Friday, February 29, 2008

Lessons from the coral reefs of the Line Islands

The results from a comprehensive survey of the coral reefs of the Northern Line Islands - a chain of atolls south of Hawaii including several Kiribati islands - were published this week in PLOS-One. A companion essay by Jeremy Jackson and Nancy Knowlton appears in PLOS-Biology.

The surveys revealed startling differences in macro- (Sandin et al) and micro-biology (Dinsdale et al.) of the Line Islands coral reefs along a gradient of human disturbance, from the more polluted and fished reefs of equatorial Kiritimati, pronounced "Christmas" (the 'ti' sounds like an 's' in i-Kiribati), and more or less pristine Kingman Reef several hundred kilometres to the north. Taken together, the results also seem to suggest that more pristine reefs are more resilient to coral bleaching events.


Wednesday, February 27, 2008

US to set binding emissions targets?

Uh, no. Don't be fooled by the headlines say our friends at Celsias. Despite fanfare every couple months about softening of the US government's stance on international climate policy, the basic calculus has not changed and, by all accounts, will not change until January 20, 2009. The US still will only accept binding targets if China, India and other major developing nations do the same.

The one improvement in the recent announcement and the announcements from December is the use of the word "binding". You may recall the comical declaration from last year's APEC summit:

We agree to work to achieve a common understanding on a long-term aspirational global emissions reduction goal to pave the way for an effective post-2012 international arrangement.

This was my take at the time:

On the mountain of international climate policy, I'd say peak is a binding emissions target. Below the snowy, windy summit, amongst the alpine grasses and rising treeline might be a goal, which by most definitions, is a non-binding target. Further down, in the cloud forest, where el sapo dorado (the golden toad of Monteverde) teeters on the edge of extinction, you mind find an aspirational goal. At the bottom, in drying rainforest, might be a common understanding, which is somewhere short of an agreement, on an aspirational goal... If our policy mountain were a oceanic volcano, an agreement to work to achieve a common understanding on an aspirational goal would lie beneath the surface of the sea, where if nothing changes, it will be joined in several decades by the once-coastal villages.

The new term - binding obligation - is more promising than aspirational goal. However, since the binding obligation will only be accepted with capitulation by China, India, Brazil and other nations, the US is still holding the world near the bottom of the policy mountain.


Monday, February 25, 2008

The Phoenix Islands Protected Area in Kiribati

As was reported last week, Kiribati is working with international conservation groups to create the Phoenix Islands Protected Area, the largest marine protected area in the world. The project has been in the works for a couple years.

It's worth looking at a map of Kiribati to make sense of the announcement. The NY Times called Kiribati a 'tiny island nation'. Yes, the islands themselves are tiny; the 32 atolls plus Banaba Island have a total area of ~729 sq. km (depending on the tide). The nation is not. It covers 3.5 million sq. km, which is about the area of India, and includes three distinct island chains.

The 410 000 sq km Phoenix Islands Protected Area will encompass the central island chain in Kiribati, to the east of the International Date Line. Around 30-40 people live on Kanton Atoll and serve as informal caretakers for the island chain. Otherwise, the Phoenix Islands are uninhabited. In fact, you could argue they are uninhabitable.

The majority of the 100,000 i-Kiribati live in western "Gilbert" Islands chain, particularly the capital of Tarawa Atoll (*).
Previous attempts by the British to (forcefully) resettle i-Kiribati from the more crowded Gilbert island chain to the Phoenix Islands failed because of prolonged droughts and the lack of groundwater resources.

Most of the Kiribati government revenue comes from foreign fishing licenses. The protected area status will limit large-scale commercial fishing around the Phoenix Islands and any marine resource development efforts. So the real key to this plan is the creation of an international endowment raise funds to offset the lost revenues for the Kiribati government. If successful, PIPA may serve as a model for the creation of marine protected areas in the developed world.

Some of the news reports have suggested that tourism will also help offset lost fishing revenue. While that's not impossible, don't get the idea you'll be able to book a seat on the 747 direct from LAX to Kanton and spend a week at a posh eco-resort. The Phoenix Islands are very remote, very inaccessible and have limited local resources. The only likely tourists are scientists on research expeditions and maybe people with the resources to spearhead a multi-week boat trip from Fiji.
This announcement is very much about conservation, not tourism.

* I use quotations because the word Kiribati (Keer-ee-bas) is a local transliteration of Gilberts. The country was not really renamed upon independence from the UK in the 1970s. It simply adopted the spelling and pronunciation of Gilberts in the local language.


"Big foot" in the New Yorker

Michael Specter has a smart article in last week's New Yorker on the practical and ethical challenges of measuring and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. It touches on the complications of food miles – e.g., food may be produced more efficiently in Africa - the need for a carbon price, and how reducing deforestation in Brazil and Indonesia is the lowest of the low hanging greenhouse gas fruit.


Friday, February 22, 2008

Farming the land and the oceans

Last week's Science featured a fascinating global map of human impact on the world's oceans (top), produced by Halpern et al. The complicated mapping exercise concludes that 41% of the world's oceans are strongly affected by multiple human stresses.

The map is a fascinating - "stark" in the words of Science - aquatic sibling to the global agricultural land use maps that are generated by Navin Ramankutty and colleagues by blending satellite observations and agricultural data. The latest cropland and pasture land datasets (bottom) are described in a recent Global Biogeochemical Cycles paper entitled "Farming the Planet". The data shows that ~34% of the planet's ice-free land surface has been converted for human agriculture.

Unlike the ocean maps, the land use maps only reflect locations that has been directly transformed by human activity, and one form (agriculture) of human activity at that.

It'd be terrific to unite the scientists studying terrestrial and marine systems to create a ocean+land dataset of human disturbance that includes all forms of resource extraction on land (including agriculture).


Wednesday, February 20, 2008

British Columbia introduces a carbon tax

The government of British Columbia has announced a tax on all fossil fuels - gasoline, coal, natural gas, you name it. The revenue-neutral carbon tax is being touted as the centerpiece of what the Globe and Mail called 'the greenest budget ever seen in North America'.

The details of the tax plan and other components of the budget will be heavily scrutinized over the coming weeks, as they should be (e.g. is $10-$30/tonne too low to effect people's decisions? should consumers be taxed directly, or indirectly through taxes on industries?). Right now, the most important feature about this budget is the fact that it exists. North America will finally have a real example of carbon pricing, that can serve as a model or a cautionary tale. You can be sure many other provinces, US states, and federal political parties will be watching closely.


Monday, February 18, 2008

Coral bleaching and limits to ocean warming

A new paper by Kleypas et al in Geophysical Research Letters suggests that a possible upper limit to ocean temperatures – proposed by the “ocean thermostat” hypothesis – may spare some coral reefs from future coral bleaching events. The science has been more or less massacred by some of the press, so it’s worth explaining what is actually going on.

The “ocean thermostat” theory predicts that there is an upper limit to sea surface temperatures – somewhere around 30-34 C depending on the region. First things first: that does not mean if you put some ocean water on the stove, it is impossible to get the temperature over 34 C. The theory is based on a number of negative feedback mechanisms which only operate at relatively large scales, larger, say than the pot sitting on your stove. So the limit is expected to be 30-31 C in the open ocean, like the Pacific, and a bit higher, 33-34 C in enclosed seas like the Red Sea.

We’re used to hearing about positive feedbacks – temperature rises, sea ice melts, a darker surface (water) that reflects less radiation is exposed, causing temperatures to rise even more. In this case, rising water temperature would drive processes that would slow or stop the temperature rise. There are several candidate mechanisms. If the ocean thermostat really exists, it is likely caused by a combination of the mechanisms. One example is that as the ocean warms, more water evaporates, creating more clouds and reducing incoming solar radiation. Another is that warming of one area of ocean will create pressure gradients (with other cooler areas) creating currents that redistribute the water.

The sea surface temperatures across most of the tropics are well below the theoretical temperature limit suggested by the ocean thermostat theory. The maximum annual temperature could rise 3-4 C in most coral reef regions, well beyond the threshold for the corals, without hitting the thermostat limit. That's the case in the Caribbean, the eastern Pacific, much of the Indian Ocean, much of the Great Barrier Reef, etc.

The exception is in the Western Pacific. The warmest open ocean waters is the world are found in a zone that can stretch from the Indian Ocean well into the Central Pacific. It is affectionately known as the West or Western Pacific Warm Pool or WPWP. In a pathetic attempt to give you the illusion scientists are hip and clever, I will use the short form WP2.

You probably know of WP2, if not by name. For one, the Pacific section can be (loosely) thought of as the body of warm water in the equatorial Pacific that migrates eastward during El Nino events. Also, the Pacific section is home to the majority or at least a sizeable fraction, of what’s left of the world’s un-canned tuna and, in turn, to the majority of the world’s illegal fishing boats.

Many years, the WP2 is usually centered in SE Asian archipelago or the expansive territorial waters of the Pacific Island nation of the Federated States of Micronesia. Of course, the exact location changes each year, bringing the core of warm open ocean waters maybe closer to the Solomon Islands, or Palau, or Kiribati, or Tuvalu, or other neighbouring countries. The fishing vessels flying flags of convenience from Mongolia or Western Sahara or Suriname are usually close behind.

When the edge of the warm pool moves, say, western Kiribati, the rise in water temperatures (1-2 C) is quite likely to cause a coral bleaching event. If you take a look at the January degree heating week maps – that’s the accumulated heat stress metric we use to predict bleaching events – for the past several years, you’ll see that almost every year, there’s a hot spot somewhere outside of WP2’s home base. This has been the proximate cause of bleaching events in the Kiribati (Gilbert) Islands, the Phoenix Islands, Tuvalu and the Solomons in recent years - this may be, in part, a manifestation of long-term temperature trends.

That’s where Kleypas et al. comes in. The paper finds that open ocean waters with maximum annual SSTs above 29 C – in other words, our friend WP2 – have warmed less than any other parts of the ocean since 1950. The closer the SSTs are to 30-31 C, the lower the rate of warming. The data appears to support, at least, circumstantially the existence of the ocean thermostat. If correct, this would imply corals in the warm region could be spared from a dangerous temperature rise.

That’s what spawned the “corals saved from ocean thermostat” headlines. Here’s the catch – ok, three catches. These are not criticisms of the paper rather crucial issues touched on in the paper which were not addressed in the news pieces (and may lead to abuse of the results):

First, the notion of a temperature ceiling sparing coral reefs is limited to this very warm open ocean region. In fact, one of the most interesting results of the paper is that while WP2 has not warmed as rapidly as other parts of the tropical ocean, it has expanded. In other words, the edges have warmed. That, as we’ve seen, has caused bleaching events in a number of countries like Kiribati

Second, the extent and severity of coral bleaching is related to experience. Kleypas et al. compiled bleaching reports from islands within WP2. In these locations, coral bleaching tended to occur with temperatures only 0.2-0.3 C greater than the usual maximum experience by the corals. The threshold is generally thought to be 1-2 C. Corals, like any organisms, adapt or acclimate over time to their environment. Since temperatures historically have shown less variation in the WP2 than other parts of the tropics, the corals living there may be naturally more sensitive to temperature stress. If so, the ocean thermostat might not provide the protection that was suggested in the media reports.

Third, the ocean thermostat theory is predicated in part on warming being limited to the surface ocean. Historical temperature profile data suggest ocean warming is also occurring at greater depths. The implications of the warming at depth needs to be fully investigated before we propose an upper limit to surface ocean temperatures in the future.

In other words, there's much more to come on this story.


Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Biofuels and the "land use cascade"

As readers of Maribo no doubt heard, two papers in last week’s Science addressed the greenhouse gas emissions that arise from clearing lands for biofuel crop production. It is an important subject that has been widely discussed within the scientific community, including my own collection of colleagues, for the past year or two. You might say these papers are the first to “do the math”. The papers conclude what many carbon cycle experts suspect: that any greenhouse gas benefits that come from using biofuels instead of oil are negated when you include the emissions associated with land clearing.

The publication of both papers at once is enlightening because they tackle slightly different, but complimentary, issues.
Fargione et al. address the direct emissions from the land cleared to plant the actual biofuel crops. The examples includes Brazilian Amazon to soybean biodiesel, Brazilian Cerrado to soybean biodiesel, Brazilian Cerrado to sugarcane ethanol, Indonesian or Malaysian lowland tropical rainforest to palm biodiesel, Indonesian or Malaysian peatland tropical rainforest to palm biodiesel, and US Central grassland to corn ethanol.

Searchinger et al. use a global economic model to look more at the indirect emissions. In the developed world, including Canada and the US , forests or grasslands are not being cleared to plant biofuel crops. Instead, biofuels are being produced on land previously devoted to other crops or from grain diverted from another use (i.e. corn grain goes to the ethanol plant rather than the boat shipping it overseas). The change has a cascading effect on the world market. There is less grain available, which can cause other countries to clear land to feed the market.

I like to call problems like that addressed in the Searchinger et al. paper “land use cascades”. There are countless examples -- one of the my favourites is the effect that the surge in soybean production in the US and Brazil in the 90s had on the Yasawa Islands in Fiji (I tell the whole story is here).

These cascades are becoming increasingly important, and increasingly global in scale. For example, the same thinking needs to be applied to forestry-based carbon credit programs. If a segment of BC coastal rainforest slated for logging is protected, does that mean some other forest must be logged to provide the missing pulp and paper? If so, what effect does that have on the net emissions? We may discover that net greenhouse gas savings only occur if we also reduce demand for the products that would otherwise come from that land either cleared (biofuels) or saved (forest carbon credits). More on that later.


Sunday, February 10, 2008

Tom Delay and “believing” in climate change

During a TV interview a couple days ago, former Republican congressional leader Tom Delay began an attack on John McCain’s lack of “conservative” credentials with the subject of climate change. Basically, he said the conservative position should be that “man is not the cause of climate change”. When pushed on the subject, he uttered the following line:

It is arrogance to suggest that man can affect climate change. There’s no science that supports such a notion.

Never mind the fact that Delay was forced to leave office because of ethical violations, or that he has a ghostwriter for his blog (ah, the rebellious independence of the blogsphere), or that he may be simply trying the blame women for climate change. It is worth listening carefully to his choice of words and emphasis.

Climate change activists tend to assume anyone who doubts or refutes the scientific evidence is motivated entirely by politics, by money, by ideology, or by all three. No doubt, that trifecta affects Delay’s thinking on the issue. This statement, however, makes it abundantly clear that those are not the only reasons his community dismisses the overwhelming scientific evidence for climate change

Notice, Delay is not arguing that the climate doesn’t ever change. In his words and his tone, he is saying that the climate is far beyond the control of mere people, that it is controlled by other, grand forces. The arrogance of which he speaks is a belief that people can intervene on God’s turf.

Is this Delay's genuine belief? Or is it a clever talking point, a set of code words that tap into people’s pre-existing beliefs in order to cast doubt on evidence for climate change and the policy regulating greenhouse gas emission? That I can’t say. Either way, climate change communicators and activists dismiss his argument at their own peril.

As I argued in a recent essay (more here) the very notion that humans can affect the climate runs counter to thousands of years of belief that the sky is the domain of gods. Acceptance of human-induced climate change is a real paradigm shift. It is a mistake to assume people that doubt the scientific evidence are motivated only by greed or politics. If those of us communicating climate change to the public fail to address the fact that it can conflict with fundamental beliefs, we’ll fail as communicators.


Friday, February 01, 2008

Supporting carbon capture and storage in Alberta

Following close on the release of Alberta's heavily criticized GHG reduction plan, a joint federal-Alberta task force has recommended the federal government spend $2 billion to kickstart carbon capture and storage (CCS) in Alberta.

The task force nails one point: we have to stop blustering about CCS and put some shovels in the ground. The question is who should pay. If the federal government enacted a carbon pricing policy - whether a tax or cap and trade - the onus would fall as it should on the companies responsible for emissions. That's how it happens with all other regulated emissions.

Here, with no price on carbon, the task force and the oil companies are effectively saying that nothing will happen unless the federal government kicks in money at the beginning. If this happens, it will be widely criticized as a handout to oil companies.

It is not unreasonable to ask the government to play venture capitalist, to provide seed money to help advance new more sustainable technologies or industries. Oil is hardly a fledging industry. And, in any case, for the technology to thrive, the seed money has to be coupled with regulation. Otherwise, it is a handout.