30 March 2008

Canaries or canards?

As the Whirligig spins faster, the canaries stop singing, one by one. While it may be outdated, the idea of 'canaries in a coal mine' as a metaphor for the events occurring as we meet our onrushing environmental fate remains useful. The birds go silent – an ill wind blows. Time to heed the warnings or a false alarm?

Bats in New York state are dying, and no one knows why.

Wildlife biologists fear a significant die-off in about 15 caves and mines in New York, as well as at sites in Massachusetts and Vermont. Whatever is killing the bats leaves them unusually thin and, in some cases, dotted with a white fungus. Bat experts fear that what they call White Nose Syndrome may spell doom for several species that keep insect pests under control.

Researchers have yet to determine whether the bats are being killed by a virus, bacteria, toxin, environmental hazard, metabolic disorder or fungus. Some have been found with pneumonia, but that and the fungus are believed to be secondary symptoms.

Of course, climate change could be considered, but it could be through a second-order effect. For example, some subtle alteration in the timing of severity of the seasons could upset the balance of the local ecology, altering the microbial environment and ultimately resulting in dead bats and serious alteration of the local environment. However, discerning the interactions between the myriad variables – their interactions and feedbacks – is difficult work. Ultimate cause and effect is hard to establish.

This is witnessed in the case of the vanishing harlequin frogs in Costa Rica. AS the story notes, '...teams of biologists have been sifting spotty evidence and pointing to various culprits in the widespread vanishing of [the] frogs'. The person quoted below has the correct perspective

“There is so much we still do not know!”... The origin of the fungus and the way it kills amphibians remain unknown and there are ample mysteries about why it breaks out in certain places and times and not others.

Different approaches and paradigms of different researchers lead to different answers. In science, one paper or observation is not definitive...replication is key. And given the complexity of ecosystems, many of the hypotheses may be partially right. It may be years or decades (or never!) before we have certainty that the 'truth' is known.

The disappearing salmon off the California coast are another sign of something gone amiss. The reason for the decline is unclear.

The reason for the decline is unclear. Both hatchery and naturally produced fish have been negatively affected, and returns of coastal stocks in Oregon, in the Columbia River, and in British Columbia were all low in 2007. The decline seems to be a coastwide phenomenon, probably related to ocean conditions.

In Chile, the fishing methods used have been indicted in a salmon virus outbreak. A Change in the Wind has a comprehensive post on the closure of the fisheries and the sources of uncertainty in ascertaining the cause. A link between the Pacific Decadal Osciallation and the number of salmon is explored. As before, nothing is certain. They are many partially correct explanations. Disentangling natural variability vs climate change is next to impossible in the short term.

Are they canaries or canards? The increasingly frequent timing of these events and others like them, in light of the known greenhouse gas forcing and other 'environmental crimes' of humanity, is worrying. But the answers don't come easily. Nonetheless, one can only imagine that whatever Nature's verdict, Humanity will be implicated. Our environmental impacts are enormous. We are the common factor in all these events. Of course we're responsible. And if it doesn't immanently lead to societal and/or ecosystem collapse, then all the luckier for humanity. That gives us more time to act, and allows us to maintain the faint hopes that it is not too late. While success is not assured, despair guarantees failure. Nature always bats last.

Image: Dante Fenolio/Atlanta Botanical Garden via New York Times

15 March 2008

Australian stories

A few items of planet doom?-type interest from Down Under. Noted here are the extraordinary heat plaguing the southeast, new measurements documenting a slowdown in growth of the Great Barrier Reef and a follow-up on an ethically questionable appropriation in weather modification research.


Late summer and early autumn have brought scorching heat to SE Australia. Adelaide has been particularly hard hit, with (as of Friday) 12 days in a row with maximum temperatures above 35 C. The trend is forecast to continue through Tuesday, four days hence. If this verifies, that would make 16 days. The previous record for Adelaide, set in 1934, is 8 days. Tasmania recorded its hottest march day in 68 years. Northwest VIC also recorded an extended run of hot weather during this period as well. Tasmania also beat or tied record highs for March, with 37+ C seen in Hobart. Interestingly, February 2008 was one of Tassie's coolest on record.

As noted previously, several other occurrences of extended heat have been observed this summer. Perth and WA have sweltered. Tennant Creek had an extended heatwave, with 19 consecutive days with a maximum temperature above 40 C.


That coral reefs are in danger from climate change has been noted previously. According to IPCC, a “significant loss of biodiversity” is projected to occur by 2020 on the Great Barrier Reef. Unfortunately, the degradation of the reef is becoming quantifiable; warming of the Coral Sea has slowed reef growth over the past 16 years.

Worrying signs that warmer seawater combined with a possible change in the ocean’s acid balance may be curtailing the growth of an important reef-building coral species have been documented by a research team from the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS) in Townsville.

The paper, published in the journal Global Change Biology, points to a 21 per cent decline in the rate at which Porites corals in two regions of the northern Great Barrier Reef (GBR) have added to their calcium carbonate skeletons over the past 16 years.

The relative contributions of ocean acidification and global warming to the observed decline cannot be fully determined at this time. Not enough is known about the chemistry of the reef and more needs to be done to understand all the implications of the increase in carbon dioxide entering the oceans and to put these preliminary coral growth data into context.


In an earlier post, I discussed the “bamboozle-ment” of the Australian people through a dodgy ionisation rain enhancement scheme orchestrated by Malcolm Turnbill. The project seems (to me) to be more of a payoff to campaign donors than a serious scientific program and I hoped for further investigation by the new government. Such an investigation has occurred. The timing is still a bit questionable and the amount is five times larger than recommended by his department. But it's okay because “...those conducting the trial, the University of Queensland, wanted $50 million.” Mr. Turnbill says,

"The National Water Commission was more sceptical and they didn't want to have a trial at all - some tests of the scientific theory which would have cost about $2 million,"

"I decided that what we should do is have a thorough trial in one location in south-east Queensland at $10 million, which was one-fifth of what the University of Queensland was recommending."

I think he should have listened to the National Water Commission...I suppose nothing will really come of this in the end. Business as usual...


And so it goes. We're beginning to experience our future climates now – earlier springs, extended summers, lengthy runs of hot weather. Such events will only grow more frequent in the future; the Whirligig spins faster and faster. The final decline of the Reef is beginning. Go see it while there is still time. Governments play economic shell games while the environmental crises looms larger. The crises we face are largely the result of market failure – a failure of the dominant economic system to value environmental concerns. You want to have hope, but despair can easily come. Lovelock's 'enjoy life while you can'...for tomorrow you die attitude is a tempting lure. Doing nothing is easy; instead we must say 'Zero, Now' and take account of ourselves and our actions. It is the only way forward.

05 March 2008

Weather whirligig 3

Another spin on the Weather Whirligig. This is an occasional series where the idea here is to note extreme or unusual weather events that occur globally. As usual, inclusion here is not meant to imply some sort of direct cause-and-effect with climate change. Individual weather events cannot be attributed to climate change.

Europe has seen some unusual weather during February. The UK saw periods of icy cold interspersed with near-record high temperatures. Many spring flowers there bloomed early, only to be thwarted by the cold. Further south in Greece, Athens received a rare 10-15 cm of snow resulting in school closures and transport disruption. A strong windstorm -- so-called Hurricane Emma – roared through central Europe in early March, killing 9 people. This wasn't a tropical cyclone, rather a deep mid-latitude cyclone (<970 hPa).

Madagascar was affected by a tropical cyclone (Ivan). At least 60 have been a killed as a result of the storm. From the story (my emphasis)

Ivan, one of the biggest cyclones ever to hit Madagascar, was packing winds that topped 125 mph (200 kph) when it swept onto the giant Indian Ocean island's east coast early last week.

In a particularly strange event, torrential rain and floods have left 16 dead in Peru. This has apparently been ongoing since January. Here is the strange part:

The La Nina weather phenomenon, characterized by cooler than normal sea-surface temperatures in the Pacific Ocean, has been blamed for exacerbating rainy seasons in the Andes region this year.

This is nearly unprecedented. Rainy weather over South America is expected during the El Nino phase. La Nina brings cooler than normal sea temperatures to the Eastern Pacific. Something unexpected is certainly going on. Ocean temperatures have only recently returned to normal in the region as the La Nina begins to decay

Finally, several anomalous wildfires have been noted around the globe.


Image: Spiegel Online International