Climate Change and Coral Reefs

January 31st, 2011

For the past several years, news of the decline of coral species and coral reef ecosystems has increased dramatically. Ostensibly, we are hearing more about corals as a direct result of the work scientists are doing to help us learn more and more about the tight inter-relationship between the Earth’s climate and the oceans.

Last year, I was involved in a project with The Video Project, Plankton Productions, Curriculum Corporation, The Learning Federation, and Specialty Studios to create a video series for students on the subject of climate change and coral reefs. The project was based on a presentation given by Professor Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, a globally recognized marine biologist, at the 2009 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, Denmark. I worked as the host of the videos, and as Creative Adviser, working closely with the Instructional Design consultant, Nancy Wolfberg, on the writing, editing, and animations.

The primary goal of the project was to create a series of short videos that science teachers could use as supplements to help familiarize students with the basic science of both coral reefs and climate change. Secondarily, but even more importantly, we wanted our videos to instill an understanding of the nature of scientific inquiry that students would take with them from the classroom to the real world. In doing so, we hoped to counteract the very depressing scientific statistics presented across the videos with a feeling of empowerment… we wanted to leave the students with the impression that they are capable and don’t have to wait for adults in order to substantially affect their environments.

Here is a little taste of our introductory video:

I’m proud to say that I think we achieved our goals. The DVD that is currently available through The Video Project is a valuable teaching tool:

“The DVD includes:

Four 8-minute video modules hosted by Dr. Kiki Sanford.
The modules feature Dr. Sanford and excerpts from a presentation by Prof. Ove Hoegh-Guldberg:

  • Introduction to Climate Change and Coral Reefs
  • Coral Bleaching
  • Ocean Acidification
  • The Future of Coral Reefs.

The full 28-minute presentation by Prof. Hoegh-Guldberg.
Details his scientific findings about the impact of climate change on coral reefs, with charts, graphs and other visuals.

A Detailed Teacher’s Guide.
Featuring an innovative group discussion format (Climate Café), templates for team-based
investigations and presentations, a glossary, Science magazine reprints, and a comprehensive
list of other resources and links (on the DVD-ROM section).

Visual Resources for Student Presentations.
Video clips, animations and other resources (on the DVD-ROM section).

All video segments are illustrated with footage from renowned underwater filmmaker David Hannan.”

I think the Teacher’s Guide is brilliant. It takes engagement with the material to a whole new level in and outside of the classroom. Additionally, source materials and all of the animations are available for the students to use in their own research and presentations, giving them the opportunity to put their own spin on what they learn.

So, if you are a science teacher (or home school your kids!), or know someone who might be interested in this teaching resource to supplement their teaching of climate change and coral reefs, please pass this information along!

If you are a teacher or student in Australia or New Zealand, where I believe these videos are available through the Curriculum Corporation, please let me know what you think of the video project. I’d love your feedback.

Also, Specialty Studios and The Video Project will have a booth at the 2011 National Conference of the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) in San Francisco. I hope to be able to make an appearance at the event, and be able to talk with teachers in person about our labor of love. However, it’s rather close to the due date of my first child, so I will be sure to keep people apprised of developments.

I hope people enjoy and get much use out of our creation. It took the devotion and hard work of many talented individuals to see it to completion.

The Things Roos Do

February 8th, 2010

Little did you know that kangaroos have the power to save the world.

A recent press release in my email in-box tipped me off to the hidden super-powers of our bouncing animal friends from the land of Aus.

According to the press release, a study published in 2009 found that bacteria living in the guts of roos produce cancer-fighting anzymes. When tested in mice, injections of bacterial spores had 35-40% success in fighting cancerous tumors.

“In the labs, we train the bacteria, so they develop their innate ability to colonise tumours, digesting them, and stimulating the body’s natural immune system,” said Assoc. Prof. Ming Wei from the Griffith Institute of Health and Medical Research.

This study got me to thinking about what else I have heard about kangaroos through the science grapevine, and I remembered another amazing kangaroo ability that was uncovered back in 2007… kangaroos can fight global warming.

Well, it’s actually once again thanks to the bacteria that live in their guts that kangaroos have the fate of the world on their shoulders.

Most ruminants, animals with stomachs capable of fermentation, produce LOTS of methane. Methane is known to be a powerful greenhouse gas and a major factor in global climate change. Most of the methane released into the atmosphere related to human activities comes from our livestock. So, scientists are trying to figure out how to reduce the methane produced during the ruminant digestive process.

Back to kangaroos… kangaroos are foregut fermenters like cows, but it turns out that they don’t produce methane. The bacteria in their guts utilize a slightly different chemical process from that of other fermenting bacteria, and produce acetate as a bi-product instead.

Now that they have this interesting piece of information, scientists are on working on transferring kangaroo bacteria into cows. The problem they have to solve is how to get the bacteria to live in a stomach that is both anatomically and environmentally different from that of the kangaroo.

I wonder if it might be easier to get people to eat kangaroo.

Debating Climate Change

December 15th, 2009

Recently, what with Copen-Hopen-hagen and Climategate, there has been a renewed interest in the debate surrounding the environmental phenomenon currently called climate change.

I’d like to weigh in with a few points, as they were made on This Week in Science:

•    the greenhouse effect is a natural phenomenon that warms the planet.
•    CO2 is small percentage of atmospheric gases, but has large impact due to longevity… on the order of century rather than hours or days like other gases.
•    all data shows CO2 increasing in the atmosphere
•    current increase strongly correlates to increases in fossil fuel use / emissions / deforestation
•    carbon isotope data links CO2 over the past 150 years to human fossil fuel use.
•    CO2 is currently higher than at any point in at least the past 500,000 - 650,000 years.
•    past CO2 increases were not due to human activity, but occurred at slower rate and didn’t reach current levels. present rate is concerning.
•    Several years within the past decade are among the top 10 warmest on record.
•    Recent warming is not linked to sunspot / solar activity as that has been low while temperatures and CO2 have risen.
•    Sea level rise has increased from 1.5 to over 3mm / year over the last 100 years.
•    There has been a global temperature increase of around 1 deg. F over the past 100 years.
•    the majority of temperature and CO2 data is available to the public. some datasets are not made available immediately due to contractual obligations, but the majority are public domain.

To summarize, there is no scientific debate that CO2 is currently involved in the warming process underway, and that human activities play a significant role in global CO2 levels. There is lots of scientific debate on all sorts of details, but not these main points. The point is that science is based on evidence, and the majority of evidence is pointing to us and CO2. Let’s move on to solutions.

I found a website (there are so many, it wasn’t really difficult) that argues several climate change points in an attempt to sow misunderstanding and mistrust. I’ve taken the time to respond to the so-called “facts” the website presents. My responses are in bold, whereas the “myths” and “facts” presented are from the website, and represent common arguements against climate change science.

From globalresearch.ca - Ten “Facts” About Climate Change
1.     Climate has always changed, and it always will. The assumption that prior to the industrial revolution the Earth had a “stable” climate is simply wrong. The only sensible thing to do about climate change is to prepare for it.
True, climate has always varied, but of current concern is the rate at which climate is changing. The increase in temperature over the past 100 years outpaces any period for at least the past 500,000. Yes, it is sensible to prepare for climate change, which is why governments and industry leaders are looking to move away from fossil fuels, and to improve water and energy technologies.

2.    Accurate temperature measurements made from weather balloons and satellites since the late 1950s show no atmospheric warming since 1958.  In contrast, averaged ground-based thermometers record a warming of about 0.40 C over the same time period. Many scientists believe that the thermometer record is biased by the Urban Heat Island effect and other artefacts.
False, the lower atmosphere (the troposphere) has warmed in line with the planet surface over the past 50 years. (http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/img/climate/globalwarming/ipcc12.gif) Also, the urban heat island effect has been shown to be largely an urban myth, and not a significant player in global temperatures.

3.    Despite the expenditure of more than US$50 billion dollars looking for it since 1990, no unambiguous anthropogenic (human) signal has been identified in the global temperature pattern.
True, the global temperature pattern has complex influences ranging from human emissions to solar activity to volcanism. However, the recent rapid overall increase in temperature can’t be tied to anything more convincingly than human activities.

4.    Without the greenhouse effect, the average surface temperature on Earth would be -180 C rather than the equable +150 C that has nurtured the development of life.
True, the greenhouse effect is responsible for the stability of temperature on our planet.

Carbon dioxide is a minor greenhouse gas, responsible for ~26% (80 C) of the total greenhouse effect (330C), of which in turn at most 25% (~20C) can be attributed to carbon dioxide contributed by human activity. Water vapour, contributing at least 70% of the effect, is by far the most important atmospheric greenhouse gas.
False, in that water vapor might make up the bulk of the greenhouse gases, but it is far less long-lived than CO2, which can persist for a century or more. Also, water vapor varies as a function of temperature. So, CO2 acts as a forcing agent, increasing temperature, which in turn increases H2O vapor, which can then amplify the CO2 initiated temperature increases even more.

5.    On both annual (1 year) and geological (up to 100,000 year) time scales, changes in atmospheric temperature PRECEDE changes in CO2. Carbon dioxide therefore cannot be the primary forcing agent for temperature increase (though increasing CO2 does cause a diminishingly mild positive temperature feedback).
True, temperature changes do often precede CO2, but not significantly. It’s thought that solar and orbital effects can kickstart climate change processes like increases in temperature, but once temperature starts increasing the oceans and other CO2 sinks begin to release CO2 and H2O into the atmosphere, leading to a feedback cycle that continues to increase temperature. What might start out temperature driven doesn’t necessarily end that way. Also, there are historical examples of greenhouse gas driven temperature increases, which resulted in mass extinctions and took over 100,000 years to return to the original state.

6.    The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has acted as the main scaremonger for the global warming lobby that led to the Kyoto Protocol. Fatally, the IPCC is a political, not scientific, body.
True. This is a benefit and a fault. It is a political body informed by science and scientists.

Hendrik Tennekes, a retired Director of Research at the Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute, says that “the IPCC review process is fatally flawed” and that “the IPCC wilfully ignores the paradigm shift created by the foremost meteorologist of the twentieth century, Edward Lorenz”.
This comment is a red herring. The IPCC multi-model ensemble approach is ultimately based on Lorenz’ idea of the Butterfly effect. Using multiple models strengthens the overall predictive power of the models by minimizing uncertainties that are inherent in them.

7.    The Kyoto Protocol will cost many trillions of dollars and exercises a significant impost those countries that signed it, but will deliver no significant cooling (less than .020 C by 2050, assuming that all commitments are met).
The Russian Academy of Sciences says that Kyoto has no scientific basis; Andre Illarianov, senior advisor to Russian president Putin, calls Kyoto-ism “one of the most agressive, intrusive, destructive ideologies since the collapse of communism and fascism”. If Kyoto was a “first step” then it was in the same wrong direction as the later “Bali roadmap”.
The Kyoto protocol is a political agreement, not scientific. However, it and other international agreements are a beginning to changing our emission habits.

8.    Climate change is a non-linear (chaotic) process, some parts of which are only dimly or not at all understood. No deterministic computer model will ever be able to make an accurate prediction of climate 100 years into the future.
Climate models are constantly being improved, and with each bit of information we get, we are closer to more accurate predictive models. Current models may not be 100% accurate, but they do give a good idea of what kind of future global climate we are looking at for various scenarios.

9.    Not surprisingly, therefore, experts in computer modelling agree also that no current (or likely near-future) climate model is able to make accurate predictions of regional climate change.
regional climate change is a different beast altogether as local factors play into what is occurring on a global scale. We can gain a general idea of what might happen based on global climate changes, but the model is not going to be 100% accurate on a regional scale.

10.   The biggest untruth about human global warming is the assertion that nearly all scientists agree that it is occurring, and at a dangerous rate.
The reality is that almost every aspect of climate science is the subject of vigorous debate. Further, thousands of qualified scientists worldwide have signed declarations which (i) query the evidence for hypothetical human-caused warming and (ii) support a rational scientific (not emotional) approach to its study within the context of known natural climate change.
What scientists say or don’t say is not the issue. The scientific literature contains a preponderance of evidence suggesting that climate change is occurring, and that human activities are responsible for the extent of the change we are currently seeing. The minutiae of the mechanisms and processes are what are currently being debated within the scientific community, not the overall trends.

LAYING TEN GLOBAL WARMING MYTHS
Myth 1     Average global temperature (AGT) has increased over the last few years.
Fact 1       Within error bounds, AGT has not increased since 1995 and has declined since 2002, despite an increase in atmospheric CO2 of 8% since 1995.
This is false, 10 of the warmest years on record have occurred over the past 15 years. 2005 was the warmest year on record.

Myth 2     During the late 20th Century, AGT increased at a dangerously fast rate and reached an unprecedented magnitude.
Facts 2      The late 20th Century AGT rise was at a rate of 1-20 C/century, which lies well within natural rates of climate change for the last 10,000 yr. AGT has been several degrees warmer than today many times in the recent geological past.
Red herring… what is meant by recent geological past? It has been warmer than current temperatures many times in the Earth’s history, but not within the last 500,000 years.

Myth 3     AGT was relatively unchanging in pre-industrial times, has sky-rocketed since 1900, and will increase by several degrees more over the next 100 years (the Mann, Bradley & Hughes “hockey stick” curve and its computer extrapolation).
Facts 3      The Mann et al. curve has been exposed as a statistical contrivance. There is no convincing evidence that past climate was unchanging, nor that 20th century changes in AGT were unusual, nor that dangerous human warming is underway.
The hockey stick has been held up as the foundation for all of climate science by the skeptics, but in reality there are many other studies using many different data sources that support the same conclusion as the hockey stick… the past 100 years have seen a rapid temperature increase that is expected to continue.

Myth 4     Computer models predict that AGT will increase by up to 60 C over the next 100 years.
Facts 4      Deterministic computer models do. Other equally valid (empirical) computer models predict cooling.
The majority of models looking at surface temperatures predict warming. there may be regional cooling, however.

Myth 5     Warming of more than 20 C will have catastrophic effects on ecosystems and mankind alike.
Facts 5      A 20 C change would be well within previous natural bounds. Ecosystems have been adapting to such changes since time immemorial. The result is the process that we call evolution. Mankind can and does adapt to all climate extremes.
True, adaptation will allow some organisms to survive, but based on the current rate of change, if temperatures increase too rapidly, many organisms will not be able to adapt, and we will likely see mass extinctions as temperatures increase and local climates change.

Myth 6     Further human addition of CO2 to the atmosphere will cause dangerous warming, and is generally harmful.
Facts 6      No human-caused warming can yet be detected that is distinct from natural system variation and noise. Any additional human-caused warming which occurs will probably amount to less than 10 C. Atmospheric CO2 is a beneficial fertilizer for plants, including especially cereal crops, and also aids efficient evapo-transpiration.
Human emissions will likely add to the predicted temperature increases. We are responsible for the current CO2 increases and to the linked climate changes. the plants will be able to deal to a certain degree, but that argument is another red herring as the atmosphere will likely contain too much CO2 for the different sinks to ameliorate the temperature increases in a reasonable amount of time.

Myth 7     Changes in solar activity cannot explain recent changes in AGT.
Facts 7      The sun’s output varies in several ways on many time scales (including the 11-, 22 and 80-year solar cycles), with concomitant effects on Earth’s climate. While changes in visible radiation are small, changes in particle flux and magnetic field are known to exercise a strong climatic effect. More than 50% of the 0.80 C rise in AGT observed during the 20th century can be attributed to solar change.
Solar flux in the first half of the 20th century is likely responsible for much of the observed temperature increases during that period, but more recently CO2 and temperature have been increasing while solar activity has waned.

Myth 8     Unprecedented melting of ice is taking place in both the north and south polar regions.
Facts 8      Both the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets are growing in thickness and cooling at their summit. Sea ice around Antarctica attained a record area in 2007. Temperatures in the Arctic region are just now achieving the levels of natural warmth experienced during the early 1940s, and the region was warmer still (sea-ice free) during earlier times.
Antarctic ice is thinning and resulting in calving of large areas of ice off of the continent. Arctic ice continues to decrease as temperatures rise. Greenland’s glaciers are melting.

Myth 9     Human-caused global warming is causing dangerous global sea-level (SL) rise.
Facts 9      SL change differs from time to time and place to place; between 1955 and 1996, for example, SL at Tuvalu fell by 105 mm (2.5 mm/yr). Global average SL is a statistical measure of no value for environmental planning purposes. A global average SL rise of 1-2 mm/yr occurred naturally over the last 150 years, and shows no sign of human-influenced increase.
There is always going to be some amount of local variability. However, measurements show a yearly rise on the order of 3 mm currently, and increase over the earlier measurements of 1.5mm / year.

Myth 10   The late 20th Century increase in AGT caused an increase in the number of severe storms (cyclones), or in storm intensity.
Facts 10    Meteorological experts are agreed that no increase in storms has occurred beyond that associated with natural variation of the climate system.
there has been a slight increase in storm severity in some regions. this area of data collections still needs more investigation as it is hard to separate weather effects from climatological effects over the short-term. what scientists are interested in are long-term trends

I will say it again. Let’s move on from repeating these “debates” to solutions.