News Article | February 15, 2017
The man tipped as frontrunner for the role of science adviser to Donald Trump has described climate scientists as “a glassy-eyed cult” in the throes of a form of collective madness. William Happer, an eminent physicist at Princeton University, met with Trump last month to discuss the post and says that if he were offered the job he would take it. Happer is highly regarded in the academic community, but many would view his appointment as a further blow to the prospects of concerted international action on climate change. “There’s a whole area of climate so-called science that is really more like a cult,” Happer told the Guardian. “It’s like Hare Krishna or something like that. They’re glassy-eyed and they chant. It will potentially harm the image of all science.” Trump has previously described global warming as “very expensive … bullshit” and has signalled a continued hardline stance since taking power. He has nominated the former Texas governor Rick Perry, a staunch climate sceptic, as secretary of energy and hopes to put the Environment Protection Agency (EPA) under the leadership of Scott Pruitt, the Oklahoma attorney general, who has been one of the agency’s most hostile critics. John Holdren, Barack Obama’s science adviser, said Happer’s outspoken opinions would be a “substantial handicap” for a job that has traditionally involved delivering mainstream scientific opinion to the heart of policy-making. “Every national academy of science agrees that the science is solid, that climate change is real,” he said. “To call this a cult is absurd and ... an insult to the people who have done this work.” Happer also supports a controversial crackdown on the freedom of federal agency scientists to speak out about their findings, arguing that mixed messages on issues such as whether butter or margarine is healthier, have led to people disregarding all public health information. “So many people are fed up of listening to the government lie to them about margarine and climate change that when something is actually true and beneficial they don’t listen,” he said, citing childhood vaccines as an example. “The government should have a reputation of being completely reliable about facts – real facts.” Happer dismissed concerns that Trump is “anti-science”, saying he had a positive impression of the president during their January meeting. “He asked good questions – he was very attentive, actually,” he said. Climate change was mentioned but was not the main focus of discussions, according to Happer, who revealed that Trump had expressed support for solar energy in areas like Arizona “where it makes sense”. “His comments were that of a technically literate person,” he said. “He wasn’t ideologically opposed to renewables; he wasn’t ideologically in favour of them either.” Unlike many of his scientific peers, Happer is in favour of contentious legislation aimed at reining in the ability of federal agency staff to hold press conferences, give television interviews and promote their findings on official websites. The “Secret Science Reform Bill”, which is being pushed by the Texas Republican Lamar Smith, chairman of the House science, space and technology Committee, would require federal agencies to publish all the raw data underpinning any proposed regulations and for new findings to be scrutinised extensively by outside experts before being announced. However, critics view the bill as an attempt to strip federal agencies of autonomy and reduce their regulatory powers. “There is this special need for government science to be especially clean and without fault,” said Happer. “It’s OK to have press conferences, but before you do that you should have the findings carefully vetted.” When asked for examples of where the current vetting process has failed, Happer cited a recent controversy surrounding a high-profile paper published by National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) scientists showing that global surface temperatures had risen again after temporarily levelling off. Earlier this month, a retired NOAA scientist, Robert Bates, accused his former colleagues of rushing out the paper ahead of the UN conference, prioritising political impact over scientific rigour – although Bates later clarified that he had an issue with timing and transparency rather than “tampering with data”. “This disappearance of the hiatus in global warming, which was trotted out just before the [UN] Paris conference ... it was clearly just a political fanfare,” said Happer. “We shouldn’t be doing that. They were fiddling with the temperature records to make the hiatus go away.” Happer argues that climate monitoring, such as the collection of CO2 and atmospheric temperature data, is valuable and should be continued. However, he claims that the overall threat posed by global warming has been overplayed by scientists swayed by a political agenda and power-hungry civil servants. “There’s a huge amount of money that we spend on saving the planet,” he said. “If it turns out that the planet doesn’t need saving as much as we thought, well, there are other ways you could spend the money. “When you talk about fossil fuel companies being motivated, well, there’s nobody more motivated than the people working for the federal government,” he added. “You can’t rise in the American bureaucracy without some threat to address.” However, Holdren said that the evidence that human activity is causing global warming – a view supported by 97% of active climate researchers – is compelling. “It is clear beyond a shadow of a doubt that humans are causing climate change,” he added. Happer said he began to question the emerging consensus view on climate change while working as director of research at the Department of Energy as part of the George W Bush administration. Climate scientists would “grudgingly” present their work to administrators, he claims, while those in other fields would share their results with enthusiasm. “I would ask questions but they were evasive and wouldn’t answer,” he said. “This experience really soured me on the community. I started reading up and I realised why they weren’t answering the questions: because they didn’t have good answers. It was really at that point that I began to get seriously worried about climate as a science.” Concerns about the Trump administration’s apparent disregard for mainstream scientific thinking on climate change has triggered a wave of activism, including plans for a science march in various cities. However, Happer said that the public, who may view scientists as part of a privileged elite, may be less sympathetic. “There’s a potential downside [to the march] of them being seen as a greedy bunch of spoiled people,” he said. “I don’t think they’re that way myself, but it could be easily twisted into that kind of narrative.” David Gerlenter, a Yale computer scientist who has also questioned the reality of manmade climate change, is also reported to in the running for the role of science adviser, but was not available for interview.
News Article | March 22, 2016
Pieces of tuna fish are seen before the smoking process at the fish farm Agroittica Lombarda near Brescia, northern Italy, March 9, 2016. The World Trade Organization last November upheld a ruling that the United States was discriminating against Mexican tuna imports by applying the tougher catch verification and documentation rules to Mexican fishing fleets in the tropical eastern Pacific Ocean. Instead of loosening the rules on Mexico, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) published new rules that raised the standards for all other countries. (here) "The United States champions policies that protect dolphin populations from fishing practices that endanger them, and today's announcement of NOAA's interim final rule is a significant win in that effort," U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman said in a statement. "This rule elevates requirements for tuna product from every other region of the world," he added. Mexico has been fighting for more than 20 years over rules that it argues have frozen its fishing industry out of a U.S. imported canned tuna market worth $680 million in 2014. Mexico has about a 3.5 percent share. Among the largest sources of U.S. canned Tuna imports in 2015 were Thailand, Vietnam, Mauritius, Canada, Ecuador, Fiji, China and Indonesia, according to NOAA's National Marine Fisheries data. The clash arose because yellowfin tuna swim with dolphins in the eastern tropical Pacific, where Mexico's fleet operates, using speedboats to herd the dolphins and large purse seine nets to catch the tuna swimming beneath them. Millions of dolphins were killed before international conservation efforts set standards to protect dolphins and put professional observers on ships to record each tuna catch. Mexico argued the agreements had cut dolphin deaths to minimal levels - below the thresholds allowed in U.S. fisheries - and that tuna from other regions did not face the same stringent tests, with ship captains allowed to self-certify that no dolphins were harmed. But Mexican boats were subject to more paperwork and sometimes government observers to verify that no dolphins were harmed in order to earn a U.S. "dolphin-safe" label. After the WTO ruling against the United States' double-standard last year, Mexico earlier this month had requested authority to impose retaliatory tariffs against $472.3 million in imports of U.S. high-fructose corn syrup. The WTO was due to consider these tariffs on Wednesday. The Humane Society International applauded the expanded verification and documentation rule, saying it "elevates dolphin protections while also insulating the 'dolphin safe' label from further challenge."
News Article | December 14, 2016
Last Thursday, I attended an energy and climate policy summit at the Heritage Foundation, a leading conservative think tank. The event, co-hosted by the Texas Public Policy Foundation, convened Republican congressional leaders, conservative think tank analysts, and a niche group of controversial climate scientists to cast doubt on the relationship between manmade emissions and climate change, and lay out the energy and climate policy agenda of the 115th Congress. The event featured a who’s who of lawmakers known for their activism against policies related to climate change, including Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), Chairman of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee that recently tweeted a false article disputing global warming, and Chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK), who famously threw a snowball on the Senate floor to dispute global warming. Rep. Pete Olson (R-TX), Chairman of the House Energy and Power Subcommittee, Rep. Gary Palmer (R-AL), and Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) also spoke. The lawmakers laid out a multipronged legislative strategy to undermine climate science and roll back regulations on greenhouse gases. The following sections review the main policy levers that will be used by Republicans in Congress, and argues the environmental movement should shift its message to preserving regulations on greenhouse gas emissions to stay relevant. Casting Doubt on the Legitimacy of Climate Science Rep. Lamar Smith opened the event with a speech boasting that under his leadership the House Science, Space, and Technology committee issued a record 25 subpoenas soliciting records and information from former National Weather Service staff, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and a myriad of environmental organizations. Smith argued that the goal of the subpoenas is to bring transparency to climate science, but the nature of his requests — like his subpoena of NOAA scientists’ emails following their publication of a study in Science showing that the global warming hiatus touted by climate change skeptics never happened — demonstrates a clear agenda to undermine the findings of independent experts. Smith laid out plans to continue his efforts to investigate and undermine the conventional role of science in regulation and policymaking in the next Congress. He touted his “Secret Science Reform Act” bill, saying it will be a “key priority for the Science Committee in the next Congress.” The bill would subject EPA’s scientific methods and findings to judicial review that the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) says would “[mire] the agency in litigation and [take] the review of scientific studies out of the hands of the scientific community and [place] that responsibility into the hands of a judge and jury.” Smith argues the bill is necessary because “regulations should be based on sound science, not science fiction.” Beyond the efforts to dispute the scientific consensus on climate change, conservatives are lining up a suite of policy levers to undermine regulations related to greenhouse gas emissions. A principal goal mentioned by multiple panelists at the summit is to overturn the “Endangerment Finding,” a court decision ruling that greenhouse gas emissions can be regulated under the 1963 Clean Air Act. To overturn the finding, Director of the Cato Institute Center for the Study of Science Patrick J. Michaels argued that the problem lies “within science itself” and that there is a need to “take down those [climate] models” in order to overturn court findings on the risks of greenhouse gas emissions. Others argued that Congress should use its authority under a Trump presidency to amend the Clean Air Act and specifically exclude carbon dioxide as a pollutant — an action that could have policy ripple effects for decades to come. On top of efforts to dispute EPA’s authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions, a number of tools to undermine executive regulatory authority were mentioned, including the Congressional Review Act, the proposed REINS Act, and the proposed Regulation Freedom Amendment, all of which give Congress the authority to reject regulations established by executive agencies. Congressional Republicans hope to use the Congressional Review Act, which allows Congress to reject regulations within 60 legislative days, to dismantle recent Obama administration regulations such as the rule regulating natural gas supply chain methane emissions, which can eliminate the climate benefits of natural gas over coal if left unchecked, and the Stream Protection Rule that regulates the impacts of coal surface mining on local waterways. An Opportunity for the Environmental Movement to Shift Its Message For the majority of Americans concerned about a changing climate, the conservative agenda to undermine climate science and gut emissions regulations is alarming. But the incoming Congress also presents a unique opportunity for the U.S. environmental movement to shift its focus. During President Obama’s tenure, portions of the environmental movement took a sharp turn toward “keep it in the ground” advocacy, which aims to prevent the development of fossil fuel resources outright. While “keep it in the ground” fits nicely on a bumper sticker, experts in energy and environmental policy will tell you that stopping climate change is a lot more complicated than that. Dramatic protests over pipelines and other fossil fuel infrastructure play well with the environmental community and liberals, but they alienate moderates and conservatives — and likely do little to actually mitigate climate change. In short, the environmental movement needs a new message. With a radical new energy and climate agenda in Congress, the environmental movement has an opportunity to embrace mainstream positions in support of basic regulations on greenhouse gas emissions that a huge majority of Americans support. If the environmental movement can bring mainstream American voters into the fold and present a united front against those that would gut climate change regulations, they might just have a chance at victory. Update (12/16/2016): full-length videos and presentations from the summit are now available online.
News Article | June 6, 2016
It was the smell that really got to diver Richard Vevers. The smell of death on the reef. “I can’t even tell you how bad I smelt after the dive – the smell of millions of rotting animals.” Vevers is a former advertising executive and is now the chief executive of the Ocean Agency, a not-for-profit company he founded to raise awareness of environmental problems. After diving for 30 years in his spare time, he was compelled to combine his work and hobby when he was struck by the calamities faced by oceans around the world. Chief among them was coral bleaching, caused by climate change. His job these days is rather morbid. He travels the world documenting dead and dying coral reefs, sometimes gathering photographs just ahead of their death, too. With the world now in the midst of the longest and probably worst global coral bleaching event in history, it’s boom time for Vevers. Even with all that experience, he’d never seen anything like the devastation he saw last month around Lizard Island in the northern third of Australia’s spectacular Great Barrier Reef. As part of a project documenting the global bleaching event, he had surveyed Lizard Island, which sits about 90km north of Cooktown in far north Queensland, when it was in full glorious health; then just as it started bleaching this year; then finally a few weeks after the bleaching began. “It was one of the most disgusting sights I’ve ever seen,” he says. “The hard corals were dead and covered in algae, looking like they’ve been dead for years. The soft corals were still dying and the flesh of the animals was decomposing and dripping off the reef structure.” It’s the sort of description that would be hard to believe, if it wasn’t captured in photographs. In images shared exclusively with the Guardian, the catastrophic nature of the current mass bleaching event on previously pristine parts of the Great Barrier Reef can now be revealed. Coral bleaches when the water it’s in is too warm for too long. The coral polyps gets stressed and spit out the algae that live in inside them. Without the colourful algae, the coral flesh becomes transparent, revealing the stark white skeleton beneath. And because the algae provides the coral with 90% of its energy, it begins to starve. Unless the temperatures quickly return to normal, the coral dies and gets taken over by a blanket of seaweed. Once that happens it can take a decade for the coral to recover – and even then that recovery depends on the reef not being hit by other stressors such as water pollution. Vevers’ images show how the once brilliant coral first turned white and then became covered in seaweed. While the hard corals are still holding their structure under the seaweed blanket, the soft corals are dying; dripping off the dead coral skeletons. The thick seaweed is a sign of extreme ecosystem meltdown. Fish can no longer use the coral structure as shelter – blocked by the plants – and before long the coral structures themselves are likely to collapse, leaving little chance of full recovery within the next 10 years. When the coral dies, the entire ecosystem around it transforms. Fish that feed on the coral, use it as shelter, or nibble on the algae that grows among it die or move away. The bigger fish that feed on those fish disappear too. But the cascading effects don’t stop there. Birds that eat fish lose their energy source, and island plants that thrive on bird droppings can be depleted. And, of course, people who rely on reefs for food, income or shelter from waves – some half a billion people worldwide – lose their vital resource. Justin Marshall, a biologist at the University of Queensland who spends a lot of his time studying the reef ecosystem around Lizard Island, says: “What happens is the colony dies, the polyps disintegrate. The algae use that as fertiliser and grow very quickly over the coral head. And at that point it’s doomed. It’s going to break up. “It’s like a forest where plants compete for light. On the reef you’ve got this continuous competition between the seaweed and the coral. And, in the conditions we’ve got at the moment, the seaweed tends to win because it’s warm and it’s got lots of rotting stuff around to fertilise it.” Marshall says the thing that struck him about the bleaching event this year was not just the severity but the rapidity of the death. “I was just blown away by that.” Once the seaweed has taken hold, and the structure of the reef is broken up and lost, studies have shown that recovery is slower. Reefs can be lost forever. What’s at stake here is the largest living structure in the world, and by far the largest coral reef system. The oft-repeated cliche is that it can be seen from space, which is not surprising given it stretches more than 2,300km in length and, between its almost 3,000 individual reefs, covers an area about the size of Germany. It is an underwater world of unimaginable scale. But it is up close that the Great Barrier Reef truly astounds. Among its waters live a dizzying array of colourful plants and animals. With 1,600 species of fish, 130 types of sharks and rays, and more than 30 species of whales and dolphins, it is one of the most complex ecosystems on the planet. It begins in the subtropical waters of Hervey Bay in Queensland, about 200km north of Brisbane. From there it stretches the rest of the way up the eastern coast of Australia, stopping just off the coast of Papua New Guinea. About 2 million people visit it each year and together they contribute almost $6bn to the Australian economy. Going back for millennia, Indigenous Australians have relied on the Great Barrier Reef. As the world emerged from the last ice age about 20,000 years ago and sea levels began to rise, Indigenous Australians moved off the area that was once a floodplain and would have watched as today’s Great Barrier Reef formed. Today there are more than 70 Indigenous groups with a connection to the reef, many of whom depend on it for their livelihoods. Perhaps most disturbingly, what Marshall and Vevers have witnessed on Lizard Island is in no way unique. In the upper third of the 2,300km reef it’s estimated that about half the coral is dead. Surveys have revealed that 93% of the almost 3,000 individual reefs have been touched by bleaching, and almost a quarter – 22% – of coral over the entire Great Barrier Reef has been killed by this bleaching event. On many reefs around Lizard Island and further north, there is utter devastation. Further south, the bleaching is less severe. Since tourists usually go diving and snorkelling in the middle and southern sections, there are plenty of spectacular corals for them to see there. But they shouldn’t be fooled by that – the reef is in the midst of a major environmental catastrophe. Many scientists are now saying it is almost too late to save it. Strong and immediate action is required to alleviate water pollution and stop the underlying cause: climate change. Australians are being wooed by politicians for an upcoming federal election, most of whom support policies that will guarantee the reef’s destruction. This is the story of the impending death of the world’s largest living structure – whose hand it is dying by, who is staging a cover-up, and how it could be saved. Let’s be completely clear. This is no natural death. And there’s no question about who is to blame. Although bleaching has probably always happened in small patches here and there during unusually warm and calm weather, it used to be extremely rare. The first recorded bleaching was in 1911 on Bird Key Reef in the Florida Keys. It happened during a period of calm, hot weather. Something similar was reported on the Great Barrier Reef in 1929. Then there was not much to speak of for decades. There were a smattering of reports – maybe two or three over the next half century – until the year 1979. That year, everything changed. A new phenomenon of “mass bleaching” was seen for the first time, where bleaching would smash large regions, rather than just isolated stretches of coral. In 1979 widespread bleaching was seen stretching throughout the Caribbean and the Florida Keys. And from then there was no turning back. Every year since then, bleaching has been reported somewhere in the world, often on a regional scale. Something that had rarely been seen before was being seen literally every year. Then it was time to go global. Coral reefs right around the world experienced bleaching during the first extreme El Niño recorded in 1982 and 1983. El Niño is a splurge of warm water that spreads across the Pacific Ocean on irregular intervals, with an average frequency of once every five years. When it does that, it warms the world. An extreme El Niño wreaks havoc on weather patterns around the globe. That splurge of warm water bleached coral on the Great Barrier Reef, through Indonesia, Japan and over to the Caribbean. Then just five years later, during another El Niño, another bleaching event stretched its way around the globe. By then, it was already clear what was causing all this. A paper in 1990 warned these events were being caused by climate change and bleaching “will probably continue and increase until coral-dominated reefs no longer exist”. At that time the 1982 event was described as “the most widespread coral bleaching and mortality in recorded history” but today there is debate about whether it and the 1987 events’ severity was bad enough to count as a true “global bleaching event”. That hardly matters now. In an age of climate change, records don’t last long. In 1997-98, the world was hit by a second extreme El Niño – the strongest seen to date. Figures of how much coral died that year are hard to confirm but it is thought 16% of the world’s reefs were destroyed in a matter of months. About half of those might have been lost forever. Mass bleachings – some global, some not – have continued ever since but until this year 1998 held on to the record for the worst yet. That was probably a result of an extended La Niña-like phase that suppressed temperatures until now. During that time, warm water was being buried in the Pacific Ocean, suppressing surface temperatures, and keeping bleachings in check. The year 2016 looks set to blow 1998 out of the water. By some measures it’s the longest global bleaching event in history and, on the Great Barrier Reef, it’s definitely the worst. The reef has been hit by at least three significant mass bleachings in recorded history. The first coincided with the global bleaching in 1998, then it got hit in 2002, and then again this year. A Guardian analysis of the three events, based on data from aerial surveys, shows the increasing severity of each event, and how they smashed different parts of the reef. The mechanism behind this incredible new trend is obvious and well understood. As Bloomberg Businessweek famously said on its cover after Hurricane Sandy, “It’s global warming, stupid.” Since 1950 more than 90% of the excess heat our carbon emissions have trapped in the atmosphere has gone into the oceans. As a result their surface temperature has increased by 1C in just the past 35 years. That puts the water much closer to the limit of what coral can bear. Then, when a surge of even warmer water comes through – often as a result of the irregular El Niño cycle – corals over large stretches get stressed, bleach and die. So well understood is the mechanism that satellite data on water temperature is a good proxy for coral bleaching. Using that understanding, the US National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration looks at satellite data and produces “bleaching alerts” that represent a predicted stress response from coral. In data produced exclusively for the Guardian by Mark Eakin, head of Coral Reef Watch at Noaa, we can now reveal exactly how stressful ocean temperatures have been increasing on the Great Barrier Reef over the 34 years that satellite data has been available. Since 1982, just after mass bleachings were seen for the first time, the data shows that the average proportion of the Great Barrier Reef exposed to temperatures where bleaching or death is likely has increased from about 11% a year to about 27% a year. Eakin says looking at that data revealed a clear trend that hadn’t been quantified before. “In seeing that what it immediately showed was that there was a real background pattern of increasing levels of thermal stress.” Combined with other stressors hitting the reef, this is having a devastating impact. Over that period, half the coral cover on the Great Barrier Reef has been lost – and that’s before the mass bleaching this year is taken into account. That data has limitations – it’s not direct bleaching, but stress inferred from temperature readings. And it lumps extreme levels of stress – like what is being seen around Lizard Island now – with anything that is expected to cause mortality. Despite that, it reveals the way global warming is leading to more regular bleaching and mortality. “While there was a considerable amount of variability – from El Niños and other things – there was an obvious upward trend in the data,” Eakin says. “So you’re looking at the background warming, which is having a major effect on the corals.” And just looking at the surface temperature of water around the Great Barrier Reef over the past 100 years leaves little doubt about the role of climate change. Adding to this correlational data, researchers have examined exactly how much more likely the warm conditions on the Great Barrier Reef were as a result of carbon emissions. They ran climate models thousands of times, and simulated a world with human CO2 emissions and a world without them. They found that in a world without humans and their carbon emissions, the conditions on the Great Barrier Reef that caused the current bleaching would have been virtually impossible. Today they’re still unusual, but have been made at least 175 times more likely as a result of our carbon emissions. “In a world without humans, it’s not quite impossible that you’d get March sea surface temperatures as warm as this year, but it’s extremely unlikely,” Andrew King, a lead author of the study from the University of Melbourne, told the Guardian in April. But what was even more concerning was how quickly things are predicted to get worse. “In the current climate it’s unusual but not exceptional. By the mid 2030s it will be average. And beyond that it will be cooler than normal if it was as warm as this year.” That means the Great Barrier Reef is likely to be hit with conditions like this, on average, every second year in fewer than 20 years. Many reef biologists approached by the Guardian have said this could mean it’s too late for the Great Barrier Reef. We may have already made its death inevitable. But since there’s still a chance it’s not too late, they all said it was imperative to keep fighting. “Yes, maybe it’s too late,” Marshall told the Guardian. But he said that was no reason to not try to save it. “I’m not going to sit back and buy a Hummer and just let it all slide.” And there have been signs that coral is more resilient than biologists used to think – it might be able to adapt and evolve and, while the weaker corals are probably doomed, maybe the stronger corals will be able to spread and take over. In some places, maybe reefs will even migrate further from the equator. These tiny signs of hope are all biologists and conservationists can cling to. “With biology there are always things around the corner that we don’t know,” Marshall says. “These things are fantastically resilient and biologically programmed for survival.” But hope requires action. And there are some powerful forces who don’t want to see light shone on on this particular murder. And murder it is: we’ve known for decades that we’re to blame. “It’s the great white lie,” Col McKenzie, the chief executive of the Association of Marine Park Tourism Operators, told a Queensland newspaper in April. “It’s not dead, white and dying. It’s under stress but it will bounce back.” He tells the Guardian he’s furious at the media and at the scientists who have been making a big deal out of the bleaching event: “What I’m seeing is that my industry is being held out for ransom and is the whipping boy for the Greenies who want to be anti-coalmining. And, frankly, I think that’s bloody disgusting.” He represents an industry that, as he puts, is “tied by the hip pocket to the health of the reef”. In 2011-12 it was estimated tourism centred on the Great Barrier Reef generated $5.7bn for the economy and created 69,000 jobs. McKenzie says the media coverage of the bleaching is a bigger risk to the industry than the bleaching itself. He says people are less likely visit the reef now that they think it’s in worse condition. Jumping on this concern, the Australian government looks to be doing everything it can to downplay the bleaching. In May the Guardian revealed the Australian department of environment had intervened to have every mention of the Great Barrier Reef – and indeed every mention of the country – scrubbed from the final version of a UN report on climate change and world heritage sites. As a result, Australia was the only continent on the planet not mentioned. When confronted with the revelation, the government told the Guardian it did it because: “Recent experience in Australia had shown that negative commentary about the status of world heritage properties impacted on tourism.” The revelation came shortly after Australia’s environment minister, Greg Hunt, told a Queensland newspaper after seeing a David Attenborough documentary about the Great Barrier Reef: “The key point that I had from seeing the first of the three parts is that clearly, the world’s Great Barrier Reef is still the world’s Great Barrier Reef.” The article ran with the headline: “Reports of reef’s death greatly exaggerated: Attenborough.” In fact, Attenborough said that “the Great Barrier Reef is in grave danger”. And later: “The twin perils brought by climate change – an increase in the temperature of the ocean and in its acidity – threaten its very existence.” Then in May and June, these concerns caused a split in the national coral bleaching taskforce, which was set up to monitor the bleaching event. It’s made up of 10 Australian institutions, some of them government agencies, and others university research centres and is led by Terry Hughes from James Cook University. The group was about to release the results of its coral mortality surveys when two leading government agencies pulled out of the announcement. Hughes and his university colleagues released the results anyway, on Monday 30 May, but with only part of the data. They announced that “35% of the corals are now dead or dying” in the “northern and central sections of the Great Barrier Reef”. On Thursday of that week, Col McKenzie went on the attack, saying the results were “utter rubbish”. “It seems that some marine scientists have decided to use the bleaching event to highlight their personal political beliefs and lobby for increased funding in an election year,” he said in a media release. The results of surveys from the government agency the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority told a different story, he said. A day later the rest of the results were released by the government agencies. Attached to these was a long media release that aimed to dispel perceived exaggerations of the damage and highlight corals’ ability to recover. Russell Reichelt, the marine park authority’s chairman and chief executive, told the Australian newspaper the agency had split from the group release because it wasn’t telling the whole story. He was quoted as saying that the maps illustrating the coral mortality exaggerated the impact, and that the exaggeration “suits the purpose” of the people sending it out. The story ran on the front page of Australia’s only national newspaper declaring that “activist scientists” were distorting the data. “Marine park head denies coral bleaching crisis,” it screamed. But the authority’s actual data, which revealed a striking 22% of coral on the Great Barrier Reef had been killed, was entirely consistent with the figures released earlier that week from the university partners – something Reichelt later acknowledged on social media. It’s clear that a cabal of climate change deniers, worried tourism operators, and a conservative government have tried to whitewash the environmental disaster unfolding over the Great Barrier Reef. McKenzie is no climate change denier and is quick to agree that climate change has caused the bleaching. But he has taken signs of coral’s adaptability to heart and is sure that the coral will adapt to higher temperatures under climate change. He thinks the reef will be fine. He says the scientists who are making a lot of noise about the bleaching have overstepped a line. “The scientists decided to make some fairly strong statements about the health of the reef – and some fairly outrageous ones at that. I don’t think that’s what science is about. I believe scientists should be reporting the facts as they are, not sensationalising the issue.” The fear that the media spotlight on the bleaching will stop people wanting to visit the reef runs deep in the tourism industry. So much so that tour operators have reportedly been routinely refusing to take conservationists, media and politicians to bleached parts of the reef. But that alliance may be breaking down, with some tourism operators on the reef getting worried about its long-term health. “Many tourism operators, they don’t want people not to come to the reef, so they’ve been reluctant to speak out,” says John Rumney, who has run diving and fishing tours on the Great Barrier Reef for the past four decades. “They are worried it will have a negative impact on the short-term cash flow.” Rumney says that’s short-sighted since unless people speak up now there will be no reef in the future, and the industry won’t exist. He and other operators have broken away from the crowd and are speaking out. (McKenzie describes them as “the fringe dwellers of the industry”.) In May the Guardian revealed that a group of more than 170 individuals and businesses in the tourism industry had written an open letter, published in a north Queensland newspaper, urging people to recognise the severity of the bleaching, and begging the government to take stronger action to save the reef. “We are proud of our stewardship of this incredible resource,” they wrote. “We understand its value lies in looking after it. We hope the majority of the reef can recover but Australia must start doing everything it can to tackle the root cause of the coral bleaching, which is global warming.” And, speaking to other tourism operators, it doesn’t appear these people are industry outsiders as McKenzie suggests. Paul Crocombe is the manager of Adrenalin Dive, a business based in Townsville that takes tourists out to see the reef. He has been diving on the reef for more than 30 years and has been working in tourism for more than 20. He’s concerned that the media reporting about the bleaching will impact tourist numbers but he acknowledges that it’s important to get the information out. Crocombe says when tourists hear that 93% of the reef has been impacted by bleaching they expect to come and see that it’s all dead. Of course that’s not true. In most of the places tourists go, only about 5% of the coral is likely to die, meaning they’ll hardly see any difference. In 2016 there is no reason for tourists to avoid most areas of the reef. “We were really fortunate this time with the coral bleaching that the majority of the mortality is a long way north of here,” Crocombe says. He’s very aware that if the sort of bleaching that hit Lizard Island and other areas was seen near Townsville or Port Douglas, tourism would have had a major, long-term problem. “With the reporting on the threats to the reef, it has, again, a double-edged sword. I think it’s really important that people do understand that the reef is in danger and that if we don’t do something then, yes, we are going to have a significant impact on the reef. “I think it’s really important that people do understand there are threats to the reef. Currently it is in reasonably good condition but I don’t think it will take a lot to tip it over the edge.” So with more moderate tourism operators speaking out, efforts to hide the reef’s impending death might be failing. As that happens, and the world confronts reality, can the reef be saved? “You either do it properly or you give up on the reef, I think. It’s that bad,” says Jon Brodie from James Cook University. Since 1975 he has studied how to give coral reefs their best chance of surviving the various things thrown at them. The solution to climate change itself is well-rehearsed. It’s not a scientific or technological problem but a political one. And a global one. We need to transition away from fossil fuels. That’s a sentiment that chimes with the Guardian’s “Keep it in the ground” campaign. Climate change is the greatest threat facing the Great Barrier Reef and other coral reefs around the world. According to the UN report on climate change that Australia had itself deleted from, and a paper in Nature it cites, a 2C rise in global surface temperatures will result in the loss of more than 95% of coral around the world. If the world limits warming to 1.5C, we might save 10%. If we want to save 50% of what’s around right now, we need to limit warming to just 1.2C – and we’re already more than 80% of the way there. The Australian government has committed to reductions in carbon emissions that aren’t even consistent with limiting warming to 2C. Worse still, the policies in place at the moment are widely acknowledged to be unable meet even those targets. But to give the Great Barrier Reef a fighting chance of survival in current or future temperatures, it needs to be protected from an array of other assaults it is being hit with. Scientists refer to this as building reef resilience. Nick Graham from James Cook University showed last year that almost 60% of reefs in the Seychelles recovered after they lost 90% of their coral following the 1998 global bleaching event. The reefs that recovered were those that were not being hit with pollution, weren’t being overfished, and when the reef managed to maintain a complex structure. When it comes to the Great Barrier Reef, the biggest threat to resilience is water pollution. It is being increasingly smothered with suspended sediment that blocks light; smeared with fertilisers that cause outbreaks of seaweed and coral-eating crown of thorns starfish; and poisoned with herbicides that kill the coral’s symbiotic algae. Compared with what was happening before the 20th century, today there is almost three times as much sediment, about twice as much fertiliser and 17,000 extra kilograms of herbicide washing over the reef each year. Brodie says this needs to be fixed immediately. And the bleaching this year is proof of that. “Climate change is coming on much quicker and stronger than we thought,” he says. “We used to think 2035 was soon enough to fix up water quality but we’ve had to revise that.” Now, he says, if it’s not under control by 2025, it’s game over for the reef. With an election campaign under way in Australia, which will deliver a government for at least three years, many are saying that this election is the last chance to squeeze commitments from politicians that could deliver the resilience the reef needs to survive. So far the current Coalition government of Liberals and Nationals has committed $210m to improve water quality on the reef, and a further $6m to control crown of thorns starfish, if they win the election. The Labor opposition has promised slightly more, with $500m to improve water quality. The Greens, who could hold the balance of power in the next parliament, have so far focused their attention on climate change policies, with a seven-point plan aimed at transitioning Australia away from fossil fuels. According to the best science, none of this is enough. Brodie has written hundreds of papers and technical reports on the issue, and in May published a paper estimating what would be required to get the water to an adequate state by 2025. He said it would take $1bn a year between now and then. As it stands, the major parties have committed to what amounts to tinkering around the edges, he says. A few hundred million here, a few million there. “We know how to do it,” Brodie says. “In fact right now we’re spending a little bit of money doing some of it and we have made a little bit of progress with that little bit of money but we just need a lot more.” He adds: “This is the last chance to do it, I think. If we don’t do it soon then we probably shouldn’t bother, really. It’s as bad as that now.” Graphics by Nick Evershed and Ri Liu. Videos by Josh Wall. Opening footage courtesy of Exposure Labs, which is producing a feature film on the effects of climate change on oceans. Michael Slezak reported from Townsville, the Great Barrier Reef and Sydney
News Article | December 14, 2016
No doubt nearly everyone is familiar with the story. In early 2014, Malaysian flight MH370 left Kuala Lumpur Malaysia, on a flight to China. The flight disappeared from communication and was never found; despite great search efforts. It isn’t that there is no evidence of the crash. In July of last year, a portion of a wing was found near Madagascar and Reunion Island in the Indian Ocean. Since then, other debris has been found in the Western Indian Ocean. Using the location of where the wing debris were found, oceanographers from University of Santiago de Compostela (Spain), the United States National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the University of Miami, University of Hawaii, and the Commonwealth Science Industrial and Research Organization (CSIRO) in Australia have a lead. Their hypothesis is published in the Journal of Operational Oceanography and can be found here. The authors used two sets of data to help track the possible paths of the debris. First, they took advantage of observations from NOAA’s Global Drifter Array. These drifters have a surface float and an anchor or drogue that extend to 15m deep, and a suite of sensors that communicate via satellite their location and parameters like ocean currents, surface ocean temperature, pressure, wind, and salinity. In the Indian Ocean alone, there are approximately 400 of these drifters at any time, providing continuous ocean measurement information. At some point the drifters loose their drogue and these are the ones used in this study as they better simulate debris dynamics. The authors tracked drifters that were released or that traveled near the search area in the southeastern Indian Ocean. Several of these drifters traveled across the Indian Ocean to the final destination near Reunion Island, very near where the wing debris was found, and the duration it took the drifters to make their trek was similar to that of the debris. In addition, the authors used a computer model of ocean currents from the University of Hawaii. This model incorporated the surface ocean winds and provided a realistic simulation of ocean currents during and after the plane crash. Using these computer-derived currents, the scientists released thousands of replica drifters to see where they traveled. By combining the real trajectories from actual instruments with the simulated trajectories, scientists were able to identify the location where a crash was most likely, shown in the image below. More recent debris discoveries confirm the general westward drift predictions from the computer program and analysis. While the assessments from this study are interesting in that they are related to the MH370 accident, the techniques that the researchers developed can be used for other ocean-debris scenarios and are useful both for basic research as well as more tangible applications for societal benefits, such as search and rescue efforts, oil spills, and fish larval transports. I contacted author Joaquin Trinanes to ask about the difficulties of this project and its importance. He told me: I think it is really great to solve a basic research problem but also to connect it to practical applications. Great work, folks.
News Article | March 23, 2016
Of all the environments on our planet, the deep ocean is still pretty much unknown. Scientists like to say that we’ve mapped more of the Moon than we have of our ocean floor. But there’s a growing need to monitor the ocean’s abyss, which is warming in response to climate change, just like everywhere else, creating consequences we can’t fully predict. On Tuesday, a meeting of scientists from around the world—including Canada, the US, and France—kicked off in Yokohama, Japan to discuss Argo, a global array of roughly 3,000 free-floating ocean probes that measure changes in temperature and salinity. These battery-powered devices can dip down 2,000 meters (1.25 miles), and versions of them have been drifting through the oceans for over a decade, gathering data. Now, scientists hope to deploy a heftier version of the probe, Deep Argo, that could reach an astonishing 6,000m down. That’s over 19,600 feet, a place so inhospitable—there’s few nutrients, extreme pressure, and no sunlight that deep—that not many creatures can survive there. With enough Deep Argos moving through the water, scientists would have a way to monitor places they’ve never really managed to reach. A researcher works on Deep SOLO, part of the Deep Argo program. Image: Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC San Diego Before Argo, the best thing oceanographers had to go on was surveys done by ship, said Denis Gilbert, the past director of Argo Canada, who’s based at the Institut Maurice-Lamontagne in Mont-Joli, Quebec. But those aren’t repeated often enough to be very useful. (Another creative scheme involved gluing satellite tags onto elephant seals, to pick up data about ocean conditions while they swim.) “Argo has changed the standards of global monitoring for the oceans,” Gilbert said. In the southern hemisphere, floats collect more data—every single year—than what was gathered in over six decades of oceanography, before the program came into being. Argo floats help scientists learn about ocean currents, too, because they travel by riding them, Gregory Johnson, a Seattle-based oceanographer with the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, told me. According to him, floats sink to a depth of 1,000m, then drift along for nearly two weeks before lowering to 2,000m, and come back up. “As they rise, they collect data on temperature, salinity, and pressure,” he said. “They surface and phone home,” transmitting data back to centers in Monterey, Calif. and Brest, France. Within 24 hours of transmission, the data is ready for anyone to use. Unlike the Argo floats, which are aluminum and cylinder-shaped, Deep Argo prototypes are glass spheres designed to withstand the deep ocean’s crushing pressures. Johnson calls the glass sphere a “venerable oceanographic flotation device,” stuffed full of scientific instruments. A few have already been deployed, but scientists like Johnson hope to see many more. “We’d need about 1,200 globally,” he estimated. According to a report in Nature, the NOAA is spending about $1 million annually to get Deep Argo off the ground. With a network of robotic Deep Argo probes diving down to 6,000m, scientists will be able to measure “almost 99 per cent of the ocean volume,” Johnson said—basically everything short of what’s inside the deepest ocean trenches. (The deepest point on Earth, at the bottom of the Mariana Trench, is over 10,000m below the surface.) Once the meeting in Yokohama wraps up, on Thursday, we can hope they’ll be more news about Deep Argo. It’s critical. As our planet warms up, our oceans act like a giant sponge, absorbing more than 90 per cent of the excess heat, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. What happens in the deep ocean, still the most mysterious and little-understood of all environments, will affect us deeply.
News Article | October 26, 2016
Scores of spectacular and rare under sea species have been found by expeditions this year to some of the deepest trenches in the Pacific Ocean. They include strange purple orbs, "mud monsters" and a bizarre swimming sea cucumber reminiscent of a flying Mary Poppins. Another voyage found around 500 new undersea methane vents off the US west coast. This doubles the number of known seeps, bubbling up a powerful greenhouse gas. The gas vents were found by an expedition mounted by Dr Robert Ballard, the man who first located the wreck of the Titanic. In his ship, the Nautilus, the Ballard team found new vents which were discovered off Washington, Oregon and California. Little is known about the amount of methane that is coming out from these vents and how much is entering the atmosphere. But researchers say the new discoveries may better inform global estimates of these emissions. "Methane seeps were basically unknown 20 years ago," said Prof Jesse Ausubel, from the Rockefeller University, part of the Nautilus team. "At first people thought they were incredibly rare and now, thanks to these expeditions, these seeps may be very widespread, so the (methane) budgets may have to be recalculated, that's why the exploration is important." One of this year's key expeditions mounted by the US National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), was a 59 day exploration of the Marianas Trench, the world's deepest underwater canyons. As well as discovering three new "black smoker" hydrothermal vents stretching up to 30 metres in height, the voyage also revealed some rarely seen, mysterious creatures. "I think it's always surprising what we find," said Dr Nicole Raineault, director of science operations at the Ocean Exploration Trust, which organised the expedition. "We've looked in the Mediterranean, the Gulf of Mexico, the Caribbean and now the eastern Pacific Ocean with these remotely operated vehicles to get images of the sea floor, and we are continually surprised with the variety of life that we find." "It just underscores how little we know about the ocean and how much more there is to discover our there." Follow Matt on Twitter @mattmcgrathBBC and on Facebook.
News Article | March 23, 2016
"The United States on Tuesday announced that tougher rules for labeling Mexican tuna imports as "dolphin-safe" would be expanded to the rest of the world in a bid to end a long-running trade dispute with Mexico. The World Trade Organization last November upheld a ruling that the United States was discriminating against Mexican tuna imports by applying the tougher catch verification and documentation rules to Mexican fishing fleets in the tropical eastern Pacific Ocean. Instead of loosening the rules on Mexico, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) published new rules that raised the standards for all other countries."
News Article | November 6, 2015
"Federal authorities said on Thursday they were investigating the deaths of two California common bottlenose dolphins that stranded and died on beaches just a few miles apart in San Diego a day after the U.S. Navy conducted a brief exercise with sonar. Jim Milbury, the West Coast spokesman for the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), said that necropsies were being performed and that an investigation was underway. The dolphins, apparently part of a population of 323 remaining California common bottle nose dolphins, were found on Oct. 21 at Imperial Beach and the Silver Strand, less than 10 miles apart."
News Article | December 21, 2016
Scientists are forecasting ice-melting temperatures in the middle of winter for some parts of the Arctic for the second year in a row. And analysis shows such recent record temperatures there would have been virtually impossible without human greenhouse emissions. Over the coming days, some parts of the Arctic are expected to get gusts of warm air that are more than 20C hotter than usual for this time of year, some of which will tip over the 0C melting temperature of water. Maximum temperatures in parts of the Arctic will be warmer than the maximum over most of Canada for the next five days, according the global forecasting system run by the US National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (Noaa). The extreme temperatures predicted coincide with record low sea-ice levels in the Arctic, which have already been wreaking havoc with weather North America, Europe and Asia, according to leading climate scientists. A low pressure system near Greenland is pulling the warm air towards the Arctic, in a similar pattern to that seen in 2015. And a paper published this month showed events like that, called “midwinter warming”, were occurring more frequently, and made more likely by the loss of winter sea ice – something itself caused by climate change. With less ice, warm air moved closer to the Arctic and could then more easily be swept over it, the scientists claimed. “These are very strange temperatures and are getting very close to hitting the freezing point, which is incredible for this time of year,” said Andrew King, a climate scientist from the University of Melbourne in Australia. But it’s not just predicted maximum temperatures that have been extreme. November and December have seen record average temperatures over the Arctic, averaging 2.5C above the usual for this time of year. Temperature anomalies like that have been linked to changes in migration patterns of marine mammals, cause mass starvation and deaths of reindeer as well as impact the habitats of polar bears. Now King and colleagues have shown the recent extreme average temperatures are almost certainly caused by climate change. And while they are still rare events – expected once every 200 years – they will be average by the year 2040. King and colleagues compared model simulations with and without the influence of human-caused greenhouse gas concentrations. “The record November-December temperatures in the Arctic are not seen in the natural world simulations where human influences have been removed,” King wrote in a piece published in The Conversation. “In comparison, in the current climate with human effects included, this event has at least a one-in-200-year return time.” By the 2040s, the event is expected to occur every second year, on average. The work has not yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal, but uses methods the team have used several times before in work that has been peer-reviewed.