More sophistry from The Australian on coral reef science in wake of Great Barrier Reef bleaching

Lizard071 - May 2016
Bleached and algae covered coral at Lizard Island, Great Barrier Reef, May 2016: Credit: XL Catlin Seaview Survey

If you’ve been reading The Australian recently, you might think that coral reef science is in some kind of crisis.

The Rupert Murdoch-owned newspaper has been attempting to spin the worst coral bleaching event in the reef’s recorded history as a beat-up by environmentalists and high-profile scientists.

It isn’t.

The latest instalment came earlier today from the newspaper’s environment editor Graham Lloyd, under the print headline “The bleaching of parts of the reef is dividing the scientific world” and online under the headline “Great barrier battleground over coral bleaching.”

Lloyd seems to be trying to construct a narrative that the bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef and the subsequent death of about a quarter of all the corals has opened some sort of schism among scientists.

The bleaching, writes Lloyd, has “unleashed long-simmering tensions over the quality of reef research.”

This is, in my view, bollocks [sorry kids].

Lloyd includes three individuals to back up his claims. They have two things in common.

One is that none of them are anywhere close to being actual experts in coral biology.

The second thing Lloyd’s “experts” all have in common is a broad rejection of the science linking dangerous human-caused climate change to fossil fuel burning, something Lloyd does not mention.

Let’s look for a minute at who Lloyd quotes to back up his narrative.

First there is Prof Judith Curry, of Georgia Tech University, who has no peer-reviewed publications at all in relation to coral reefs.

Having a solid body of peer-reviewed research behind you in the relevant scientific field should be the pre-requisite for assigning “expertise”.

Curry is a favourite among climate science deniers for her view that human-caused climate change is a beat up.

Then there is the curious inclusion of Jim Steele, of San Francisco State University. According to that university’s website, Steele is “emeritus” – which means he is retired.

I cannot find a publication listing for Steele, but this biography suggests expertise in biology and, in particular, birds. In 2013, Steele released a book claiming that climate change was natural and not being caused by humans.

Then there is James Cook University’s Prof Peter Ridd, who is not a coral biologist. He has published work on how sediments and waters move around coral reefs, but I am told he has no expertise on the biology of corals.

Lloyd again neglects to mention Ridd’s work on projects to support the construction of fossil fuel export facilities along the Queensland coastline close to the reef.

Nether does he mention Ridd’s tendency towards climate science denialism.

Lloyd does get quotes from one actual expert on coral bleaching – arguably one of the the world’s foremost authorities on the issue, Professor Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, of the University of Queensland.

Lloyd includes a discussion of Hoegh-Guldberg’s seminal 1999 paper on coral bleaching which warned that “present and future increases in sea temperature are likely to have severe effects on the world’s coral reefs within 20 – 30 years”.

Hoegh-Guldberg is currently at the International Coral Reef Symposium in Hawaii with a couple of thousand other reef and coral experts. He has read the story in The Australian, and told me:

What is curious for me is that Graham Lloyd chose to speak with Ridd, Curry and Steele, and not the scores of coral experts that are available in Australia and elsewhere.

When you look into the background of each individual, you find that Peter Ridd is a sedimentologist, Judith Curry a climatologist, and Jim Steele – a bird enthusiast who works in the Sierra Nevada – which at last count appears to be a long way from a coral reef.

I don’t think there is a single scientist at this meeting who will support the position taken by sedimentologist Peter Ridd or, for that matter, Curry and Steele.  That is pretty telling.

Not exactly your most qualified experts. None of them has published in the peer-reviewed literature on coral bleaching – they are simply not experts.

But in my view, not only did Lloyd choose people who were “simply not experts” but he also missed some key facts and nuance in his scrambled narrative.

For example, Lloyd looks at the issue of calcification rates of corals saying that “one paper claims there has been a 15 per cent decline in calcification rate between 1990 and 2005.”

Lloyd is referring to this 2009 Science paper by Dr Glenn De’ath, of the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS).

You can see if you follow that link that this paper was corrected by the authors in 2013, to show that calcification rates had actually dropped by a likely 11.4 per cent, rather than 14.1 per cent, as had originally been estimated (not 15 per cent, as Lloyd had written).

Lloyd cites “quality assurance work” carried out by Ridd (and published in the journal Marine Geology) that claimed to have found “two major flaws” in the 2009 De’ath et al paper. One of those flaws had been addressed in the correction, which Lloyd had not mentioned.

Neither had Lloyd mentioned that De’ath et al had actually responded to Ridd’s paper in the same Marine Geology journal and explained why they thought his criticisms were not valid.

Lloyd also raises the issue of historical coral bleaching, writing that “there is certainly documented evidence of earlier bleaching” than prior to 1980.

He cites a paper (actually a book chapter) from retired AIMS scientist Ray Berkelmans which pointed out that British scientists visiting the reef in 1929 witnessed bleaching.

But does this Berkelmans paper show that this 1929 event was evidence of “reef-wide bleaching” as Lloyd claims?

I asked Berkelmans, who retired from AIMS in March 2015. He told me:

We should not draw any conclusions from that 1929 event. We just don’t know how wide-spread it was. This was one observation at Low Isles – we don’t know if it was a patch of reef, if it was lo tide or just confined to the reef flat.

So does Berkelmans think his work, cited in The Australian, is evidence that mass coral bleaching is not a modern day phenomenon driven by global warming?

“No,” he said.

“There are of course early reports of bleaching – there was one in the US in the late 1890s. But we certainly know that since the 80s we are seeing many, many more [episodes of bleaching] and they are widespread and include widespread losses of coral.”

So the point is this.

Nobody has claimed that some corals have not occasionally bleached when under local stresses, such as high water temperatures or high pollution levels (Hoegh-Guldberg points to this 1993 paper to illustrate this).

The issue at hand is whether there has been mass coral bleaching happening simultaneously across not only the Great Barrier Reef, but across multiple ocean basins around the globe, and that this is a new phenomena. The answer to that, from all genuine experts, seems to be yes.

So is there debate in the scientific literature about the precise nature of coral bleaching and the multiple and interweaving factors that contribute to it? Of course there is.

But does this mean that the current bleaching event has opened up some kind of schism among marine scientists that is distinct from the everyday cut and thrust of science? No.

 

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How the 2016 coral bleaching unfolded on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef

dhd14dayleg-n-20160330 (1)There’s some genuine anxiety and anger among coral scientists in Australia right now, as the Great Barrier Reef suffers probably its worst coral bleaching event in recorded history.

I’ve written about that on my Planet Oz Guardian blog, where I tried to explain the clear link between fossil fuel burning, global warming and bleaching.

The bleaching event coincides with record warm sea surface temperatures (SST) for the summer just gone.

When SST go above a long term average for too long, this causes a stress reaction in the corals.  There’s a separation between the coral skeleton and the algae that gives the animal all that amazing colour (and also gives it the nutrient it needs to survive).

Just like in many other parts of the world, SST have been on the rise.

The Burea of Meteorology’s ReefTemp site sorts the SST data to give an indication of the risk of coral bleaching – a measure known as Degree Heating Days (one DHD is one degree above the long-term average temperature for one day).

I’ve made a GIF of the recent readings off the Coral Sea. The picture tells its own story, as you see the thermal stress on the corals build from the end of February to the end of March.

2016 great barrier reef bleaching

For a technical explanation of the data, go here.

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Murdering a scientific paper on sea-level rise – the Graham Lloyd way

UNRAVELLING the causes of rising sea-levels across the globe is a little like one of those Agatha Christie TV murder whodunnits that you might have sat through while your Sunday lunch disappated through your system.

There are all sorts of co-conspirators that come together in the plot that’s causing sea levels to rise.

There’s thermal expansion of the oceans – which basically means as the oceans warm up the body of water gets larger and pushes higher. Then there’s water from melting glaciers and water melting from ice-sheets in Greenland and Antarctica.

There are also events that have a mild cooling effect on the climate, such as volcanic eruptions and the amount of energy coming from the sun as it moves through its cycles.

But according to The Australian newspaper, a new piece of research on sea levels “has found no link to global warming and no increase in the rate of glacier melt over the past 100 years”.  Now that seems to be pretty categorical doesn’t it?  Just in case you weren’t sure, the headline states even more clearly “Sea rise ‘not linked to warming’, says report

The Australian’s environment editor Graham Lloyd reports on a paper published in the Journal of Climate and points out that one of the globe’s leading expert on sea level rise, Dr John Church, is a co-author. This lends some degree of credibility to the paper.

Strangely, The Australian doesn’t quote Church, which is perhaps just as well given that he told reporters this morning that Lloyd’s story was misleading. “Sea level clearly is linked to climate change, it clearly is linked to greenhouse gases and that was in the paper quoted by The Australian. The quote is, I am sorry, inaccurate,” The Conversation reports.

Now we could simply leave it there, with Lloyd hoisted on his own petard. But let’s have a look at how The Australian has misinterpreted – or perhaps even misrepresented – what the paper, published in November last year, actually says about the role of humans in rising sea levels and how it in no way concludes what Lloyd says it concludes.

Continue reading “Murdering a scientific paper on sea-level rise – the Graham Lloyd way”

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Plenty more sustainable fish in the sea?

CAN I buy some fish please?

BUYING fish is an extremely easy thing to do. All you have to do is ask.

You can get it in a can, it comes battered or breaded in fish shops, filleted, whole or frozen on market stalls and every-which-way in supermarkets.

Granted, there are questions that most consumers will ask themselves. Is it cheap, is it fresh and will it taste good, among the most popular.

But all in all, there is no hunting or gathering involved for the consumer. Buying fish is not rocket science because the commercial fishing industry and retailers have made it so.

But insert one word into your question and you have a whole new kettle of fish.

Can I buy some sustainable fish please?

Now that’s a question which is a gateway to a complex global issue because it prompts lots of other questions. Here’s a few of them.

What kind of fish are you buying? This may be obvious, but in fact – in the case of tuna for example – even this can’t be answered with confidence.

Is the species of fish you’re buying plentiful or are stocks dwindling or even endangered? Is the fishery which it came from being sustianably managed or overfished? How was the fish caught?

Again your fish retailer, waiter or manufacturer is unlikely to be able to answer any or all of these questions clearly yet the impacts of commercial fishing and fishing methods are huge.

Sometimes,for example, only the people on the fishing vessel will know how many turtles, shark, sea-lions, seabirds, dolphins or any other non-target species – including other fish – were impacted when the fish was pulled from the

ocean. The knock-on effects go unnoticed.

Even if you choose to buy farmed fish, there are questions to be asked. Is the fish farm out in the open ocean or connected to waterways? What impact is that farming operation having on the water and species living around it?

The reason I’m asking all of these questions is because I’ve tried to address these, and a few more, in a special report in G Magazine.The report appeared in print last November but is now available free online. It’s long but hopefully enlightening.

For a free guide to these issues, you can go to the Australian Marine Conservation Society’s online Sustainable Seafood Guide where you can buy a print version too.

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Do sharks hear the Jaws theme music too?

MAYBE the reason I’m scared of them is that they’ve got pointy teeth and, potentially, they can kill you or at least rip off a limb or two.

Yes.. that’s definitely the reason I’m scared of sharks…. oh, and there’s that foreboding theme tune from Jaws.

Even though I know full well I’m way more likely to die from being struck by lightning, crossing the street or even at my own hands, I can’t get those scary pointy teeth out of my head.

But that doesn’t mean I’d like to go out and kill sharks. I’d be more likely, to be honest, to wish ill-will of John Williams, the guy that put together the alternating E and F notes to make that horrible theme tune.

I can’t really say if I’d feel any differently if I actually were unfortunate enough to be partially eaten by one, but I’d like to think that I would react in the same way as Australian navy diver Paul de Gelder, who “lost” his right hand and lower right leg in Sydney harbour last year.

At the time, the local News Ltd tabloid newspaper went on it’s own feeding frenzy and even sent out a journalist to try and catch a shark.  “Gotcha – How we caught a man eater” the newspaper screamed on its front page, before going on to reveal that the shark they “caught” actually got away.

Anyway, it appears that de Gelder has a rather different reaction to his situation than the local tabloid press. He has joined with other shark attack victims from around the world for a new campaign to help save the animals that bit them, as reported here in the Sydney Morning Herald and the Huffington Post.

Pew Environment Group, a Washington-based organisation that brought the survivors to the UN, says 30 per cent of shark species are threatened or near-threatened with extinction, while the status of 47 per cent is not properly known.

Understanding the impact which humans have had on these majestic (but still pointy-toothed) creatures makes you wonder whether it would be more appropriate if the sharks were the ones hearing the foreboding theme song whenever they come across a human, rather than the other way around.

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Didn’t see this whale-sized one coming

IN recent days I’ve been talking to several anti-whaling campaigners and an international professor of law but none of them saw this one coming.

Government initiates legal action against Japanese whaling

The headline on the joint statement from Australian ministers Stephen Smith (Foreign Affairs), Peter Garrett (Environmental Protection and Definitely-Nothing-To-Do-With-Insulation) and Attorney-General Robert McClelland sort of gives the story away really.

The statement comes as delegates arrive in Agadir for the annual meeting of the International Whaling Commission where all eyes will be on agenda item 3 – a so-called compromise deal to bring the three whaling nations of Iceland, Norway and Japan into line.

At the end of April, in a speech to the Australian National University, Peter Garrett outlined Australia’s dislike of the new proposal and did warn we would pursue legal action if the Government’s demands were not met. Perhaps that’s why this announcement will have caught most people on the hop.

There has been much written about that compromise deal already. The BBC has a good summary here, but in short it would allow whaling by non-indigenous hunters from those nations still killing the animals – Japan, Iceland and Norway. It would also set up an international team of observers and set quotas (campaigners say more than half of the species included in the draft proposal have not had a scientific assessment conducted on the health of their populations).

There’s been a moratorium on commercial whaling since the 1985/86 hunting season, but it didn’t stop nations from killing the animals.

Norway and Iceland get around the moratorium by just objecting to it (if only parking fines worked that way). Japan also tried this tactic, but these days uses a condition from the original 1946 convention that allows whaling in the name of science, known as Article VIII.

We can see today’s announcement as a statement of intent by Australia – a bit of diplomatic positioning – that if it doesn’t get it’s own way in Agadir, it’ll be heading for The Hague.

By the way, I took the pic of the whale myself during a whale watching trip off the coast just north of Brisbane. They look better alive than dead.

UPDATE: Here’s why I was talking to the campaigners an law experts. Feature on ABC Environment.

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Not looking forward to getting to the End of the Line

I’M not really looking forward to seeing the “new” documentary movie End of the Line (first premiered in January 2009) when it opens in Australia on Friday, but see it I will.

Based on a book of the same name by British journalist Charles Clover, the film looks at… ahh, just watch the trailer and see for yourself. For screenings, go here.

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