

The Huffington Post

Nature

 

 

The Killer Seas Begin — Mass Marine Death off Chile as Ocean Acidification Begins to Take Down Florida’s Reef

We should be very clear. There is no way to save the beautiful and majestic coral reefs of our world without a rapid cessation of fossil fuel burning. And, if we continue burning fossil fuels, we will not only lose the reefs and corals — we will also turn the world’s oceans into a mass extinction engine.

Chile Mass Sea Life Die Off

(Masses of dead sea life wash up onto Chile’s shores after the worst red tide in history for that nation. As we witness the tragic carnage in Chile, we should remember that the red tide there, the mass coral bleaching in the Great Barrier Reef of Australia, and the onset of ocean acidification damage to the Florida Reef are all linked by the same thread — fossil fuel burning and a related heating up of the global climate. Image source: Largest Red Tide in Chilean History.)

Mass Extinction Driven by the Awful Engine of Greed

Killer Seas. That’s what we’re turning the world’s oceans into in our allowing the fossil fuel industry to retain dominance over the world’s energy sources. In allowing them to continue to keep us captive to the burning of high carbon fuels through their corrupting and pervasive political and economic power. We certainly bear some of the blame for apathetically allowing ourselves to be hood-winked and lead about by the noses. But we shouldn’t fault ourselves too much. For the blame mostly rests within the policy-making apparatuses of dominance-based economic systems and in the very few individuals around the world who now hold the keys to that power.

An enforced global injustice set in place by wealthy individuals like the Koch Brothers, Rupert Murdoch and Warren Buffet  — who through a corrupt monetary influence regularly hijack the political process to protect legacy fossil fuel assets and to assault renewable energy industries. Those like the members of the governing board of Exxon Mobile — who have waged a decades-long campaign to misinform the public on the dangers of human-caused climate change. These so-called global elites are the authors of the climate change denial that has now crippled and deeply divided most legislative bodies around the world. The same fossil fuel drug pushers who’ve worked so hard to keep the global economic system addicted to the most damaging and corrupting of energy sources — oil, gas and coal.

These people are the real monsters of the climate crisis. The ones who, often without any kind of visibility or accountability, have done everything they can to ensure that we, the people of an ailing Earth, have less and less power to make the right decisions and to form the kind of political consensus that would actually provide a pathway to leading us out of this worsening global nightmare. And so, whether we individually realize it now or not, we are in the fight of our lives — what is likely to be the most important struggle for justice that the human race has ever undertaken. For as difficult as such a fight will ultimately be — we must fight the fossil fuel interests and win if human civilization and much of life on Earth is to survive.

The Advent of Killer Seas

I don’t usually talk about religion here in this blog. And I’m not what many people would consider to be a religious person. I do not, for example, attend church very often. Nor do I tend to agree with many so-called religious authorities — whom I often see as short-sighted and relying too much on mythical and dogmatic beliefs that are at best failures in logic and at worst the outgrowths of institutional corruption or general backwards-thinking and small-mindedness. But in this particular case — in the case of the killer seas that are starting to plague our world — I cannot help but to often be struck by how one of the deadly sins that the Bible warns of is resulting in so much terrible harm to the Earth, to its creatures, and to her people. And it is impossible to turn away from the clear-sighted and beautifully written moral imperative laid down by the Pope Francis in his Encyclical. A warning that we should all heed and not turn our eyes from.

Nothing is frozen by Miep

(Nothing is Frozen — by Miep. This is what happens when the world loses its ice — Killer Seas. Image source: There are So Many Things Wrong With This.)

For in the book of Revelation, the Bible speaks of a terrible global disaster. One that begins when the seas turn blood-red and a third of all the fish are killed. Many have interpreted this book, this passage, as a kind of inevitable wrath of a literal God coming down from heaven to divide and punish the human race. But I think that this is a false interpretation. A loving, nurturing God is not a God of Wrath. No, that does not ring true to me at all. I think of this passage, this book, instead as a kind of stark warning against the direct and deadly consequences of bad actions. Of what happens to us if we succumb to what the Bible identifies as the sin of greed. For ‘the love of money is the root of all evil.’

The Bible is, after all, a sort of lore of the ancients passed down over hundreds of generations. A book of parables and lessons for how human beings should treat one another in ways that help not only individuals — but the entire race to survive. In this way, the Bible could be seen as an ancient guide for civilization survival. A book that includes numerous passages on how cities and nations can prosper by living in balance with one another and with nature. And one that issues this essential and stark warning to those who do not treat the Earth and her creatures with kindness. For ‘those who destroy the Earth shall be destroyed.’

Well, we’ve already destroyed 2/3 the globe’s predatory fish that humans eat through over-fishing alone. But the kind of ocean-wrecking destruction of callously-over-fishing pales in comparison to what happens when the short-sighted protection of money in the form of ‘legacy fossil fuel assets’ forces the dumping of billions of tons of toxic carbon into the world’s airs and waters. If you do that, then the ocean really does turn blood-red and purple-red. If you do that, you unleash the mass extinction machine that was the killing mechanism in four of the five great die offs in Earth’s deep history. You begin to temp the fates by invoking the names Permian, Triassic, Devonian, and Ordovician. And if you allow the fossil fuel powers to keep on doing it for the sake of their imagined wealth, then you make the oceans so acidic that the skeletons of the fragile and yet ever-so-beautiful and necessary creatures living within the world’s waters dissolve.

Florida’s Coral Reefs Start to Dissolve

Here, we’ve frequently warned of the two-pronged threat posed to global coral reefs as a result of human fossil fuel burning. In the south, as oceans heat up due to fossil fuel emissions, coral bleaching begins to take hold. Becoming more pervasive as temperatures rise into a range between 1 and 2 C above preindustrial averages, by the 2030s about 90 percent of the world’s reefs will fall under threat of ghosting away into whiteness.

This year, we saw some of these stark consequences begin to unfold as the Great Barrier Reef suffered a horrific bleaching event. This kind of event was predicted and expected by ocean researchers. Brave scientists who acted as modern-day prophets in their issuing of warnings to Australian and global governments. Governments which are now, in so many cases, stacked to the gills (due to the corrupting influence of fossil fuel money mentioned earlier) with the political extremists we today call climate change deniers.

The second prong of the threat to global reefs comes in the form of ocean acidification spreading down from the north. Because waters in northern regions of the world are colder, they are able to take in more of the excess greenhouse gasses produced. As more carbon is drawn into these colder waters, their acidity increases to the point that ocean organisms with calcium carbonate skeletons begin to see those skeletons dissolve. And corals are one of many key ocean organisms that possess calcium carbonate skeletal structures.

Carysfort Reef Dissolved Due to Ocean Acidification

(A global ocean acidification front resulting from a rampant burning of fossil fuels is starting to dissolve higher latitude reef systems. The Carysfort Reef — above — has had numerous coral structures completely dismembered due to ocean acidification creeping into this section of the Florida Reef. Image source: Science Daily.)

Until recently, the threat of ocean acidification to reef systems was still thought to be at least a couple of decades off. And many mainstream scientists believed that acidification would not seriously threaten corals until the 2050s. Unfortunately, a new study has found that the United States’ only large reef — stretching from Biscayne Bay to the Looe Key National Marine Sanctuary in the Atlantic Ocean — is now starting to waste away due to ocean acidification. A surprising event that researchers are saying is disturbing, unprecedented, and unexpectedly soon.

According to a recent article in National Geographic:

University of Miami scientists called the collapse of the reef’s limestone framework, a critical habitat for fish, “unprecedented” and “cause for alarm.” “Lots of scientists think that ocean acidification is not going to be a problem until 2050 or 2060,” says Chris Langdon, a marine biology professor at the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science. “This is happening now. We’ve just lost 35 years we thought we had to turn things around.”

In essence, the reef is wasting away. During the Spring and Summer, reef-building corals bloom and produce the calcium carbonate (limestone) structure that is the body of the Florida Reef. During Fall and Winter, however, reef building activity halts and the newly acidified water begins to take limestone away. The study found that the rate of loss now exceeds the rate of gain. The corals aren’t able to keep up, the reef has reached a tipping point, and the limestone structures the corals rely on for life is dissolving.

The Florida Reef is one of the highest Latitude coral reef structures in the world. But if it is starting to succumb to ocean acidification now, it means the progress of the acidification front is presently, during 2016, starting to enter regions the corals inhabit. If fossil fuel burning continues and atmospheric CO2 concentrations — this year peaking at around 408 parts per million at the Mauna Loa Observatory — continue to rise, it won’t be long before a growing portion of the world’s reefs begin to succumb to effects similar to those now destroying the Florida Reef.

And while coral bleaching is a condition that reefs have at least some chance to recover from, acidification is inevitably lethal. Once a certain oceanic carbon concentration is reached, acidification impacts the reef for 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, robbing it of the very skeletal structures necessary for coral survival. And since about 1/4 of all the fish in all the world’s oceans (not just the large, predatory fish we eat) rely on coral reef systems for their own life-giving habitats, the loss of coral reefs would truly be a disaster of biblical proportion.

Hot Pacific Ocean Runs Bloody off the Coast of Chile

Back during March, another lethal ocean condition associated with a warming of the world’s waters began to appear in the ocean zone off the southern coast of Chile. There, a massive algae bloom spread over a region where sea surface temperatures were ranging between 1 and 3 C hotter than normal.

Chile Sea Surface Temperatures

(Abnormally warm sea surface temperatures driven by human forced climate change sparked a the largest red tide ever witnessed off the coast of Chile. The image above shows sea surface temperature anomalies as recorded in late March of 2016 by Earth Nullschool.)

The algae bloom — called a red tide — generated toxic levels of domoic acid that subsequently killed off massive amounts of clams, fish, and even marine mammals. Beaches across Chile were littered with dead sea creatures and Chilean officials are now saying that the current red tide is the worst ever to occur off Chile.

The red tide forced Chilean officials to ground the nation’s fishing fleets — sparking mass riots and protests as thousands of poor fishermen lost access to their means of generating a livelihood. The Chilean government has since offered 150 million dollars in aid to the fishermen. But locals say it’s not enough to make ends meet. The severe blow to the fishing industry, which makes up 0.5 percent of Chile’s GDP, will also negatively effect the Chilean economy. This severe red tide has lasted for months now. But recent reports indicate that the bloom is growing larger as more and more sea life succumbs.

As has been the trend with most major media sources this year, El Nino has been linked by BBC and others to this record red tide. But doing so is short-sighted and fails to take into account the larger context of the global climate picture. Warm ocean waters are well known to generate conditions favorable for red tide development. The warmer waters favor a more rapid rate of algae reproduction and allow algae access to a greater range of food sources. Over the past Century, the world has warmed by more than 1 C above preindustrial levels. And this year is the hottest on record — not due to El Nino, but due to a century-long increase in temperatures exploring a new threshold of extreme global heat.

The seas turn red off Chile

(An algae bloom spurred by global warming is turning the waters off Chile blood-red. Poisonous domoic acid and mass fish and sea life killings resulting from this event are wrecking Chile’s fishing industry, ruining the lives of poor fishermen, and damaging Chile’s economy. Image source: Lethal Red Tide.)

In the Northeast Pacific, this record global heat forced waters there to new extremes — setting off a 2015 record red tide together with a chain of related mass mortality events affecting ocean life. An event that is linked, by ocean warming and climate change, to the largest ever red tide in Chile. One that is also linked, by climate change, to the terrible damage inflicted upon the Great Barrier Reef this year due to coral bleaching. One that is linked to ocean acidification now starting to take down the Florida Reef. And since we are taking a moment to engage in establishing links in a chain of evidence, we can draw one last link from all these events to the ongoing fossil fuel emission that is still being vomited into the world’s airs by an industry that is, itself, nothing more than a means for some of the world’s richest people to continue to increase their amount of individually accumulated wealth.

Ultimately, it’s pretty clear that people all over the world have a crucial choice to make —

What’s more important? The ability of a few people to grow their wealth through the continued burning of fossil fuels? Or the preservation of the vitality of the oceans which all life on Earth ultimately depends upon and the prevention of the warming that will transform the life-giving waters into Killer Seas?

To this point, I’ll leave you with the end-note of the recent National Geographic article on corals succumbing to ocean acidification:

“The only way to prevent that is to prevent the build-up of CO2 in the atmosphere.”

Links:

Ocean Acidification Impacting Reefs in the Florida Keys

Predatory Fish Have Declined by Two-Thirds

A Death of Beauty

The Pope’s Encyclical

Awakening the Horrors of the Ancient Hothouse

Chile’s Red Tide Outbreak Widens

Lethal Red Tide

Hot Pacific Ocean Runs Bloody

Warren Buffet’s Disaster Capitalism

Still Disinforming — Exxon Mobile’s Continued Culpability in Climate Change Denial

Earth Nullschool

There are So Many Things Wrong With This

Hat tip to Colorado Bob

A Death of Beauty — Climate Change is Bleaching the Great Barrier Reef Out of Existence

Extinction.

It’s a hard, tough thing to consider. One of those possibilities people justifiably do not want to talk about. This notion that a creature we’re fond of and familiar with — a glorious living being along with all its near and distant relatives — could be entirely removed from the web of existence here on Earth.

Our aversion to the topic likely stems from our own fear of death. Or worse — the notion that the entire human race might eventually be faced with such an end. But extinction is a threat that we’ll see arising more and more as we force the world to rapidly warm. For species of the world now face existential crisis with increasing frequency as atmospheric and ocean temperatures have risen so fast that a growing number of them have simply become unable to cope with the heat.

The Great Barrier Reef of Australia — the world’s largest single structure made up of living organisms — is no exception. For this 1,440 mile long expanse of corals composed of more than 2,900 individual reefs that has existed in one form or another for 600,000 years has suffered a severe blow — one from which it may never be able to recover. One that appears likely to kill up to 90 percent of its corals along previously pristine regions in its northern half.

(Governments failed to listen to the warnings of scientists like Terry Hughes. Now, it appears that the Great Barrier Reef has been hit by a blow from coral bleaching from which it may never be able to recover. Video source: Australian Broadcasting on the Great Barrier Reef’s Worst Coral Bleaching Event on Record.)

The damage comes in the form of extreme ocean heat. Heat resulting from global temperatures that are now well in excess of 1 degree C above preindustrial times. Heat that has forced ocean temperature variability into a range that is now lethal for certain forms of sea life. Particularly for the world’s corals which are now suffering and dying through the worst global bleaching event ever experienced.

The Worst Global Coral Bleaching Event Ever Experienced

During 2014 the oceans began to heat up into never-before seen temperature ranges. This warming initiated a global coral bleaching event that worsened throughout 2015. By early 2016 global surface temperatures rocketed to about 1.5 C above 1880s averages for the months of February and March. These new record high temperatures came on the back of annual carbon emissions now in the range of 13 billion tons each year and at the hotter end of the global natural variability cycle called El Nino. Both the atmosphere near the land surface and the upper levels of the ocean experienced this extreme warming.

In the ocean, corals rely on symbiotic microbes to aid in the production of energy for their cellular bodies. These microbes are what give the corals their wild arrays of varied and brilliant colors. But if water temperatures rise high enough, the symbiotic microbes that the corals rely on begin to produce substances that are toxic to the corals. At this point, the corals expel the microbes and lose their brilliant coloration — reverting to a stark white.

Worst coral bleaching event on record

(A vast region of the world’s ocean system continues to experience coral bleaching. In area, extent, height of extreme temperature, and duration, the current global coral bleaching event is the worst ever experienced by a good margin. As global temperatures continue to warm due to ongoing fossil fuel burning and related carbon emissions, widespread coral bleaching is likely to become an annual occurrence. Temperatures have risen far enough and will continue to rise for long enough to set about ocean conditions that will result in mass coral die-offs around the world. Image source: NOAA.)

Bleaching isn’t necessarily lethal to corals. However, once the microbes are gone, the corals have lost a key energy source and will eventually die without them. If ocean temperatures return to normal soon enough, the corals can begin to accept the symbiotic microbes back, return to a healthy cellular energy production, and survive — albeit in a weakened and more vulnerable state for some time to come. But if ocean temperatures remain too warm for an extended period, then the corals will be deprived of energy and nutrients for too long and they will inevitably perish.

The kind of coral bleaching event that we’re experiencing now is a mass killer of corals. Not simply due to the heat itself, but due to the long duration of the extreme temperature spike. By late February, many ocean scientists were very concerned about the already severe damage reports that were starting to come in. At that time, NOAA issued this warning:

“We are currently experiencing the longest global coral bleaching event ever observed. We may be looking at a 2- to 2½-year-long event. Some areas have already seen bleaching two years in a row.”

93 Percent of Great Barrier Reef Affected by Bleaching

By late February, the level of concern for the Great Barrier Reef was palpable. Stark reports were starting to come in from places like Fiji — which had experienced two years of severe bleaching — and Christmas Atoll about 1,300 miles south of Hawaii — whose reported losses were best described as staggering. So far, the worst of the hot water had stayed away from Australia’s great reef.

But by early March a plume of very extreme ocean heat began to appear over The Great Barrier Reef’s northern sections. Sea surface temperatures spiked to well above, a dangerous to corals, 30 degrees Celsius for days and weeks. This 30 C or greater heat extended deep — hitting as far as 50 meters below the ocean surface over the reef. And it rippled southward — hitting section after section until few parts of the reef were spared.

Terry Hughes, one of the world’s foremost experts on the Great Barrier Reef, on March 18th tweeted his fear and anguish over the situation:

Terry Hughes tweet

At this point, there was no stopping the tragedy. Fossil fuel emissions had already warmed the airs and waters to levels deadly to the living reef. It was all researchers could do to work frantically to assess the damage. Teams of the world’s top reef scientists swept out — performing an extensive survey of the losses. More than 911 reef systems were assessed and, in total, the teams found that fully 93 percent of the Great Barrier Reef system had experienced some level of bleaching.

Final Death Toll for Some Sections Likely to Exceed 90 Percent

In extent, this was the worst bleaching event for the Great Barrier Reef by a long shot. Back during the previous most severe bleaching events of 1998 and 2002, 42 percent and 54 percent of the reef was affected. By any measure, the greatly expanded 2016 damage was catastrophic. “We’ve never seen anything like this scale of bleaching before. In the northern Great Barrier Reef, it’s like 10 cyclones have come ashore all at once,”said Professor Terry Hughes in the ARC coral bleaching report.

Out of all the reefs surveyed in the report, just 7% escaped bleaching. Most of these reefs occupied the southern section — a region that was spared the worst of the current bleaching event due to cooler water upwelling provided by the powerful winds of Hurricane Winston. But impacts to the Northern section of the reef could best be described as stark. There, a section composing almost the entire northern half of the reef saw between 60 and 100% of corals experiencing severe bleaching. In the reports, Hughes notes that many of these corals are not likely to survive. In the hardest hit reefs — which were in the most remote sections least affected by Australia’s industrial run-off — algae has been observed growing over 50 percent of the corals affected — an indication that these corals are already dead:

“Tragically, this is the most remote part of the Reef, and its remoteness has protected it from most human pressures: but not climate change. North of Port Douglas, we’re already measuring an average of close to 50% mortality of bleached corals. At some reefs, the final death toll is likely to exceed 90%. When bleaching is this severe it affects almost all coral species, including old, slow-growing corals that once lost will take decades or longer to return (Emphasis added).”

But with the oceans still warming, and with more and still worse coral bleaching events almost certainly on the way, the question has to be asked — will these corals ever be afforded the opportunity to recover?

A Context of Catastrophe with Worse Still to Come

As ocean surface temperatures are now entering a range of 1 C or more above 1880s levels, corals are expected to experience bleaching with greater and greater frequency. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 2007 identified the time-frame of 2012 to 2040 as a period of rising and extreme risk to corals due to bleaching. IPCC also identified bleaching as the greatest threat to corals and related reef-dependent sea life.

When ocean surface temperatures warm into a range of 2 C above 1880s levels — the kind of severe global heating that could arise under worst-case fossil fuel emissions and related warming scenarios by the mid 2030s — corals in the Great Barrier Reef are expected to experience bleaching on an annual basis. Every year, in other words, would be a mass coral bleaching and die-off year.

image

(Sea surface temperatures and temperatures withing the top 50 meters of water over the Great Barrier Reef of Australia rose to 3-4 C above average during the austral Summer and Fall of 2016. These record temperatures lasted for weeks in some regions setting off the worst coral bleaching event the Great Barrier Reef has ever seen. By mid-Century, coral bleaching and mass die-offs are likely to occur on an annual basis as global temperatures surpass the 1.5 C and 2 C thresholds. Image source: Earth Nullschool.)

Globally, bleaching events under even moderate fossil fuel emissions scenarios would tend to take up much of the Equatorial region on an annual basis by mid-Century. Events that can, during single years, wipe out between 90 and 95 percent of corals at any given location. A handful of corals will likely survive these events — representing a remote and far-flung remnant who were simply a bit hardier, or lucky, or who had developed an ability to accept microbes that are tolerant to warmer temperatures. But these hardy or fortunate few would take hundreds to thousands of years to re-establish previous coral reef vitality even if other harmful ocean conditions did not arrive to provide still more damage.

As coral bleaching expands at the Equator due to increasing rates of ocean warming, increasing levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere causes oceans to become more acidic. Cooler waters at the poles are better able to transfer gasses into the ocean’s waters. And higher levels of carbon dioxide in the world ocean results in a growing acidity that is harmful to corals. Increasing levels of ocean acidity thus creep down from the poles at the same time that bleaching events move up from the Equator.

If fossil fuel emissions continue, by mid-Century atmospheric carbon dioxide levels in the range of 450 to 500 parts per million will have provided a never-before seen spike to ocean acidity. Such high ocean acidity would then provide a second severe blow to corals already devastated by bleaching events. It’s a 1-2 punch that represents a mass extinction threat for corals this Century. And we’re starting to see the severe impacts ramp up now.

ocean-acification-through-2050

(Coral bleaching is a severe threat to tropical coral reefs now. But CO2 potentially hitting above 500 parts per million, according to a 2014 study, risks a complete loss of equatorial coral reefs by 2050 to 2100. Between bleaching and acidification, there’s no way out for corals so long as fossil fuel burning continues. Image source: Threat to Coral Reefs From Ocean Acidification.)

The only hope for stopping this ever-expanding harm is a rapid cessation of fossil fuel emissions. And we owe it to the corals of the world, the millions of species that depend on them, and the hundreds of millions of people whose food sources and economic well being come from the corals.

“And Then We Wept”

When researchers told students of the extent of harm to corals upon the Great Barrier Reef, the students were reported to have wept. And with good reason. For our Earth had just experienced a profound death of beauty. A death of a vital and wondrous living treasure of our world. A priceless liquid gem of our Earth. A wonder that gives life to millions of species and one that grants both food and vitality to Australia herself. For if the reef goes, so does a huge portion of the living wealth of that Nation and our world.

Sadly, the tears will just keep coming and coming as these kinds of events are bound to worsen without the most dramatic and urgent global actions. The current and most recent catastrophe is thus yet one more in a litany of wake up calls to the world. But will we hear it loud and clear enough to act in ways that are necessary to ensure the corals survival? And what of the billions of creatures and of the millions of humans too that depend on the corals? Do we care about them enough to act?

Links:

Only Seven Percent of the Great Barrier Reef Has Avoided Coral Bleaching

And Then We Wept: 93 Percent of the Great Barrier Reef Now Bleached

NOAA’s Coral Reef Watch

Earth Nullschool

Coral Reefs Hit by Worst Coral Bleaching Event

Terry Hughes Twitter Feed

Coral Bleaching

Threat to Coral Reefs From Ocean Acidification

Ocean Acidification: We are Looking at the Complete Loss of Tropical Coral Reefs by 2050 to 2100

Australian Broadcasting on the Great Barrier Reef’s Worst Coral Bleaching Event on Record

Hat tip to Caroline

Hat tip to Spike

Hat tip to Colorado Bob

Hat tip to Ryan in New England

Hat tip to Griffon

(Please support public, non-special interest based science like the essential work that has been provided by Terry Hughes over so many years and decades. Scientists like Terry provide a vital public service. For years, they have given us a clear warning of a very real and ever more present danger. A warning that gives us a fleeting opportunity to respond to events before we lose the richest living treasures of our world. Before we are bereft of our ability to continue to make livelihoods as environmental abundance and the related regional and global life support systems are irreparably damaged.)

Human Hothouse Spurs Longest Coral Die-Off on Record

The big coral die-off began in the Western Pacific as a massive ocean temperature spike built up during 2014. Back then, ocean heat accumulation had hit a very high ramp. A vicious, century-and-a-half long increase in atmospheric greenhouse gasses re-radiated greater and greater portions of the sun’s energy hitting the Earth — transferring the bulk (about 90 percent) to the world ocean system.

Major Coral Bleaching Event

(A report out today from AGU finds that the world is now experiencing its longest coral die-off event on record. Image source: AGU.)

By 2015, as one of the strongest El Ninos on record began to extend its influence across the globe, a broad region stretching from the Western Pacific, through the Central Pacific and on into the Eastern Pacific and Caribbean were all experiencing mass coral die-offs. Into early 2016, die-off events again expanded taking in Australian waters and sections of the Indian Ocean off East Africa and Western India.

After 20 months of ongoing coral mortality, we are now in the midst of the longest coral die-off event on record — one of only four such events that the world has ever experienced.

The Fourth Major Coral Die-Off

Researchers have long known that corals are sensitive to changes in ocean temperature. A rise in ocean water readings by as little as 1 degree Celsius above average peaks over the period of a month can be enough to set off a life-threatening condition called a coral bleaching event. According to a recent report in AGU:

The bleaching, or whitening, occurs when the corals expel the symbiotic algae that live in their tissues. Without the algae, corals lose a significant source of food and are more vulnerable to disease. In a severe bleaching event, large swaths of reef-building corals die. This causes reefs to erode, destroying fish habitat and exposing previously protected shorelines to the destructive force of ocean waves.

The typical bleaching threshold for most corals tends to be in the range of 29-30 degrees Celsius or about 84-86 degrees Fahrenheit over an extended period. And with the world ocean surface approaching a range near 1 C above 1880s averages, this threshold is hit more and more frequently — putting corals at greater and greater risk.

(World Resources Institute Published the above video in 2012 as a survey of, then current, threats to global coral reef systems. By 2030, heating of the world ocean system, ocean acidification and global warming related dead zones will provide an extreme existential challenge to the world’s beautiful and diverse coral reef systems.)

Prior to the 1980s, widespread coral bleaching events were unheard of. Though isolated events occurred, the world ocean system had not yet warmed enough to put corals at major risk. However, by the 1980s global ocean temperatures had begun to rise into ranges at which peak ocean warming periods could put corals in the firing line for major, globe-spanning die offs.

The first such major, global coral die-off occurred during the, then record, 1982-1983 El Nino. At the time this event was unprecedented. And it held the dubious standing as the only such event until the 1997-1998 Super El Nino set off a similar, though longer-lasting mass die off. By the late 2000s, global ocean temperatures had again risen — hitting marks high enough to enable a weak 2010 El Nino to set off the third mass coral die-off.

The fourth mass die off began in 2014 prior to the most recent super El Nino — which has only exaggerated and lengthened its impact. It is now the longest lasting coral die-off ever recorded. And researchers expect it to continue on through at least much of 2016 and possibly into 2017.

Corals Entering a Period of Killing Heat

As the oceans are predicted to continue warming over the next few decades, corals are expected to come under ever-worsening stress. A recent report by the World Resources Institute (WRI) found that regions experiencing the current mass die-off were 70-90 percent likely to experience similar events at a frequency of once every two years by 2030. And a much larger region was expected to have a 50 to 70 percent risk of experiencing a bleaching event over a two year time-frame.

future_bleaching_web_low-res-preview1

(World Resources Institute in 2012 found that mass coral bleaching and related die-off would occur with extraordinary frequency post 2030. Image source: The World Resources Institute.)

By the 2050s, under business as usual fossil fuel burning, WRI expects that much of the world’s temperate and tropical oceans would experience coral bleaching events bi-annually.

Taking this stark prediction into account we find that the threat to corals over the coming decades will eventually exceed El Nino periodicity and become common during most ocean climate states. The current, likely two year to 30 month, coral die off should serve as a warning for the worse and more frequent hits to corals that will, sadly, be stacking up over the coming decades. Eventually, mass coral die-offs in the continually warming world ocean will become continuous and ubiquitous unless the current trend somehow draws swiftly to a halt.

In addition, given an expanding ocean acidification proceeding southward from the poles and more and more widespread zones of ocean anoxia (areas of water containing very little oxygen), what we are seeing is that threats to coral health are rapidly multiplying due to influences directly related to human-forced climate change.

Links:

El Nino Prolongs Longest Coral Bleaching Event

NOAA: Coral Bleaching Background

World Resources Institute Shows Widespread Coral Bleaching by 2030

The World Resources Institute

Hat Tip to TodaysGuestIs

Hat Tip to DT Lange

 

Is Human Warming Prodding A Sleeping Methane Monster off Oregon’s Coast?

We’ve talked quite a bit about the Arctic Methane Monster — the potential that a rapidly warming Arctic will force the release of disproportionately large volumes of methane from organic material locked in permafrost and in frozen sea bed hydrates composing volumes of this powerful greenhouse gas large enough to significantly increase the pace of human-forced global warming. But if we consider the globe as a whole, the Arctic isn’t the only place where large methane stores lurk — laying in wait for the heat we’ve already added to the world’s oceans and atmosphere to trigger their release. And a new study out of the University of Washington provides yet another indication that the continental shelf off Oregon and Washington may be one of many emerging methane release hot spots.

For all around the world, and beneath the broad, blue expanse of the world’s seas, rest billions and billions of tons of frozen methane hydrate.

A kind of methane and ice combination, frozen hydrate is one of the world’s most effective natural methods of trapping and sequestering carbon. Over long ages, organic material at the bottom of the oceans decompose into hydrocarbons, often breaking down into methane gas. At high pressure and low temperature, this methane gas can be locked away in a frozen water-ice hydrate lattice, which is then often buried beneath the sea bed where it can safely remain for thousands or even millions of years.

Plume2_nolabels_cropped

(Plume of methane bubbles rising from the sea floor off the Oregon Coast. This image shows methane bubbles originating from the sea bed about 515 meters below the surface before dissolving into the water column at about 180 meters depth. Image source: American Geophysical Union.)

Most of these deposits lay well beneath the sea bed or at extreme ocean depths of one mile or greater. And so far, human forced warming hasn’t been great enough to risk the destabilization of most of these deep ocean carbon stores. But some hydrate deposits rest in the shallower waters of continental slope systems and at depths where current warming may now be causing them to destabilize.

Scientists Think Methane Hydrates May be Destabilizing off Oregon

Enter a new study by University of Washington scientists which found “an unusually high number of bubble plumes at the depth where methane hydrate would decompose if seawater has warmed.” The scientists concluded that these bubble plumes were likely evidence of methane hydrate destabilization due to a human forced warming of the water column in the range of about 500 meters of depth.

The warm waters, ironically, come from a region off Siberia where the deep waters have, over recent decades, been heated to unprecedented temperatures. These waters have, in turn, through ocean current exchange, circulated to the off-shore region of Washington and Oregon where they appear to have gone to work destabilizing methane hydrate in the continental slope zone. A paper published during 2014 hypothesized that these warm waters would have an impact on hydrates. And the new paper is the first potential confirmation of these earlier predictions.

In total about 168 methane plumes are now observed to be bubbling out of the sea bed off the Washington and Oregon coasts. Of these, 14 are located in the 500 meter depth range where ocean warming has pushed temperatures to levels at which hydrate could begin to destabilize. University of Washington researchers noted that the number of plumes at this depth range was disproportionately high, which also served as an indirect indicator that human heating may be causing this methane to release.

PlumesMap

(Locations of methane plumes in the continental slope zone off Washington and Oregon. The location of a disproportionate number of these plumes in a zone now featuring a warming water column is an indication that the human-forced heating of ocean currents is starting to drive some methane hydrate structures to destabilize. Image source: AGU.)

Lead author H. Paul Johnson, a University of Washington professor of oceanography noted in AGU:

“So it is not likely to be just emitted from the sediments; this appears to be coming from the decomposition of methane that has been frozen for thousands of years… What we’re seeing is possible confirmation of what we predicted from the water temperatures: Methane hydrate appears to be decomposing and releasing a lot of gas. If you look systematically, the location on the margin where you’re getting the largest number of methane plumes per square meter, it is right at that critical depth of 500 meters.””

Implications For Ocean Health, Carbon Cycle

Most methane released at this depth never reaches the atmosphere. Instead, it either oxidizes to CO2 in the water column or is converted by ocean bacteria. That said, expanding zones of methane release can rob the surrounding ocean of vital oxygen even as it can saturate the water column with carbon — increasing ocean acidification and reducing the local ocean’s ability to draw carbon out of the atmosphere. Such a response can indirectly increase the volume of heat trapping gasses in the atmosphere by reducing the overall rate of ocean carbon uptake. In more extreme cases, methane bubbles reach the surface where they then vent directly into the atmosphere, proportionately adding to the human-produced greenhouse gasses that have already put the world into a regime of rapid warming.

It has been hypothesized that large methane releases from ocean hydrate stores contributed to past hothouse warming events and related mass extinctions like the Permian and the PETM (See A Deadly Climb From Glaciation to Hothouse). But the more immediate consequences of smaller scale releases are related to declining ocean health.

According to AGU and Dr. Johnson, the study author:

Marine microbes convert the methane into carbon dioxide, producing lower-oxygen, more-acidic conditions in the deeper offshore water, which eventually wells up along the coast and surges into coastal waterways. “Current environmental changes in Washington and Oregon are already impacting local biology and fisheries, and these changes would be amplified by the further release of methane,” Johnson said.

Instances of mass sea life die-off have already occurred at a very high frequency off the Washington and Oregon Coasts. And many of these instances have been associated with a combination of low oxygen content in the near and off shore waters, increasing ocean acidification, increasing dangerous algae blooms, and an overall warming ocean system. It’s important to note that ocean acidification, though often cited in the media, is just one of many threats to ocean life and health. In many cases, low oxygen dead zones and large microbial blooms can be even more deadly. And in the most extreme low oxygen regions, the water column can start to fill up with deadly hydrogen sulfide gas — a toxic substance that, at high enough concentrations, kills off pretty much all oxygen-based life (See Hydrogen Sulfide in the World’s Warming Oceans).

During recent years, mass sea life deaths have been linked to a ‘hot blob’ forming in nearby waters (See Mass Whale Death in Northeast Pacific — Hot Blob’s Record Algae Bloom to Blame?). However, indicators of low oxygen in the waters near Washington and Oregon have been growing in frequency since the early 2000s. Though the paper does not state this explicitly — increasing rates of methane release in the off-shore waters due to hydrate destabilization may already be contributing to declining ocean health in the region.

Slope Collapse, Conditions in Context

A final risk associated with methane hydrate destabilization in the continental slope zone is an increased prevalence of potential slope collapse. As methane hydrate releases, it can deform the sea bed structures within slope systems. Such systems become less stable, increasing the potential for large underwater landslides. Not only could these large landslides displace significant volumes of water or even set off tsunamis, slope collapse events also risk uncovering and exposing more hydrate systems to the warming ocean in a kind of amplifying feedback.

In context, the total volume of methane being released into the off-shore environment is currently estimated to be about 0.1 million metric tons each year. That’s about the same rate of hydrocarbon release seen from the Deepwater Horizon blowout. A locally large release but still rather small in size compared to the whopping 10+ billion tons of carbon being dumped into the atmosphere each year through human fossil fuel burning. However, this release is widespread, uncontrolled, un-cappable and, if scientists are correct in their indications of a human warming influence, likely to continue to increase as the oceans warm further.

Links:

Bubble Plumes off Washington and Oregon Suggest Warmer Ocean May be Releasing Frozen Methane

Geochemistry, Geophysics, Geosystems

Warming Oceans May be Spewing Methane off US West Coast

Concern Over Catastrophic Methane Release

Hydrogen Sulfide in the World’s Warming Oceans

Mass Whale Death in Northeast Pacific — Hot Blob’s Record Algae Bloom to Blame?

A Deadly Climb From Glaciation to Hothouse

Hat tip to Humortra

Ocean Acidification: We are Looking at the Complete Loss of Tropical Coral Reefs By 2050 to 2100

“Ecosystems that have thrived and developed over millions of years are being smashed down by human activities in just a few decades. It is a very sad state of affairs that hopefully we can turn around before it is too late.” — Ken Caldeira of Stanford University.

***

One trillion dollars. That’s the economic impact a new UN study found resulting from the world’s oceans becoming 170 percent more acidic by 2100 under an inexorable and ongoing human carbon emission.

It’s a rapidly ramping acidity that is being driven by an ever-rising level of CO2 in the Earth’s atmosphere. An emission that is already setting the stage for a first wave of mass extinction in the world ocean — starting now and hitting high gear once global CO2 levels reach about 500 parts per million (this year, global CO2 levels topped off at 401 parts per million and under current and planned emissions are likely to hit 500 ppm within about 30 years).

At issue is the vulnerability of coral reefs and many other species with calcareous skeletons and shells to rapid acidification. In the deep geological past, we’ve seen mass extinctions in many of these species due to rapid rises in ocean acidity. Events such as the Permian and PETM extinctions all showed terrible losses of species due to ocean acidification alone.

But the pace at which humans are increasing ocean acidification has never been seen before in the geological record. So the blow that is coming to many of the animals we rely on is worse than anything witnessed in Earth’s deep past.

Ocean Acification Through 2050

(Ocean acidification and related impacts to coral reefs through 2050 [500 ppm CO2]. Bands in the marginal and extremely marginal range represent acidity levels in which reefs struggle to survive. Image source: Threat to Coral Reefs From Ocean Acidification.)

Recent studies have provided numerous highlights to the extraordinary risks posed to coral reefs over the coming decades. One study, published in 2011, called into question the reefs’ ability to survive even through to the 2050 timeframe. A sudden loss that would be both staggering and unconscionable.

The reefs themselves are home to more than a million species — all of whom provide untold and priceless benefits to the Earth and to human beings alike. The reefs also provide broad support for worldwide fishing and tourism industries. Without the reefs both a critical life support and a key support to human civilization simply dissolves.

It’s callous to put a price on such an egregious loss. But behind the massive 1 trillion dollars in economic damages we can glimpse a world that has also lost a great portion of its beauty and vitality. Imagine a world barren and bereft of the living jeweled belt of coral reefs. Imagine desertified oceans, leeched of life as a result. Such a loss is unconscionable. Like witnessing a holocaust of wonder.

A stark example of the terrible life, wealth and beauty destruction engine that is human-driven climate change.

But that’s what we can look for as ocean PH levels spiral from 8.1 during the 1880s to 8.0 now to 7.9 by or before 2100.

The study did not assess the added damage also ongoing throughout the world due to rapid ocean warming, resulting in widespread coral bleaching. A major instance of which is now ongoing in Hawaii due to dangerous ocean temperatures in excess of 86 degrees Fahrenheit.

In order to prevent a rise of global CO2 levels to 500 parts per million, we must begin rapidly shutting down global fossil fuel infrastructure. This includes all emitting infrastructure — coal, oil, or natural gas. Shutting down coal plants is a good start, but building gas plants to replace them still results in an easy overshoot of the 500 ppm level.

Links:

An Updated Synthesis of the Impacts of Ocean Acidification on Marine Biodiversity

Acid Damage to Coral Reefs To Cost 1 Trillion Dollars

Threat to Coral Reefs From Ocean Acidification

The World’s Coral Reefs Could be Gone by 2050

Severe Coral Bleaching Near Hawaii

(Hat Tip to Colorado Bob)

Global Warming, Storms, Starfish Take Out Half of Great Barrier Reef

According to a new paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and to a report published in the Washington Post, Australia’s Great Barrier Reef has lost more than 50% of its coral since 1985.

The report showed that coral coverage had dropped from 28 percent to 13.8 percent during the period studied. Though the study took stock of years from 1985 to 2012, it found that most of the damage, about two thirds, had occurred since 1998.

Primary drivers for damage were global warming and industrial agriculture. Abnormally powerful cyclones slammed the reef in the decades of the 2000s and 2010s, causing severe losses. Furthermore, instances of coral bleaching, when hot waters cause corals to weaken or die off, multiplied during the period of record showing greater frequency after 1998. Both coral bleaching and increased numbers of powerful cyclones were likely global-warming related. But the third impact, an exploding population of reef devouring starfish, was spurred by agricultural run-off in Australia. The starfish, which can feed on nutrients in the run-off, multiplied to cover large sections of reef and devoured vast volumes of reef-building algae.

Though it may be possible for Australia to reign in some of its Agricultural run-off, it is unlikely that it will be able to reduce instances of coral bleaching and increasingly damaging storms without partnering with countries around the world to drastically cut greenhouse gas emissions.

Recent studies have shown that corals suffer from a combined threat of bleaching in the south and ocean acidification in the north. Overall, under current greenhouse gas emissions regimes, it is expected that most corals will be dead by around 2060 and about 500-600 ppm CO2. In fact, this combination of heating and ocean acidification is causing major stresses to many life forms in the ocean and risks not only a massive die-off among corals, but among millions of ocean animal species including the fish that many countries and humans depend on for food and livelihoods.

Below is a comparison of the potential for bleaching events during the 2030s and 2050s provided by NOAA:

World Resources Institute Shows Widespread Coral Bleaching by 2030

Image

The World Resources Institute recently issued a report on the health and future prospects for the world’s coral reefs. Entitled “Reefs at Risk Revisited,” the study tracks global warming impacts on coral reefs through 2050. The verdict? Not too hot for Earth’s reefs. Simply put, under business as usual fossil fuel emissions, it doesn’t seem likely there will be many, if any, reefs remaining by 2100.

http://www.wri.org/map/frequency-future-coral-reef-bleaching-events-2030s-and-2050s

The study shows warming will be highly damaging to coral reef systems by or before the 2030 and that such damage will become catastrophic by the 2050s. The above map only tracks damage due to coral bleaching, not damage due to reef stress from human activity, or damage due to ocean acidification.

Ocean acidification is caused by increasing levels of Carbon Dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere. And since the dawn of the industrial revolution, CO2 levels have been creeping upward. Due to human emissions, world CO2 concentrations are now rising at the rate of 2.2 ppm each year. And a good amount of the CO2 that doesn’t end up in the air ends, instead, in the ocean. Scientists show that some corals and coral reef systems are under stress from acidification with current world CO2 levels at 393 ppm. Most studies show that coral reefs would be wiped out by the time concentrations reach 600-650 ppm. Under business as usual CO2 emissions, this level will likely be reached by the latter half of the 21rst century.

The WRI shows bleaching due to human-caused warming at critical levels during the same period.

The combined impacts of heat stress, human activity, and ocean acidification creates dangerous stresses to reef systems now. Over the coming decades, increasing damage from these sources will place the continued existence of coral reefs in doubt.

WRI also provides a compelling video investigating current stresses to coral reefs around the world:

 

Please help support our continuing efforts.

Please help support our continuing efforts.

Oceans Turning Acidic at Fastest Rate in 300 Million Years

According to recent reports from the Journal Science, the world’s oceans are becoming acidic faster than at any time in the past 300 million years.

Increased levels of carbon dioxide, now at 394 ppm, are causing the world’s oceans to grow more acidic. A 2010 study from the scientific journal Nature showed that the oceans were becoming acidic at a rate ten times faster than at any time in the last 55 million years. Now, the new study shows that ocean acidity is growing at a rate most current sea creatures have never experienced.

The Science study collected data from sediment cores in order to gain information on past ocean acidity. The lead researcher, Bärbel Hönisch, a paleoceanographer at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, noted that past spikes in ocean acidity resulted in major losses of marine species. Barbel seemed concerned about species key to fishing and tourism saying “if industrial carbon emissions continue at the current pace, we may lose organisms we care about—coral reefs, oysters, salmon.”

Acidification causes stress to ocean creatures that build shells out of calcium, which the increasing acidity dissolves. This threatens creatures who serve as food and habitat builders for many ocean species. Of prime concern is the threat to ocean reef systems. Corals build their reefs out of calcium carbonate and rising levels of atmospheric CO2 put stress on these key species. It is estimated that more than a million species rely on ocean reefs for habitat. Stress to and loss of reefs would put most, if not all, of these creatures at extreme risk of extinction. Ocean researchers believe that it will not be possible for any corals to survive if CO2 levels reach 600-650 ppm. But current levels are already causing stress.

A combination of rapidly warming oceans, spiking ocean acidification, and reduced oxygen levels are creating a situation where an ocean mass extinction is inevitable if carbon dioxide emissions don’t stop soon. Since more than 1 billion people are fed by the world’s oceans, it is important to dramatically reduce these emissions soon.

 

Please help support our continuing efforts.

Please help support our continuing efforts.

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