Sunday, 15 July 2012

Cairns Post Letters from the Wingnuts #10 (Not all corals are the same)

Oh well, back to Thursday's Letters to the Editor in the Cairns Post. Bill Schutz is possibly the most regular of the climate change deniers who appear on the page, and likely the one who puts the least thought into his letters. They tend to be poorly written and riddled with simple-minded thinking. Thursday's example was no different:
It is a real shame that the weather could not be better for the coral reef symposium currently under way in Cairns.

To have the sun shining and the Coral Sea crystal clear, calm and brilliantly blue is certainly the best drawcard we could ever have had for our international visitors.
Yawn. Enough sarcastic, insincere niceties. Let's get to the meat.
However we cannot predetermine the weather, yet many at this conference say this is exactly what we can do.
Predetermining the weather sounds wonderful, but I suspect he means predicting the weather. It's a common denier argument that climate predictions, decades into the future, can't be right when the weather forecast for the next day isn't always right. Climate is more predictable than weather, for example when you put your jumpers at the back of the closet at the end of winter. Ever increasing understanding of the factors involved allows increasing accuracy in climate predictions. See Skeptical Science's discussion of this issue.
The Green ideology is infiltrating everywhere, even into science.
Yes, reality has a well-known liberal bias. Get over it, and join the reality based community.
By imposing a carbon dioxide tax on us mere mortals, we can save the Great Barrier Reef from disastrous man-made climate change, decree the scientists who are funded from the government.
Yes, they're all evil government scientists! It wouldn't come as much of a surprise if most of the scientists are government funded as private industry is focused on money, particularly short term profitability, and less likely to divert a great deal of funding to long term science. Some of the scientists, however, are privately funded and are also concerned about the environmental effects of increasing global temperatures and ocean acidification.

By imposing a carbon dioxide tax properly, we would reduce our emissions and create some momentum that may help move the rest of the world to do the same. If we, as a planet successfully reduce carbon dioxide emissions, in time the concentration in the atmosphere will drop, and the extent of damage from climate change will be reduced. Unfortunately the climate system has a lot of inertia, and even an immediate cessation of all emissions would take some time to see warming stop.
Yet, the Reef has been there for millions of years and will be there for millions more, with or without our help.
The Great Barrier Reef as we know it is thousands of years old. At times in the past it has been dry land as seas have risen and fallen due to climatic variations. Coral reefs have certainly existed for millions of years, slowly adapting to slowly changing climates and colonising new areas as they became suitable. Whether or not the Reef as we know it will be here at the end of this century is still in question. The Reef, in some form, may adapt and survive. It may be impoverished in the process, and may have effects on dependent communities such as Cairns.
The hypocrisy of catastrophic man-made global warming and coral reefs dying, is that coral reefs prefer warmer waters, so any increase in temperature would benefit the Reef, not endanger it.

After all, no reefs have been found growing in the South or North Pole.
Hypocrisy? A line from the Princess Bride comes to mind. Mr Schutz really is a lousy writer and should get himself an editor. I'm feeling charitable, so I'll take a shot at it. I think he meant to say something like "Contrary to assertions that man-made global warming can result in coral reefs dying, coral reefs prefer warmer waters so any increase in temperature would benefit the Reef, not endanger it".

The leap from "the distribution of coral reefs is centred on the equator" to "coral reefs will do better if they get warmer" is extremely simplistic. It includes an implicit denial that heat stress and bleaching can cause the collapse of coral reefs. It's also an assumption that if you picked up a southerly reef and dropped it into the warmer waters of the equator, that reef would thrive. It's completely and utterly wrong.

There certainly are some species, particularly among fish and other large organisms that catch the human eye, that are flexible in their environmental demands, and they can range across wide geographic ranges. In comments by Mr Shutz and others on the Cairns Post website, I note that there is a focus on these large, obvious, mobile, wide-ranging species. It is wrong, however, to extrapolate from these wide-ranging species to all species.

Some reef species exist in highly variable environments such as tidal lagoons, where short term fluctuations, including in temperature, can be wide and rapid. These species have evolved mechanisms to survive in these varying conditions, and this may have the serendipitous effect of allowing them to cope with climate change more easily. Other species have evolved in far more stable environments, for example the deeper waters around the bases of reefs, and have significantly lesser tolerance of variability.

Yet all organisms, even ones that are fairly flexible in their requirements, exist only within specific parameters, with occasional variations outside the ideal range tolerated. Some organisms have greater sensitivity to variations outside their ideal range. As temperatures warm, species will encounter high temperature stresses more commonly, and may result in the death of that species. The death of one species can then have flow on effects through an ecosystem, even causing ecosystem collapse (see keystone species). Rather than heat killing off a whole reef directly, this is the greater risk to reefs - that the local extinction of a small number of highly sensitive organisms result in a greater die off through ecosystem collapse.

A good exercise for Mr Shutz might be to head out to the Reef and observe the changing species as he moves around. Some species common at shallow depths will be absent at greater depths. Some species common on the backreef or in lagoons are absent on the forereef. These organisms are responding to a wide range of variables, including sunlight, wave action, temperature, clarity, water chemistry, and even to the presence of other organisms. It really is far more complex than he thinks.

Reef communities have adapted to climate change before. The question now is whether or not they will be able to adapt or redistribute as fast as the current rapid warming requires. In some ways marine species may have an advantage due their larval dispersal mechanisms and the absence of roads, cities, farms and other man-made obstacles in the ocean, but this does not guarantee their ability to survive.

For further information on the temperature sensitivity of reef organisms, there's a very good and detailed article, written from an aquarist's perspective, on this subject at Reefs Magazine. As that article shows, it's a complex field, and discussions that take place at forums such as the Symposium he denigrates help increase understanding of the subject. Skeptical Science also has a good page discussing coral bleaching and decline.

Mr Shutz also needs to consider effects of carbon dioxide emissions other than rising temperature. He fails to consider ocean acidification and its impacts on coral formation and other essential processes in marine life, such as foraminifera skeleton formation. Once again, flow on effects through the ecosystem need to be considered.
I wonder how many at the symposium actually believe that man is causing any harm at all. Or are they gagged by the executive?
I would guess that almost all of the Coral Reef Symposium attendees accept anthropogenic climate change is real, and that it is having a deleterious impact upon reefs world wide. Why am I so confident of this? Because they are scientists, and many of them are studying the effects of climate change.
I hope our visitors enjoy their junket, but in reality whatever we do is insignificant in the context of a global environment we have no control over.
I too hope the Symposium attendees enjoy their time here in Cairns, and that the Symposium will help advance many areas of marine science including climate change and ocean acidification. Contrary to Mr Schutz's assertion, mankind can have an effect on our atmosphere. That has been proven through problems such as acid rain and ozone depletion, as well as the remediative actions that have been successfully deployed.

Placing your head where the sun doesn't shine, as some seem set on doing, isn't a solution.

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